Primary pupils producing pieces inspired by Braque and Hepworth? The annual Artworks awards continue to uncover brilliance in the art room. Harvey McGavin reports
Chesterfield is an unlikely setting for a centre of artistic excellence.
Unless you count the town's crooked spire, whose alarming slant plays with perspective like something by Picasso, the visual arts are not big in this corner of Derbyshire. Until you arrive at Holme Hall primary, that is.
Brightly painted bollards lead past a couple of totem poles decorated in similar fashion to the entrance, where the school's name is picked out in primary colours within a rolling pattern that seems to extend around the roof.
The standing pieces form part of Holme Hall's shortlisted entry to this year's Artworks Young Artists of the Year awards, the winners of which will be announced next Thursday (July 1). The awards, which have been running since 2000, are designed to support and encourage art in schools, with the 30 or so winning schools each year receiving pound;2,000 to spend on art projects. This year, pupils' works will be showcased for four days in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London.
Holme Hall's latest creation was knocked up in a few days just before half-term, during the school's arts week. The whole school went off timetable for four days, with teachers, support staff and parents leading workshops in dance, drama, embroidery and poetry. Few schools would attempt such an event. "We justified it by the fact that it was a brilliant success," says Cas Sacco, the school's cheerfully matter-of-fact deputy head.
The same might be said of Holme Hall's artistic achievements generally.
This 180-pupil primary serving a council estate on the outskirts of Chesterfield has a record that defies its unremarkable surroundings. For the past three of the four years the award has been running, the school has been among the winners; the only exception was the first year the awards were held, when it didn't enter.
The inspiration for this year's entry came from a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park combined with Mr Sacco's arts policy of "there's nothing we can't do given time, resources and money".
Even sculpture on the scale of Barbara Hepworth's monumental creation "The Family of Man" was not beyond the ken of Mr Sacco. "We can't do cast bronze," he reasons, "but we can do cardboard boxes and papier mache." The resulting works loom large in the open-plan school like square-shouldered security guards of the school's art.
Hepworth's other signature shape - the oval pierced by a hole - can be seen in the array of smooth white sculptures on display nearby. Again the school couldn't afford marble, but pound;50-worth of casting plaster (the kind used to make cornices) provided enough for 35 Year 6 students to create their own interpretations of her style.
The names alone are indicative of the kind of creative thinking that went into them. "Hotdogless", "The Sunshine Pyramid" and "Mixed Up Ground" describe succinctly the shape or make-up of the pieces. Gaby Hartley called hers "Faith" because, when it started to take shape slightly differently from the way she had imagined and time was running short, she decided to "put a bit of faith into it". She says:"It's not just normal art. It's fun as well as imaginative."
Holme Hall celebrated the Millennium, and was a winner in the following year's awards, with a series of works made from 2000 elements. In 2002, its studies of the moving figure - in long-exposure photographs and life-sized drawing - won again, and the school made it a hat-trick of awards last year with "Superstructures". This series of large-scale constructions reflected Mr Sacco's background - he spent three years studying architecture before retraining as a teacher - and he uses his experience to mount exhibitions at the end of each project, enhancing the status of art at the school.
"The children have seen previous exhibitions of the work from other classes so there is already an understanding of the expectations," he says. "The baseline they are starting from is moving higher all the time." With birds inspired by the work of the Cubist Georges Braque covering an outside wall, manipulated digital photography in the lobby and a 3D recreation of a pond taking shape in an internal courtyard, Holme Hall is clearly proud of its pupils' creations. But Mr Sacco says the value of such projects goes far beyond their aesthetic appeal. Pupils pick up DIY skills, expand their vocabulary and learn to work with others, he says.
He insists that making art is not just a matter of inspiration. "It's about giving students the opportunity and, to some extent, taking the risk - sticking your neck out a little bit and hoping parents are going to appreciate it. There's the time factor, particularly if you are doing sculpture. And," he smiles, looking forward to the next challenge, "there's a lot of hard work involved."
There are times when art transcends its surroundings. Such a thing happened at Trinity technology college in Warwick, another shortlisted entrant to this year's Artwork awards, earlier this year. "It was otherworldly," says art teacher Gill Jopia. "It didn't feel like school at all."
The word installation doesn't do justice to what happened in the school's religious education department for three weeks in February, when a classroom was transformed into a shrine of remembrance to victims of the Holocaust. Even watching a video of the event still brings a tear to Ms Jopia's eye. A lightbox glows eerily under a pile of shoes made from sticky tape and paper, clothes dipped in plaster hang stiffly from the ceiling.
Around the walls are jars of sculpted body parts and piles of old spectacles. The scent of candle wax and mothballs pervades the room. A metronome ticks relentlessly.
The installation was inspired by a Year 12 art and photography trip to Berlin last year, where students visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Sheri Horn, the school's head of art, remembers heated discussion for days afterwards among pupils and staff. "I could not get it out of my head.
I knew I had to do something. It is important as a teacher that you allow young people to discuss and debate and try to come to terms with the darker aspects of the human condition. As a society, we often shy away from it."
The school spent six months working around themes of identity and the "annihilation of the self" through bullying, murder and death. Pupils studied works as diverse as Michael Landy's performance workinstallation "Breakdown" - when the artist destroyed all his possessions - Stephen Spielberg's film Schindler's List and Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper". But they also recreated the scene of a crime with help from the police and a film make-up artist and had a visit from a Holocaust survivor.
The variety of influences showed to powerful effect in the resulting installation, "Identity - the presence that is an absence". "It's hard these days to get children into galleries," says Ms Horn, "so what we did in effect was build our own gallery." More than 400 children from Trinity and surrounding primaries visited the installation, and it was used as a resource by teachers in history, English and PSHE. "It put art at the centre of the curriculum," says Ms Horn. "And it showed that art can be produced, not just by great artists, but by anyone. The young people here produced something truly inspirational and moving."
Trinity won an Artworks prize last year for pupils' paintings of sheep and pig carcasses, "Death Slaughter and Sacrifice", but a second, equally ambitious project has been shorlisted for this year's awards. What began as a Year 12 life drawing assignment evolved into a much grander enterprise after Ms Horn wrote to Alison Lambert, the artist renowned for her large-scale black and white life drawings. Ms Lambert invited pupils to her studio in Coventry, where they saw at first hand her technique of ripping and pasting paper to create a layered, almost scale-like effect and ended up as a kind of unofficial mentor to them. The pupils' work was exhibited in traditional fashion, their bold, life-affirming drawings providing a powerful counterpoint to the subject matter on display at the other end of the candlelit corridor.
Even now, long after it has been dismantled, the Holocaust installation has had a lasting effect on the school. "Many art departments would steer clear of it as a subject," says Ms Horn, "but in 18 years of teaching this has been the highlight of my career."
Artworks Young Artists of the Year is the UK's most prestigious arts award for under-18s. Since 2000, 100,000 pupils have taken part in the awards, funded by the Clore Duffield Foundation.
The presentation of this year's awards at London's Tate Modern will be the highlight of Children's Art Day, when hundreds of events will be taking place throughout Britain. Each of the 32 winning schools will receive pound;2,000 to spend on arts projects, and a signed limited-edition print from artist and sculptor Marc Quinn. Winners' works will go on show at the Tate Modern until July 18. With prizes in excess of pound;60,000, Artworks is worth more than the Turner Prize.
For this year's competition, 37,000 pupils from 500 schools submitted entries in the three categories: working with artists, working with galleries and working with other sources.
For more details of the awards, or Childrens' Art Day events,which continue over the weekend of July 3-4, see: www.art-works.org.uk.