Sometimes I discover Art projects that hold tremendous value as learning tools for students and teachers. This is one such project. Completed by Bronte Heron, while studying Art in Year 12 at New Plymouth Girls’ High, this NCEA Level 3 Painting folio (the equivalent of A2 Art & Design) was awarded an Excellence grade with Scholarship (the highest result possible). Despite Bronte being a year younger than most candidates, her work was deemed one of the best art projects submitted by a New Zealand student in 2010 and is now part of the Top Art exhibition which tours New Zealand schools.
In an exciting cross-discipline fashion, Bronte’s portfolio is filled with rich, mixed media pieces that morph seamlessly from one medium to next: textural drawings, sculptural installations, photography, manipulated photographs and beautiful paintings all feed from one to the other and aid the intelligent exploration of ideas. Comprising of creative, surrealist compositions that are woven together from fragments of real life images, Bronte’s A1 Art boards are evidence of a superb approach to a ‘fantasy’ topic. The highly imaginative pieces are derived from initial observation of trees, the human figure, scaffolding and other forms and develop in an original direction with reference to artist models.
I was lucky enough to interview Bronte about her project:
Amiria: Your theme stemmed from a desire to express the need for an elderly man to ‘escape into his imagination’ combined with a love of drawing elderly faces. Was it difficult to come up with the theme: ‘When he lost his marbles’? How long did it take for you to choose this theme and what made you think of it?
Bronte: The idea of escaping into your imagination originally stemmed from Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. It’s a children’s book that has always been a favourite of mine, and I thought the idea of the main character, Max, inventing his own fantasy world for entertainment when he was sent to his bedroom for bad behaviour was very interesting. There is one part of the book in particular that really captured my interest; Max imagining his bedroom turning into a forest. The bedposts became tree trunks and the carpet became grass, etc etc. This play on an interior vs. an exterior landscape really caught my eye and the idea of someone being confined to a bedroom and creating an alternate reality to escape from their own isolation sprung up. My love of portraiture and fascination with wrinkles (admittedly an odd interest) influenced me to depict this character as an old man. The confinement to a bedroom could then be associated with dementia, immobility, or even a resistance to the ultimate end (i.e. death). Of course, creating another world that represented this old man’s mental state meant that certain aspects of it had to be warped, such as scale and the laws of physics. This gives the impression of him being crazy, or losing his marbles. So as you can see, the idea of an old man losing his marbles developed over time, I’d say it probably took me all of the first term of school (about 10 weeks) to solidify this idea into something that could be carried on throughout an entire portfolio.
Amiria: Please talk me through the subject matter that you selected for this project (i.e. old man, marbles, tree trunks, wooden structures, ladders etc). For example, it would be particularly helpful to know why you selected each item and whether you had access to first-hand resources to draw from and how these things helped your works in terms of ideas and aesthetics?
Bronte: Using marbles as a subject matter was a literal take on the metaphor of the old man ‘losing his marbles’. How I used the marbles developed over the span of the portfolio. If you notice that on the first board, the marbles are ‘real’; they’re small and the old man has control over them (for example he could hold them in his hands if he wanted to). This is supposed to symbolise that he has a grip on reality and is still connected to the outside world. On the second board, the series at the bottom show a deterioration of sanity through the metaphor of marbles. In the first work, the old man is looking at his own reflection, symbolising a control over his sanity. The second work is of scaffolding that is warped by the shape of the marble, suggesting that it is collapsing (a metaphor that the old man’s mental state has collapsed). In the third work, the man is pressed against the inside of the marble, showing that he has gone insane and is trapped in the world he created for himself. The third board explores this metaphor with marbles in much the same manner, however the contrast between the old man’s imagined world and reality is blurred, giving the impression that his imagination has become his reality. This relates back to my interpretation of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, discussed above.
The notion of using an interior vs. an exterior landscape also influenced my choice of subject matter. Confinement to a bedroom immediately made me think of used, wrinkled sheets. I was also really interested in using skeletal, gnarled trees and roots in my work, and I thought these represented an exterior landscape well. Coincidentally, the wrinkles in the sheets, the grain of the tree trunks and the warped manner in which the roots grew mirrored the wrinkles in the skin of the old man, which tied the ideas together visually.
The scaffolding was an idea that was given to me by my Painting teacher, Ms Mercer. She thought that rickety, old bamboo scaffolding worked well with my theme because not only was it wooden (therefore tying in with the natural shapes of the tree trunks and the roots), but it looks too flimsy to support weight, and is often tied together in odd ways, making it appear stacked and precarious. This introduced a whole new concept of stacking fragile elements, teetering on the edge, and eventually losing balance. We both agreed that this related back to the old man losing his grip on the real world. Using scaffolding also brought up other points of interest I worked with, such as suspension and weight being held up by frail supports.
I worked mostly using photographs, selecting certain aspects of images for different parts of a painting, meaning I used many photos to create one work. Unfortunately I lack the skill of being able to paint without a photograph to guide me, so yes, I worked from photos whenever I could.
Amiria: Which artists did you study as part of your project and how did these influence your work?
Bronte: Egon Schiele was one of the first artist models I became interested in during the research for my portfolio. He painted a lot of disturbing and contorted figures, creating sharp geometric angles with their outlines. One of his paintings was of greater interest than his others; ‘Gerti Schiele’. The biggest influence this had on me was the use of negative space. This was a pictorial issue that I worked with almost constantly in my own paintings. The blank white background in ‘Gerti Schiele’ unnerved me; it created a lack of depth and a lack of scale. My interpretation of this was that it was similar to an abyss; endless nothingness. The negative space also emphasised the outline of the subject matter, and what I found really interesting was that if you turn the painting on its side, the outline of the woman creates the silhouette of a landscape. The works I modelled most strongly on this painting are on the first board of my portfolio, in particular the middle work on the second row (i.e. the geometric shapes created in the negative space, the lack of scale and the integration of interior and exterior elements).
The houses and architecture Schiele painted (above) seem to be stacked on top of each other. This is a clever play on perspective that caught my eye, and I wanted to replicate this instability in some way. A tower of objects piled precariously on top of one another was how I integrated this into my own painting – this can be seen on board one, such as the middle work on the second row. This idea developed into the sculptural installation that was one of my last works.
Another artist I looked at used similar ideas to Schiele; Laura Owens. Again there is a lack of scale and depth created through the use of negative space. The halved division of space (used in the artwork to the left), rather than a harmonious rule of thirds, also adds an unnerving element to the painting, making the viewer feel as though they are intruding on an intimate moment. An interior landscape is also created by the outline of the pillow and the bed. I wanted to use this idea of an ambiguous landscape in my own way, and used the bed sheets that are ever present in my work to create what look like hills in paintings like the top one on board two. Bed sheets were also part of the “landscape” I made for the sculpture installation on the final panel, again playing with the idea of interior vs. exterior.
Laura Owens also painted very dreamlike landscapes (like the one to the left). I was particularly interested in her trees, or rather tree trunks, and the flat backgrounds they were painted onto. Nearer the beginning of my folio, I used trees/vines in conjunction with dream like elements, such as pillows, crowns and feathers, but as my work progressed I depicted them as being sucked into a vortex, bending and fading into white space. Owens’ trees were an influence behind this, as they are organic and seem to respond to the environment around them.
I thought the way the artist Gerhard Richter used big white borders and smudges to make his work seem grubby and discarded coincided with my ideas of the old man feeling disconnected from the ‘real world’ and not belonging in society. I incorporated his methods onto my second board in the first two rows of work. The ‘windows’ in the first work were an interpretation of his borders and the third work in the second row is a more obvious interpretation of it.
Surrealism became an important influence on me as my ideas progressed. Dali is an evident artist model of the third work in the second row of the first board; a drooping face supported by flimsy branches is reminiscent of one of his most famous works, ‘Sleep’. The introduction of the little men climbing up and down tree trunks as if they were ropes and interacting with the bigger figure were derived from Dali’s impossible ideas. This was a development in my own practise as I started painting original compositions that were influenced by Dali, as opposed to the recreation of ‘Sleep’ I painted on the first board. The floating trees behind the figure I painted onto the bed sheet on board two were also derived from some of the zero gravity compositions of Dali’s work.
M.C. Escher is another model I was influenced by. ‘Hand with Reflecting Sphere’ (above left) showed me how effective warping a reflection could be, and taken into the context of my work, a warped reflection had real significance (craziness, an imagined world, etc.). The series of the three warped reflections at the bottom of board two on my portfolio were variations on this work by Escher, the sphere taken into the context of a large marble. Escher continued to influence me onto board three. Similarly to the way I began to create original compositions as opposed to recreating paintings done by Dali, my paintings started to reflect my own style rather than Escher’s. The painted spheres in the installation (one of my final works) were inspired by Escher; the old man seemingly trapped inside a marble (metaphorically trapped in his own world) was a development of the old man’s reflection in a marble.
Amiria: Your project includes a sculptural component. What are the advantages of a Painting student working in sculpture to help develop their ideas?
Bronte: I think my own work was always going to lean towards sculpture; right from the word go I was painting towers of objects and things hanging from string or scaffolding. It felt natural to make the transition. The advantage of being able to make your works 3D is huge, because it opens up new ways to develop and extend your methods and ideas. Being able to install your work in different contexts can change the meaning of it, which in itself is a development. I took the painted-on bed sheet on the second board all over town and photographed it in different settings. These included a hotel that was being renovated and was full of building materials and half-finished repairs, my own bed, trees in parks and grungy alleyways. I could then edit out the installations that weren’t so successful and work into the ones that were. Using urban areas as installation sites had a very different effect to the studio installation I did on board three. The studio allowed me to draw attention to the subject matter rather than the environment.
Amiria: What advice do you have for other high school art students who are hoping to achieve excellent grades?
Bronte: It’s all about making sure you set enough time aside to finish your artwork to a high standard. Art isn’t a subject you can put off doing until the night before hand in. Working solidly throughout the year gives you enough time to get your art to have the effect you want it to give. Also, get heaps of input from your teachers. Ms Mercer (my teacher) was great for lending her ideas and opinions, which helped me get a good grade I think! Surround yourself with passionate people too. They will keep you enthusiastic about art and help you find new ways to extend yourself – this stops you from getting bored.
There is sometimes the perception that Art is an easy subject…that those who do well are simply gifted with artistic knack. This article is a great reminder that those who excel in Art are more than just skilful with a pencil or brush: they are intelligent, committed, and driven students whose work is highly organised and communicates ideas with intention and clarity. The insight and level of understanding shown in Bronte’s responses is refreshing – a reminder that it is only the best who truly soar.
If you wish to see more examples of outstanding student artwork, please view our Featured Art Projects.
Amiria has been an Art & Design teacher and a Curriculum Co-ordinator for seven years, responsible for the course design and assessment of student work in two high-achieving Auckland schools. She has a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours) and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. Amiria is a CIE Accredited Art & Design Coursework Assessor.