“Make sure you get it right!” Remembering Ursula Kolbe

My relationship with Ursula Kolbe began in the 1980s, when I was a student at the Institute of Early Childhood. In our last year, the Nursery School Teacher’s College and the Sydney Kindergarten Teacher’s College in New South Wales merged to become the Institute of Early Childhood. Ursula and Christine Stevenson both lectured in the Young Children and the Arts unit on the Waverley campus. Both were interested and invested in their work, with students, and with their own art, which was intriguing and inspirational. They were very alternative in their dress and in their style of teaching. My memory of their working, collaborative relationship influenced my own professional relationships. I liked the way they would clarify things with each other and create stimulating learning spaces.

Ursula was a true aesthetic, a perfectionist, meticulous and creative. As well as being a painter, Ursula had ventured into filmmaking. Encouraged by Claire Scott-Mitchell and Kathy Griffith, Ursula created a film to document the relationships that children had with children’s literature and the arts to be shown in tutorials. The film ‘Children as Image-makers’ was shown at Paddington Town Hall and I remember being very impressed with the content and with Ursula who appeared to be fearless in her approach to launching into producing a film and organising the premiere. Ursula had an air of certainty about her and her maxim was that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

I was in my last semester and for our final work for the unit, I had decided to make two capes, one representing sunrise and the other midnight. Ursula was very thoughtful in her feedback, and I was so happy to know that she approved the thinking behind the concept. I went on to use those capes in my teaching and after a few years, they simply wore out with the love of so many children.

My next encounter with Ursula was at the Australian Early Childhood Association National Conference (now ECA) Ardla Witey: To kindle the fire, in Adelaide in 1991. This conference, for me and others, was a ‘watershed’a defining moment for early childhood education in Australia with international keynote speakers Jim Greenman, Sharon Lynn Kagan, to name just two. Jan Millikan from Melbourne presented on her work with the Reggio Emilia early childhood programs and then there was Ursula Kolbe among many other wonderful presenters. It was a feast! I attended Ursula’s workshop as I knew it would be amazing and it was.

The next time our paths crossed I was the Director of the Institute’s demonstration preschool the Child and Family Study Centre, and as my role included working as an academic in the Management unit, Ursula and I were now colleagues, but I still felt like a student in her presence. One day she came into the preschool, via the side gate entry to the Institute. It was a pleasant surprise. Ursula was wanting to propose a research project that she was interested in, exploring how children used art materials in an early childhood setting. We met on the next Wednesday afternoon to talk about how she intended to collect this information and what she had planned for our research relationship.

Ursula would come every Wednesday morning and work until lunchtime with the children. She would gather her data and after preschool finished for the day we would meet to talk about what she had seen and explored with the children. I in turn was to report on what happened for the rest of the week.

“By the way,” she wanted to know on that first day of our meeting, “why do you have string on a peg and cotton buds in jars of ink?” I was so embarrassed as instantly I could tell from her question that these were dubious experiences to offer children. I struggled with an answer that I thought might satisfy and justify my decision. Ursula simply said, “but Wendy, can the children get better at doing string and cotton bud painting? What techniques are they learning, what problems are they solving, are they required to think and are they gaining more complex skills?”

She did not have to say much more, I knew what she meant and could see what a waste of time these experiences were and the missed opportunities for the children to deepen their knowledge, skills and and understanding about expressing themselves visually with such ‘empty’ provisions.

From that day on we worked together as mentor and mentee. I learnt so much from Ursula each Wednesday, not only her knowledge about young children and art materials, but also from her experiences in Winnipeg, Canada. I learnt about locating art materials to ensure a progression of work to flow naturally between easel painting, collage and construction, drawing and clay. I witnessed Ursula’s ease in claiming territory for her art experiences with the children, “I think it would be much better if we placed the easels here, then we could leave them here every day”.

We had a very wide and covered verandah, which soon became the children’s studio, expanding week by week as more work stations appeared. “The children need to see what is available, it is not much use having resources tucked away in the storeroom, children need to see an array of colour, textures”. Of course! It was obvious now seeing how easily the children accessed their selections.

I learnt also that it is best to move slowly, to observe children, watch and listen, how were they utilising the materials, was it easy for them to choose, select or did they have to ask for help? Were materials of all descriptions available to ensure each child’s experience was satisfying and not limited by the lack of diverse materials and limited quantities. Materials had to be beautifully presented, inviting and lush and available each and every day, so children could practise their skills.

Ursula then wanted to know, “why did we interrupt the children to serve them morning tea? Why could they not choose to eat when they were either finished or happy to take a break?” From that moment on children could choose when they wanted morning tea and it worked for the children. Children could remain on task or return to their projects each time they came to school, until they had exhausted their ‘enquiry’ into the properties of the materials without interruption for morning tea.

Ursula’s next provocation. “Why did we not provide examples of beauty from the real world?” From then on, flowers, artist coffee table books, sculptures, fruit, shells, stones, wood and rocks, beautiful musical instruments, were integrated into a very traditional preschool space. Our Department advisor at that time was full of enthusiasm for our changes. She helped guide us in the changes we were making in regards to the regulations.

Then one day Ursula brought in a book about Henry Moore the sculptor and for some reason the children became quite enchanted with the information about Henry Moore’s habit of collecting bones, rocks, wood and shells on his daily walks. They loved the fact that he would install all of these items in his studio as a source of inspiration for his drawings and sculptures. Coincidentally (or not as Ursula was very good at the subtle art of persuasion), there was a Henry Moore exhibition on at the New South Wales Art Gallery, complete with a replica of his studio, in situ, in the gallery, complete with the bones, shells and rocks and his tools. An excursion was planned with the children and their families, some agreeing to come with us as they too were intrigued with the children’s interest in this sculptor.

On our return to the preschool after the excursion, we had decided to set the preschool classroom up with large sheets of beautiful litho paper in preparation for the children’s return from the gallery.  Ursula’s advice:We must offer the children good quality paper, as Wendy, it is not worth the children’s time to draw on inferior quality paper, it is not as satisfying, nor does the paint work on absorbent papers”.

We set the tables together to form bigger working spaces and placed the paper in generous amounts, an array of beautiful lead pencils, pastels and charcoals. An invitation to draw. We had decided to say nothing to the children on returning to the centre, we would just wait and watch to see what the children would do.

This was my teaching ‘epiphany’, the children knew exactly what they wanted to do without us saying a word.

The drawings the children completed that day are still part of Ursula’s collection. I have the photographs. One child, in particular, who would never spend time inside to draw at all, drew, in one easy flow, the reclining nude that sits in front of the NSW Gallery. Ursula and I watched in disbelief and the hairs on our arms crept up. It was astonishing.

The work the children completed that day was presented at the very next Institute Advisory Board meeting as the standard of work was so different. We made a request for Ursula continue on as our Artist/Researcher in Residence one day a week in our new centre on the Macquarie University campus and for the program to be fluid and responsive to children’s engagement with our proposals and their independent work ideas. The Advisory Board, and the Head of the Institute at that time Professor Toni Cross, could see the merit in our proposal and agreed to a more progressive approach in the new centre.

The new centre opened and our program reflected the collaborative thinking of all of the teaching and support staff and Ursula’s work with us. Ursula continued to mentor and inspire. She loved to read and would share her reading with us and that led us into other disciplines and new ideas.

She decided to write her first book to reflect her ideas gathered from her research with our children. The title for the first book came from Georgia, a four year old. Ursula was showing Georgia the mock up for the book and the photos. Ursula said she was trying to think of a good title, Georgia thought for a moment and said, it is like “Rapunzel’s Supermarket” and so that was the title for Ursula’s first book.

Ursula then decided we should make a video recording of our work with the children, to share with the sector. On receipt of a University grant Ursula produced our first two DVDs, inspiring us to continue on in documenting our work. We have just finished Part 6: ‘Being a baby, belonging and becoming’.

Over the ensuing years Ursula retired to devote her time to her own painting. Along the way she also worked with other interested centres and her second book about drawing was written. Again the title was inspired by a child who responded to Ursula’s question about the drawing they were engaged with. The child responded “Its not a bird yet!”. There it was the title for her second book.

Her last book ‘Children’s imagination: Creativity under our noses’ was the result of the many requests from parents and grandparents who wanted to know how to foster children’s creativity. I can hear Ursula now: “The children’s imagination is right under our noses, if only we took the time to watch, listen and observe and not interfere!”

How fortunate was I to work with Ursula Kolbe, artist, author, academic, filmmaker, mentor and muse. I have memories that are rich and redolent with Ursula’s wisdom. Ursula was a most meticulous thinker, writer, advisor, never satisfied until it was exactly as she wanted things to be. Ursula was generous with her ideas, inclusive and patient.

The last time we met, Bernadette Dunn and I interviewed Ursula about her life and work so that it could be celebrated in Pedagogy+. She was a muse to the end. She wanted to see the draft before she would give her approval.

“Make sure you get it right!”

I hope we have.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m a Winnipeger, and close friend of Rosemary Darville who worked with Ursula at Children’s House here in Winnipeg, Canada in the late 1960’s and possibly into the early 70’s. I came on staff after Ursula left, but her influence remained.
    Rosemary and Ursula continued to stay close and to correspond, and as Ursula’s interest’s deepened and broadened, we were the recipients of her findings. Her Reggio-inspired books became important resources when I and some colleagues started a small independent preschool. We drew on Ursula’s books when we started our school and on Rosemary, who retired and eventually moved to Britsh Columbia. We created an environment for the children that I like to think Ursula would have enjoyed stepping into.
    Mimi Mirus

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