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A picture of Andrew taking a photo of his work, in his studio

Meet: Andrew Aarons and Vanessa Koeller

Written by Eleanor Harvey
Published date 19 February 2019

Andrew Aarons and Vanessa Koeller are both graduates from Camberwell College of Arts. Andrew graduated from Camberwell (then Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts) in 1959, having been there since he was thirteen years old. In 2003, Vanessa was one of his students at Anglia Ruskin University, and it was Andrew who suggested that she apply for the MA Printmaking at Camberwell. They've stayed in touch ever since, with Andrew becoming a mentor for Vanessa throughout her career as a printmaker. Now, he has asked her to document and curate his latest exhibition 'Buy Before I Die' at the Menier Gallery in March 2019. We chatted to them about their experiences of Camberwell almost 50 years apart, and how this exhibition came about.

Andrew and Vanessa at Graduation in 2003
Vanessa and Andrew at graduation from Anglia Polytechnic University in 2003

Why did you choose to study at Camberwell?

Andrew Aarons (AA): Camberwell chose me.

In 1952 Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts had a Junior School for those of us who had failed our eleven plus examination and been sent to Secondary Modern schools. My Headmaster wanted to send me to a grammar school but I refused and told him that I wanted to go to art school. I was thirteen and Camberwell accepted me after looking at my portfolio.

We were taught drawing, painting, lettering and sculpture for half the week and academic subjects for the other half, including, among other things, Art History, English, Anatomy and Perspective, as a form of geometry.

All the academic work was related so closely to art that we didn’t realise that we were doing things that we would have disliked under other circumstances. For example, we put on puppet plays in a purpose-built marionette theatre. We learnt our lines, designed and made the quite complex marionettes, the costumes and the sets. Then we put on the plays for an invited audience. It was a great way of discovering Shakespeare.

After taking our A levels, the next step at Camberwell was two years of the Intermediate School, where we took a number of different art and craft subjects including textiles and ceramics, followed by two years in the Senior School, where we majored in one chosen subject and minored in another. So after seven years at Art School, we graduated with a National Diploma in Design (NDD) rather than a degree.

Vanessa Koeller (VK): A scholarship by the Arts and Humanities Research Board enabled me to deepen my specialism of Fine Art Printmaking during the Master’s Programme from 2003-2004.

In my early student days at Camberwell, I attended an artist talk by Guy Brett & David Medalla initiated by the College and became a member of the London Biennale that evening and exhibited with the artist group in London on numerous occasions. Through the artist network of the London Biennale, I was offered studio space just around the corner where I was able to develop larger scale print plates. Art seemed to be in the air around Camberwell.

Andrew in 1957 dancing with a female friend at the Camberwell Christmas Party
Andrew dancing at the Camberwell Christmas party in 1957

What is your fondest memory of Camberwell?

AA: I have many fond memories of being taught life drawing by Stanley Spencer’s brother Gilbert, who told me that he was a better draftsman than Stanley, but Stanley was a genius. Of the Christmas dances, the lasting friendships with students and teachers. Camberwell was home. The pleasure of returning “home” after the long summer break could not be bettered.

Vanessa and a friend with Nicholas Ardizonne at the Camberwell MA Degree Show 2004
Vanessa Koeller (right) with Alexia Tala (left) and Nicholas Ardizonne (centre) at Camberwell MA Degree Show 2004.

What did you do after graduating?

AA: After graduating I went to Manchester College of Science and Technology to do a post-graduate year in Textile Technology and Engineering. I then emigrated to Canada, where I worked as a textile designer and later as an art teacher.

VK: I took on various Artist in Residence roles in educational institutions in Cambridge and London, which paved my way into Arts Education. A ten-year art teaching career followed combined with curating an array of solo shows including an Alumni Exhibition at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge in 2008.

Burning out from my Head of Art and Art History role in 2015 inspired my move to Berlin, Germany where I taught Art and Drama to young refugees and developed my own practice.  Co-producing puppet and shadow theatre projects with international filmmaker Yango González, muralist Ivan Blažetić and young refugees. In 2017 I managed an Art House called 360 degrees in Berlin but relocated to Quebec, Canada having been offered a sponsored residency programme in Quebec, Canada for six months. Since August 2018 I am teaching a Fine Art Foundation course on a part-time basis and working as an Artist in Residence at a college in Warwickshire.

Painting by Andrew Aarons from 2018
Documentary & exhibition image by Andrew Aarons (2018)

What has been your proudest achievement?

AA: The achievements of which I’m proudest are of are creating things that would otherwise never have existed. For example, a unique conservation department at a community college in Ontario. Sharing in the creation of an artist’s co-operative and exhibiting in solo and group shows in Toronto and London.

A large group of students looking annoyed at having their picture taken.
Andrew: "This was a Camberwell outing to Brighton in 1956 or 57. No one wanted their photo taken. I am the one throwing an apple core at the photographer."

How did you meet?

AA: I met Vanessa when I was Senior Lecturer of Fine Art at Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University. I was Vanessa’s printmaking teacher and her personal tutor. We have been in contact since Vanessa graduated, and I suggested that Vanessa should apply to study at Camberwell for her MA.

How did this exhibition come about?

AA: The exhibition is a celebration of my eightieth birthday and of the fact that I’m still around and making new paintings although I’m eighty.

I asked Vanessa to help me with different aspects of the show because I knew I could rely on her. She is creative and someone who understands what this event would need. A video showing me working on one of the paintings in the show has been produced, filmed, and edited by Vanessa. It will be premiered at the exhibition before going to Cannes.

VK: Upon my return to the UK early 2018 Andrew approached me to help with his 2019 exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London. I was honoured and excited by the prospect to assist in documenting and curating the exhibition of Andrew’s new paintings. It has been a pleasure to work together with Andrew and I envisage many future collaborations.

A picture of Andrew taking a photo of his work, in his studio
Andrew in his studio (2018)

What does this exhibition mean to you?

AA: I approach each painting as if it is the first and will be the last. The exhibition is not going to be on my birthday, which is in February, because the gallery wasn’t available. The show is from 13th March at the Menier Gallery. All the information is on the poster below.

Poster for Andrew's exhibition 'Buy before I die', 13 - 16 March 2019 at the Menier Gallery, London
Andrew Aarons' upcoming exhibition at the Menier Gallery in London
Creating a painting starring Andrew Aarons

Vanessa has directed and produced a documentary about the creation of the exhibition

The exhibition 'Buy Before I Die' is on at the Menier Gallery from 13 March to 16 March 2019. Andrew will be invigilating the exhibition throughout.

Related Links

Visit Andrew's website

Check out Vanessa's own work