Burnett in a studio session with Dominica Grammar School students

I first came across the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Degas, Renoir and Picasso, sixty-five years ago along the corridor of my secondary modern school in the north of England. To the school’s credit, and regardless post war funding constraints, framed prints of famous paintings decorated every wall between one classroom and the next.

My early exposure to art came to mind a couple of days ago when a group of eleven Dominica Grammar School CXC Visual Art students visited my studio. A question that I put to them was: How many hours a day do you spend listening to music as against looking at pictures? The answer was a foregone conclusion, for I know that for most students recorded music is absorbed every spare minute of their day, whereas paintings are unknown and unseen.

Students cannot be expected to take an interest in the unknown. Putting art in schools, by way of prints of famous paintings, is a first step to creating awareness for art. The prints readily available and can be laminated onto an unbreakable weather resistant backing – thus eliminating framing behind glass –  and the collection rotated between schools. I am not talking about a huge budget but about making a significant visual impact in terms of creating a love for art.

To compliment the displayed prints, the collection of every major art gallery in the world can now be viewed online. Once students become hooked on art, they can then begin to discover their own favourite paintings and learn how their African origins have influenced art.

To further the student’s interest we need to review the teaching of art in schools. The Creative Arts are low on school agendas. Sport is compulsory, but art is not. It is perceived as non-essential – something you can do in your spare time. The State College offers nothing at all on the subject.

We need inspirational art teachers; teachers that can multi-task between all forms of art and demonstrate how it’s done. Only one teacher in a hundred can actually stand before a class and paint a picture. We don’t need theory, but we do need passionate practice. A degree in art is not necessarily the solution for teaching art.

Visual Art is not restricted to painting pictures; it includes a multitude of subjects: sculpture, print making, crafts, book illustrating, calligraphy, interior design, fashion, ceramics, theatre and carnival float design, architecture, film and photography and computer graphics. Furthermore, artists are creative thinkers and skilled at making things; attributes that are desperately needed in Dominica at this point in time.

Seven years ago, in conjunction with the then fledgling Dominica Institute for the Arts, I attempted to launch a one year Foundation Course in the Visual Arts for school leavers. The course had the potential of attracting regional and international students with fees that were competitive with the State Collage. Similar courses elsewhere in the world are oversubscribed. But alas, here in Dominica, I had no takers. The principal reason being, that schools, students and parents have no idea of what the visual arts are about. Hence, Jane or John is encouraged to be a lawyer, doctor or accountant, but not an artist.

The Dominica Grammar School deserves credit for entering eleven students for this year’s CXC exam in Visual Arts. For the remainder of Secondary Schools in Dominica the tally is virtually none at all. No matter how hard the students try at this late hour, they have a difficult task ahead of them. In previous years, the results from Dominican students sitting the exam have been abysmally low – and it’s not the fault of the students. As I have stated, without a culture that is steeped in art, it is difficult to relate to the subject.

But my session with Dominica Grammar School students gives me hope. It was scheduled for one and a half hours and they stayed for three! I had their rapt attention from beginning to end. They were fascinated to learn about the paper I am making from sugarcane bagasse and banana stems and when I painted a portrait of one of their group, they watched spellbound.

Last year, through the Ministry of Education, I offered the same studio session for all secondary schools but my offer was not acknowledged or acted upon. As my son attends DGS I was able to approach his school by the back door.

To assist all Dominican students I am resurrecting my online “Notes for Art Students”.  You will find the link in the sidebar of my blog: sculpturestudiodominica.blogspot.com

My earlier DNO Commentaries: “The Relevance of the Visual Arts in Dominica” and “State of the Art” are also relevant.