It is said that those that can do, and those that can't teach. Unfortunately that statement is altogether too true. But not in this case. Not in the case of Tracy Cronin. Is she an artist that teaches or a teacher that makes art. She considers herself both equally. I personally feel that teaching in any case is a noble calling, but when it comes to teaching art there is such an opportunity to set students off on some amazing adventures. Most of the time without leaving the classroom. How often does that happen in a math class?
Tracy lives in Ireland, she is from Kerry and currently lives and works in Cork. She attended Crawford college there and she got her BA Fine Art in painting. Later she continued to receive her Masters in Art, Craft and Design Education.
She comes to both the classroom and the studio fully loaded. The idea that those that can't teach, does not apply here. Tracy spends quality time in the studio which allows her to bring and experience to her students that is dynamic and fluid. Sure she can talk about the fundamental principles, but because she is so active in the studio she as ideas to share. Her students realize she is the real deal and that is the key.
The Matter of When - Mixed media and oil on board 2013
Tell me a little about the school that you teach in. What is the age group of your students?
I teach in an Education centre called “Youthreach” within a disadvantaged area in Cork city. Early school leavers are the target group that Youthreach crater for, providing them with second chance education and instilling in them a pattern for lifelong learning. Therefore interactions are less formal and relationships are warmer than in a mainstream school setting.
This is regarded as an important component in the programmes’ success. The students I teach range from 15-20 year olds and have all left mainstream school for different reasons.
Do you focus on one specific discipline or do you have your students involved in many directions?I have four different class groups, two which I teach the National Irish Art Curriculum and two others that I teach FETAC Art modules. I fortunately work in a flexible environment which allows me to teach many art disciplines which I think is so important for students. I try to incorporate a variety of disciplines into each academic year. Beginning with the foundations of more traditional art, drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture, to newer media such as animation, video work and installation. In this technological age students need to be constantly challenged and engaged. Incorporating technology into art lessons provides students with a means of manipulating existing imagery, incorporating text and other elements to create a contextual paradigm shift for the viewer. I also encourage collaboration in solving problems by having students work in groups to discuss and solve the problems together. To be prepared for success later in life, students must be able to interact with others, adapt to new technology, and think through problems logically.
Are your students aware of the work that you do in your studio?
They are yes. I think it is important that they know that I am continually creating work. I sometimes bring in artwork in various stages and work on it in the art room while they are working. I feel that this gives them an insight into my practice and can also be inspiring for them to see an artwork as it develops.
What do you find are the most effective ways to inspire kids to be creative?This is usually an art teacher’s most difficult task. Students should be encouraged seek out and experiment with new things or ideas. They should be taught to ask questions and investigate when things do not make sense. They need to learn to view mistakes as an opportunity for leaning rather than something that was unsuccessful. Students should also follow their interests and think "outside the box" whenever possible. It is also valuable for them to be open to other's ideas so that they can learn how to build upon and reconstruct their own conceptual knowledge. I feel that it is important to give students choices in order to give them ownership over what they are creating and I find that this can promote creativity in the classroom. For example all lessons will have specific goals and outcomes but by giving students plenty of scope to experiment (with new mediums, materials, imagery, environments, ways of working…) they are more inclined to make new discoveries and take chances that could lead to more creative and personal work. It is also important to show students multiple ways of creating through demonstrations, showing variety in artist work and visual aids and communicating to them that there is no right and wrong just different ways of creating.We can find some useful teaching strategies by looking at how artists generate ideas. Many artists use a device called “changing habits of work”. An artist may be feeling like everything is becoming redundant and familiar. In order to force a new idea to the surface, an artist might reverse the order of work, change the medium, change the scale, forbid a certain common component in the work, and so on. These are limitations to jog or jump start the creative impulse. Creativity is latent within each of us, but for some of us, it needs to be awakened. One way to bring to the surface is to force a change of thinking habits by not allowing a trite response.I also think that it is very important to being energetic and positive in the classroom and most importantly explaining that what they create has meaning.Generally, how aware of art history are your students?I have a lot of new students this year who have not done art before in school so as result their awareness of art history is minimal. So it is back to basics. However I always incorporate art history into my lessons and try to do this in different ways that are interesting for students. Art history examines the culture of a society in a way that words cannot always fully explain. Learning to appreciate different cultures and eras of artistic expression is a life skill that every student can benefit from. All learners can expand their ability to see, imagine and think in a way that other subjects do not always touch.
Do you ever, or are you able to take them to museums or galleries or on artist studio visits?I try to bring my students to exhibitions as much as possible. It is always beneficial for students and it is also interesting for me also to learn more about artwork that excites them. I brought all of my groups to my own exhibition in “The Cork Vision Centre” last year and it was great bonding experience. This year I am doing a street art project with a group of teenage boys with the goal of them creating artwork in the local community and within Cork City Centre. They will be drawing inspiration from their own environment andworking together to create artwork that is meaningful and representative of them. We will be exploring graffiti artworks in different sites around the city and documenting our progress.I feel it is important to take students out of the classroom environment when possible to experience art in new ways.Who were some of your early artistic influences and how have they changed through your career? Who are you admiring now?
In college I was influenced by the compositions of Georgia O Keefe, the use of colour and light in Turners work, the visceral painterly qualities shared by Lucian Frued and Jenny Saville, and personal found in Freda Kahlo’s self portraits. These artists still influence me as well as many many more. Now I really enjoy the narratives and histories in the work of Hughie O donaghue , and Anish Kapoor. I also draw inspiration from photography, film and animation.
You have several bodies of work in your portfolio including abstract, figurative and landscape. That is quite a variety, how do you find that each particular direction that you might go informs the others?
The work has developed over time. I like to immerse myself in a particular area for a period of time and then jump to something completely different. Sometimes I have ideas that lend themselves more towards abstract work and other times I want to respond to the surrounding landscape or environment. In my current work there is a focus on the human presence in landscape. This interchange between the figure and landscape makes references to the persistence of nature and the evolution of man/woman. Other themes that emerge in my work are memories, narratives and emotions. I am interested in trying to create dreamlike images that evoke collected memories, an almost subconscious image bank that we all have access to.I would like to hear from you how your more representational work informs the abstract work, or is it more the other way around?I create work that feels right to me at the time of making. When I first started painting in college my work was informed by landscape but was abstract in nature. Through life drawing classes I became more excited by representing the figure and this gave me a whole new focus. Since then I have enjoyed working both representationally and abstractly using the figure and landscape as subject matter. It is fair to say that styles inform each other. Even my more representational paintings are partially abstract. This can be seen in the figures themselves or the space that they occupy.
Recently I have been intrigued by imagery and nostalgia from memory and dreams. I like focusing on these parallels of associations that can change throughout time or through imagination. These oddities of individual perspective provide a lot of room to play. I like to explore the expression of emotional figures to in some way comment on the human condition. The subjects explored sometimes refer to woman’s relationship to herself, to her history and her surroundings. I feel that some of my works however, incorporate both worlds: realistic subjects entangled with abstract, textural and sometimes minimalistic elements.Do you immerse yourself in a direction for a period of time? For example if you are working abstractly, do you work solely on your abstract pieces or are you able to effectively skip back and forth?It all depends on how I am feeling at the time. My practice is open and it changes and evolves. And this is what I try to teach my students that are its vital to come up with different ideas and ways of thinking and working to inform their own art practice. This explains the variety in my portfolio. Sometimes I have a very specific idea that I want to explore with regards to the imagery and media, and other times I just like to respond intuitively to what is around me.
Your work is filled with rich and raw texture. What I see is a very calculated and even methodical way that you apply your paint to get the results that you do. How important is the "mark" to you in comparison to other aspects of painting like color and composition?
I really enjoy working with lots of different media to create texture. This is more apparent in my more recent work but it has always been present in my paintings. I suppose that it is calculated in a way. When creating an image I do intentionally create textures in certain areas and leave others more minimal. I react to the composition once it is drawn and then layer the work with grounds and texture where I see fit or where feels right to me. Color and composition are also very important elements of the work.
Several of your paintings, if they are not self-portraits as such, it is obvious that you have used yourself as a model. How do you feel about the notion that all of the art we create is in someway a self-portrait?
I agree. I feel like any art in which we are expressing a part of ourselves is a kind of self-portrait. It is an expression of our inner life and thoughts. It is perhaps a truer self-portrait than any traditional self-portrait could be because it shows what's going on beneath the surface. I think this is why so much of my art has women in it. Even though the figures are not meant to be a direct representation of me, they do represent a part of me. I've noticed this in the art of others as well. Their figures look a bit like them and express something that's going on within them.
The painting that has you standing in a snowy scene with bare trees “Self Portrait in White” is a very stark contrast to the robust way that you typically fill your compositions. Can you talk about this painting and where it came from?
After working on a few highly textured pieces I wanted to create a piece which was very much the opposite of the way I usually work. The result was this painting. I began painting the figure and I quite liked the simplicity of the white ground around her. I then layered this with white many layers of white oil paint and added the trees to create a dreamlike landscape. It appears that the figure is standing in a snowy scene however the intent was to create and capture a thoughtful and quite moment.
As artists, no matter how much we want to step out into that place that we feel is the road less traveled, we still have this need to be accepted and understood. Having someone buy our work is often thought of as the ultimate acceptance. The need to create freely and the need to feel that acceptance sometimes is not able to occupy the same space.
That is a very true statement but I try not to worry too much about the work “being accepted”. I think if you focus on this then you lose sight of what it is you are making and why you are doing it. I find the hardest thing is accepting the work yourself. I am my own worst critic and I am usually not fully satisfied by what I make. I often think it can be improved. But one has to create freely. Obviously as an artist I want to sell work but this does not drive the work forward. Of course there are exceptions for example commissioned work is made for a specific purpose. Now I create what I want to create and not necessarily what I think will sell. But to sell feels as you have described, the “ultimate acceptance”.
What are you working on right now?At the moment I am exploring ideas for new work for an upcoming exhibition. I am involved in an art group called “7”. All members of the group work in one capacity or another as art educators. We came together as a professional development teacher/artist group to advance our creative aspirations. Creating art can often be an isolated act that requires hard work, commitment and risk. As a result it can often be difficult to inspire students to be creative. As art educators we all ask our students to create work and present that work to their peers. We thought we should practice what we preach and show our students the artwork that we create. We have our second exhibition in The Wandesford Key Gallery in Cork in January 2014.My new work is a combination of photographic, painterly and textural elements. I am enjoying exploring new media and processes to create images that are meaningful to me. The pigment is no longer the main vehicle for information so much as the very atmosphere, environment of the photographic element. The images are reworked and over-painted to build layers which works as a kind of physical enactment of the constructs of memory, my struggle to form meaning and identity. Sometimes these images are obliterated and disguised through the process of layering paint, natural and flammable materials and then burning into these and reworking it again. The process is still on-going.