Footbridge to Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery: concrete sculptural architecture

Thoughts on education, art and finding connection

Opinion piece.

When I visited the Hepworth Wakefield in April, the exhibition of drafts, prototypes and completed works triggered a somewhat surprising emotional response in me. In an age where knowledge is on tap, much working time is spent in a digital ecosystem and creative endeavours have the potential to be reduced to the algorithms of artificial intelligence, being surrounded by physical objects in an art gallery where real human activity produces unique outputs caused me to stop and appreciate the connection through these objects with the fellow human being who crafted them. As I pondered the three pieces I selected below from the ceramics exhibition, I started to feel connected to the people behind them. Not just the artist, but their inspiration, their process and their thinking. 

I’m not an art historian nor qualified to critique art, but I am sharing my responses as someone who has experienced art in person. For me, the works took on a new, personalised meaning, as I merged the physical interpretation of a subject with my own discipline (education) and began to see parallels between art and educational design. Overall, my learning experience was not about the works themselves, but how they provoked my thinking on the importance of educators as communicators, motivators and inspirational people. I was struck by the emotional connection with the artists through their work and in the same way the spark of emotional connectivity with educators is what makes educational experiences so powerful for learners. 

The importance of connection 

Education, I believe, is about connection. Connection of ideas, connection of people and connection within the natural world. As a process, it provides a structure for learning and brings opportunities for all learners to be exposed to new ideas and personal assumptions to be challenged. Educational experiences cannot and should not be designed to be devoid of human connection. The roles of educators and students must be enhanced through interaction, dialogue and emotion to bring context and meaning to knowledge and experiences that would otherwise be little more than words in a textbook or clicks on a screen. 

The three pieces I’ve selected here come from The Art of the Potter: Ceramics and Sculpture from 1930 to Now. They prompted a narrative for me that goes beyond a factual description and through personal interpretation developed my thinking of the role of educators in the crafting of learning experiences.

Shape, colour and texture 

Stoneware. Rust coloured square slab with irregular grey concrete on top. Concrete has embedded broken cylinder leaking blue and a deep gouge.

I start with one of six pieces created by Ryoji Koie titled ‘Chernobyl’. This is a moment, frozen in time. The crack echoes the flawed reactor and the embedded cylinder like a spilt cup capturing normal life in that moment of devastation. You’ll have to forgive my rudimentary analysis, but my point is that within art and this representation there is a lived experience. This craft is an embodiment of feeling, lives and consequences. It is the knowing of the lived experience that this piece represents and the human behind its creation that brings an emotive connection. The shaping of clay into a form, the colouring and texture, are all conscious decisions that produce an interpretation to be shared and contextualised by those who witness it. There is learning here about that tragic event that comes not from fact, but from storytelling and the context brought with narrative through sculpture. 

There are similarities to how educators provide context, bringing their deep understanding of a subject from experience. How a subject is taught brings colour, shape and texture to knowledge, and a narrative that brings meaning for learners. For all its faults, this is why the lecture (in its broadest sense and when done well) still plays an important part of educational experiences. In particular disciplines it’s a way of demonstrating thinking, rather than conveying content. Whether it is a captivating hour speech, a series of short videos or a written article, narrative that goes beyond fact and involves emotion can resonate, challenge and involve learners more deeply. 

Individualising an idea

Vase-like stoneware pot with one side elongated to twice height of other to form a spout. Striking blue, grey and black pattern.

The second piece is ‘Spoutpot’ by Elizabeth Fritsch. A jug, vase or drinking vessel is a practical object, yet the diversity of forms these take can be seen not just in any ceramics gallery collection, but also your kitchen cupboard. The basis for this work is a shared concept, that of something to hold water, but how this concept is then transformed into something much more than a practical device is dependent on the creativity and skill of the artist. There is a passion and a personal challenge that comes through the adaptation of a concept into something artistic with a complex pattern and a distinctive, asymmetric elongation. The shape of this piece breaks convention and yet still functions to meet its practical purpose. 

Educators play a similar role, building on shared foundations and representing both established and novel ideas in individual ways. These representations are based on the educator’s experience, their creativity, but also through designed activities. In educational settings, representations and new forms of thinking can often be the product of groups of learners and the interactions between educators and learners. Indeed, eliciting a variety of perspectives from learners is one of the more rewarding parts of being an educator.

Placing ideas within context

Stoneware. Thick circular disc with huts and animal shapes on top, arranged with prominent rainbow-like arch.

The final piece I’ve selected is ‘Footed Landscape’ by Ian Godfrey. When I saw it I immediately thought of Pratchett’s Great A’Tuin, the Giant Star Turtle carrying four elephants and the Discworld atop. Now this was my personal reaction, drawing on my experiences and connecting them to this new stimulus. I would be surprised if this was the inspiration for Godfrey, whose work oozes creativity and imagination not just in subject matter but also in approach. Again, without any formal critical appreciation, to me this piece is a microcosm of humanity and animals within the same landscape, with a rainbow-like arch bringing hope or a way through into a new place. Again, it’s the individual artist’s vision combining the holistic with the detail, that brings the microcosmic sculpture to life. One person’s creativity manifested in clay. 

Relating this to education, our educational systems can unfortunately sometimes feel self-fulfilling, existing just for the purpose of an exam, removed from individual passion and real world connection. Indeed, the work of the late Ken Robinson provides a strong critique of formal schooling and educational systems more attuned to conformity than creativity, and how this limits the relevance of educational experiences for individual students. To be clear, that’s no fault of individual teachers, but the broader educational landscape. Educators have an inspiring role to play in relating curricula to the bigger picture. Not only does this bring importance to what may seem irrelevant subject matter, but the process of relating minutiae and subject nuance to real world consequences and broader horizons is a highly powerful skill all learners should be exposed to and develop. The linking between disparate ideas and connections of different perspectives are essential for society as a whole to advance and for individuals to excel. 

Pedagogy of connection

Perhaps this is a slightly florid assertion, but the emotive and artistic aspect of education is one that is not given as much attention as it deserves. When I stopped to consider the story and the person behind these pieces, that’s the point I really started to appreciate them. Curriculum design tends to focus on knowledge and application of knowledge, without designing for learners as human beings, without designing the story. There is scope to explore what a pedagogy of emotion or pedagogy of connection may look like, and how human connection, not just interaction, can enhance the learning experience. Learning experience design (LXD) offers some approaches for this with tools such as empathy maps and experience mapping.

Educators are passionate about their subject and need to be empowered to share this to bring a personal connection and shared motivation to develop learning of a subject. Crafting an authentic narrative, choosing what to include, what to emphasise and where to challenge, all lead to richer teaching and learning.

With an existential crisis looming in education after much discussion of artificial intelligence leading to redundancy of human knowledge and skills, this visit to an art gallery was a grounding experience. Knowing that another human has created these works is what, for me, transforms these pieces beyond more than the raw materials. This craft is a form of storytelling and a form of learning. What I’ve experienced here is the emotional connection with other people, through shared interpretation, through diversity of form and through creative representation of whole and part. The learning I’ve taken away may not have been planned by the artist, but just like in education, unintended outcomes are part of the wonderful experience of creativity.

Further reading

Image copyright

  • Images on this page are not released under Creative Commons licence. They are low resolution personal captures of the artwork for the purpose of criticism and review. All rights reserved by the respective copyright holders.






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