Last week I had the privilege of taking my Primary PGCE English specialists on a trip toLondonfor the final week of their taught programme at the university. On the second day of our stay we visited Tate Modern for a workshop on using paintings, sculpture and installation work to enhance children’s reading, writing and speaking and listening.


As part of our tour we saw Message From a Friend, above, by Joan Miro, in the Distinguished Voices room on Level 3, hanging adjacent to Matisse’s The Snail.


I have long been fascinated by its suggestive but dreamlike quality. Having spoken to my students about it I know I am not alone in being reminded of a large black whale. I am told others see a cloud. I read recently that the inspiration for the painting was neither of these, but the drawing of an arrow on the back of an envelope by Alexander Calder (the friend of the title).


I was reminded of this again re-reading Tim Adams’ fine piece on Miro in the Observer from a couple of weekends ago. I was particularly struck by a quote of Miro’s towards the end of the piece: ‘You get freedom by sweating for it’. As I took my students through various games and exercises in view of other gallery-users that morning I can certainly testify to a sweaty sensation of both nervousness and excitement. The nerves came from not knowing the outcome of our dialogue; the excitement from just being there:Tate Modern is one of my favourite places on earth.


I hope that the model of teaching my students will take with them from this experience, and from the course as a whole, is one that Miro would also endorse and recognise. To arrive at the point where you appear free, in teaching as in art-making, demands determination, not just inspiration. As another great artist, Fred Astaire, is supposed to have said: ‘If you’re not making it look easy you aren’t working hard enough’.



Message From A Friend

after Miro



The longest aquarium in the world.


I know this because it can hold me,

the whale with the half-red tail.


On the seabed glow sapphires and rubies.


I polish them hourly with my belly,

rounder than any submarine.


My friend the giant starfish

keeps watch near the dark green surface.


I have one red eye. Red because

I weep so, because of the hook stuck in it.

from How Far From Here is Home? (Stride, 1996)