New slant on modern art

The young are breaking out of the confines of traditional artforms and keying into a virtual world. Douglas Blane writes

The art department at Dunfermline High School, in Fife, gives the impression that it is struggling to contain the creative energy it has unleashed. Huge, brightly coloured pictures adorn the classroom walls and hang from the ceilings. Great drapes of red and white fabric festoon the staff base. An enigmatic sandstone sculpture squats on a table and a primitive Venus, naked and powerful, stands brooding in a corner.

The creativity has burst out of its confines and pupils'

artwork is spilling down the stairs and along the corridors. It has even reached the gym, where the wooden walls bear a profusion of faces, figures, peacocks and mythical beasts.

"Scale is important in art," says principal teacher Rab Walker, "so it wasn't easy for me to make the leap from that," gesturing at the vast examples on display, "to this," pointing at a computer screen. "But this is the way a lot of kids want to express themselves nowadays.

"Every youngster is capable of creating, of being artistic. Our job as art teachers is to help them find the medium that suits them best. For some it's painting, drawing, sculpture or design, just as it always was. For others nowadays it's computers."

Some of Mr Walker's ideas about education sound radical even for an art teacher. He views the curriculum and the exam system more as straitjackets than as useful frameworks. And he believes in taking some risks. His approach to education is pupil centred but outward looking, aiming to nurture the talents of every child while meeting the often harsh lessons taught by the world beyond the school railings.

"Take a look at this flawed but impressive piece of work," he says, loading a CD-Rom into the computer and starting a virtual tour of Dunfermline Athletic Football Club. As we pass through changing rooms lined with lockers and move towards trophy cabinets with shining cups, Mr Walker explains the flaws.

"The original idea of the boy who did this was that you would select parts of the image by touching the screen and it would open out and tell you more. But we couldn't get the software to do it in the time we had.

"Some might say it was foolhardy to embark on a project like that with limited resources. But no school is going to be in a position of parity in terms of technical provision with industry. I believe strongly that the resourcefulness of the pupils justifies going ahead with inadequate resources."

However, "inadequate" is a relative term. Through the efforts of Mr Walker and the department's other information and communications technology enthusiast, Richard Wotherspoon, art pupils at Dunfermline High have access to an impressive array of computers and software. This includes not only Photoshop and Quark XPress but newer programs such as Cinema 4D, a powerful animation package.

Pupils of all ages at the lunchtime art department ICT club talk about the internationally successful films that have been made with this type of software, such as Toy Story. They explain the satisfaction of creating professional-looking animations from their own ideas and many talk of their ambitions to be animators.

Ian Harker, a fifth year pupil, has been working in computer animation for just six months but has already settled on it as his career choice. "I got into animation when we were developing a website and Mr Walker arranged for Chris van der Kuyl (chief executive of the international animation company VIS Entertainment) to come to the school and talk to us. He was really interested in our work and in what we were saying.

"I have quite a lot of ideas. I'm doing space and planets just now, then I'm going to try city scenes."

Central to Mr Walker's agenda of challenging youngsters and getting them to "fly beyond the curriculum" is the need to forge links with the wider community. "We have to be bridge builders and boundary smashers," he says.

What this implies for teachers is a lot of knocking on doors, talking to people at conferences, taking every opportunity to encourage external involvement with the school. Persistence helps, but as important is the quality of the pupils' work once they are allowed to express themselves.

Recent projects by pupils working with and for external organisations include a touch screen to help visitors navigate around a local hospital; an animated film on the rehabilitation of patients who have undergone major surgery; a promotional website and animated CD-Rom of a day in the life of Dunfermline Athletic Football Club; and making prototype toys from computer designs, which the pupils exhibited at Dundee Contemporary Arts and the Lighthouse.

"What happens when the youngsters work with these organisations," says Mr Walker, "is that they rapidly become more skilled than the art staff and end up teaching the teacher.

"Younger children see what the older ones have done, so we get more and better trained pupils and that seeds the department for future ICT projects. In effect, the pupils have dragged the department into the 21st century."

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