Studio learning – Fireproof

The Mackintosh Building of the Glasgow School of Art was designed for learning in and about art, design and architecture.  Known locally as ‘the Mack’ its unique studios shaped the learning experiences of those within and inspired those beyond.  An unimaginable second fire has moved me to reflect on what one of its studios was like and what it taught me about how to learn.

In my first year as an undergraduate at the Glasgow School of Art I worked in a basement studio in the Mack; a seemingly vast room with a double-height ceiling half-sloped with glass from which grey, north-facing light diffused over white-painted walls and a grey concrete floor.  It was one of a series of studios connected to others through swing-doors and internal corridors – a succession of small, dark passing places opening out into bright, airy gathering spaces.  Whilst I loved the volume and light of the white cube studio, I adored the detail of its signage lettering and numbering, figured finger-plates and door handles. I adored more the repetition of squares, roses and leaves that were inset into walls, cut out of glass and carved into wood – repetitions which mapped my way back and forth to the studio.

A student project underway in a basement studio in the Mack

That First Year studio was an open, shared and public space which, at the beginning of semester, was empty and uncluttered.  On my first day I was allocated a table, a stool and an area of wall.  I did my best to stake out my ‘bit’ – a wee space – amongst a dozen or so other students doing the same.  As the semester progressed, my table and wall became layered with drawings, photographs, postcards, and receipts.  The layering was happening all round the studio as nascent artworks were devised, destroyed, created and critiqued – always in progress and always in view. I know now that it was a deliberate studio pedagogy to force into view the methods, techniques, influences and ideas circumscribed in work-in-progress.  But it demanded learning as a public experience and I found that difficult to come to terms with.  Acts of thinking, making, creating and editing are, for me, private and cautious affairs.  I found the openness of the studio disorientating and intrusive.

But I was only 17 years old and straight out of secondary school where learning took place in timetabled slots, 45-minutes at a time; where rooms were filled neatly with desks and chairs; and where the walls were covered in ‘best’ examples and ‘how to…’ diagrams.  Only in the art room – that halfway haven between classroom and studio – did I learn a little of how to colonise space and time amongst dead objects, plants, and mislaid desk diaries.  And at the end of each day I learned that my work-in-progress had to be tidied away lest a class of fidgety first years mistook it for scrap and scribbled on it.  School spaces were thus largely prescribed and predictable – spaces in which my learning had thrived. The art school studio, however, was radically different and I remember the heartfelt grief when I realised that loss of certainty, clarity and purpose characterised that difference.

Signage and door details from the basement corridor of the Mack

The brazen ambition of the art school studio teased the grief that held my learning in check – I was simultaneously seduced and terrified by the space and time the studio was offering so that I could make something – anything – happen. I sought refuge in new media, new friendships, and new loves, but, as I could not escape the public scrutiny of the studio, I looked to distract myself from my discomfort by creating lots of work (I loved the repetition of the ’50 drawings’ type of projects); focusing on details (tiny wee watercolours); incorporating humour (blancmange-shaped architecture); and visiting other students in their bit of the studio.  In a sense the studio was showing me how to learn differently – how to listen to its rhythm and find my time within it; how to see its cooperation of wee spaces and how mine held others in place; and how to challenge detail in order to craft it anew.  The studio became less a fixed place and more a critical sensibility.

For contemporary artists, long since graduated, the studio remains an important feature of their working identity, but my research has shown that rarely is it a single fixed place.  More likely their studio comprises a variety of specialist workshops, darkrooms, storage facilities, and dual-purpose bedrooms at home; their movement between these multiple places shaping their sensibilities as did their wee bits of art school studio.

Likewise, a sensibility towards multiple critical spaces pervades my teaching and research.  I carefully design place and time into learning experiences so that students can critique ideas and practices; and into research initiatives such as Room for Ridiculous Things so that I can productively think, make and write ambitions beyond prescribed margins and walls.

As discussions continue on the fate of the Mack’s ruins, the Glasgow School of Art will no doubt continue its commitment to, and advancement of, studio pedagogies.  Personally, I hope that the studios of its future are still spaces of ambition, places where students learn to discover their own wayfinding details in ways that are fireproof.

About the author

Dr Maureen K Michael is a Lecturer in Professional Education currently teaching on the MSc Professional Education and Leadership programme.

Graduating from The Glasgow School of Art in 1991, Maureen then embarked upon a career-long, interdisciplinary interest with art and education, first teaching art and design for 13 years. Following this, Maureen became a researcher with the School of Design at The Glasgow School of Art and the EU-funded Project Knowhow exploring specialist pedagogies in art schools in Iceland, Estonia, Hungary and the United Kingdom. Maureen’s interdisciplinary research explores arts-based methods for the study of professional practices, education and learning. She continues to work on the arts-based visual methodology Integrated Imagework through a combined programme of writing for publication and exhibitions. Maureen’s research interests also explore how digital and art-based research methods shape education phenomena. Read more.