Artists of all kinds are linking up with schools to give children's creativity a chance to soar, reports Elaine Williams
Behind every creative personI is another creative person. That, crudely, is the inspiration behind Big Arts Week, a project that matches schools with artists by postcode. The idea is that artists of whatever kind - painters, singers, dancers, writers, actors, architects or graphic designers - will team up with the school closest to where they live or work and give up an hour or a week to fire young imaginations where none may have been fired before.
It is a neat plan with catchy simplicity and has attracted a level of interest - 5,000 schools and 2,000 artists in its first year - that augurs well for an annual event. This is not especially surprising, given its parentage. The founder of Big Arts Week, William Sieghart, is a masterful impresario, a creator of arts projects with mass appeal. The huge success of an older offspring, National Poetry Day - so popular it turned into a week - is testimony to that.
Armed with the statistic that 50 per cent of adults had written poetry at some stage in their lives, Sieghart created a celebratory festival, now in its eighth year, which has seen an outpouring of poetry in all shapes and sizes on the airwaves, on television, in schools, on the London Underground, in trains, you name it. Poetry is cool.
Now Sieghart is hooked on another revelation: scratch the surface of any artist, architect, designer or dancer's life, and you will find a debt to another creative person, someone who inspired those first crucial steps. The sculptor Antony Gormley, a patron of Big Arts Week, acknowledges his former art teacher. "Seeing John Bunting hacking into a huge elm trunk to make an entwined group of bodies gave me that vital image - an artist in his own world making the world."
Comedian Harry Enfield, who heralded Big Arts Week on BBC 1 earlier this year with a rallying call to schools and artists, pays tribute to his history teacher. "Father Bruno, a Benedictine monk, used to stand on the desk pretending to be a sepoy mutineer being blown off the end of an English cannon while the rest of the class went 'BOOM!' He inspired me to be an idiot."
But how many of the nation's children never get the chance to meet those "significant" others? Big Arts Week, Sieghart believes, will match artists with pupils and help to fire some creative sparks. "Every person in a creative job says that at one stage or other an adult opened the creative door for them. If you come from a poor background you are less likely to be meeting those sorts of people. If this inspires only a few children to go forward, it will have been worth it. I hope artists will form longer-term relationships with schools in their neighbourhood. There's a buzz about this, it feels right."
TimeBank, the national volunteering charity, and joint creator of the initiative with Sieghart's Forward Arts Foundation, has done the postcode pairings and netted some famous names along the way, including pianist Joanna MacGregor, artist Sam Taylor-Wood, Turner Prize sculptor Anish Kapoor and architect Norman Foster, as well as architects from the Richard Rogers Partnership. Sceptics may question the possibility that an artist descending on a school for as little as an hour, or even a week, can have any lasting effect on children's futures, but Kapoor is convinced that this is the case. "You have to believe you can have an effect in a moment. Your own moments of identification with a person or a project that have a profound effect on your way of seeing the world - that happens in no time. Culture does transform. We will not have an effect on all the children we meet in this project, but I have incredibly high hopes for the few."
Matt Gray, a director at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, will be taking Donna Berlin (dancer, actor and Lamda teacher) and a group of students into Gibbs Green school for pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties. He hopes Big Arts Week will mark the beginning of a partnership between Lamda and the school.
During the week, Lamda will work with three year groups in dance and drama workshops. "We will be pushing the courage thresholds of these children," says Gray. "We will be setting them up to perform. Our message to them will be, 'If you can do this, you can do anything'."
Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway, creator of the Red or Dead label, will be working with pupils to design tree houses at Oakwood school in Chichester, sited in the middle of woodland. "Kids get so much from art and design and from having somebody working with them who is not a teacher. It's about spark and rapport. Such an influence can stick, especially if that person has been in the public eye - it's unfortunate, but it's true."
Big Arts Week, which is supported by the Arts Council, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Clore Duffield Foundation, will also encompass the Artworks Young Artists of the Year Awards at Tate Modern on National Children's Art Day, June 20. The awards, launched by the Clore Duffield Foundation in 1999, reward "inspirational teaching and learning" in art and design in three categories: working with artists; working with galleries and working with resources. Ten awards in each category attract a total of pound;60,000 in award money and a limited-edition print by Kapoor.
Artworks has attracted more schools than ever this year, with up to 40,000 pupils involved. One of them is Wingate community nursery in County Durham, where nursery children have made their own 11ft-high Angel of the North out of steel and wood following a visit to Antony Gormley's giant sculpture in Gateshead.
Paddy Beels, the nursery's headteacher, documented every stage of the process - including the raiding of skips in timber yards and a steel fabrication factory and recordings of their discussions about angels - and submitted the evidence to Artworks. Gormley recently visited the Wingate angel and has invited the children down to his studio in London.
Paddy Beels, who has since employed an artist as a permanent staff member, says: "Artists who take children's ideas on board and work from them can have a tremendous effect."
Big Arts Week: 0845 601 4008; www.bigartsweek.com Artworks: 0870 2412762; www.art-works.org.uk
See next week's Friday magazine for William Sieghart's My Best Teacher