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“Many of your students will become better artists than you”: an art teacher on what her pupils have taught her

Published 26 June 2022

As we prepare to open this year’s Young Artists’ Summer Show, we asked schoolteacher Stephanie Cubbin what her art students have taught her about taking risks, sharing, and independence.

  • From the Summer 2022 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Like many teachers, I never expected to become one. I began my career as a scenic artist, painting backdrops for the theatre, and while I was working on community arts projects, I took a teaching qualification so that I could work with young people more often. But after my first placement in a school, I fell in love with teaching art. I joined the art department at St Marylebone School in London. That was 20 years ago. I never left.

    I realised quickly that the art room at a secondary school is a deeply collaborative creative space, and one where I could develop as an artist as well as a teacher. It has the same ethos of shared experimentation that I found at art school. Students are always trying something new, explaining what they find out, giving and taking from each other, encouraging a constant flow of thoughts and play, a buzz of ideas. At the beginning it was hard to keep my own practice as an artist going, but then I made a space alongside the students in the classroom. They see my paintings progress, and I explain my decisions in the same way that they explain theirs. Last week, a student showed us a drawing which she had covered in sunflower oil at home. The result was magical. The next lesson everyone was testing out sunflower oil as an art material – including me.

    What adults forget is that schoolchildren are so flexible: they have an hour of geography, an hour of maths, and then come to us to be creative on the spot. Their experimentation spurs me on, as well as their dedication. The fact that I need to articulate my thoughts to them, about art and the demands of making art, also clarifies my ideas, improving my own painting practice. It is essential that art teachers remain artists in themselves, nurturing their work alongside their students.

  • Chloe, age 6, My First Art Teacher

    Chloe, age 6, My First Art Teacher.

    From the Young Artists’ Summer Show 2022.

  • When children arrive at the age of 11 from primary school, often they have decided whether they are ‘good at art’ or not, believing that artistic talent is given at birth. It is socially acceptable to say you can’t draw. Then it becomes almost a choice not to learn. Yet, with hard work each week, you can become better at drawing and many art techniques.

    We have to take the fluffiness away from what creativity might be, making clear that art is a rigorous process. It requires schoolchildren to make significant intellectual connections, as well as the perfecting of technical skills. A few years ago, we had a 13-year-old making portraiture that was comparable to high-level GCSE work, and that came from encouraging her very seriously, asking her to look at established artists, and to analyse her own work alongside theirs. As a teacher you want to lift children’s expectations as high as possible.

    Key is a sense of independence; we want them to find something that interests them and then run with it, taking risks. They might start with a theme, such as texture, and end up in an unexpected place in their work. The unexpected is where students begin to show what is inside of them. Seeing that process unfold is so enjoyable and widens one’s understanding of creativity.

  • Jemima, Year 6, Mrs Obi

    Jemima, Year 6, Mrs Obi.

    Jemima says: “Mrs Obi has taught me since reception. She is very kind and caring”.

    Charcoal on paper. A2 portrait. From the Young Artists’ Summer Show 2022.

  • You learn early on that many of your students will become better artists than you – that is humbling but also exciting. We have created a gallery at the school, where students, alumni and teachers show work alongside each other. We have had passers-by buying works, including those by students.

    That experience of exhibiting work builds confidence, and the RA’s open exhibition for students, the Young Artists Summer Show, has become very special for us as a school. Last year three of our students were successful. To see your art in the surroundings of the Academy, to be featured online and in the catalogue, is very inspiring. One of my A-Level students, Glenys, showed a terrific painting, Big Moo, in which a figure stares out at the viewer, challenging them. It developed from a conversation we had in class about the gaze. Can the viewer share the same gaze as the artist? Can the artwork represent the same connection that you had with your subject? These are some of the questions we explore in the safe creative space of our art room.

    The Young Artists’ Summer Show is held 19 July – 14 August in the Clore Learning Centre at the Royal Academy of Arts

    • Beauty and the beast RA magazine page

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