From a conversation with Carol Gwizdak, Assistant Head, Carmarthen School of Art, with Bella Kerr and Amanda Roderick at ALEX Design Exchange, Swansea College of Art on Tuesday 30thJanuary 2018.
Carol Gwizdak is a long-standing member of staff at Carmarthen School of Art, and was, for many years, Course director of Diploma in Foundation Studies: Art & Design.
As an awarding winning jeweller (2006 Gold Medal for Craft & Design, National Eisteddfod of Wales)she writes: ‘My work focuses on ecological issues that draw on the visual and conceptual language of the natural world. I question the values of contemporary society and our inclination towards self-interest, material worth and ostentation. We become preoccupied with the quest for possession, and in so doing we overlook the simple pleasures of life.It is these simple pleasures, my simple pleasure of walking, foraging and finding treasures, that others maybe fail to see, that allows me to contemplate the modern world in which we live’. http://www.carolgwizdak.com
I think discord is really important, arguing about things is a highly creative process. It can be really exciting if someone says, no, I fundamentally disagree with you! Change and being relevant can come out of that.
I would start with the gallery and define what a gallery is in its widest context. What is its vision and focus? This is fundamentally important because once you get that then your connections to location and architecture seem to just make far more sense. In a contemporary context, obviously it is a place to learn, it is a place to exhibit, it is a place to be inspired and a place to buy. But it is also a social space and an extension of the workspace a place to meet and work which now is more central, particularly in regard to the developments in technology. The fact that public spaces are multi-faceted, you don’t just go there to engage with the gallery programme, but with the portability of the web you imprint on that space, use it how you want to use it. The beauty of doing this in a cultural space is that it is a lovely environment to work in – that’s an interesting new development that has happened over the last thirty years and particularly the last couple of years. This can clearly be seen in city spaces with the development of creative hubs, which question the model of the traditional office.
Regarding an academic space, like Carmarthen School of Art? A big part of what we do and obviously the way that we focus our learning and our space is about teaching skills. But it’s not just about the practical skills, but also thinking skills and to be able to do that, you obviously have got to have exposure to recognised art. As such we have the Henry Thomas Gallery which brings art, design and craft into the school. As well as showcasing work, we have a visiting lecturer programme so students can engage with practitioners and arts organisations. The School has got to be challenging as an environment. This exposure and contextualisation is fundamentally important to ensure that the students who graduate can work successful within a creative environment. So professional skills are very important and the emphasis on this has grown, developing symposiums, visiting lecturer programmes and lunchtime talks which are to do with practical applications and the processes of creative practice. Students can elect to go or not, but it is about bringing this into our space, so they can see good practice and learn how people make those journeys. This exposure allows students to engage with artists and designers – and there is a huge fluidity between those two terms nowadays – it challenges perceptions and the students need to recognise that. Even with all this going on an institution can be too ‘safe’, so obviously taking them offsite, going outside, giving them opportunities, getting them to work with abandoned spaces etc, experiencing significant gallery spaces so they understand how work exists in context, it’s really important.
We have developed strategies to engage, this is why we started the commercial services. There were two reasons; one was to give students and lecturers the opportunity to work within a business context to make their work ‘real’ and the other was to bring people in through the doors. To say, hey look we are over here we are creative and we can solve problems. For me, that was the exciting part; to engage with exceptionally different problems – really, really diverse. Everything that comes in through the doors, we have no idea what it’s going to be!
Then having to find people within the institution who want to work with commercial projects, people who can work with the additional workload. We have had situations where, with a recent schools project for example, we worked with learners with significant learning needs, sensitive individuals. So you have to be careful about how you work and what your aims and objectives are and be clear on shared goals for a project to work.
I am very passionate about that project because we were in effect taking on board learners that society had rejected, so my core intention for the project was growth. It was about little things like eye contact – can we, through a creative intervention, get those kids to speak to people who they don’t know? Obviously they have very secure environments within their school – how were we going to get them to engage, to smile? Creativity wasn’t the priority – in my view creativity was the vehicle. So we came up with the premise of how do you get endorphins to have an affect on your behaviour? The idea that if I have made something, if I have responded to something, and somebody else wants to buy it? Just the buzz of that, it was that simple. And how you get there. So in a sense creating a business model, which potentially could have longevity and once they had been through the whole process they could reapply it. It was a fabulous project but took a huge amount of organisation.
An educational system is a bit of an ivory tower, so having discussions with say graduates,where I say this project has come in and I need you to tell me how long it would take you, this has to be financially viable. Go away and think about it. Sometimes that can be like a bartering system. They come back with a proposal but sometimes I have to be really hard in that situation… We can’t overrun, because it is costing the client, that cannot happen and if you do it in less time, you are still paid the same amount of money. So that’s an interesting game to play. All of a sudden it inspires them to work faster, or to create waysof working faster. Which is then that whole thing about how to go from being a student to the realism of being a professional and that’s a little bit of a step. It’s can be hard. And it doesn’t always work!
The other thing that I think is interesting about that is that we are asked to do things that we are not trained to do. So, costing projects is not an easy thing to do especially when projects are so diverse from making food safety chocolate moulds to branding. It’s often not my background but I am expected to do it and that can be a challenge and sometimes you get it wrong and so a potential project doesn’t come through your door because you have overpriced it. And you are doing that at the same that you are managing everything else…
I have got a slight advantage, because I came from business in that my Dad was in business, had two successful businesses, so after school I would go and work in the office.
It’s really difficult in an education context because that word competition is directly related pots of money and student numbers are now smaller, so you have to be clever and you have to diversify and you go for different goals. I don’t believe that we have a close partnership with another HE institution, but partnerships through work placement is a big part of what we are looking at. Currently apprenticeships are a huge driver with all of us, directed to be involved with work-based learning. I agree with it and think it’s a good, exciting form of education but in many areas of creativity finding sizable industry partners is challenging. I think as an art school in Carmarthen within Coleg Sir Gar our partnerships are more FE orientated, so with Ceredigion, Gower. I wouldn’t say we very strong partnerships within a higher education academic context.
I think the difference with our school is being HE within and FE institution. Commercial partnerships as opposed to academic ones are perceived as having more validity, the importance of a research profile is not central to the college mission. So as a school we have to initiate projects, with the support of the business development unit to work with industry of research projects. To get support for this can be difficult, you have to fight for it, in lots of ways. It’s appreciated but not necessarily understood within the college structure. So yes, often the partnerships we develop are then outside of the norm a lot of the time diverse and often smaller scale developed to give our students opportunities which are above and beyond what the college can provide.
Large scale academic partnerships can become complacent, it can become about the mission, the agenda, the profile. I think discord is really important, arguing about things is a highly creative process. It can be really exciting if someone says, no, I fundamentally disagree with you! Change and being relevant can come out of that. Partnerships should reflect society and connect with the breadth of it.
Within our school our partnerships are often based on networks. Things like the symposium for us is fantastic exposure for the students. There is a lot of partnership with individual creative practitioners, in a sense the symposium itself becomes the partner and I think that is really exciting. Because for example, our school can’t offer our students official international exchange opportunities because we are HE and FE. Previously we had good international exchange opportunities with America in particular but now we have to be more creative in generating these opportunities for our students. For example writing proposals to support funding, for exchange opportunities for textiles and ceramic projects. Currently we have three ceramicists out in Uzbekistan and we have three Indian weavers coming over to us. We are trying to generate that globalisation and for the students to get involved in that.
The idea is that the big guy, the big institutions – so for example here in Swansea if we are looking at it in a gallery context, the Glynn Vivian – should absolutely be nurturing everybody else and be very inclusive. They need to be saying, we are bringing all these things together because we are stronger that way and I don’t think that necessarily happens.
I know it doesn’t happen in an institutional context with UWTSD.We are part of ‘the group’ but we do not have the same level of access to opportunities. Sometimes I feel like I am outside looking in. That can beneficial and means we can respond very quickly, but it can also, on occasion, be difficult – particularly with regard to the level of promotion, that is the biggest problem for us. So all of our marketing, we self generate. We have a marketing department in Llanelli though and they do support us.
For every project that comes through the door, we are a team of two that assess, schedule and cost each of these, its viability and profitability. We break it down really quickly – what do we need to do, what is the potential positive or negative impact on core provision and our students to ensure that this is positive. It depends on the requirement of the brief, sometimes it’s a graduate or a member of staff who facilitates the work. If it is a member of staff then we have to look at either replacement costs or timesheets and they have to quantify how long they think it’s going to take; that’s really important to ensure that its competitive and cost effective. Then obviously it’s the costing of it, it’s the on costs, the overheads, the surplus, all have to be identified to be able to quote for jobs.
We have a development unit and up until now they haven’t really worked with curriculum areas as a support mechanism, but there is one amazing person there who works brilliantly with us. They have been very instrumental in being able to draw down significant amounts of funding through projects – without this business acumen support we couldn’t have done certain projects, it wouldn’t have been possible.
We are now getting involved in research projects, where we never did before because as I said, we are HE and FE and it isn’t a remit of FE to have research but is for HE, so that has in the past been really difficult for us. So generating commercial projects is a way to get in through the back door so to speak and it works really well.
When I initiated the commercial side of the school, the first thing I had to do was break the commercial potential for the whole school down. It is small enough to be able to do that. The premise to start off with was, ‘What can we offer?’ What have we got and what is viable to roll out commercially? It was everything from research to design consultancy services, short courses, manufacturing prototypes to small scale batch production that sort of thing. Commercial potential supported our applications for capital bids, so equipment now had the potential for generating profit as well as supporting curriculum, the success our bids increased.
It’s that notion of risk isn’t it? Some funders, or even individuals, will find it interesting and accept that approach, others less so. We are generally risk averse nowadays the powers that be want a quantifiable answer. Introducing a commercial arm to the school has been a way of introducing risk, but with a potential of income. All the academic funding is centralised. The funding that comes in for commercial services is miniscule in comparison but it goes into a central pot, we don’t see it, we don’t get it back into the school. Not the best outcome in some ways but the experience and exposure for the students and the wider creative community is a positive addition to our school.
I love problem solving, really enjoy that side of it, having requests from people and businesses that want to work with us. For each request exploring how can we work with this, how can we come up with a solution that is beneficial to everybody. The idea that everybody who puts something into it, should get something out. But it is also the social engagement, especially with community projects. For example with the schools project, how could we in collaboration with Oriel Myrddin and a range of artists, deliver something that could achieve our aim, which was to see the pupils engage and grow in confidence. ‘Creative to Cash’ became the strap line. We divided it in three sections; the image-makers, who worked with the pupils to create images. The digitisers who worked with the pupils to turn the images into digital files for surface application and finally the using the small-scale batch production services of the school to produce a range of products for them to sell in a pop up shop.
Having been through the whole of the design and manufacturing process the pupils were really proud of what they had done. It was delightful to see them pulling on the sleeves of potential customers saying look what I did, can I tell you about it. These were pupils who were perceived as failures on the fringes of society. That they would never make anything of themselves. And we gave them a model and we said you have done it from beginning to end. We gave them an understanding that images can be made in a thousand different ways, they had to get involved in meetings with our design services team to discuss their ideas for branding, creating a logo. They used cameras off site worth thousands of pounds, which said we trust you to use it, have a go. Little things like that built their confidence, giving them responsibility within a creative supportive context made a difference.
All of us, the teachers, the SEN’s us, Oriel Myrddin and the Arts Council who funded the project contributed to develop an experience and a model for the pupils that they can apply again to different situations in their futures. More importantly they gained a clear sense of worth, people valued what they did by buying their produce.
Potentially, it is a lovely model but equally I am very aware of the amount of time it took. It’s that juggling thing again. I can get too involved in a project, so I might not do it again – I would roll the model out though.
I think more than anything else its clarity – you often find that vision and missions are not clear, they are too woolly. You can actually break it down and get clarity and where relevant instruction, then I think it’s very feasible for somebody to come and take it on board and move it forward. Again it’s the systems you adopt, the support mechanisms, that is really important. Yes, you can have an individual who drives it but if there is no structure it’s really difficult for anybody else to understand it – and apply it. They are just practical things but they need to be simple, not complicated because then you just get bogged down in detail which restricts creative development.
Whenever I am involved in anything like this it’s what is the benefit of this – it is the benefit first? It is not strategies, or the vision or missions or anything, it’s why. Why are we doing this? Who is going to benefit? And then everything grows from that perspective. I think that often, it goes the other way around; ‘we are going to do this and everyone is going to love us for it’. But that’s about inclusion as well, do you know what I mean? It’s often the little people who drive it…
With galleries, if you start with the least promising context. I find this fascinating. So if we take the scenario of having a gallery in rural environment, knowing that they are a gallery of the picturesque. They sell nice landscapes but do they don’t engage with their community? I would say they don’t – they engage with people who appreciate art, maybe. As a gallery couldn’t the premise be – okay, this place is rural, which basically means there are farmers and fields, so how am I relevant to that person over there who is working in a very isolated situation, in an industry that struggles in a contemporary context. They talk about diversification in farming but do they see the potential of this, can we as creative hub help facilitate that diversification? So to have an exhibition of fleeces, to wool to cloth to fashion houses to ensure that the gallery is a central, inclusive, relevant and rallying part of the community. To showcase the community’s challenges and potential for growth. A creative organisation’s responsibility is to educate but also to engage, to support to initiate and challenge the status quo.
So, are cultural spaces relevant? I would say absolutely, there are incredible projects happening but there is still a lot that can be done to engage with the problems of our age. We are creatives, we solve problems, but sometimes we need to step out of our field more and look at the potential of the mundane?
You start with the little unattractive things. And it’s the same in the cities, we engage with multi-cultural communities on a big scale, but I wonder with things like architecture – we talk about architecture and location but do we consider the function of architecture rather than the structure, what happens inside it? Shops and shopkeepers, as galleries and creative institutions – do we empower or culturally engage with people generally? No, because they are too ordinary. We have increasing problems with isolation within society, particularly within a generational context – do the galleries engage? Not enough because it’s not sexy, or high profile – so more importantly, it doesn’t necessarily attract funding.
I have recently had an experience with two students, who felt that they were not considered relevant because of where they lived – they live on a deprived estate – and that there was no point to art. It was a really passionate, exciting discussion but they felt we were privileged and had no right to talk to them about this. It was explosive and shows there is a massive disconnect somewhere that even they couldn’t see the relevance of art. It begs the question should we not strive to be more involved in people’s lives and engage with their concerns, are we becoming too complacent inward instead of outward facing?
Carmarthen School of Art has been providing Art education since 1854, being one of the first Art Schools set up in Britain following the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in London. The School has been continually evolving ever since, responding to social, creative and cultural developments and the changing needs of its students, industry and wider community.
The School is a friendly, dynamic and creative community with a real ‘Art School’ atmosphere; renowned for its inclusive culture and open door policy across departments. We know our students and strive to develop their individuality, ours is a balanced approach, supporting whilst challenging students. We have a national reputation for skill based teaching & learning underpinned by academic rigour and an emphasis on employability; developing knowledgeable, highly skilled creative practitioners for the future.
RURAL & CONNECTED:
We are rural, being in one of the most beautiful counties in Wales yet we are well connected within the world of art and design; connected regionally, nationally and internationally through live projects, events, competitions, educational visits, alumni and industry links.