12 Oct Do What You Want: Andrew Putter’s New School for Young Creative Minds
Andrew Putter may have grown up in what he describes as a “cultural Siberia” in the 70s and 80s, but that did nothing to damper his wildly creative streak – something he’s held onto with fervour as a much-admired teacher known for his enduring influence on young artists (just ask any xputterite) and as a practising artist in his own right. When we recently learned about his new venture, an extramural program for creative teens called Putter School, we weren’t in the least surprised. With a refreshing teaching style informed by his motto, “Do What You Want”, Andrew aims to identify and grow creative talent in young people while they’re still quick learners and full of imagination. We spoke to him ahead of the launch of Putter School to learn more.
Did you grow up in a creative environment, or one where creativity was actively encouraged?
My mom and dad were probably not what you’d call creative when I was growing up. And Pinelands, where I grew up in the 70s and 80s, was a cultural Siberia. But my parents have always unflinchingly supported their strange son. They spent what little money they had making sure I had extramural art lessons when I was a kid. And Pinelands High School had Carol Symonds on its staff when I was there. She was the scariest, most intensely creative adult I’d ever met, a passionate teacher and a practising artist. It was love at first sight. Without Carol I would definitely not have become either an artist or a teacher.
When did you realise your passion for teaching, and how did you go about pursuing this?
When I was in grade 11 (1982), I realized what an impact Carol Symonds had made on us. She taught us how to draw – even those of us who couldn’t draw a stick figure before she came into our lives. Seeing people empowered that way was a real turn on. I wanted to be involved in that too. And of course I HATED school SO MUCH. It murdered the creative impulse in us. My desire at 17 to get involved in teaching to change all that was very strong.
At UCT, I studied art for a few years, then studied education (then, much later, more education and more art). In my first year of studying art at Michaelis, Carol Symonds asked me to teach a matric student of hers extramurally. She gave me my first teaching job! Carol’s husband – also a legendary art teacher, Henry Symonds – asked me to take over for him for 6 months when he went on leave. That was my first art post, and it was at Rondebosch Boys’ High School. I didn’t have my teacher’s diploma yet, but the school took a chance on me.
Those acts of support on the part of my past teachers were very important. It’s something I try to provide for my ex-students too. By connecting them with people who will value them and for whom they, in turn, will be valuable, they can take their first steps into the working world more easily.
I taught lots of relief posts at local schools in the few years after that, which is a wonderful way to learn about different schools. And all through this I have continued to develop my own creative practice. Sometimes this creative practice intersects with the art-world; often it doesn’t. But it’s always felt like a necessary, complementary part of my teaching practice.
You’re about to launch your own venture, Putter School. What sparked this?
There’s a big gap in education – both here in SA and abroad. The creative industries are massive: they account for 25% of all jobs globally, and they’re growing all the time. But we don’t have an education system that recognizes the variety of creative impulses that course through the youth or how to channel those impulses into the wide variety of rewarding, VERY lucrative careers that are available out there.
Putter School is all about identifying and growing creative talent in young people – while they’re still quick learners and full of imagination. It’s all about acknowledging how diverse students are, and helping them discover their own unique creative life.
Why is early exposure to creative disciplines so important?
The earlier you find your creative groove, the bigger the strides you can take when you get older. It’s also crucial to develop rich collaborative networks with creative peers, starting around 14 or 15. Many of my super-successful ex-students work in constantly shifting partnerships with people they’ve known as co-creators since their mid-teens.
Tell us a bit about the program itself and the practical ways it’s geared towards kick-starting a creative career.
There are so many dimensions to this! Let me describe just a couple of them.
Firstly, the program is radically practical. Students make stuff all the time. It all happens very quickly and playfully at the beginning, so that students get into the habit of producing unselfconsciously. Youngsters who work regularly in this way typically become successful adults. Many of my ex-students (who Wayne Berry once called “xputterites”) were making their own creative work on the side at the same time that they were studying (while their peers were struggling to just keep up with the demands of the curriculum). That gave them a huge advantage when they began establishing careers for themselves.
Another crucial dimension of my program is networking. Networking is a complex skillset that can be taught, and I get a big kick out of teaching in ways that facilitate my students’ abilities to network powerfully. What makes this explosive at Putter School is that students have access to my creative networks, which are pretty extensive because my own creative work over the last 25 years is typically cross-disciplinary and collaborative. And of course, there are generations of xputerrites who are all hyper-collaborative and who love networking. It’s an ideal extended social environment for creative youngsters. By the time they leave school, they personally know – and have often even worked with – their creative heroes. You can just imagine how that kick-starts a career.
As a marketing exercise you’ve contacted a couple of past students to create artworks in response to Putter School’s motto, “Do What You Want”. What’s the story behind this motto?
It’s a phrase I came across somewhere in my reading as a young adult. It’s such a profound idea, and has driven my approach to teaching – and to living – for many years now. It requires that we continually return to a very important question: What do we actually want? And this raises all kinds of helpful sub-questions: What kind of person do we want to be? How do we want to relate to ourselves, to each other, to the world? What kind of material world do we want to live in? The answers to these questions are at the heart of our creative lives, though often we forget to ask them, and go onto autopilot for too long. Looking back, we then sometimes find that we have been doing what someone else wants, or even doing something that we don’t actually want.
We’ve interviewed many of your past students who cite the significant impact you’ve had on their creative journeys. What’s your teaching philosophy?
I teach people to teach themselves – how to be independent, self-directed learners and producers. And how to do that collaboratively, so that each person can benefit from the learning, development and resources of all the others.
What are the barriers to pursuing a creative career in SA at the moment? How can we overcome these?
One problem is that many parents don’t yet know much about the creative industries. They don’t yet understand how much value the creative industries offer in terms of a future for their children. Top creative jobs make BIG bucks. People in high-end graphic design, social media, and industrial design jobs are earning many millions every year. And people with the right kind of creative training are very good at making money and adapting to the continually changing contexts in which they must make a life. Putter School provides exactly that kind of training.
Over the years, what are the most vital things you’ve learned through the act of teaching others?
Trust your students. Give them lots of responsibility. Be kind. Err on the side of being generous. Look for what is best in your students and affirm it. Believe that they will become great, and strangely, they do.
What are you most looking forward to in starting Putter School?
Oh! So many things! Having girls as well as boys in class (I love co-ed education, and in the Rondebosch Boys’ High School design department I ran for 11 years we were all boys!). Working with the top creative young minds in the city. Not having to stick to anyone else’s curriculum: having the freedom to DO WHAT WE WANT. Learning about this new world young people inhabit, and being able to work with them to make it even better.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Xputterite Paul Ward has been a continual support throughout the development of Putter School. His firm belief in the idea of Putter School has been unshakeable from the start, and despite his punishing schedule, he’s been a constant source of motivation, strategy and helpful critique. Xputterite Wayne Berry is a partner at Next, the digital product development company. Through Wayne’s championing, Next took on the development of the Putter School website pro bono. It’s been a really big job, with four of the Next crew – Lauren Waller, Leigh Pietersen, Shawn Roos and Wayne himself – hammering out a VERY beautiful site for us. And xputterite Daniel Ting Chong designed the gorgeous ID for Putter School: the logo, symbol, typeface, palette, etc. Working with these xputterites and their crews has been SO EASY! I’m so thankful to each of them for their contribution!
Lastly, a big thank you to you Between 10and5 for all the support you’ve given xputterites over the years. You’re laying down a really important archive of contemporary creative life in South Africa: long may you continue!