A feast for senses and sensitivities
Food, glorious food: there could hardly be a better topic to get children - not to mention their teachers - fired up. It was the theme for National Poetry Day last week and a series of workshops laid on by the National Gallery of Scotland in its new education centre.
The centre's education co-ordinator, Linda McClelland, invited artist Sophie Scott and poet Ron Butlin to lead the Feasting on Pictures and Words workshops for primary and secondary pupils.
One morning Ms Scott took 30 P4 pupils from Duddingston Primary in Edinburgh into the gallery in search of paintings with a food theme.
Sitting on the floor in front of Diego Vel zquez's 1618 oil painting An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, the children were invited to imagine their way into the picture, describing how it smelt, felt, sounded and tasted.
The 7- and 8-year-olds noted the pumpkin, the red onion, chilli peppers, two eggs being poached, a third egg in the woman's hand, cooking utensils, crockery, cutlery and the boy.
"Because there's a pumpkin, maybe it's Hallowe'en," suggested one girl.
Maybe the pumpkin has been left for a while and was going mouldy, piped up a boy.
One girl thought it would feel "dark and gloomy" inside the room, while another thought the woman looked "glum". Possible sounds included the eggs cooking, horses outside, sludgy mud and the wind.
The children enthusiastically offered their observations about how the people in the painting might be feeling. "She might be thinking 'I'd like some new clothes because these are all horrible and itchy," said one. "She might be angry with the boy because he's ignoring her," suggested another.
Back in the gallery classroom, two artists helped the children to cut out of black paper shapes of an eye, a mouth, a nose, an ear and fingers, to represent the five senses, which they then glued to the left-hand pages of a white card booklet. On the right, they drew anything they wanted, inspired by what they had seen in the painting and imagined they had tasted, smelt, heard and felt.
"It's really refreshing," said Ms Scott. "I hear ideas of things they see in the paintings that I've never heard before. They come out with all sorts of mad things about what's going on."
Afterwards, it was Ron Butlin's turn to take the children on a poetical journey. He asked what you would need to write a poem. "A title?" suggested one girl. "A sharp pencil?" offered another. But one girl identified the vital ingredient: "Imagination."
"Everyone is different," said Mr Butlin. "Each one of you is the only person that is you, that will ever be you, not only in Edinburgh and Scotland, but from the beginning of the world right until the end. You're the only one that'll ever be you.
"I want you to get in touch with the dream part of you. Just as you're the only one able to dream your dreams, you'll be able to write something that no one else will be able to write."
Each child was given a postcard of Vel zquez's painting.
"Look at the picture," implored Butlin. "Stare into it. Sink into it with your imagination."
The younsters imagined their way into the room, into the boy and the woman, even into the eggs and chillies. Then each wrote a poem about what they saw, smelt, heard, felt and tasted in their books.
Liam Randall wrote about the boy and his gran arguing about who should fetch the pan to make pumpkin soup.
For him, the best bit of the workshops was "making the book". For his classmate Rory Gallacher, it was "when we went to see the pictures".
Emily Martin explained her poem: "They're shouting at each other about eggs because the boy never went to the market because he slept in."
Alysha Kelly had no arguments or anger in her poem. It ended: "Thanks, Gran."
She enjoyed the day. "I liked it all," she grinned.
Matthew Winegate said: "That was fun! And I liked climbing under the tables to pick up bits of paper."
Ms McClelland was delighted with the children's enthusiastic response to the workshops. "It's to make them see that coming to the gallery is a fun experience. Looking at things and imagining things is great fun.
"It's really trying to dig deep and give them confidence that what they see and feel is as valid as what anyone else sees, rather than an adult taking them around and boring them with dates of when an artist lived."
Ultimately, she says the workshops, and others like it, are about trying to develop a wider audience, about broadening the appeal of the gallery and making it more accessible and enjoyable for people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.
NGS education co-ordinator Linda McClelland, tel 0131 624 6410 email@example.com