At the roots of my creative practice, there is one thing. Hundreds of them in fact: postcards. A teaching tool I was introduced to on my earliest visit to Room 13 studio in Caol has become my simplest and most effective tool to stimulate looking and thinking.
This process of using a collection of postcards as a tool for engaging young people in dialogue about art, artists and ideas, evolved over 25 years in the Room 13 art studio. I came to know ‘the postcard game’, as it was then known, as the semi-formal teaching element of the Room 13 studio in Caol Primary. Rob Fairley (Artist in Residence of Room 13 Caol from 1994-2004), made use of a vast collection of postcards as part of a series of lessons in ‘visual literacy’ which he had developed. Other lessons in the series also involved an orange, Kit-Kat wrappers and digestive biscuits. In his hands, the postcards were used to facilitate quite formal teaching about history of art.
The postcard game was originally written up by Rob Fairley for the Room 13 Cookbook (2006). Over the years, and in the hands of a few different artists, use of the postcard collection evolved and adapted. My own take on it as a young Artist in Residence in the newly established Room 13 Lochyside was also documented in the Cookbook. Just as Room 13 travelled and took root in different settings, this versatile teaching tool became a recognized staple of the creative process taking place in the studios.
Following a residency with Room 13, artist Audrey O’Brien included a synopsis of the postcard sessions among a number of exercises to stimulate observation and lateral thinking skills in her artist’s book ‘Leonardo has an idea’ (edition of 3, 2017).
Also in 2019, I collaborated with Room 13 and the National Galleries of Scotland to produce Learning Through Pictures, a short film and online resource for teachers.
In a studio where the focus is on creative freedom and giving young artists space to experiment with art making and self-expression, the postcards continue to offer a fun, easy way to approach teaching visual literacy and to give the students an opportunity to examine and discuss the work of artists from all periods and disciplines. As well as a good grounding in art history, along with the vocabulary that supports discussion of art and ideas, the postcards act as a prompt to encourage creative thinking more generally in ways that can be applied to all areas of the curriculum.
Why use postcards?
I have used the postcards to various effect with class groups from P1 to S6, as well as with teachers and adult artists. I have used them in community workshops to explore themes for creative commissions, to introduce the language of self-expression to young adults as part of a series of youth creativity workshops in Nepal, and with delegates at a conference of architects and facility planners in Sydney, Australia. They are an amazingly simple, versatile resource. I also use them in my own practice. I can think of no better way to collect visual references, curate ideas and juxtapose concepts. There is something about the contained format of the postcard that suits my way of thinking: the perfect size and shape for handling, double sided, unbound, can be laid out on floor or table, grouped, flipped or pinned to the wall, with endless possibility for reordering.
As a teaching tool, using the postcards can be as simple or as rich and complex as you want it to be. The process can take 15 mins or an entire afternoon, and can be used to explore almost any subject you could name. The outcome of the discussion might lead to a 5 minute drawing or a 5 month project.
I have no idea if the method of using art postcards to prompt discussion was invented in Room 13. I doubt it. Looking at and discussing pictures is fundamental to education, at all levels. Maybe our way of going about has some unique aspects which may be significant: the sheer volume of images, spread out over the floor, stretching, as far as a small person is concerned, as far as the eye can see. Each image reduced to an A6 rectangle. The physicality of the process, stepping through and crawling over the images. Crouching down to look closely, picking them up and turning them over. Getting your hands on a piece of art and subjecting it to close examination. Just the image, no framing or context – not in a book or on a screen, or even placed on a table or hung on the wall. Just one image, surrounded by other images of the same, humble format.
As a tool for exploration, using postcards for looking and learning is something I go back to time and again. Here’s why:
#1 Putting ideas together
Using visual imagery to talk about art, artists, ideas and emotions can link into anything. At face value, the postcard sessions provide a foundation in art history and in building a vocabulary, not just to confidently discuss terms that relate to artwork – such as being able to distinguish and define sculpture, photography, drawing, painting, installation art etc – but also being able to articulate your own thoughts and critical or emotional response to something.
In terms of content, the artworks themselves can lead to discussion on history, environmental issues, language, politics, geography, mathematics…One of the things that is exciting about the conversations sparked off is the reaction when the children make the connection between something – a word or a concept – that comes up which they have heard about in another context. I was able to observe a recent example of this when Richard Bracken, Artist in Residence at Room 13 Studios, Caol hosted a series of introductory visits to the studio for class groups from different Primary Schools. He started them off with the postcards.
Extract (from project documentation, Generation Creative 2018):
Richard invites the group to look at the postcards covering the floor. He explains these are all artworks. Four pupils are asked to pick out any one that has caught their eye: “Tell us about the artwork you have chosen. Start by looking closely, and describing what you see.”
With encouragement, the individual holding up the image starts to describe the different materials that they think might have been used to make the artwork. Other pupils looking on tentatively contribute suggestions: wood, plastic, glass, fabric, wool. Moving on to look at other details prompted by Richard, the children start to respond more confidently, and go on to venture thoughts and suggestions about what the artwork ‘is’. Richard’s questions prompt more questions from the children themselves, and recollections. There is a gasp of recognition from the class during the following exchange:
Pupil: It’s an oval.
Richard: Yep. Can you think of another word that means oval? A maths word? … It begins with ‘E’. … Ellipse. Have you come across the word ellipse?
Class Teacher: Not for a while.
Meanwhile, class, collectively: Ohhh yeahhhhh….
Here is Richard, talking to the class as an artist and they hear a word that they have never heard anyone use outside of a maths lesson. They get really excited because they know that word, and suddenly they hear an adult using it and see a place for that word in the world. The click of recognition is almost audible. In my experience, this doesn’t just happen with words, it could be anything. In the wide ranging discussion, the children find a space to make sense of their curriculum learning – putting ideas together for themselves.
#2 Democratisation of art history
The postcard sessions are an incredibly refreshing and honest approach to viewing and discussing art with young people. Whether half a dozen or a few hundred images – just lay them out and start from whatever draws their eye. That’s incredibly empowering. Not just putting one image in front of them and guiding them through it – here’s what to see, and how to think about this image. You start by confronting them with a whole plethora of visual stimulus. By simply asking:
What do you see? What do you think about what you see? They will then lead you into it with their observations, their questions.
Very often, the children will have no prior knowledge of what they are looking at, so the weighty hierarchy of art history is removed. They will make judgements about what they are looking at without being influenced by any ’taught’ ideas about what is good art.
Looking at two, or three or several hundred artworks side by side all reduced to postcard format, children will instinctively single out the works they want to discuss on the strength of which they appeal to them. They don’t necessarily perceive any difference between the work of a celebrated artist and that of their classmate in Primary 5.
#3 Open ended outcomes
On occasions when children have been given free rein to use the postcards, individuals respond in different ways. Some will want to sit down and copy or trace a single artwork, some will want to sort or categorise the selection, some want to write stories or lists of words to describe the artworks that have caught their eye. Seven-year-old Jamie, made a memorable and ambitious attempt to arrange the full postcard collection as a colour spectrum. The installation was so huge, he had to lay it out in the dining area, and it could only be captured in an aerial photograph!
Not only used for class sessions, as a resource in Room 13 the postcards are freely available. One lunchtime in Room 13 Lochyside, a group of pupils looking through the postcards were engaged in robust discussion over their opinions of certain artworks. This evolved into a game where they set up as curators of rival galleries, each selecting and presenting a selection of their favourite works and preparing curators talks expounding what was to admire about the works they had chosen. One curator also prepared a pitch as to why a visit to their gallery (The gallery of Wonder and Intrigue) was better use of time than either of their competitors (respectively The Gallery of Boringness and the Museum of Messes). This was a spontaneous, spirited and amusing episode that grew from a small group of primary school children chatting about and disagreeing over art in their lunch break.
#4 Forming and articulating a unique point of view
Often, during discussion participants are surprised to realise that opposing points of view can be held by two people about the same artwork, and neither can called be wrong. One work can be scary and uncomfortable to one viewer or calming to another – and that’s ok.
Here’s Richard, summing up the discussion on the studio visit:
“We have looked closely at four pictures. We have covered two sides of A4 paper with words. It’s amazing how much information you can get from one picture, just by using observation: studying really hard.
Looking at it closely is maybe changing slightly the way you think about it. When we take time to really look at these pictures, we see them differently. If we talk about what we see and listen to each other’s opinions, we can learn about how other people are thinking and maybe get to change how we think.“
Teachers observing their pupils in discussion with the artist during a session with the postcards have also commented on being impressed with the vocabulary and observations the children come out with. The children themselves can be amazed at the sheer number of words that can be generated just from looking at one artwork.
#5 A window and an open door…
People often remember artworks (usually paintings) that they were introduced to in school. It’s always exciting to see something ‘for real’ that you recognise but have only ever seen in reproduction. Whether deliberately seeking it out, or stumbling across it on a random visit to an art gallery later in life, imagine if you happened to wander into the gallery and see that painting you remember holding an image of in your hand when you were in Primary 4? Becoming familiar with so many artworks opens up the opportunity to experience that excitement and feel an immediate connection to the work that might otherwise be absent. For some, familiarity with the postcards is enough to prompt them walk into a gallery in the first place. Many families from the west highland communities where I have worked, have been enticed into art galleries on holiday visits to the capital, or even cities overseas, on the strength of their child’s desire to look for a particular work by a particular artist.
Something to try
Starting a postcard collection is easy for anyone and useful whether you are artist, parent, teacher or merely curious and keen to explore questions about art and artists.
Each postcard collection is completely random and entirely personal. It can be made up of cards received, picked up at exhibitions or from degree shows or bought specifically. It’s great to try and mix it up, so that a range of art forms and artists and genres are represented, from college students to architects, long dead famous artists to children at school and nursery, but any collection of images will work to get you thinking, or talking.
Don’t worry if you feel you don’t ‘know’ anything about art – you don’t have to be well informed about each and every artwork. Names, dates, titles and the ‘correct’ reading of the work are details that can be looked up later if you choose. Just look at the artworks yourself or along with those around you, and discuss your reactions. It’s easy to do, and you don’t know where it will take you.
Just get some postcards. Lay them out on the floor and look at them.
Start asking questions. Begin with what you can see…
Room 13 Cookbook (2006)
Leonardo had an idea, edition of 3. (2017), Audrey O’Brien:
Postcard Resource: Room 13 Studios, Caol (2019)
Learning Through Pictures, National Galleries of Scotland, 2019:
Extract from project documentation, Generation Creative (2018):
Extracted from a written observation of one of a series of studio visits offered as part Room 13’s ‘Generation Creative’ project, funded by Big Lottery Young Start Fund, with the aim of establishing a sustainable programme of engagement, utilising studio space on the newly built Caol Joint Campus for wider benefit of the community, with a key focus on developing young people’s creativity throughout the region.