This year marks ten years since I attended a group interview in Notting Hill for a tuition position with Bonas MacFarlane. As the coronavirus lockdown enters another week and its grip brings out the nostalgic, contemplative side in us, it seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on my experience of working for Bonas MacFarlane and the emergence of ‘Bonas MacFarlane Art’.
My CV showed that my prior teaching experience had been primarily based in adult education. Teaching life drawing classes had led to me being recommended to Cubitt Arts, the renowned art studio complex in Islington. As a condition of their charitable status, Cubitt maintained an educational outreach programme delivering innovative art classes to local senior residents. My years in adult education were richly gratifying, showing people with a lifetime of experiences that through art there was always something new to be discovered. I still receive cards from Doug, a fine gentleman who had spent his career captaining large cargo ships, updating me with his latest watercolour paintings of boats and seascapes. It was in that environment that I learned how to structure classes, how to move between what was planned and what emerged spontaneously, how to be in turns encouraging and challenging, and how to communicate a project’s technical and conceptual aspects with clarity. It was also where it became clear to me how deeply education could affect a person’s sense of purpose and self-esteem, and that teaching art was rather more than ‘just a job’.
Despite those years of experience, it was the idea of teaching students in the early stages of their education on a one to one basis that gave rise to my curiosity that day in Notting Hill. I left the interview with a renewed resolve, and spurred on by their genuine passion for education and enthusiasm for looking into new ways of teaching art, I emailed them that very evening with a list of ideas for art tuition and events. Like many tutors I had approached several agencies, and like many art tutors I had been repeatedly told that they would keep my details on file but there wasn’t much demand for ‘art tutors’. Unlike the other agencies, Bonas Macfarlane were immediately encouraging and receptive to my ideas for finding and supporting more art clients rather than accepting that art was an overlooked subject. A few weeks later I would find myself on a train to Heathrow airport for a series of sessions in a hotel conference room with my first client, a student visiting from Jeddah preparing for art scholarship applications. And so began my work with Bonas MacFarlane.
There’s a very particular dynamic to working with someone one to one. Clearly you can’t talk non-stop with someone for two hours, and you can’t move your attention around the room as you can when teaching a group. Art needs to be instructive, but you also need to allow pockets of exploration and ‘doing’ to open up around your guidance so that the student can put your words into practice, and allow the materials to reveal their possibilities directly to the student. With their attention wholly focused on the end of their paintbrush you can’t simply sit back and watch, or provide a running commentary in the manner of a TV sports commentator. Those early years in tuition where all about developing a feel for the movement within a session between guidance, co-making, assisting, switching the focus to the ideas, then to the materials, knowing when to let the student be and when they needed a boost of energy or inspiration, and all the while maintaining an atmosphere conducive to being creative and playful, yet serious and focused. Visiting clients’ homes or hotels would take me the length and breadth of London and the surrounding counties and gave rise to an encyclopaedic knowledge of London’s art shop locations where materials could be picked up en-route at short notice (not to mention the best cafes to sit and collect your thoughts over a good coffee between sessions).
Every client has a completely unique story. Art and a person’s creativity are deeply woven into their personality, and helping young people discover the direction of their artistic journey continues to be an incredibly rewarding experience. From the initial consultation to seeing them burst with joy when they gain a place on their first choice course, there are many obstacles to overcome and discoveries to be made. UAL (University of the Arts London), just one of the many institutions our clients apply to annually, has over 70 degree specialisms. Within the area of fashion alone there are 30 degree choices. With the national curriculum in both UK and overseas schools being centred around fine art, graphic design or textiles, how can a young person begin to understand the vast array of options ahead of them and choose a course that will define their future careers and lives?
A couple of years into my work with Bonas MacFarlane I was invited by the Head of Mentoring to meet with a client who was experiencing personal problems that were adversely affecting their studies. Our work together went well, with the student gaining in confidence and making a successful application to the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL). Rather than being solely focused on their art projects, our art mentoring programme has subsequently developed to include a schedule of open day, degree show and gallery visits, work experience, and a continuous dialogue parallel to the student’s studies aimed at exploring their relationship with art and their future educational options. The process is often revelatory, shining a light into hitherto unknown areas of art and design and leading to students making applications to courses they would never have previously considered.
The benefits of mentoring have been particularly clear during the current crisis as a means of emotional support, structure and continuity in the face of exams being cancelled and application responses being heavily delayed. Working online with our clients is something that we are already very familiar with, having successfully mentored and tutored overseas students this way for many years. At any one time we maintain an experienced team of tutors who have either graduated from, taught at or currently teach at some of the UK’s best known universities and art colleges. What better way to prepare an application to Central Saint Martins than be tutored by someone who has both studied and taught there? Every year the world’s leading institutions for art, design and architecture see increasing numbers of applications making the competition for places higher with each round of entries. It’s a process that constantly keeps us on our toes, updating our information and research, improving our team and refining our support skills to ensure our clients submit the very best applications possible.
Every year I attend the same open days, and the same foundation and degree shows at the same institutions, and every year something new is revealed. This is largely because the person accompanying me is different every time. Their questions and responses are different, and the ways in which they respond to the tasks my tutors and I set are always unique and surprising. From their personal statements to their sketchbooks and portfolios, art is a form of autobiography, and it is a unique privilege to be part of the formative chapters of these young artists’ lives.
Words by Darren Marshall, Head of Art at Bonas MacFarlane.