Aspex Portsmouth

Week 34, Shanti Panchal, 40 Stories

Shanti Panchal, Earthen Shades, 18 February – 9 March 1989
The importance of informal education by galleries
Les Buckingham, Director 1984–99

The role of education in galleries cannot be overestimated but when I arrived in Portsmouth in 1984, no work in this area had been attempted. I started my career as the first Assistant Keeper appointed to the innovative Education Department at Southampton Art Gallery and went on to head up the educational work at Leeds. The learning process can be immeasurably enhanced by imaginative use of works of art in many contexts, and increased access to original works in a multimedia age is vital. Both these criteria can be put into practice by the best person – the artist, and at Aspex and Art Space, artists have always enhanced exhibitions, either their own or other peoples’.

Shanti Panchal is one of the most important painters working in the UK over the last forty years. Born in Gujarat, India, he has shown around the world and received countless awards from prestigious bodies and has work in numerous public and private collections. All this is even more remarkable because Shanti’s medium is watercolour – he was given custody of J.M.W. Turner’s easel for a year by the Royal Academy for his achievement with the medium. Besides his incredible technique, painting layer on layer over weeks and months to achieve a very special opacity, he is a consummate storyteller, revealing the background stories of his subjects with a combination of perfect picture making and psychological insight.

The exhibition Earthen Shades was curated by Cartwright Hall in Bradford and Castlefield Gallery, Manchester and toured the country. I had been following Shanti’s work and had met him at openings. Planning his show at Aspex we found the funds to invite him to become artist in residence at the Charles Dickens School, a primary school in the Buckland area of Portsmouth. An inner city school with a culturally mixed intake, it was innovative in art. The day we arrived for introductions the class was particularly boisterous and quite a lot of noise was emanating from the classroom. I feared for Shanti and his diminutive figure but as we entered everyone fell silent. The pupils seemed genuinely awed by Shanti and within minutes he had everyone producing stunning watercolours. We then supplemented his exhibition with the pupils’ work. Forgetting the curriculum for a moment and introducing a truly creative artist into a group can produce wonderful, sometimes life changing, results. Shouldn’t all education have something like this at least some of the time?

Since the very beginning, Aspex has been at the forefront of innovations in informal education.