Exhibition Review: Art Teachers

I will always hold the memories of my secondary school art teacher. Eccentric, insensitive and quite frankly a bit barmy, she thrived on telling the class that our artwork was poor, that we would all fail if we continued the way we did, and that our sketchbooks lacked life and feeling, before shutting herself in her cupboard because our lack of talent was just too much for her to bear. I always wondered whether she had the right to criticise us so candidly, because I had a very strong and sneaking suspicion that she herself had no idea how to even draw.  
This is why the new exhibition at the O3 Gallery, Art Teachers, holds such intrigue. It is a chance to see the artwork of people who teach, people who tell you how it’s done, and to see if they can in fact do it themselves. And I can tell you, after seeing it, that most of them can. I’ll tactfully ignore the rest.
As always, a bright and painterly abstract landscape was what caught my eye at first glance. A piece by the renowned Jane Strother, who teachers at Lord William’s School, her works draw on the tangible experience of being in the outside world, and attempts to evoke it with colour, varied brushstrokes and a sense of journey, coming away from initial realistic perspective. Near her painting, one uncomfortable monochromic photograph genuinely made me laugh with its satirical angle; an overweight woman stands holding her dog, blissfully unaware of the lens pointed at her. Or was she posing?  Thomas Nicolaou of Abingdon and Witney College teases us with such questions.
Another memory of my childhood – but a lot more pleasant than a moaning old art teacher – was that of Winnie the Witch, a storybook character created by Korky Paul. His original drawing of the loveable witch, her feet up on her cat in her kitchen, is intricate and full of character, and what a treat it was to be able to see one first hand rather than in a children’s book! Up the stairs to the left of this is one of the exhibition’s highlights; anyone with even a slight interest in fashion design needs to come to this show purely for this piece by Isobel Jasmine Baugh, of Dragon School. A flattering one shouldered dress sees twisting threads spinning around the waist, evoking a blue seabed, or a map of mountainous ground, coiling with detail and the delicacy of sewn fabric. Earthy and beautiful, it could easily belong at London Fashion Week, but could be yours for £310.
There are, of course, the standard pretty flowers and patterned landscapes dotted in between the stronger work. But there is some surreal stuff thrown in too. A silkscreen print of a woman in a blue swimsuit and high heels crouches on the floor, her head that of a large brown spaniel. Titled, “Ok So She’s A Dog”, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and think I would be even less sure of what to think had Lewis Saunders been my own teacher. Hannah McCague’s piece sees a stag running from some pencilled arrows, leaping into a white empty space, playing with your eyes – is it a collage, a print, or a drawing? And then there was the futuristic piece by Adrian Pawley, who teaches at Oxford Brookes University, using slate as his canvas and using a laser to burn grid-like marks onto its surface.
My personal favourite was a tiny piece that could easily go unnoticed, but don’t be deceived by size. Kieran Stiles has made an ink on paper drawing of a red barn – dramatic and curious, it is a feast of lines and colour, tugging at your associations and asking your eyes to formulate what can only be described as a visual puzzle.
I could take or leave the installations – the piece by Rhiannon Evans shows knotted string hanging in the corner like a matted spider web, and is probably more credible when she is there, working with the materials as a performance.  Shirley Eccles, from Cranford House School, has left a romantic installation based on a photo album she found in a charity shop – and whilst there is always an allure to found objects with their own secret history, it didn’t ask me to stand and figure out its story for myself. Overall though, the O3 has pulled off another successful and dynamic exhibition with what will always be quite a difficult space. Go and give it a look if you’re passing by – especially if you were a local Oxford schoolchild, and want to have a peek at what your old teachers get up to when they aren’t marking their student’s sketchbooks.
Claire Davis