Carving a career


11 February 2021

Specialist visual arts teacher of 10 years and professional sculptor of many more, Paul Allen of Central Victoria sees parallels in his two lines of work.

“I look at students as the medium. You need different sculpting techniques depending on that medium. When you carve wood, you honour the grain’s direction and what’s already innately in the wood. Students have their own interests, difficulties and challenges; good teachers can work within those strictures,” he says.

The next generation

Allen teaches one day a week at Malmsbury Primary School and is the educational leader and educator in its after-school care service. The pandemic has put on hold his master’s degree to do empirical research exploring Indigenous knowledge systems and how they may be implemented in the modern classroom.

Allen didn’t intend to be a teacher. The degree-qualified sculptor of wood and steel had “moderate success” with his artistic career in Victoria and Queensland. But, when an enormous gum tree fell in a primary schoolyard in inner Melbourne near where he was living, he offered to carve it. The principal said “yes”, and he was hooked on the idea of teaching.

“Everything I know about the arts is because someone taught it to me. I had the epiphany; maybe I should be teaching it to the next generation,” says Allen, who did a year-long Prep-to-Year 12 graduate diploma through La Trobe University in 2009.

Arts education as a spiral

Soon after moving to Central Victoria, he started in his role at Malmsbury Primary and says he was initially overwhelmed by the crowded arts curriculum. He now takes a spiral approach, focusing on material and methods.

“You revisit older skills and techniques, build on them for the next year, and keep building, so each year has a progression. It means the older students can explore those modernist ‘isms’… spending more time looking at the ‘what’, not the ‘how’ of those works,” he says.

“My job is to keep the artist thriving in children and to challenge their inner critic. By the end of primary school, they’ve reconceptualised themselves as being able to do art. Some years later, one of my students saw me in the community and thanked me because she’s gone on to earn $70 an hour painting faces at markets.”

Another highlight is a "memory palace" Allen created at the school with other staff and the local community in 2017. The historical trail uses imagination and story to link the physical space of the school grounds with knowledge from the 1830s until now. It draws on orally based learning systems, labelled by science researcher Dr Lynne Kelly as the “living pedagogies of Indigenous Australians”.

“Allen is demonstrating that landscape, song, dance, art and stories with vivid characters can be implemented in learning experiences across the curriculum and that art/music teachers are key resources,” Kelly says.

Remote teaching while schools were shut down was challenging for Allen. He sent his students weekly activities, with the option of Friday Zoom meetings or digital images for him to assess.

Fast forward to when he’s completed his postgraduate studies and he says he may well do more study.

“My perfect week would be teaching five-year-olds one day and adults another day. The two extremes. Ultimately, I want to teach teachers.”

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Summer 2020