Saturday, 27 April 2013

Teaching at Ensci, Paris

It is always interesting to teach young people who have never done any basket making before. They come with few preconceptions about what a basket should look like or how to make them and they also have enormous freedom of expression in how to solve problems. The down side is that they often try to do impossible things with combinations of materials that are too big, too flexible, too rigid or too small. That, however, is how they will learn what works and what doesn’t. Of course I can tell them that, in my experience, what they are trying to do will be difficult, or impossible, and that it probably won’t work, but what will they have learned? They won’t have had the frustration of trying or the pleasure of finding their own solutions.

Last week I taught a course in the three main basket making techniques (plaiting, coiling, stake and strand) for textile and product design students at Ensci in Paris. This was my third visit but the first time the course was open to students from departments other than textiles. It made for a large dynamic group including, I am delighted to say,six males, (the male student count for the year is now 10)!

A day and a half on just one technique group can never be enough but I try to cover basic starts, finishes, weaves and shaping possibilities in all three skills.  With 27 students it is not possible to work one to one all the time so I start each session with a demonstration of techniques and ask them just to watch. They then commence at their own pace, and I am able to attend to each of them when they need help. This pedagogy works well for me with large numbers of students and by the end of the week I find the students are eager for more demonstration sessions. What I cannot teach them, however, is probably the one thing that is of supreme importance in basket making and that is how to choose a combination of material and technique that works. They can only learn that by handling the materials themselves. Unlike pottery where a pot can only be made of clay, baskets can be made from almost anything and so the possible variations of material and technique are infinite. I do not ask the college to buy particular materials so we work with whatever is available. This time we had a supply of seating materials that came from a company that makes the plastic woven bistro chairs you see in French bars. This included some rattan, in one size only, some wooden sticks and lots of coloured plastic lapping. There were also some sheets of veneers and lots of different yarns and cords. The students also brought in some materials that they had scavenged.

It is fascinating to observe how they solve problems when left to play on their own with the techniques and materials. Sometimes they work collaboratively, sometimes they copy someone who they think has found the answers,  sometimes they ask me and sometimes they just put their work on their heads! I only intervene when I see a student becoming frustrated and then I make suggestions that leave them with as many options as possible.  

It was an intense week and on the last day they set up an exhibition of their work. This year staff and students from other departments came in to see it and to hear what the students thought about the week. It is always a pleasure for me to teach at Ensci. Thank you to everyone involved, staff and students.

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