Drawing and Painting class in ŠPUD.

ŠPUD is Škola Za Primjenjenu Umjetnost i Dizajn, or School of Applied Arts and Design. In the Croatian high school system, divided between the general academic gimnazije, and academically much more lax trade schools, ŠPUD is an oddity. A lair of self-selected weird kids, of an academically suspect, but artistically rigorous curriculum. Not least, it generates a very strong sense of belonging.

“This is the best school ever!” they hail me in the Interior Architecture department. “Well, in Croatia at least.”

Some final works in Grafika.

Chess set made in glass (?) by a student in Interior Architecture.

I am here as a delegate from Australia, and as my sister’s sister. She introduces me to each one of her classmates, and each one shakes my hand. They are finishing up their semester duties, and spend most of their day at school. The school is a maze of classrooms, lockers, bathrooms, workshops and exhibition spaces. They stay overtime and hang around. I come and go; nobody asks (“With your lip ring and hair and camera, you look like one of us”, the students are adamant). Some classrooms have loud music coming out; all the doors are open. I snoop.

Girls bouncing balls during class time.

The graphic design teacher finally comes into the class.

“Am I allowed to be here?” I ask. The girls laugh.
“Just don’t try to take his photo. He won’t like it.”

I am photographing their work, hopping around while he is inspecting their final drawings. The students are sending text messages, talking, arguing, and pulling out their maths homework. The teacher gets to Dora as she is in the middle of an animated conversation with her friend Jasna, and pulls her back onto her chair, holding her by the shoulders.

“Lean back.” he instructs her with a deep voice. “Relax. Breathe. Di-a-phragm!”
She giggles. He looks at me.
“Good morning!” I say. “I am from the Ministry!”
“Good.” he nods. “I’m from New Zagreb.”
We shake hands, too.

Dora’s pencil drawing, next to the original.

Illustration homework.

Discarded jewellery.

Sopija (Josipa) + Hitchcock.

Students during class.

“When’s your recess?” I ask, waiting for a fag break, and unsure of the high school time-table.
“Oh, it’s almost over…” the girls grumble, reassuringly.
“Shall we go out for a fag while we can?”
“Oh god, not now!” they exclaim. “Wait until the recess is over. The first years will be throwing snowballs at everyone!”
Only once the recess is over, am I allowed to go out with them.

Croatian National Theatre, the stronghold of mediocre performance and a very fine building, outside the school window.

A ‘general’ classroom, the sort I had in my non-artistic school. The board, cryptically, says “black and white technique”, followed by “socio-political situation in Croatia” and “struggles between feudalism and the bourgeoisie”.

The next day, I visit the girls in their Graphic Techniques class. They are doing their final linocuts. I like Dora’s.

“No, it’s crap!” she answers. “We have to make five, and this is zero. Zero! An attempt!”
What’s wrong with it?
“Everything! The outline isn’t clear, it shouldn’t have these smudges, and the colour should be more consistent!” she is fixing her design, very concentrated. “I will probably have to stay in for the rest of the day.”
The teacher walks through, and looks at one of the finished works:
“This is very good. The colour is solid, the parquetry floor has turned out great. It wouldn’t hurt if you had more going one here”, she points at the centre of the print, a solid dark bookshelf, “it’s very monotone. This guitar in the centre doesn’t do anything for the composition. But the rest is very good.”
She leaves again.

Graphic Techniques class, with the best linocuts exhibited.

Textured surface that used to be a desk.

Despite the complete lack of disciplinary effort (at the parents’ meeting the day before, some parents complained about teachers leaving the classroom so often), student life is strongly ordered. There doesn’t seem to be more than a very basic code of behaviour in place, but the amount and the level of work they are expected to accomplish is demanding enough to structure their life very firmly around the school. Apart from nine academic subjects (Croatian, English, Music, Mathematics, History, Geography, P.E., History of Art and a choice of Religion/Ethics) they have professional subjects, which vary depending on the department. Grafika (which can be very, very loosely translated as ‘Print’), Dora’s department, has six: Painting and Drawing, Graphic Techniques, Graphic Design, Illustration, Script (which will be followed on by Typography in the years to come) and IT, in which they learn to work with design software.

Final works in the Typography class.

Grafika is an elite department, I am told, and so is Arhitektura (which is really Arhitektura Interijera, or Interior Architecture). Theirs is a separate, small building, and my guide is a charming young man called by his surname. (Generally speaking, I find these children both charming and interesting: they are funny, articulate, and independent, which is more than I can say for most Melbourne University students, many years older. During our conversations, I never feel particularly older.)

Final years’ graduating works.

I am intrigued by the fact they do their technical drawing by hand, which my faculty has abandoned – the fact of which some of my colleagues bemourn. Ivek introduces me to one of his teachers, who confirms that they only start working with AutoCAD in third year (out of four).

“But there is no individuality in computer sketches”, she says. “Hand drawings are artistically much more interesting.”

All architecture and design schools seem to have thriving bulletin- and pinboards. We have more than a few in my office alone, and Ivek’s department is no exception:

“I’M BUSY I’M BUSY I’M BUSY…”; in the hand-written explanation above the photo, the girl lauds some competition she travelled to, saying: “I FINALLY LOST MY… CAMERA :)”

The answer, I suspect, is in the problem-solving nature of design, and the multi-step lateral thinking it requires.

“You know what I’ve realised?” my sister tells me on the street that day. “A designer is actually very much like an inventor. He invents new things to solve problems.”

They are making a simple mortise and tenon. The teacher, needless to say, is not there.

“My Australian audience will be dying to know: do you guys get injured?”
“Yeah! Like, she’s injured now…” says Ivek, hugging his friend.
“Just pinched my finger!” she’s protesting, jumping on the spot and shaking her hand.
“No, really injured?”
“Oh, once a week. Once a week someone cuts themselves.”
“No, really injured. As in, someone cuts their finger off?”
They look at me baffled:
“We pay attention to what we’re doing.”
“I’ve heard it happened once, but to someone from Carpentry, many years ago…” the girl helpfully remembers.

I took a photo of the ‘injured’ girl. She hid her face, but it only made her look more aching.

“Look at my mortise and tenon!” one girl jumps in to show. It’s perfect, compared to Ivek’s, which has also chipped.
“Hers is much better.” I point out.
“Yeah, well, I decided I wouldn’t pay anyone to do it for me.” he pouts at the girl, who starts beating him, with joking anger. As I leave, Ivek is shouting: “I wouldn’t get naked just for homework…!”

Since Grafika is the elite department, their toilet is labelled (in free translation) ‘the most elitest water closet’.

CITIES, travel notes

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