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Gargoyling with computers

Chris Abbott on the prize-winning achievements of a London school.

Not many special schools can claim to have had their art work exhibited in Italy, but that is just one of the achievements of Thurlow Park School in the London borough of Lambeth. For the second year running, the school has won a top prize in a competition organised by the Accademia Italiana in the UK.

David Nicholls has worked at the school for many years and first got involved with computers when he realised that the possibilities they offered to some of his more disabled pupils might be considerable. Since then the school's artwork has been seen at the local library, teachers' centre and educational computing centre and even at the Royal Albert Hall.

The school has just finished its involvement with Geoff Cox, a professional photographer from Photofusion in south London. An early focus was a series of images of gargoyles seen during a school visit. Terry Lyne, school-keeper at Thurlow Park, drove the minibus to France, where a visit to Chartres excited the pupils. A later search for gargoyles led to Herefordshire, and Terry Lyne's son, an art student, eventually videoed and digitised images of these gargoyles for the students at Thurlow Park.

Later phases of the project involved innovative work with self-image and photography, a complex area for students with a physical disability. The results are startling images of great quality. Costumes were loaned by South London Theatre Centre and photographs were taken in a studio at Battersea Arts Centre with the appropriate lighting. Funding is now being sought to publish the resulting images and associated texts dealing with what it is to be disabled in an able society.

All this work began a few years ago when the school started using the PaintSpa drawing program on a Research Machines Nimbus 186 computer. Early results were promising, and funding from Children in Need resulted in the purchase of several Commodore Amigas and DeLuxe Paint software. This software is still in use, using a low resolution rather than the higher one now possible. David Nicholls chooses to work in this way: "I like that coarseness, and the kids like it too. You can see the building blocks of your picture; that's important for the partially sighted students. The more sophisticated art programs are trying to get a handmade effect now; the kids are more impressed by handmade coarse images than by digitised pictures."

The school has developed an archive of material which is of great value: with computer-generated images, the school can easily keep a perfect copy of each one. "Students here are working from a history of how people have developed the work," says David Nicholls. "It's like artists working in a tradition. Having good printouts in a display folder has been great to show funders and other visitors; now we have a flat-bed scanner and hope to get a thermal transfer printer."

David Nicholls sees many benefits in computer graphics for his physically disabled students. "You don't need fine control to get a good image on the screen. The paint never dries! And a gross movement of the mouse can make a fine movement on the screen." The photographic images described have added a new dimension to the school's work. "Self-exploration in art is a difficult area, especially for young adolescents. That wasn't what we intended to do, but that's the road we are going down. It has grown out of the project. There are infinite possibilities - another reason for using computers. They are such powerful tools, and shouldn't be left out of mainstream art. They help you to let your work grow organically."

David Nicholls was recently announced the joint winner of the 1994 NSEAD (National Society for Education in Art and Design)Berol Ltd Award. He plans to use the funding associated with the prize to research the current developments in electronic imaging across the country. Teachers involved in innovative work are invited to send him sample prints and background information. David also hopes to be able to visit the schools selected for inclusion in the final study.

It is good to see teachers such as David Nicholls getting the recognition they deserve, but I have a feeling he was more pleased by the reaction of a past student who called in to see his GCSE work on display. David wished Derek Ayi luck with his GCSE result, but his reaction was immediate. "I don't mind what grade I get, I just want to say thanks for letting me work here."

David Nicholls can be contacted at Thurlow Park School, Elmcourt Road, West Norwood, London SE27 9BZ

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