The march of the modern

Steven Hastings meets a student of contemporary art who's found his vocation

Personally, Paul Robinson wouldn't mind if his pupils chose to cut dead animals in half and pickle them in formaldehyde. But he accepts it probably wouldn't go down too well with parents. "To be honest," he sighs, "they're already a bit suspicious about their children taking plastic fish and old underwear into school." Parental curiosity should be satisfied on April 20 at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, when the city's Lord Mayor opens an exhibition of contemporary art by Year 9 pupils from St Margaret Ward high school.

While admitting that the works on show will be "at the tamer end of the modern scale", Mr Robinson - a student of contemporary art at Manchester Metropolitan University - believes "The Many Faces of St Margaret Ward High School" will still raise eyebrows.

The exhibition explores the influences that have shaped the lives of the 165 pupils taking part. Using "found objects" with deep personal meaning - such as toys from childhood or favourite items of clothing - the young artists have constructed three-dimensional plastercast self-portraits. The effect may be abstract, but "every face tells a story".

Mr Robinson's work at St Margaret Ward is part of his final year's studies for his degree. His decision to run a school-based project was in part motivated by his own regret at not having been introduced to modern art when he was younger. "When I was at school, painting and drawing was the only kind of art you were taught. So that was the path I went down. I didn't discover contemporary art until I was nearly 30, and I knew straight away that it was what I wanted to do."

Contemporary art still has something of an image problem, even among young people - as Mr Robinson discovered when he first visited the school and began by showing a class one of his own works. "There was a long silence. Then one boy ventured his critical opinion: 'It's a bit weird isn't it?'" Mr Robinson worries that many parents will consider the forthcoming exhibition also a bit weird. That's why he intends to have the artists on hand to talk about their work. "Contemporary art is all about expressing yourself. The pupils have become adept at explaining why they have chosen to incorporate certain objects into their piece." Take "The Boy with the Plastic Fish Nose", for example. "He likes fishing, but chose to make the fish his nose because he can't stand the smell of the fish he catches."

Detractors of contemporary art often dismiss it as easy work - knocked up in minutes with a splash of paint and a dollop of glue. But pupils at St Margaret Ward know better. Their project has lasted four months, involving sketch work, collages and relief models, and along the way they have had to master techniques such as varnishing and plastering.

Local pottery companies have lent materials and expertise, while head of art Donna Jones testifies to the "tremendous buzz" and "total chaos" of working towards a public show. Indeed, as befits singer Robbie Williams's old school, St Margaret Ward has a history of exhibitionism. "We're great believers in putting work on show, but it's usually just in local junior schools or art colleges. This is very exciting - it's the real thing."

She also explains how the project has managed to embrace other areas of the curriculum, especially citizenship. "It has forced everyone to think about the role that other people play in their lives - from grandparents to dinner ladies."

It has also made Mr Robinson do some reflection of his own. A commitment that started out as a couple of lessons a week now sees him in school nearly every day, and he has decided to apply for the Graduate Teacher Training Programme with a view to a full-time career in the classroom.

The fact that he'd like that training to be based at St Margaret Ward explains why he is "incredibly nervous" about how the exhibition will be received, particularly by parents. Perhaps he should point out to the sceptics that there's plenty of money to be made by successful contemporary artists. After all, if Tracey Emin's unmade bed can fetch pound;150,000, most teenage bedrooms must be priceless.

"I suppose I shouldn't worry too much," he says. "The project has proved that contemporary art can be taught successfully in schools, and I think most people will appreciate the technical quality of the work. And if they think it's weird - well, so what."

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