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.