What you See – What you Know: Lisa Milroy
By Susan Collins, on 25 September 2012
Lisa Milroy, Head of Graduate Painting at the Slade came to Dhaka in September 2012 and delivered a lecture on her own work, conducted a drawing workshop and joined the painting department faculty for student crits. Her workshop accommodated students from all the practical subject areas of the Faculty and her energy and interpretation of the drawing process fired up the students who produced an immense amount of work in a single day.
The event that I directed during my visit to the Faculty of Art in September 2012 was a two-day practical workshop entitled What you see – What you know. This workshop provided an opportunity for students to explore their relation to objects, depiction and imagery through drawing. It tested the role of observation, memory and recall, and examined the formation of mental images through making. It looked at the familiar and the everyday as a source for artistic engagement. The workshop also celebrated the pleasure of visual description and the sensuality of the drawn line. What you see – What you know took place in a large well-lit studio where students could spread out over the floor to work. It was open to students in all subject areas to encourage interdisciplinary exchange, and twenty students participated. All participating students came to the workshop equipped with a meaningful personal object.
The workshop began with a discussion around the objects to examine their physical characteristics and explore their emotional value and history. I then asked students to draw their objects from observation. After 20 minutes, all objects and drawings were removed from the workspace and students repeated the exercise, but instead drew the objects from memory for the same length of time. We compared the two sets of drawings and discussed experiences that arose from each drawing context.
The workshop next focused on line and mark-making. I asked students to make lines and marks, dots, squares, circles, blobs and dashes with different grades of pencils and charcoal on different types of paper according to a set of verbal instructions, which included different time lengths and different physical attributes and emotional registers, such as heavy/faint, left/right, fast/slow, up/ down, eyes closed etc; and lines and marks that could be interpreted as happy, sad, angry, bored, tired etc. Students exchanged pencils and charcoal for paintbrushes and black ink and followed similar instructions to explore the quality of liquid line and mark. They were then asked to draw their objects from memory using a paintbrush and black ink on different types of paper according to a similar set of instructions. Students finished the practical part of the workshop with free-form drawings of their objects.
The workshop included a seminar that touched on the nature of drawing from observation and from memory; the physical nature of drawing; the drawn line as opposed to the painted line; the value of experimentation; the relation between motif, medium and execution; questions of the real and imagined; style and taste; tradition; habit; the relation of the everyday world to the art studio.
What you see – What you know generated an enormous amount of work from which the students selected an extensive group of drawings and examples of mark-making for a display in the studio space. All Fine Art students, faculty and the public were invited to the studio to see this lively presentation.
The students I worked with were all eager and hungry to join in discussions and debates around the nature of painting and art, and it was a pleasure to engage with them in the workshop, seminar, a studio critique and individual tutorials. In talking with students and observing studio practice, I made some surprising discoveries, which made me reflect on art education and art conventions, and how these are shaped and defined by different social, historical and cultural contexts. In this respect, I was struck by the division between the Oriental Painting and Painting Departments, and the apparent lack of communication between the two. Although I was nervous of misunderstanding various contexts in the art school due to my relative ignorance of the history and culture of Bangladesh, and my own Western perspective and values as an artist and teacher, I nonetheless felt that if a critical dialogue between the two areas were to open up, there could be a rich complexity for students to draw upon, in bringing together diverse approaches to painting to explore craft, history, tradition and the conceptual nature of different ways of painting in today’s world. Another aspect that caught my attention was the academic approach to teaching painting based on copying exercises. I was also curious about the difference between some of the Bangladeshi paintings that I saw in art galleries in Dhaka and also documented in catalogues, and the paintings done in the art school: the influence of Bangladeshi folk art traditions was much more evident in paintings outside the art school. This vibrant cultural and visual resource did not seem to have a value within the school, and I wondered at what point painters picked up folk art influences after they left the institution.
I was intrigued by the calm and quiet of the Painting studios, and their dimly lit grayness, both in physical and atmospheric terms, as opposed to the chaos, noise, crowdedness and colour of Dhaka. For a Bangladeshi student, I wondered if this pared down, cool atmosphere could seem strange, intriguing, different, attractive and imaginatively stirring in relation to the familiar packed and dense environment outside the art school. I found the red brick modernist architecture of the Faculty of Art beautiful, and enjoyed the landscaping of the surrounding gardens, particularly the huge basin-like crater brimming with a tangle of trees and plants
Thanks to Lala Rukh’s introduction to the artist Abdus Salam, I was able to explore Bangladeshi rickshaw painting, which is of enormous interest to me in my own painting practice. Ten years ago, curator friends at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan gave me a book on Southeast Asian “Traffic Art” in relation to a show they had curated on rickshaw painting. Documented in this book were the paintings of Mr R K Das, which I especially enjoyed. I asked Lala Rukh if it would be possible to visit rickshaw painting studios during my stay in Dhaka. The age of digital photography and cheap printing methods have put paid to cinema billboard painting and many of the hand-painted advertisements in Dhaka, but rickshaw and lorry painting still thrive. Abdus Salam took me to the studio and home in Old Dhaka of Mr R K Das himself, now in his seventies. It was a great honour to meet this wonderful painter, and there on his desk was his copy of the “Traffic Art” book that has enchanted me for the past decade.
I was thrilled by the presence of painting everywhere in Dhaka – it is a city covered in paint and the human touch! Spray-painted styrofoam signs; hand-painted signage on city walls; colourful painted decorations and surfaces of houses; hand-painted buses and auto-taxis – even the license plates are hand-painted; in the bazaars, open pots of gooey paint clutter workshop benches and jars of brilliant pigment are stacked up in poster shops.
My visit to Dhaka has made me feel more open to the Bangladeshi community in Poplar, London, where I live and have my studio practice.
The interdisciplinary is enjoyable in any form of education. As a student of art it was wonderful to participate in workshops and seminars organized through the INSPIRE project. The teaching method of the Slade School of Fine Art is very different from the Faculty of Fine Art in Dhaka. The students have greater freedom to exercise their individuality. Through the exchange with Slade we came to know about the work of Slade teachers and other contemporary artists, their ideas and experiments.
Jafrin Gulshan, Department of Printmaking, MFA 2nd Part
This workshop encourages studying the relationship with objects, descriptions and observation of objects, memory test and many other processes. The organization of workshops like this will be very helpful for us.
Sohel Ashraf Khan, Department of Drawing and Painting, MFA 2nd part
After a speedy session of mark making the brain storming part of experimental drawing turned into a very funny and energetic one! My perception of the object suddenly changed and I felt more attached to my favorite object as I had to find out its emotional, humanlike appearance through lines.
Dhiman Sarkar, Department of Drawing and Painting, MFA 1st Part
We all brought an object about which we have some feeling or affection. After we began drawing the object acquired a new form through various processes of simplification. This experience will influence my future work.
Kanta Rahman, Department of Graphic Design, MFA 2nd Part
The subject of the workshop was an object that I liked. We drew the same object all day but in different ways. But we were not at all bored by the exercise.
Mahmuda Khandakar, Department of Sculpture, BFA (Hons.) 4th Year
Unknowingly we are much too conscious when we try to grasp the more difficult aspects of painting. Spontaneity is gradually lost. I discovered the joy of spontaneity in this workshop.
Sayed Fida Hossain, Department of Drawing and Painting, MFA 1st Part
It was my experience in this workshop how show a variety of expressions through a variety of lines.
Shahanoor Mamun, Department of Ceramics, MFA 1st Part
I enjoyed the process of expressing emotion through drawing, a traditional, longstanding process.
Antu Chandra Modak, Department of Sculpture, BFA (Hons.) 4th Year
I realized the significance and importance of the line in a new dimension through Lisa Milroy’s workshop. I was fascinated by the exercise of the variety of lines. This kind of exchange encourages diverse perspectives.
Liton Paul, Department of Sculpture, BFA (Hons.) 4th Year
We learned how to observe the object in a new way in Lisa’s workshop. I enjoy drawing but in her workshop I found a new dimension in drawing. She has made us braver by liberating us from inhibitions. I really enjoyed the workshop and feel that we will be benefited if more workshops like this were organized.
Md. Shafiqul Islam, Department of Sculpture, BFA (Hons.) 4th Year
In my work I try not to change the primary form of objects but to express my emotions and ideas through various expressive lines. This workshop has made my work easier.
Md. Ariful Islam, Department of Graphic Design, MFA 1st Part
To gain knowledge of a subject, one must know its grammar. As a student of art it is primary to learn about the line and the dot. I learned different techniques of applying lines and dots. Lisa Milroy’s novel method of teaching has expanded my knowledge. Chandra Nath Pal, Department of Sculpture, BFA (Hons.) 4th Year