Every artist dreams of seeing their work hung in a high-profile exhibition space. But as the doors swung open on a private view this spring at the PM Gallery in Ealing, west London, the artists exchanging proud glances and eating expensive nibbles were not established professionals, but 14 to 19-year-old students. Appropriately titled "Big", this innovative and ambitious project brought four professional artists and four local Ealing schools together. In a range of mediums from photography to collage, each team had just four workshop days to produce their final exhibit.
The prize-winning piece, a spectacular collection of birds fashioned out of natural willow twigs, was a collaboration between artist Gina Martin and Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education (AVCE) students at West London Academy. As art teacher Emma Pett proudly discussed her plans to rehouse the artwork in the school's new buildings, she recounted the lessons she and her students had learnt. "I've seen the strength in breaking the curriculum down into manageable chunks. Sometimes doing a very short project like this gets the pace going. And for those who struggle with academic subjects, it was a genuine chance to shine. Because they thought it was purposeful, not just something to go into their portfolio, it motivated and drove them. It will change the way that they work from now on."
But it was not just the winning school that heaped praise on the project.
At Brentside High School, a specialist arts college, art teacher Alison White explained how working with an artist broadened her perspective. "For a teacher, every day is such a whirl, it can be difficult to see outside of that. An artist's visit opens your eyes to what is happening outside the school. It gives you new ideas of working, and it gives the kids confidence in different ways of working. It's absolutely priceless."
The project's success seemed rooted in the unique relationship between students and artist, working as a team of equals away from the school grounds. "It took it out from the school environment," Gina explained, "They came here to the gallery and I was treating them as professional artists, and vice versa. This helped give them confidence." Brentside students 17-year-old Laura Taylor and Pavlo Konotop, 16, agreed: "It was totally collaborative work, all artists working together," Pavlo explained.
"We felt like proper artists," Laura added. "We were given our own space, our own time."
Helen Walker, principal arts strategy and communications co-ordinator at Ealing, says: "From beginning to end, this exhibition was treated just as every other event in our programme. Within the contemporary art world it might not be seen as quite the thing to do, but why shouldn't it happen?"
As the final guests left the gallery, Laura and Pavlo gazed around the walls, still finding it hard to believe their work was hanging there. "It's one thing for someone to say that your work is good in school, but to actually have it hung in a proper gallery is amazing. It's really spreading your wings, " said Laura.
Emma Pett's tips for working with artists in schools
Be organised: Anna (our artist) was great. She came in knowing exactly how each session was going to work. I always tried to think: "What can the kids be doing when Anna isn't in, to maximise the success of the project?" We made timetables, and stuck to them, no time was dead time.
Let the artist choose the level: Sometimes in the classroom, the temptation is to simplify the language to the students' level, so they can immediately understand. But I saw them rise to the challenge with Anna, listening to an artist speaking in her own terms - she really inspired them.
Stand back: As a teacher, I have to be very careful of students' emotions and feelings. But Gina was working from the point of view that we are all artists - we need to build this for a client. It was a tougher, more pressured way of working, but it was very good for them.