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“Have faith”: the art lessons that shaped us

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Published date 11 December 2015

We’ve all had that one teacher that we’ve never forgotten – where lessons in the classroom transformed into life lessons that forever changed us. For many, that teacher was the late Chelsea College of the Arts BA Fine Art tutor, Roger Ackling – who died last year from motor neurone disease.

For over 40 years he worked outside and alone, in the same meticulous method.  Ackling directed sunlight through a hand-held magnifying glass, burning images of the sun directly onto discarded wooden artefacts in geometric patterns. His works are held in collections spanning the British Museum, the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Over 200 people pledged their support to the Kickstarter campaign that helped produce the book dedicated to his work and teaching, Between the Lines.

Here, former UAL students, colleagues and contemporaries share their most treasured memories of him.

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Roger Ackling presents the table tennis cup to Martin Taylor, Wimbledon College of Art, 1975

Editor of Between the Lines, Emma Kalkhoven is a graphic designer, and was a student of Roger Ackling’s on the Chelsea BA Fine Art Course 2003–7

“In a quiet way, Roger revolutionised many of the students he came into contact with, and I was one of them. Having heard that he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, I thought what a shame it was that so many students would miss out on the benefit of his teaching, and I wanted to make a book that would enable future art students to learn from Roger as I had done. The idea remained in the back of my head until I heard the sad news that Roger had died. A few months earlier I had started working with Sara De Bondt and Antony Hudek who run Occasional Papers, and I asked them if they would be interested in publishing the book – luckily they loved the idea.”

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An Ackling piece owned by Emma; Voewood, 2007, sunlight on wood, 18.5 × 4.3 × 2.7cm

Tony Cragg – student of Roger Ackling, Wimbledon College of Arts, 1969–1973

“I met Roger in 1969 in Wimbledon where I had just started on the painting course and he had just started to teach there. In one of the first conversations we had together he maintained that the most important thing for an artist was ‘to have faith’. At the time I was not sure what he meant but even forty-five years later I am often mindful of these words at the commencement of any new work or project that almost per definition is without a clear and sure outcome.”


(from left to right) Martin Cook, Roger Ackling and Tony Cragg in the 1970s

Mariko Mori – student of Roger Ackling, Chelsea College of Art 1989 – 1992

“Roger Ackling taught me during my first year of Chelsea College of Art in 1989. I discovered the essence of contemporary art and the spirit of the artist through his teaching; he truly encouraged his students to believe in themselves and to explore any challenges they encounter. In his own work, he used a painstakingly meditative process – collecting sunlight through a magnifying glass to make marks on driftwood. His poised, patient state of mind is fully reflected in the outcome, awe-inspiring the beholders. He was a mentor for many international artists.”


Roger Ackling in his studio in Hackney, c.1991. Photograph: John Ridd

Trevor Sutton is an artist who first taught with Ackling at Wimbledon School of Art in the mid-1970s and then at Chelsea College of Art for over 20 years. 

“Roger was a natural teacher, often spending hours with students with whom he felt a rapport. He believed all good artists should teach, should pass on their belief in their practice. He taught by constantly asking questions rather than supplying the answers, supplementing his inquisition with a mixture of unique stories and arguments. An inspirational figure for many students, he often continued to support them in any way he could for years after they left Chelsea.”

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Roger Ackling with students at Wimbledon School of Art, 1975. Photograph: Martin Taylor

Virginia Verran, Associate Lecturer in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art since 1986.

“I taught alongside Roger for 25 years at Chelsea College of Art. He had a special combination of generosity and perceptiveness; a great strength in a tutor.  At one time I was secretly very insecure about my work, and over a pizza after work Roger sensed this immediately. I remember he asked me: ‘What do you think is stronger; you or your work?’. The realisation that I could draw strength from the work rather than the other way around was a marvellous thing; then and now.”

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An Ackling piece owned by Virginia

Dean Hughes is an artist and Head of the School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. He was a student of Ackling at Chelsea College of Art from 1993 to 1996. 

“Meeting Roger in 1993 is marked as something of a ‘beginning’ for me. Up until this point in my life I wouldn’t really say that my education counted for very much. I certainly hadn’t encountered anything like the teaching, time and conversation that I would benefit from in the following three years. At the same time my understanding of what art is, and how meaningful it can be, was being opened up for the first time. For me, Roger stands at the point where Art and Education became inextricably entwined. Roger gave me the greatest gift. He gave me the ability to dwell within, and see, my conscious life.”

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Untitled, sunlight on wood, 2010 (a gift to Dean from Roger)

Mo Throp is a Researcher and PhD Supervisor at Chelsea College of Art, who studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art with Ackling before working with him in her role of Head of Fine Art at Chelsea from 2004 until 2011, when he retired.

“Roger’s great importance – and one that remains fundamental to art education – is his insight into the creative potential of the individual student. In the intensity of the one-to-one tutorial in front of their ongoing practice, Roger was able to confront the anxieties that are inherent in the creative process and address what those limitations might be. He was also one of the best-loved teachers I have encountered in my teaching career.”

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Roger Ackling’s exhibition Down To Earth at Chelsea Space, 2011. Photo: John Davies

Brendan Prendeville is Senior Lecturer of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. He studied with Ackling at Saint Martin’s School of Art from 1965 to 1968.

“At their best, art schools are places in which people feel free to fool around, and where they may find a way to work that has meaning through both experiment and conversation. Roger had a better and more active understanding of this than anyone I have known. Art, for him, was not something you need to define because, as a ramifying practice, it continually defines itself, so that the only task is to plunge in and participate – and that is what he did even as a student, from the beginning.”

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Brendan Prendeville, Anne Mallet and Roger Ackling shortly after leaving at St Martins, 1969. Photo: Martin Cook

Richard Long, artist and fellow student at St Martin’s with Ackling, 1966–8 

“Roger Ackling was an original and remarkable teacher, who nurtured remarkable students. I think a great teacher is as rare and special as a great artist. Roger was very special, on both counts.”


Roger Ackling: Between the Lines
£20; Occasional Papers

Between the lines - cover