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Material world

Denyse Presley explains how pupils are discovering that there's more to art than paint and canvas, thanks to the colourful work of Visual Arts Scotland

Visual Arts Scotland started life in 1925 as a breakaway group of mixed media women artists and since 1945 - thanks to Anne Redpath - has exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on Edinburgh's Mound every year at Christmas-time.

Last year, groups of P4-P7 children from 25 primary schools across Edinburgh visited the gallery as part of a new project, "Open Your Eyes", organised by VAS, Moray House and Edinburgh City Council's education department.

The aim was for children to experience the gallery and think about ways the work of contemporary artists, including wildlife artist Helga Chart and sculptor Richard Coley, could influence their own. To focus their responses, Edinburgh City Council's Marion Foster drew up worksheets, designed to develop their art vocabulary and the children were asked, if you had pound;1,000 what would you buy and why?

The next phase involved a series of practical class-based sessions with specialists from the primary arts team, a group formed by art education innovator and HMI Gillies Campbell, to assist class teachers.

Drawing inspiration from Richard Coley's metal sculpture, children from Craiglockhart Primary used the gold and copper theme to make keepsake boxes. To create them, they used metallic paints, tissue paper for texture and metal and sand. "The idea," says Moray House art lecturer Amanda Gizzi, "was to create a secret box with a secret inside so that they were thinking not only about form but also function".

Confronted with the human form in Gordon Mitchell's almost surreal work, the children responded with photomontages to avoid the difficulty of illustrating the body free hand. They put them together to form a narrative which followed Mitchell's own work.

Amanda Gizzi recalls how the cover for the accompanying CD-Rom came about:

"Gull, painted by Liam Malloy aged 11 from Murrayburn Primary, was chosen because he incorporated many aspects including the colours and the linear images in Helga Chart's own Storm Gull."

Helga Chart says: "I thought Liam's work was very fresh and direct. I was interested in how he, and some of the other children, had picked up on the reds because I originally had a cool concept for my work. It was based on the notion of migration. After a Mediterranean holiday, I re-thought the painting and, using a splattering technique, it gradually grew hoter."

Amanda Gizzi notes that "A lot of the artists were impressed with the way the children's work came straight from the heart, and felt their own work - which they constantly criticised - lacked their freedom and spontaneity."

Helga Chart suggests that the children's responses prompted the artists to see their own work in a new light: "It wasn't until I saw Liam's painting that I realised how vibrant my own work was."

Amanda Gizzi highlights the advantage of the VAS make-up: "One of the strongest features of Visual Arts Scotland is its mixed media composition. The children are encouraged to experiment with wood, metal, plaster, wire and stooky bandages."

Helga Chart emphasises their mixed media creed: "When I spoke to Liam, he was amazed to hear that we can really use any material we like now, as long as it sticks to the board. I showed him my own painting then took him to look at Moira Dickson's sculptural work which is mainly metal. Young children will explore, but at Liam's age they begin to wonder if it's all right to mix media."

The children had the chance to see how other schools responded during a week-long exhibition at Chessels Gallery at Moray House, in which their work was exhibited alongside the professional artists.

Amanda Gizzi says: "One of the most significant results of Open Your Eyes is how the children's art vocabulary has developed, which has implications for their music, imaginative writing and drama." Some of the children echoed the strongly narrative nature of Gordon Mitchell's work in poems and stories.

The success of the pilot project has led to plans to do a similar one in December with older pupils. The CD-Rom aimed at primary education features animated interviews with the artists and includes Moira Dickson showing off her colourful sketchbook. There are also lessons and activities and a virtual gallery.

The CD will provide a basis for the new Higher Still requirement to write about a contemporary artist. Helga Chart explains that some artists, including herself, have been approached by individual students: "We want to create a package that introduces young people into the gallery."

Open Your Eyes, a dual-platform CD-Rom to accompany the project has been produced by Edinburgh City Council Education Department, Visual Arts Scotland, Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art. pound;10 from Edith Young, Arts and Humanities Department, University of Edinburgh, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ, tel: 0131 651 6417

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