After-school classes have created a 'super sixth year' in Dunfermline, writes Julie Morrice.
It is a scene worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Red drapes hang in disarray from the ceiling alongside a decapitated skeleton. Strange shapes loom and shadowy figures stare from the walls, and in the centre stands the nude figure of a young woman with long waves of blonde hair. It is not fantasy, however, it is an after-hours art class for fifth and sixth year pupils of five schools in and around Dunfermline.
The skeleton and the drapes are the normal decor of the classroom, but Colette, the blonde model, is not. Life drawing classes are not part of the ordinary school timetable, and the young artists seem to appreciate the difference. Twenty students are crowded at desks and easels round the room, all gazing up at Colette with eyes that measure and absorb. The atmosphere is concentrated, professional, a world away from the giggle-and-squirm one might imagine. "It's completely different from what they're used to at school," says Dorothy Wyllie, principal teacher of art at Queen Anne High School. "Here they have to concentrate for two hours, and often they're working on a larger scale." She gestures towards a man-size easel: "It's hard work. They're using their whole arm. It can be tiring."
Tiring, perhaps, but worthwhile. In the five years since these Lifelines classes started, teachers are convinced it has made a huge difference to the confidence and technique of their talented pupils. The idea of giving school pupils the chance to study and draw the human form was the brainchild of Rab Walker and Ian Lindsay, principal teachers of art in Dunfermline High and St Columba's High respectively. They discovered that a high proportion of those entering Scottish art colleges were coming from post-school education, where life drawing is an important part of the training. They realised that if more of their pupils were to have portfolios accepted by the colleges, they would have to get some figure drawing into them. In the five years since the classes began, they have noticed a significant improvement in the numbers of pupils winning art school places.
If life drawing suggests uninspiring monochrome sketches, then think again. The range of interpretations from the pupils is impressive. Holly Bauchope, a sixth-year pupil from Dunfermline High is adding highlights to a striking cobalt-blue ink drawing of Colette's torso; further along the row of desks, a girl is building up concentric curves of coloured pastel, like a map-maker evoking the body's landscape-like contours. Someone else is producing a larger-than-lifesize rendition of Colette's feet, "just for a change"; Debbie Benson and Sandie Spink are struggling with small clay figures; and in the next row Jamie Malcolm from Queen Anne's has completed an emphatic, characterful sketch. It reminds me a bit of Alasdair Gray's drawings, I remark. "Who," he asks, "is Alasdair Gray?" "It's a beautiful thing, the human body," says Lindsay, "no matter whether it's old or young. It's not like drawing a jug; it's alive, it's got a soul; it speaks to you."
He sees Lifelines not only as a means of fattening up portfolios, but as a vital part of their development as artists. "The colleges tell us they're not looking for work, they're looking for people. What is important is personalities, people revealing their character through their work."
Walker picks up the same argument. "In my classes, we're interested in the narrative approach. We're not interested in still life and dead things. If it's about narrative and personality, then the human figure is your starting point."
Walker is enthusiastic. It is beyond the curriculum, non-examinable; it creates a "super sixth year" where talented pupils are rubbing shoulders with their peers and betters.
Jackie Ponton, principal teacher of art at Woodmill High, is keen on Lifelines because it goes some way toward bridging the gap between "school" art and "college" art. "There is a dreadful contradiction," she says. "What gets you Higher and SYS art doesn't get you into art school." After Lifelines, she says she notices her pupils have "increased confidence in all areas".
At a minimal cost of pound;1.50 a class, to cover the model's fee (the teachers work for nothing and classrooms have been made available at no charge), Lifelines has achieved results, but it is not resting on its laurels. A link with art students from Dunfermline's Norwegian twin town, Trondheim, has broadened the process of cross-fertilisation with visits from the Norwegian students and exhibitions of Scottish work sent to Norway; and Walker is keen to expand the process via the Internet, which, he avers, is the ideal medium for the exchange of ideas, with the possibility of combining images, text and sound. With Walker involved, it is highly likely something will come of it.
Back in the art room, Jamie Malcolm is also enthusiastic about Lifelines. "Before life classes, I wouldn't have gone near portraits. Now, they're some of my best work." "It gives you a better understanding," says Debbie Benson, as she pummels her clay into a likeness of Colette. "It affects all your work. You automatically look for what's underneath the surface, for the true form."
The Lifelines 1998 exhibition is at the Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews, until Sunday (March 15)