Learn by art

The Tate gallery in St Ives shows how art education can be fun, says Elaine Williams

Sooner or later, the St Ives's visitors leave their wet suits and beach towels behind and go to find out what the weird, white building which dominates the town's Porthmeor Beach is all about. Sandy and windswept, they find themselves grappling with one of the nation's best 20th-century modern-art collections.

The Tate St Ives, now in its fifth year, has always been alert to the fact that its Cornish location gives it access to visitors who would normally give modern art a wide berth. Although it has become a place of pilgrimage to devotees of the work of artists such as Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, it views education as one of its primary functions.

Cornwall has played an important role in the development of modern art in Britain. The quality of light reflected off rock and ocean and the primitiveness of the landscape inspired artists who sought to free themselves from the weight of tradition which hampered their art in London.

Despite the gloss of tourism, those primal forces are still very much in evidence. Visitors exploring the cool, clean curves of the Tate, enjoy the same spectacular seascapes that have inspired generations of artists. Gallery staff believe all of this provides a unique opportunity and pride themselves on a pioneering education programme which has focused increasingly on taking people out of the classroom to work directly with objects in the gallery.

Families are being targeted as well in the belief that children are just as likely to view art with their parents as their teachers. In the summer, for example, a series of art trails around the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, which are part of the Tate, encouraged children to grapple with abstract sculpture.

Dave Davis, one of the Tate's education technicians who ran the trail, demonstrated how the sculptress worked and asked his audience - children from five to 14, as well as their parents - to think about the shapes she made and why she made them. During the trail they made bold drawings of the sculptures, which they then cut out and stuck together to make their own sculptures.

It was informative, fun and effective. Touching, looking and talking about work in the landscape in which it was created, makes abstract art so much more accessible to the uninitiated than it might be in a London gallery.

While six-year-olds played hide-and-seek, enjoying Hepworth's primeval forms at a very basic level, 14-year-old Ellen McDougall was enraptured. She had taken time out of a family holiday to use the trail activities as part of her GCSE art project: "I don't think I ever understood them before; it's lovely to be shown how to look at things like this."

These practical talks and activities are a hallmark of the Tate's approach. The gallery is also piloting a family pack which introduces the galleries and suggests practical activities for parents and children to do together.

For example, in a room dedicated to the grid paintings of the contemporary artist James Hugonin, part of the current Quality of Light exhibition, visitors using the pack are asked questions as a way in to the work: Does the painting suggest a movement or rhythm? Where does the movement start and where does it finish? Can you show the movement with your hand?

Susan Lamb, education co-ordinator, says: "We have a very high proportion of adults with children here and we want to develop simple activities that they can do together, that don't exclude either. We want everybody to feel confident about talking about the work."

The Tate St Ives offers INSET sessions on an individual or whole-school basis. Earlier this year, for example, it exhibited The Real Thing - 45 works by Devon schools and colleges based on teachers and pupils working from primary material in the gallery, a crucial element in the art national curriculum.

The teachers attended INSET training at the gallery, returned with their pupils, then used 4ft by 2ft canvases to produce a collaborative work of art. The results, which were hung in the Tate St Ives education studio, cafe and stairwell, ranged from collages, to Wallis-type harbour paintings to screenprints and driftwood constructions.

St Levan County Primary School in Cornwall, has spent a year working with staff at the Tate on three different ventures. Their work, exhibited in the gallery to the end of this week, involves large works on paper, based on the paintings of Mark Rothko; poetry based on the work of Christopher Wood; and a three-feet-high sculpture from modroc and chicken wire based on Hepworth's work Conversation with Magic Stones. The school also staged a dance drama about Hepworth's life.

* Contact: the Information Officer, Tate St Ives. Tel. 01736 796226; fax 01736 794480

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you