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Space for art exploration

East Ayrshire pupils have been looking at the environment with fresh insight and now their work is to go on show, writes Deedee Cuddihy

The fifth and sixth year pupils at Loudoun Academy, in Galston, have sacrificed lunch breaks, after-school time and even some holiday time to get the work done, but it is clear that they have loved taking part in a challenging visual arts project.

Symbolic Spaces, involving 140 children at five East Ayrshire schools - two secondaries and three primaries - has been running since the beginning of the year, focusing on "exploring the spaces around us".

The project, which culminates in a multi-media exhibition opening tomorrow at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, was divided into three aspects with distinct outcomes: virtual environment, sculptural installations, and drawing and language. The most ambitious and challenging part focused on the creation of virtual environments using professional grade computer software.

It was conceived by East Ayrshire's cultural co-ordinator for creative arts, Pamela Robertson, and has been funded by the Scottish Arts Council.

"We knew there was a demand in schools for visiting artists, particularly in areas where a school's location meant access to galleries and cultural activities was very limited," Ms Robertson explains.

"I wanted to get in artists who were working with new media and different mediums, because that's such an exciting and growing part of the Scottish contemporary arts scene.

"There was a need to show pupils, teachers and parents that art isn't always drawing and painting; to challenge people's perceptions of what contemporary visual arts are."

A large proportion of the project funding was wanted for computer software, such as a 3D modelling and rendering pack which costs pound;500. "We needed 10 of them," Ms Robertson says. "I thought the arts council might say no to that, but it gave us the money because the software is sustainable; it can continue to be used after this project ends."

After consulting with the schools, it was decided that the virtual environments part of the project would be best tackled by senior pupils, where it would have the most impact. So it was offered to all departments at the high schools and eventually awarded to the art department at Loudoun Academy and the enterprise group at Doon Academy, in Dalmellington.

At Doon Academy, 12 pupils, working with sculptor turned web designer Keavy McMinn, set up a temporary design company responsible for creating a website for the Loudoun virtual environments. Their first step was for every member of the enterprise team to build a mini website.

At Loudoun Academy, 10 fifth and sixth year pupils have recently been putting the finishing touches to the virtual environments they have been working on over the past 16 weeks. Artists and web designers Gaylie Runciman and Deborah Norton have been coming to the school for half-a-day a week for the duration of the project to help them.

Iain Stewart has built a virtual Shinto temple, while Emma Walker has created an imaginary celestial environment called Clouds and Moon. All the virtual environments can be explored; Emma's offers the chance to see the interior of a cloud and watch while day turns to night, leaving only the moon and some stars.

"All the pupils struggled with the project at some point," says their teacher, Rachel Dallas, "because it was almost like taking on a new subject. But they stuck with it, helped each other out and created some fantastic work as a result."

At Lainshaw Primary, in Stewarton, and Drongan Primary, artist Cath Keay led the sculpture part of the project. She gave introductory slide shows of her work and "opened up the schools' eyes to what contemporary sculpture can be", says Ms Robertson.

Ms Keay's work is often created from found materials and its fun and humorous elements make it particularly accessible.

Pupils collaborated with her on a variety of works, including a composition of sculptured pigeons which will be animated in the playground and filmed.

They also made mini clay depictions of words, such as gawpin' (meaning a silly person or to gape in astonishment), and photographed each other with the sculptured words, using facial expressions to convey their meanings.

Pupils in the Gaelic unit at Onthank Primary have been working with artist Eoghann MacColl on the drawing and language element of the project.

"Lots of contemporary artists work with words," Ms Robertson explains, "and Eoghann uses both Gaelic and English."

He accompanied the children to the Scottish Parliament, where they took a tour in Gaelic, then photographed the building and made sketches of it. In their classroom, they have experimented by drawing with wire instead of traditional art materials and created a mixed media Gaelic alphabet, which will be on display in the Dick Institute exhibition.

Symbolic Spaces, Dick Institute, Kilmarnock, May 21-June 18

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