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4th July 2024

Elinor Brass, Director of Art, wins Community Luminary Award

Oakham School’s Director of Art Elinor Brass is celebrating after winning a national Art Award. Elinor won the Community Luminary Award at the NSEAD Awards for her work on the Sketchbook Circle.

Below, Elinor tells us more about the national project and its importance to herself and other art teachers across the country.

Sketchbook Circle is a national project established in 2009 for artist teachers to make time for their own artistic practice. It was established by Elinor Brass in 2009, and later  in 2013, Georgia Naish joined Elinor to help run the project. Both Elinor and Georgia work full time as teachers of art and Heads of Department.  As a group, we explore how the act of being engaged in art making influences what is taught in the classroom as well as how it sustains an enthusiasm for the teaching of Art.  Social media, face-to-face communication platforms and residential courses to facilitate opportunities take place in a supportive environment, through which teachers can seek and offer support, ideas, deliver and take part in informal and formal CPD.

The reason for setting up the circle was to support artist educators to regularly make time to make work. It felt important to find a format that created a making ‘discipline’ that felt manageable, helping artists educators to keep their own interests as artists in focus, despite the busyness of schools. What started as the main objective for the circle, remains the same today as it did at the start 15 years ago. This is the about the exchange of work each month with another artist educator.  In the year-long project, participants create work in a sketchbook each month and exchange them through the post sharing two, sustained visual conversations over the course of the year. Everyone is connected by a bigger circle.  The majority of those involved in the project are secondary school teachers of Art who are committing to taking part and therefore promising themselves that they will make time to be creative each month, keeping connected with their interests as an artist and being part of a supportive community.  We have well over 100 people participating in this regular postal exchange, mostly sharing physical sketchbooks through the post, but some through a digital circle we established a few years back. We also have a circle for teachers working in Europe.

The core activity / objective of the community is collaboration and encouraging members to ‘make time for making’; either through the sharing of a sketchbook in the year-long project, or through social media and social forums, through meeting up via Zoom of a Friday evening for a ‘meet and make’, or through the annual residential, which takes place each Easter. We have a well-established and active community, which has grown steadily over the past 15 years. There are well over 1,000 members of our Facebook group and we use both Facebook and Instagram as platforms for participants to show snippets of what they have been making. The Facebook group is a really supportive space where good ideas are shared and supportive conversations regularly happen.

We have members of the community based all over the UK and some in Europe. Our geographical locations make regular face-to-face meetings difficult. We offer members of our group (which extends to those who are not actively participating in the sketchbook exchange) opportunities to ‘meet’ via Zoom on Friday evenings once per month; a chance to connect, share our stories, make and show work, share good practice and generally enjoy the company of other like-minded professionals.

From 2012-2018, Elinor ran Gerald Moore Gallery at Eltham College in London, which presented a space for members of the Sketchbook Circle to come together once or twice a year to take part in days of making led by members of the Circle and selected artists. These days were made up of workshops that introduced a mixture of skills and conceptual and collaborative approaches to art making. It was wonderful to be able to empower teachers to lead workshops for their peers, but the wealth of knowledge and expertise that was shared in these days was exceptional. Those attending would pay from their own pocket to attend, because they knew how much they would gain both in terms of skills and approaches to be applied in their own classroom. As well as this, working alongside others allowed for supportive and inspiring conversations. We also put on exhibitions of work from the Circle at the gallery, which was the highlight and those attending brought their sketchbooks for others to see. There were lots of conversations about what was on display, with plenty of ideas to be gained from looking at the sketchbook exchanges.

Since 2013 we have offered a monthly mailout. This is an envelope with ideas, prompts or resources to act as a catalyst for those signed up to use in their sketchbook, in other personal projects or in the classroom.

In 2019 we ran our first residential course. We organised a visit to Berlin for 25 teachers, with a programme of workshops, museum and gallery visits and making sessions. This was followed by a visit to Margate in 2022, Cambridge in 2023, and most recently, Birmingham in April 2024. Each of these courses have provided opportunities for participants to make work, explore ideas and engage with artists, arts organisations and museums and galleries. This is affordable (not for profit) CPD which participants tell us is hugely beneficial to both their professional development and personal wellbeing. The participants are physically sitting alongside others and making, which is an usual position to be in as an artist or as a teacher. It is possible to see other people’s approaches to making and to discuss processes. Participants have conversations about their artistic practice, about how things they have learnt could translate into their classroom, about materials, approaches and the challenges of working in a school. Friendships are forged that support teachers through difficult times, but also to invigorate teachers’ classroom practice through the sharing of innovations.

Our on-line courses began in 2020 through lockdown. We enjoyed curating action packed days of activities that brought together artist educators from across the country. We worked with artists educators who shared their expertise and enthusiasm, helping participants to build confidence working in new ways and developing a stronger community. We learnt a great deal from the days held at Gerald Moore Gallery and these sessions were a way for participants to work alongside one another, if only in a virtual way. This was particularly important at a particularly difficult time. It was excellent value CPD, but crucial in its support of teachers’ wellbeing.

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