Leith School of Art: A College of the Visual Arts with a Christian Foundation

Lindsay Brown, the International Director of the Lausanne Congress, believes that Leith School of Art is the only college of the visual arts with a Christian foundation in the whole of Europe. So, what does that look like?

Leith School of Art was established 23 years ago in the beautiful, old Norwegian church near the docks of Edinburgh. It is a small, independent college and is open to anyone in the community who wants to study art. The School also provides a foundation course for those planning to study art at degree level, advanced painting courses, day and evening classes, weekend workshops and a summer school. In line with our charitable aims, we offer Art for All, a course which gives those on very low incomes and on benefits the opportunity to study art. For some it is the first step on the ladder of study. We have also just completed a project with Crossreach, a counselling service supported by the Church of Scotland. Through this project, seven of our foundation course students co-created artwork with children affected by very difficult circumstances. This project has been a great success as our students proved to be great role models, and it helped to build up each child’s confidence and self-esteem.

The aims of the School are set out in four categories: artistic, spiritual, charitable and business. All are rooted in a Christian worldview with the primary aim of teaching people to see in a full and deep way: learning the discipline of looking. The German expressionist painter Max Beckmann said, ‘If you want to get hold of the invisible, you must penetrate as deeply as possible the visible.‘ By exploring the world around us, we can get to know our Creator. Furthermore, the beauty and wonder of creation gives to art a language of order, beauty and expression; it is a language that should be explored with eye, hand, mind and feeling.

At the heart of the School is a commitment to the individual where constructive criticism is balanced with care and encouragement. The teaching provides a framework through which each individual can develop their own personal response with purpose and direction while learning and sharing their experience within a supportive group. All studio practice is underpinned with studies in the history of art and design. We believe that traditional roots are essential but must be balanced with an awareness of contemporary culture and a desire to push the boundaries of art forward. Many successful artists are reflecting the culture they live in. However, we support Friedrich Schiller in his statement: ‘Live with your century but do not be its creature. Work for your contemporaries, but create what they need, not what they praise.’

In our 23 years, we have grown little by little to the point where we are now bursting at the seams. As a result we are currently in discussions with Edinburgh City Council to lease appropriate space in the Leith Theatre, which happens to back on to our building. This particular space will enable us to expand our current facilities and maintain a single community. The extra space will add a library, a workshop, studios for community work and a postgraduate programme. There will be room for artists in residence and also for exchange students. The intention is to add substance and depth to the breadth that we currently offer and thus enhance our place within the art world.

We believe that our vision for teaching art is important because many fine art departments in the UK think only of contemporary fine art practice. Very often, they do not believe that art can be taught at all. The limits of our post modern culture are recognised by Iris Murdoch, who said that it is a culture ‘which posits that the arts are part of a vast jungle of signs and symbols in which nothing has any special value or significance; everything is equally trivial’. Fortunately there are many contemporary artists who do have significance and show respect for our world, the human condition and espouse spiritual values. At Leith, we recognise that art is a window on the world that challenges us to grow in all areas of our lives: mental, material and spiritual.

Philip Archer has been Principal of Leith School of Art since 1991. He studied fine art in Cardiff, Sheffield and also at the Royal College of Art. He has exhibited widely but focuses on the triangle between Edinburgh, London and Cardiff. Philip is past president of Visual Art Scotland and a judge for the Salvesen travel scholarship.

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5 Comments

  • Paul says:

    HI,
    Art school is really a place where we can find true art and fillings of that.

    thanks and regards,

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Philip, thank you for offering this interesting description of the program at the Leith School of Art. It is particularly interesting to see how Christianity has shaped education at your school in significant ways. Your suggestion that the visual arts are a matter of learning the discipline of looking reminds me of Bruce Herman’s post for this symposium, Looking Comes First. It seems to me that Christianity is a religion that can fully embrace and support the arts because it includes a commitment to a God who creates a good world, and to a God who comes to that good world as one of its creatures. You mentioned that spirituality is one of your main ‘categories’, and I was wondering if you would mind commenting on how you see this discipline of looking in relation to the spiritual component of the Leith School of Art. In other words, is the discipline of looking also a spiritual discipline, and do you encourage your students to view the more physical and sensory aspects of their work in terms of spirituality?

    Because of the similarities between your post and Bruce’s, I think that I will ask the same question to him as well! Thanks again!

  • Cameron Anderson says:

    Dear Phillip,

    You may or may not be aware of CIVA|Christians in the Visual Arts, but I would surely enjoy connecting with you about our common cause.

    Perhaps you could be our first non-North American organizational member?

    Grace and peace,
    Cameron Anderson
    CIVA
    Executive Director

  • Phil Archer says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thank you for your comments which I agree with. I am sorry not to
    respond promptly but I am on vacation until Monday. A chance for me to
    get on with my own art work and meet a pressing exhibition deadline!

    We are not providing a Christian education for Christian students. The
    majority of our students are not Christians, we are open to the whole
    community. We look for students who are honest, have integrity,
    commitment to their creative gifts and will be willing to work hard. Our
    Christian aims and our spiritual aims are one and the same.
    Fundamentally, to respect the world which is God’s creation; to provide
    our students with a good set of values to undergird the creative
    process; to provide an art education that emphasises the whole person in
    curriculum and pastoral care; it is not our aim to proseletize but to
    give students the opportunity to explore the dimensions of the Christian
    faith.

    In terms of our starting point in drawing and looking we engage our
    students holistically; drawing involves eye and brain, feeling and
    spirit. We follow the words of the French artist Pierre Bonnard: ‘ There
    are few people who know how to see, to see well to see fully, if they
    knew how to look they would understand painting better. We would add ‘
    they would understand life, the world and God better ‘. We don’t see
    looking itself as a spiritual activity as some new ageists or mystics
    might which seems a bit vague and an end in itself. How far a student is
    willing to look is up to each individual. We will give them the
    opportunity to look in depth. For example we have three silver birch
    trees outside our building. In drawing them we would go through the
    elements of drawing; line, tone, shape, rhythm and design. We would
    encourage our students to draw with thought and feeling. We would
    encourage them to explore the special quality and character of each
    tree;the treeness of the tree, part of God’s creation. We would also
    think about context and explain how they came to be planted where they
    are. They were planted when the School was founded 20 years ago,
    recognising an ancient tradition to plant three silver birch trees as a
    symbol of three guardian angels, watching over us.

    I hope that helps,

    God bless you,

    Phil Archer

  • Olaf Pedersen says:

    I see you are very busy in making fine and good art in this old Norwegian Seamanchurch, in fact the oldest seamanchurch in the world. My father, Tørres Juel Pedersen, was baptized in this church in February 1892 after he had been born onboard a Norwegian sailingship in January the same year on The Atlantic Ocean.

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