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“A collection of connections, relationships, and histories”

What is a ‘living teaching resource’? And why should we care about the art in a school collection? We caught up with Henrietta Boex, former Director of Falmouth Art Gallery and co-curator with Truro School art teacher, Annie-May Roberts, of the exhibition at Royal Cornwall Museum. We asked Henrietta to describe how the collection came into being and how it’s used as a ‘living’ teaching resource.

How did Truro School Art Collection come to be?

This collection was the brainchild of David Heseltine, Head of Art at Truro School from 1976-2005.  As an independent school, Truro School couldn’t borrow from the Cornwall Council Schools Art Collection so he set about curating one to create a great learning resource for his pupils and the school.

So, once he’d decided to ‘kick things off’, so to say, how did he choose what went in?

David worked at Falmouth School of Art in the late sixties and early seventies when it was in its heyday.  Principals included Michael Finn and Tom Cross and visiting lecturers boasted St Ives legends such as Terry Frost, Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron, David was able to build on those connections to bring in artworks from across the region.

In fact, he often collected work through studio visits, artists were generous, and many pieces were gifted or sold at a discount. As he travelled from workshop to workshop, he would collect stories about these artworks, and leave with not only a piece for the collection, but often a suggestion of who else he could visit next.

So not only is this a collection of artworks, it’s a collection of connections, relationships, and histories. The result is a collection built with his students, rather that monetary significance, in mind – making it very special.

Relationships and stories seem so important to the collection, do you think that it’s through these stories that students learn?

I think that stories are important in helping one gain an understanding of the artists intention, but what’s really helpful is seeing how different artists make their marks. There’s one piece in the collection by Margo Maeckelberghe titled ‘Odyssey – Rock of Ages’ (below) that shows a rock in the centre of a sort of whirlpool. Around the painted rock is this amazing blue line, and what people might not appreciate is how much confidence it takes to make that mark and leave it there.

Hopefully students will see this and have the confidence to experiment and start making those marks themselves.

How would David use this collection to teach his students?

David would say that each term he used to put up two completely different paintings side by side. At the beginning of the term, he’d ask his students which one they prefer. The pupils would usually pick the one that was perhaps easiest to access or pleasing to the eye.

But then the more they got to compare them and got to grips with a project or technique over the course of the term, the more they ended up relating to the other painting. So, by the end of a term, they would have an equal appreciation of the two different paintings.

Obviously, pupils will be learning from this collection with a teacher, but how would you recommend visitors who don’t know much about art get the most out of visiting?

If you’re new to art, this is a really good exhibition to start with. My advice would be to walk around and look at different pieces until you feel yourself responding to one of them.

When you respond to a piece, ask yourself why? Why am I responding to this one and not that other one over there? And when you ask yourself some of these questions, you might end up with some quite interesting answers. For instance, I love the Margo Maeckelberghe because of the energy in it.

I’ll often get the question with art ‘well what am I expected to think?’ Or ‘what am I expected to feel?’ My answer is often that you’re not expected to do anything. The reality is that when an artist is crafting a piece, they don’t think about you at all, they’re exploring ideas of their own.

So, try putting yourself in the artist’s shoes. Think about the artwork as if it was on an easel, think about how the artist developed it, how they started it, and what sparked the idea to create it in that way, to create it at all. In that way you might get more out of your visit.

Truro School Art Collection is owned by Truro School (Heseltine Gallery) and on display at Royal Cornwall Museum to explore until Saturday 18 May.