Celebrating women arts educators on International Women's Day

06 March 2020
Dr Sam Broadhead

To mark International Women’s Day 2020, Dr Sam Broadhead, Head of Research at Leeds Arts University, reflects on the teaching career of jewellery designer and maker, and friend, Ann O'Donnell. 

Ann O’Donnell (1933-2019) was a designer and maker of modernist jewellery who first began teaching in Leeds in the 1950s while continuing her studies at the Royal College of Art in London. During this period the University, as Leeds College of Art, gained a reputation for pioneering art, craft and design education. Ann taught with Head of Fine Art, Harry Thubron OBE, instrumental in developing the Basic Design course; and alongside visiting teaching fellows, such as artist Alan Davie (1920-2014).

When Ann started a family she continued her creative practice and teaching. She had her own particular ideas about art and design education, in her personal papers I remember seeing her schemes of work and course design. She believed that her students should be expressive and experimental alongside learning the technical skills associated with jewellery making. She taught apprentices from local jewellery businesses including those from Leeds’ thriving Asian jewellery industry. Her teaching practice had a massive impact on local people who still remember her fondly.

Ann’s accomplishments in her jewellery design have been recognised but her teaching achievements are less well documented. Like many women art educators Ann’s employment was in community courses, in outreach provision around the city and in part-time Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) and City and Guilds vocational skills courses. 

Teachers such as Ann and, her contemporary, the potter and artist, Pam Rex (1929 – 2007), spent a life-time teaching part-time and in the evenings. Although highly valued by their students, these teaching roles did not enable women art educators the same level of access to the networks, status and acknowledgement of their male colleagues. The University’s rich archives from the post-war period reference many well-known and celebrated male, artists, designers and educators. Sadly it is harder to find information about women educators of the time. Ann’s example tells us that we cannot assume that women were not leading and inspiring others with their teaching. We need to look to personal testimony and memory so that we can capture and celebrate the stories of post-war women educators whose papers have not been archived.

If you have any information about women educators at Leeds College of Art in the 1950s and 1960s, we would love to hear from you, alumni@leeds-art.ac.uk