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At home with the masters

Children in care are learning about the work of great artists and discovering their own creative potential in a pioneering scheme at the National Gallery. Karen Hooper reports

Among the Titians, Van Goghs and other lovingly preserved paintings in the National Gallery, a group of children is discovering what it's like to be an artist, nurtured and highly valued by a bunch of professionals in the heart of London. These are children in care, most of them living with foster families, for whom the gallery has launched a pioneering outreach programme called Line of Vision; the aim is to create a sense of belonging to the capital's landmark gallery and its environs of Trafalgar Square.

"There's really comfy nice chairs, and if you want you can stare at one painting all day," says 13-year-old Monique. "You can read from it and see how the painter worked, like you stopped time and climbed into the picture and you were there. And it's not like a big day out to go to Trafalgar Square; you can bring out a folding chair, pen and paper, walk five minutes and you're there."

Monique is one of 30 children in the care of five London boroughs who have taken part in this visionary programme, driven by the gallery's mission to address social exclusion.

Monique, who has lived in four foster homes, says the opportunity to work with a professional artist has helped her relax and to concentrate. And she welcomes the chance to meet other young people who've had similar experiences. "Sometimes other children think you're not normal because you haven't got a mum and a dad," she says. "I was a bit scared when I first came because I didn't know anyone, but now I've made friends. The staff treat you like adults, you can talk on their level."

Liz Gilmore is the gallery's families and outreach manager. She believes the scheme is creating "a new environment in which looked-after children can flourish and grow. The young people may have had bad experiences at school and the project helps build confidence and self-esteem."

Kathy Adler, the National's head of education, says the project has helped some children in their school work. "Jerome, who is 13, told us that now he enjoys talking about paintings in school. Before he came here he wouldn't have had the confidence."

Line of Vision was born out of a chance meeting between Ms Gilmore and Hugh Valentine, head of children and families at the London borough of Waltham Forest's social services department. A 2002 pilot with artist Dillwyn Smith and nine children from Waltham Forest was so successful that the scheme evolved in 2003 to include children in the care of Barnet, Merton, Richmond and Wandsworth, and received a pound;50,000 grant from the Department for Education and Skills.

Children from the five boroughs came together during the autumn half-term and over a weekend in November last year. Accompanied by their foster carers or social services staff, they worked in two groups (aged seven to 12 and 13 to 18) with professional artists Matthew Burrows and Ansel Krut.

The logistics of orchestrating such a finely tuned and intensive six days with social services, carers and artists was the "juggler's job" of freelance project manager Caroline Marcus. A big part of the project involves making the building and its collection accessible to young people.

"When you come into the gallery even the steps are daunting," says Ms Marcus. "It can be a huge, imposing place for children, and just to see them strutting through the gallery shows they have ownership." Donning another hat as a freelance gallery lecturer, Ms Marcus spent the first days of the project easing children into the gallery and breathing life into the paintings.

The Demons and Angels of St Michael Triumphant over the Devil by Bartoleme Bermejo fuels the younger group's video pastiche The Battle Between the Good Angels and the Bad Angels. For Ansel Krut, a South African-born artist, the painting offers a strong story and characters, wonderful colour and lots of gold, introducing children to gilding techniques, which will be replicated in their stick puppets for the video he is producing. The painting feeds into "something real, something they can actually do", he says. Mr Krut sees the National Gallery as "oxygen" to the young imagination. "I don't see a break between what's history and what's contemporary; good art is always fresh," he insists.

His sentiments are reflected at the screening of the children's video at the end of the project. Triumphant over their craft, children squeal with glee as demons and angels flash across the screen and their voices ring out over the credits in a song they've written.

"Ansel was good, the way he worked with the children, and very patient," says foster carer Moya, who has accompanied three children, including 12-year-old Sophie, who is in her care. "It's given them an insight into art and helped them realise they are not the only ones in this situation.

It's so good for them, and it's helped me to understand the art, too," she says, paintbrush in hand at an afternoon session where children are painting T-shirts.

Matthew Burrows, who worked with the older group, believes the project allows "playfulness with the collection, which opens it up for young people, showing that it's not about old artefacts." Cheshire-born Mr Burrows was artist-in-residence at Gloucester Cathedral from 1999-2000 and has lectured and had short residencies in schools. He believes the secret is to engage and challenge participants as you would any young artists.

"The young people aren't always very confident when they arrive, and some come with preconceived ideas of what's good and bad art, often based on the qualitative boundaries set by the school curriculum," he says. "The challenge is to empower them by showing what's possible in the process of making art."

The group's video project follows the wild adventures of the chair in the painting Van Gogh's Chair as it leaves the gallery and shows how storytelling influences image-making. "I wanted them to imagine how you can live in a space," says Mr Burrows. The challenge took the group on its own artistic odyssey, which included creating character sculptures, painting their own chairs and sketching the landmarks in Trafalgar Square, which all feature in The Chairs video.

In glorious autumnal light worthy of any Turner, 15-year-old Chenaeya sits sketching the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Chenaeya - who spent seven years in foster care before moving in with her aunt two years ago - says that when she first arrived at the gallery, she felt that people "looked as if to say, 'Why are you here?'" Now she feels more of a sense of belonging and has enjoyed meeting "different kinds of people". Fourteen-year-old Liam is deep in concentration as he sketches Nelson's Column. Liam, who has been in foster care for three years, has so enjoyed the project that he's taking GCSE art. He fills in the story of Van Gogh's Chair. "He was supposed to paint Gauguin sitting on it," he says with the confident air of the art critic, "but he didn't turn up, so Van Gogh put his tobacco there instead."

While clearly flourishing under Mr Burrows's inspiration, Liam has been supported also by 20-year-old Dave, whose mentoring skills were recognised when he was taking part in the Line of Vision pilot. Since then Dave has got a job as young person's participation worker for Waltham Forest and was responsible for recruiting young people to the project's second phase. With interests from Greek mythology to hip-hop, Dave is bridging the gap between professionals and participants.

"This extra bit of knowledge means I can almost see what a painting's about now, and it's helped me in my work," says Dave, who is pleased with the way the latest initiative has turned out. His input has been crucial to evaluating and moving the pilot forward. In January 2003 a consultation panel - the more informal Talking Points group - was set up, ensuring that views about policies and services that affect young people are heard at the highest level, especially at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Among suggestions made was the need for a space to display work produced during the project, which led to plans for a gallery, the Space@NG, which is due to open next month.

"They need to make the gallery more of a landmark," says Dave. "Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column are tourist attractions but there's no sign saying, 'This is the National Gallery'. People don't know it's there."

Will Dowden, from Waltham Forest's children and families section, is heartened by the uptake from young people and the links made with other boroughs. He believes sustaining projects such as this one requires the commitment of local authorities, which he describes as "rich parents".

Hannah, who has lived in a children's home and with a foster family, is coming to grips with living independently now she is 17. "I'm realising how much has happened in my life now I'm on my own," she says. Hannah is hoping to study performing arts and media but has one big issue with Line of Vision. "The days aren't long enough. When I arrived this morning I wasn't very happy but everyone is so nice I just had to get into it. It's so supportive and that's what young people need. It makes me more aware, inspired. I'd never thought of coming to the National Gallery before this."

Matthew Brown's work appears in Presence: images of Christ in the third millennium at St Paul's Cathedral, February 2-13. Ansel Krut has an exhibition at the domoBaal gallery, London, in March

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