This is the first installment in a series of articles that each focus on a summer school, residency, or alternate education model that seem particularly relevant to designers. The hope is that, together, these articles will give a broader view of non-traditional schools and designers invested in continued learning. Here, we take a look at Ellipsis Open School, an alternative school in the south of Portugal that its founder, Eva Gonçalves, describes as something between “a summer school, an art residency, a lecture series, and a temporary community.”
In the spring of 2017, Eva Gonçalves had just returned to Berlin from North Carolina, where she was attending a school-slash-residency program called School of the Alternative. The program is housed on the original campus of Black Mountain College, the experimental school famous as much for its influence on art education as for its faculty and students, which included Anni and Josef Albers, Ruth Asawa, Buckminster Fuller, Cy Twombly, and Robert Rauschenberg. Much like its predecessor, the new Black Mountain School blurred the lines between faculty and student with shared accommodations, student-designed curriculums, and teachers attending classes. It was the closest to a truly non-hierarchical environment that Gonçalves had experienced, but she still thought it could have gone further. “I felt like every participant could have also been a teacher,” says Goncalves. “I wanted to learn something from every person attending.”
“I think we can really learn a lot from each other horizontally, sitting at the same table as equals, sharing what we know.”
Back in Berlin, Gonçalves decided to start her own summer school. The first session of Ellipsis Open School, held in the summer of 2017, was made up largely of friends and people in her network of designers and illustrators. Recently, Ellipsis finished up its third year, with eleven participants from six countries all living together in a house in the South of Portugal for ten days. Though still heavy on designers and illustrators, participants have also included architects, writers, urban planners, and activists, each of whom comes prepared with a class or other activity. In effect, every person learning is also teaching, with no traditional faculty-student divide. “I think we can really learn a lot from each other horizontally, sitting at the same table as equals, sharing what we know,” says Gonçalves.
Like most of the people who have attended Ellipsis so far, Gonçalves has a university degree, but believes education isn’t something that should stop at a certain age. She also feels that there’s a lot of information that can’t be accessed, or that slips through the cracks, when there’s a degree of separation between those teaching and those learning. But core to her decision to start Ellipsis was also the simple fact that many of her friends, particularly those who are also designers, work freelance, and spend much of their working day alone. “[Ellipsis] is a way of building community, meeting people, and countering some of the isolation that it sometimes feels we’re locked into because of what we do for work,” she says.
This year, the group held workshops in writing poetry, making sourdough bread, and embroidery. Participants wrote a group manifesto to guide their time together, and went on a silent walk in the countryside surrounding their shared house. They made a community quilt, which they then used for picnics and star-gazing at night. In a past year, someone put on a wood making workshop, which has since inspired Gonçalves to take up furniture making. The point, she says, isn’t specialization or really honing a skill or developing a course of study—there are other venues and institutions for that. By allowing for an informal structure and diversity of disciplines, Ellipsis wants to be a place for sharing knowledge and being exposed to other areas of study. Like any type of self-guided learning, gaining new skills and knowledge inevitably feeds back into your own work, not to mention makes you a better, more rounded, and in many cases, more empathetic person.
For the Ellipsis model to work, it requires people with different skill sets, interests, and backgrounds to share with others. The more diverse the applicant pool, the better—and Gonçalves has been working on expanding past her own community and Instagram algorithm to get more than just those in design and adjacent fields to join. In past years, the program has been invite-only, with the explicit request for people to forward along to others they think would be interested. This year, people could also apply through the website for the first time. Spots are filled mostly on a first come, first served basis, with Gonçalves occasionally stepping in to make sure there’s a variety of disciplines (i.e. if there are already two illustrators, the third may not get a spot). She also recognizes that the fee—320 Euros, or around $350, goes toward securing the house, and covers rentals, activities, and a portion of the meals, but does not cover travel to Portugal—can be prohibitive for some. Next year, she wants to offer a full scholarship for one person, hoping that will also help diversify the program. She says that while there is a typically a mix of educational experience—from self-taught to Masters degrees—its generally made up of people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Ideally, Gonçalves says, Ellipsis would be free for everyone, and she’s looked into grants or sponsorship to fund it. She found that to apply that type of support, the school would need to become a non-profit or have a comparable legal status, which would be enough work to become a second job—something that just isn’t feasible for her. For now, much of the organizational work lies in selecting applicants, getting the house every year, preparing activities outside of the communally taught workshops, and setting up and maintaining a structure that malleable enough to be recreated and directed by every new group of participants. After she has a group of 11 to 15 people for the school, Gonçalves solicits ideas from everyone on what they’d like to share. “We tend to think, ‘Oh, what can I teach? I have nothing prepared, or nothing that others can learn from.’ That’s really what’s interesting for me: giving everyone the opportunity to be in that position, but in an informal, comfortable, safe space. Because after two days of being together, the people who you are teaching have also become your friends.”