The week’s activities were devised by Paul Marchant, Deputy Director and Senior Tutor of the Prince’s Foundation’s Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Programme, (known as VITA). Now in its 16th year, VITA was founded by Professor Keith Critchlow at the Royal College of Art and transferred to the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture in 1993. Directed by Dr Khaled Azzam, VITA is now a key element of the Prince’s Foundation, offering Masters, M.Phil and Doctoral degrees. Originally specialising in the arts and crafts of Islam, it now also covers the traditional arts of other civilisations. One of its aims is to encourage a greater appreciation and understanding of the universal values that are fundamental to the arts of the great traditions of the world. In order to achieve this, its programme integrates philosophy with practical skills. Students learning the skills of geometry, for example, also learn about its significance as a language central to the sacred and traditional arts. The VITA prospectus states: ‘The student is offered the opportunity to participate in the contemplative nature of art, and to realise through activity and participation – rather than observation and theoretical study – that the intricate and subtle patterns transcend the purely decorative realm and embody a profound and timeless beauty.’
Paul Marchant was keen for the studentsfrom the King Fahad Academy to have a week of enjoyment and concentration, during which complex new ideas and disciplines would be effectively communicated to them – in effect, an intensive VITA introduction course for teenagers. The activities would include geometry, calligraphy, drawing natural forms, textile design and stencilling, and the design and production of ceramic tiles. These would be conducted by tutors from VITA assisted by recent VITA graduates. HRH The Prince of Wales would also be visiting on the afternoon of the fourth day to meet the students and to talk to them about their work in progress.
The course took place in the Foundation’s fourth floor Drawing Studio. The space was divided for the two separate classes by screens, which were used during the week to display the students’ designs and artworks. The students and their teachers arrived by coach at 9.30 each morning. Each day started with an accessible introductory talk by Paul Marchant on a philosophical aspect of art and was followed by a session of geometry. Practical design and production classes then occupied the rest of the day. The course started with an illustrated talk which considered different levels on which the natural world can be appreciated. It can be viewed, Paul suggested, quite literally, or with an enquiring mind and sense of discovery. He hoped that the students would pursue the latter option during the week and retain what they had learnt to use as a stimulus during the rest of their lives. He asked the students to consider the rhythms of life: the daily, monthly and yearly cycles, the profound experience of sunrise, and the beauty of the full moon in a starry sky. Nature, he said, is like a book filled with shapes, geometrical patterns and signs which have influenced all the cultures of the world. Draw a horizontal line on a page and it becomes a landscape horizon; draw a circle over it, and it becomes the sun rising or setting. The forms seen in nature have been distilled by man since primordial times. He then showed a series of stunning images taken around the world, starting with illustrations of the four basic elements (earth, water, fire and air) and their four conditions (cold, wet, hot and dry). Natural patterns shown ranged from the marble-like earth in space; a brilliant rainbow; the perfect and unique geometry of an individual snowflake; the flowing imprint of a snake’s movement in the sand; the honeycomb eye of a fly; the domed bud of a chestnut; the ripple of a stone in water; and the wave of sound vibrations. The man-made images were equally captivating, from the cultivated terraces of Bhutan to the garden paradise of the Alhambra in Granada; the dreamlike Taj Mahal; and an Islamic glazed ceramic tile. He quoted a sermon by Hasrat Ali: ‘Look at nature and what it consists of – what a display of wisdom, philosophy, science and the arts; what a manifestation of power and force it is… great minds and great intellects wonder at its grandeur, admire its breadth and originality, humble before its subtlety and sublimity.’
The talk also illustrated the difference between natural biomorphic and crystalline patterns, the two poles of Islamic art, and revealed the fundamental importance of numeric patterns to all aspects of life. This was made immediately evident to the students when they were asked to list ways in which the numbers 6, 7 and 12 related to their everyday existence. Paul’s talk was also sprinkled with ear-catching asides. ‘Isn’t it fascinating that light is invisible but that it contains all colours?’; ‘The traditional direction of intelligence is vertical. The traditional direction of experience is horizontal’; ‘The illumination of life is the realisation of unity within the multiplicity of the world.’
Following Paul’s introduction, the students settled down to half an hour of geometry, using a simple compass, pencil and ruler to reproduce geometric patterns which Paul demonstrated on a flip chart at the front of the class. He began with exercises intended to show how to construct basic shapes, emphasising that the traditional practice of geometry is a process of contemplation. Discipline is required to create mathematical form, which by its very nature cannot be rushed. It is a primary skill which can be learnt by anyone, and, once acquired, geometry can be developed and used in a myriad of crafts. The exercises became more complex each day, and the students were staggered by the sophisticated patterns they had created by the end of the week.
During the afternoon of the first day, students were given a variety of leaves to study and draw. Each was asked to choose a leaf and to analyse its structure, form, shape, colour and patterning. Trays of fruit were also laid out. Apples, lemons, limes and tomatoes were cut in half, and lilies and other plants taken apart. The students were invited to choose one for themselves and to observe it closely, and in drawing it, to try to pare it down to its essentials of shape and line. The intention was to get the students to look afresh at natural forms that they were used to seeing everyday, so they might become more aware of the underlying physical characteristics. ‘It’s not about how well you draw, but how well you see,’ advised Amina Ahmed, the lead tutor of the girls’ class. The classes were hushed by. the concentration of deeply engrossed students, who all seemed to have entered their own microcosmic natural worlds. Tutors and teaching assistants quietly helped the students to analyse and identify. By transcribing on to paper the five-fold pattern of the inside of an apple or the rhythmic outline of a leaf, for example, the students were beginning to interpret what they had gleaned from the factual information in front of them. They were then asked to choose one shape of line from the pattern they had drawn, and to use it creatively to produce their own, rather than nature’s, design. They were shown how to reproduce a line’s exact reflection; how to rotate it four, six or seven-fold on its axis to create a floral or star pattern; and how to ‘glide’ a line repetitively to generate a rhythmic pulse. Photocopied sheets from Rempel’s Book of Ornament were given to the students so they could see examples of the astonishing variety of designs which could be developed from a single line using symmetry.
The students left the Prince’s Foundation at the end of the first day with a clear understanding of the importance to the practice of Islamic art of both geometry and the visual transcription of rhythm in nature: of the crystalline and the fluid. This had been achieved primarily through enjoyable practical experience and was, therefore, likely to stay long in their minds.
At the start of the second day, Paul Marchant spoke of how to use geometry to translate a design on to fabric, such as a wall or textile, requiring the ability to assemble information and present it in a coherent manner. ‘Practical knowledge is one of the highest forms of knowledge because it makes you useful!’ he told the students. He then moved on to consider the way that geometric shapes, such as the triangle, square and hexagon, are not just abstract entities, but associated with refinement and quality throughout the levels of life. The unity of all life is reflected in Islamic art in the way in which all the elements of a design are related to each other. Extending from the archetypes or original plans based on the primary shapes that underlie the scope of Islamic design, there is a multiplicity of possibilities for development, transformation and inter-relationship.
After another geometry class, the students were given a practical demonstration of calligraphic brushwork by Laurence McGowan, one of the course tutors. A notable potter, his work is influenced by both Islamic art and the British Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and characterised by vibrant and bold brushwork. Laurence used square ended ‘chisel’ brushes to make individual ink brushmarks on a large sheet of paper, and showed how these could be combined to represent plant forms. He described how his own brushwork on his stoneware pots had been inspired by his mentor, the potter Alan Caiger Smith, who in turn had been inspired by the painted decoration of thousand-year-old Spanish pots. He told them that, for him, working with tradition is not about being stuck in the past, but about using the best of what has gone before, catching its spirit and evolving it into art which is very much alive, contemporary and expressive of one’s own nature. ‘It is important that the race of tradition keeps going,’ he said. Laurence showed how the broad and thin sides of the brush can be used and demonstrated how it is easier to pull the brush than to push it. The students were then given exercises to do for the rest of the day, such as repeating a flowing brushstroke, which Laurence had made at the top of their paper, as accurately as possible in a balanced sequence. They found that it was not as easy as expected. A conscious effort was needed to make each stroke work. Laurence then showed them how the brushing movement should come from the finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder. ‘Practise as much as you can to control the free line. That’s the key to fluid brushwork,’ Laurence advised. The students were then asked to try a particularly difficult exercise: to produce a series of wave-like brushstrokes which went from thick to thin, and then to reproduce its ‘reflection’ or mirror image alongside. They also painted stylised plant forms with sweeping brushstrokes. Finally they were asked to use spontaneous brushwork to express themselves. ‘Miro spoke of taking a line for a walk. Be more ambitious and imaginative. Why not take your line for a dance!’ he suggested.
The following day, Paul Marchant gave a talk on the relevance of cultural identity and the concept of Islam as peace, unity and submission to the will of God. He explained that in Islam what the individual creates is seen as part of a greater whole for the greater good. He also helped the students to understand the processes they had been participating in during the previous two days. ‘What you have been doing is experimentation and research,’ he said. ‘You have been observing, and trying and working things out. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating. Some things work and some don’t. It’s hard work as well. But you have found out what works for you and what doesn’t. In doing so, you’re learning to discriminate and make judgements. From the work you have already produced, I can see each of you is developing and expressing a sensitivity.’ Paul saw that the students were beginning to ‘find their centre’, meaning an inner recognition of oneself and awareness of a higher order. Finally, he left the students with the following thought, paraphrased from an Indian philosopher: ‘There is only one religion and that is the religion of love. There is only one people and that is humanity. There is only one language and that is the language of the heart.’
After a geometry class which followed the talk, the girls began to work in earnest on designing their textiles, and the boys on their tiles. For homework, the girls were asked to develop further geometric and arabesque designs. In the class, they looked again at lilies, re-observing and recording the forms in pencil, watercolour and mixed media. Over the next two days they were given demonstrations of how to paint some lilies directly from life on to silk; how to design and make stencils, and how to paint and print though them; and how to block print using handmade Indian blocks. They all then practised and experimented with the various methods they had been taught. The boys set about the design and production of relief and hand-painted tiles. For the former, they drew and incised their own geometric design on to a plaster block and cut and stuck balsa wood on to the tile to give ‘relief to the design. This is a painstaking process requiring dexterity and patience. The balsa wood was used as a quick and effective way of building up the fine lines of the design, which would have taken much longer to do in plaster, which also might have crumbled at the mould-making stage. Clay relief tiles were produced from these original balsa wood and plaster models and fired in the basement kiln. For their individual hand-painted tiles, the boys created their own designs and colours and painted them directly on to blank ceramic tiles, being careful to maintain a balanced composition and use lively brushwork. The boys were also shown how computer software could be used as a tool to rotate and reproduce shapes, and to build up complex designs. This, they found, also demanded skill and concentration.
In a brief introductory talk on the fourth day, Paul Marchant dwelt on the uniqueness of hand-crafted work, praising the students for what they had achieved so far. He then handed over to Laurence McGowan, who, as if to energise everyone even more in their endeavours over the final two days, gave an illuminating talk about the Islamic art that inspired him. He had once worked in Iran as a surveyor, and showed slides he had taken of some of the magnificent buildings he had visited. These included the spectacular blue-tiled mosque and portal arch, with its honeycombed tiled vault, at Ishfahan, a supreme example of the application of geometry in size, shape and content. At the end of his talk, he illustrated his own ceramics, referring to the various influences both on the shape and decoration of his work, ranging from Chinese form and Arabic script to the decorative patterns of William Morris.
With HRH The Prince of Wales due to visit in the afternoon, there was a tremendous amount of activity in the Drawing Studio to get everything organised in time. Special displays of the students’ work were mounted on the walls and dividing screens. The names of students were beautifully written in calligraphy in English by Laurence McGowan, and in Arabic by Soraya Syed, a specialist in Islamic calligraphy – and these were placed above individual student’s work. Paul Marchant had gathered an excellent group of tutors and teaching assistants for the week, all of whom not only brought their own specialisms to the classes, but taught every subject, and provided high quality group and one-to-one tuition. Clare Cook, Barbara van Hest, Parveen Zuberi and Soraya Syed ably assisted Amina Ahmed; while David Feuerstein, Laurence McGowan, Ramiz Sabbagh and Simon Trethewey supported Paul Marchant. It was an impressive team performance. When the Prince of Wales arrived in the Drawing Studio he was obviously delighted by what he saw. It was the first time he had seen the Drawing Studio being used to its full capacity. It was a hive of activity. Taped Arab music was being played, as it had been all week, to add to the atmosphere and provide a soothing mood. The Prince toured the boys’ room first with Paul Marchant, asking them about their work and what they thought of the course, and watched them painting their tiles. Then he visited the girls’ room with Amina Ahmed, while the students were preparing their stencils, and talked to them about their designs and working methods. The teachers from the King Fahad Academy talked to the Prince about how successful the course had been. ‘It was just what I had hoped to see,’ the Prince said to Paul Marchant as he left.
Drawing Nature. 4-8 September 2000
School Teachers from the King Fahad Academy: