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Breaking down the walls

Diana Hinds an uplifiting experience in south London, where a community mural project involving schoolchildren has helped transform a deprived estate.

Daniel Hewett didn't think much of his drawing skills. So when he was asked to help design a mural for a block of flats near his home, his expectations were not high. "But when I saw it all finished, I felt shocked," says 11-year-old Daniel. "I thought something like that wouldn't ever happen. I always thought I wasn't very good at drawing, but now I'm more confident."

Daniel is one of a group of children from St John's Angell Town Primary School in Brixton, south London, who collaborated with the Public Works art group to produce a mural for one of the most deprived housing estates in the area. Constructed from vandal-proof vitreous enamel panels (as used by London Underground), the mural, 2.5m by 6m, now adorns the reception area of a block of flats on the Loughborough estate, and is awaiting its official launch.

The mural is entitled "This is Fun", and it is. It comprises a series of 12 lively, brightly coloured children's drawings of park life, including football, ducks, swings, and a boy on a slide shouting "Wee, wee". Fresh and vital, its only drawback is that you have to be inside the block to see it; people walking by on the outside are missing a treat.

"Lots of people quite like it," says James Dawte, 11, "and when I go in there with my friends I like to show off and say that's my work" "It's made it much more like a home there," says Katie Wildeman, 11. "It's nice too because we are a local school and it gets communication going."

The children, who have now started at secondary school, did the original drawings more than two years ago, in workshops with Public Works, in which they talked about public art and settled on the theme of parks.

The project formed part of a major regeneration scheme for the Loughborough estate, funded by the Government's Estate Action Programme together with Brixton City Challenge, involving repairs to the buildings, landscaping of the communal gardens, and the installation of a proper security system, with new reception areas - staffed by concierges - for the five blocks of flats. The idea for the murals - the three members of Public Works designed abstract murals for the other four blocks - came from the tenants' association, after successful but temporary murals were made to decorate hoardings during the building work.

"The trouble with much community art in the past has been that it has concerned itself too much with the fact that the community is doing it, and not enough with the final product," says Jason Gibilaro, of Public Works, who trained in fine art at St Martin's School of Art in London. "Our aim was to get the balance right. We wanted the final product to look quite structured and slick, without tampering with the children's drawings at all."

He, John Pope and Sarah Pickstone spent a gruelling month in the factory, once the designs were completed, screen-printing them on to the enamel panels; despite a grant of Pounds 50,000, they only just covered their costs. But the experience has been invaluable, says Jason Gibilaro, and the murals were highly commended in the Wapping Arts Trust's 1996 Art and Work Award.

As for the effect on the estate, word is that the housing officer no longer finds it so difficult to fill the flats. "The estate still has a bit of a bad reputation," says Katie Wildeman, "but I think more people would come here now because there is more security. People know this is a home where people live, and they respect it."

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