AI and me

Tomorrow I’m going to a seminar at The Photographers Gallery which explores how AI can be used creatively by students. I’m looking forward to it as it’s not something I have thought much about – yet. My AI experience has been to understand how it might make life easier for time poor teachers.

But I felt I should get a sense of how AI image generation works. It seemed sensible to use my own interests as a starting point. So I asked for original ideas for hand carved wooden spoons and then added prompts to generate more unusual shapes and a distressed, burnt, stained, patina, which is my current direction of travel.

Below are some of the AI results with a picture of my own recent spoons (bottom right). I’m not sure what to think about this – it’s not what I expected but it has given me some ideas that I’m interested in pursuing.

Legitimate research or illegitimate plagiarism?

Axe block

Axe block (oak)

Just modified the top of my axe block to provide better, and safer, ways to hold wood while roughing out with an axe. This should provide for a variety of stops to push and cut against. It should avoid the danger of the wood slipping on the flat surface.

Roughed out the next spoon.

Definitions

Is it a spoon?

I’m reading about design at the moment and hope to be contributing to discussions about design in schools. In conversations with Ged (old friend and colleague and art educator of significance) we noted that it is sometimes hard to define what students make in terms of art, craft or design. There seems to be a generic, fused together ‘art + craft + design’ thing that happens in art classrooms. Because we don’t tend to think much about whether it’s ‘art or craft or design’ it’s sometimes hard to track how design is delivered in the ‘art & design’ curriculum.

But that’s a debate for elsewhere. This is just about this latest spoon which is part of a set of ‘deconstructed’ spoons. The whole ‘spoon’ thing is in effect a simple formal exercise in playing with 3 simple elements a handle, a bowl and the joint that joins them. It’s not an intellectual puzzle but is worked out time and again just through touch, tools and wood.

But back to design, is it a spoon because of its form or function? I seem to be challenging the convention of function in this last carving (distressed, cracked, burnt, stained rubbed back and oiled) but in my mind there seems to be a bottom line that says it has to be able to function as a spoon even if it’s just ceremonial, otherwise it’s just an arbitrary bit of decoration or treated wood.

…and so distraction over, back to reading ‘Introduction to Design Education, Theory, Research and Practical Applications for Educators by Steven Faerm.‘

Layers of stains and textures

A batch of experimental spoons.

I’m starting to understand the process of using layers in subtle ways to create a complex patina on these simple (spoon) shapes. Initial carving pushes boundaries by creating fragility in the thin bowl and narrow stem. The surface retains the marks of different tools – gouges, knives, rifflers, rasps, files, wire wool and fine sand papers. In places gouge marks are left following the form and it’s making, in other places a smooth shiny surface suggests wear and use over time.

I am experimenting with neutral wood stains to build and refine the surface patina. Sometimes I just use flame, although this softens the carving. Otherwise I am experimenting with a walnut and a dark oak stain (small spoons on the left). One is a rich brown applied and lightly rubbed back possibly several times. On top of this a deep dark charcoal stain is used to create a sense of aging in the deepest and more inaccessible parts of the form, again this is rubbed back.

Finally walnut oil is used to fix the piece with a soft honey glaze.

Cold drawing

sketching
Pett near Hastings

Really cold but this is a very interesting beach with all sorts of debris and trees that have fallen from the cliffs. (Note to self) Must come here in the summer with a larger sketchbook and charcoal.

Experimenting

Playing with patina

I’ve been experimenting with ways of developing a patina and a sense of aging in these spoons. This involves playing with natural aging processes like burying in earth, exposure to flame and water. It has also involved using thin applications of stains, oils and waxes to spoons which still show the marks and cuts which were involved in their making. I rather like the subtleties and richness of these worked over surfaces.

First spoon of 2024

Just started this spoon from a thin sheet of cedar (I think) which was cut from a small victorian table top. I’m going to try to reflect the style of Marie Eklund whose work I admire very much. I’ve tried before but haven’t got close to the fragile quality of her work. This wood is quite soft and brittle so it may not be strong enough, I’ll see.

Starting a new spoon

Xmas spoon

I finished this on new year’s eve. My last spoon of 2023. The curves were really hard to get absolutely right and I had to go back and rework it about three times.

Last spoon of 2023

An old tasting spoon

It started as a problematic off-cut from an old branch I found in a ditch. This wood is great to carve with and has a lovely rich colour and finish. I didn’t want to waste it but it presented a range of issues to be resolved. The bowl was irredeemably off centre so it had to be asymmetric. The handle had splits and knots so the final arched shape was hard to find. The knots made it impossible to get a clean line. In the end I charred the end and just smoothed over the surface left by the knife in roughing out.

As I was making it I visited a friend at his lovely old Queen Anne house in Blackheath, full of old wood and panelling. So the spoon evolved into an old 17th century artisan made, cook’s tasting spoon. It obviously belonged in that house so it became a gift to my old friend.

Playing with AI

I’ve been working on various projects and have found that AI has made life easier. It has been useful in providing outlines, summaries, lists, commonly accepted explanations, more comprehensive descriptions and presentation of information than my old memory can muster unaided.

I have put these experments into a small Canva site so that I can share the ideas with friends.

Knowledge or skill

I’m doing some work writing about a new art curriculum in Saudi Arabia and at the same time reflecting on the implications of the publication of a new Ofsted Research Paper about UK art education. The paper is rather impenetrable and probably not fit for purpose as a consequence – because teachers, and me, can’t easily understand it. But it states that it is now for teachers to make choices and decide upon the curriculum that they feel is best for their students. Until fairly recently these matters were laid down in the UK National Curriculum for Art. That teachers have a choice is a good thing, but it is quite a few decades since these matters of educational philosophy were discussed in many school art rooms.

For me it has meant going back and rummaging in old archives, dusty hard drives and rereading once familiar old books about educational philosophies. One by Maurice Barrett was the first book about Art Education I had read and which inspired me for much of my career. He was writing in 1979 about the choices that teachers could make as they developed their curriculum. (Art Education: A Strategy for Course Design) It was subsequently rather subsumed by the National Curriculum orthodoxy that followed. But today it once more has a relevance as art teachers are again being required to make choices and justify them.

In the middle of this reflection and revision of theories I found myself sitting by the fire with my granddaughter. I was working on a spoon and she crocheting a bikini top. Both of us untaught in these media and both making a similar, shallow concave shape – just intuitively using our fingers to feel and tease the shape into existence.

A few days earlier I had been reading about, and discussing with an old friend, concepts of ‘powerful knowledge . I was uncomfortable with the notion of having to refer to everything as some sort of ‘knowledge’ as the Ofsted report suggests. I think what Erin and I were doing was some sort of sensate response to materials and the qualities of form, shape and texture: possibly function as well. I don’t know if there is a metaphor for curriculum purpose and content in art here. But it seemed a curious and unusual alignment of ideas and questions about making, skills and purposes in art education.

Another scoop.

This is plum wood once again. I’ve had problems with this wood and as I have been given several pieces I am determined to work out the best way to use it. The heart-wood is red and quite dense, but the outer sap-wood is pale and weak. This block has been shaped from the inner heart-wood using an axe and a couple of saw cuts.

… finished scoop

Plum wood

Another plumb wood cut out blank ready to go. However, on cutting it I’ve found some knots in this second piece so am going to have to abandon it.

Just playing

Just playing with ideas for these lumps of wood. It was getting confused so I stacked them for the day and it looks as if I have a sculpture, or throne at least. I just need to secure the seat and screw in the back rest. It rather took me by surprise but I have been looking at these pieces for almost a year now.

A detour into miniature scoops from scraps.

More scoops

These small chunks come from a single small branch of, I think, willow that I retrieved from the marshes of the Pevensey Levels’. It is well seasoned and a joy to carve. The fourth from the top is impossible as it has a knot and a split winding through the core. But the remaining three pieces should be enjoyable to carve. (I charred/burned the handle of the third one down, then used wire wool to smooth it over.)