Artist in class of his own making

A resident sculptor and specialist in found objects has given pupils a new perspective. Miranda Fettes reports

It's like Mohammed and the mountain: if the pupils won't go to the gallery, the gallery must come to the pupils. And that is exactly what the art department in a secondary school in a deprived area of Edinburgh decided to arrange.

Wester Hailes Education Centre has a full-time artist in residence whose endeavours have transformed one art classroom into a growing, organic gallery. The school benefits from having a living artist on site, while the artist benefits from a rent-free studio and materials.

Neil Doherty, a former chef, footballer and oil-rig worker, turned to art at the age of 38. He went to Falkirk Tech (now Falkirk College) and Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 1996. Now 52, he enjoys feeding students' imagination.

"It's a privilege having Neil here," says head of art Jackie Murray. "It has expanded their horizons. This is an area of multiple social deprivation and art galleries are seen as posh, so bringing a gallery to the pupils seemed like the perfect solution."

Neil, who lives in Currie, uses bits and pieces of industrial and domestic waste in his work. "It's recycled art," he says. "If I can take a big metal girder or a piece of waste and make it into something that would otherwise be put in the bucket, I like that."

Nothing in his studio is bought. He has used old pipes thrown out from a refit of the school kitchen, pieces of timber discarded by woodwork students and redundant extractor fans.

"I use cogs, wheels, drainpipes, bottles, components from radios, TVs, car batteries, dolls, pens, screws, nails, coffee jars I anything that's up for grabs," he says.

An array of sculptures and paintings is on display in the classroom, many of them bulky, machine-like and provocative. Others are gentler, depicting the human form. In some, adults or babies are trapped inside a machine or integrated with technology. "The idea is that somebody or something is controlling you from within," Doherty says.

Other creations show crucifixes and religious symbolism. Some are carvings, drawings or paintings of a face or a still life, many with an African or Aztec influence. Other work is heavily ironic.

Sketchbooks are also on display so that pupils can leaf through his ideas.

His work has inspired the pupils. They have incorporated items such as an Action Man, a broken camera and a bottle of Irn-Bru into a small sculpture.

"I was surprised to see my art class transformed into a gallery," says Asif Coggins in S2. "Having a gallery in my school is amazing because it's easy to come to school instead of going up town.

"Wood, metal, plastic, sand, paint and stone are most of the materials that Neil uses on his masterpieces."

His classmate Brian Evans is struck by the exhibition too.

"My favourite sculpture is the one of the cross and Jesus. I see it as a wall that we're all trying to climb and meet Jesus and God and that Jesus and God are waiting for us to reach the top."

Of another of the works, Brian says: "I think it expresses life: jumpy and uncontrollable. In the one called The Incubator I feel that we're all trapped in a box, and we're like fragile little babies that want to talk but can't.

"He's shown me that to achieve my goals takes time and that art is a long and hard thing to do."

The artist is impressed with Brian's insight. "An incubator's meant to be life-giving, but here it's a trap," says Doherty.

Jayne Spence, another S2 pupil, is less enamoured.

"I thought all his sculptures were horrible," she says. "They imposed a sort of violence. Some of them looked as if he had picked up bags of rubbish and tipped them in a tub of black paint and glue. Some were sick, with babies' heads and hands with guns.

"But I like a lot of his pictures. I think they have meaning and depth.

There is a particular painting I like of an African woman in the jungle with a shadow effect on one half of her face. The colours he used are a good contrast."

The teachers, too, have enjoyed having an artist in residence, and Doherty himself says working with the children and adults has been "fantastic".

"It's a two-way thing," he says.

"It's been a tremendous learning curve for all of us," adds Ms Murray. "So much of what we do is curriculum-led, so this has been great. It lets pupils see that once you acquire the skills, the horizons are endless."


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