Art partnership draws on visions of the hills and the high street

9th April 2010 at 01:00
A creative exchange of language and landscapes between primary pupils in Edinburgh and on Syke is the subject of a new exhibition. Emma Seith reports

An industrious band of pupils from Tollcross Primary's Gaelic unit are holed up at a hall in Edinburgh, close to the King's Theatre. The huge piece of art they are working on is too large to be kept out day and night for a week at the school, so they have relocated to the local Scouts' base.

The dramatic scenery of Skye lies flat, spread out before the pupils on the floor of the hall, covering a massive area. A group of about 10 youngsters busy themselves painting sky, mountains, rivers and trees, occasionally seeking advice and guidance in Gaelic from artist Julie Brook, who has been leading the project.

Since March last year, 30 pupils from Tollcross have been studying their environment, as have a similar number from Bun-sgoil Shleite, a Gaelic- speaking primary school on Skye.

An exchange took place in the autumn: the islanders were thrust into the hustle and bustle of the capital for a week and the Edinburgh-based children got a taste of tranquillity on the Sleat peninsula - the so- called "Garden of Skye".

The rest of the time the youngsters, from P4-7, have used new technologies to break down geographic barriers and share their drawings and experiences.

They have hunkered down with their sketch books beside the streams and mountains of Skye, using nearby rocks as easels. And on the capital's Calton Hill they have sketched their impressions of the Athens of the North, huddled under umbrellas. They were even given permission to head onto the roof of the Waverley shopping centre to get a bird's eye view of the city.

Cumulatively, the children have produced more than 1,000 pieces of art. Some of the pictures are the work of individuals contained in sketch books - their constant companions since the project started - but others are collaborative pieces.

This month, the wider world will get the chance to see their creations when the capital's Fruitmarket Gallery hosts an exhibition based on the project, called "Air Iomlaid" or "On Exchange".

Air Iomlaid was the brainchild of the gallery, Ms Brook and Lasair Ealain, a committee of pupils from the Skye primary. It has been supported to the tune of pound;96,000 by the Scottish Arts Council's Inspire Fund, with additional money from Scottish Natural Heritage and Bord na Gaidhlig.

The main focus of the exhibition will be four enormous pieces in charcoal, created by pupils perching atop ladders and standing on desks to give them the reach to get the job done.

The pictures show the Edinburgh pupils' interpretation of their city and of Skye, and the young islanders' interpretation of the capital and their home. They are impressive.

"Where they have lived in a place, their pictures are bursting with information; but where they have been the visitors, the pieces are much more expressive," says Ms Brook. "They are as much about the experience they had as the landscape."

The children's sketch books will also be on display in the exhibition and a film showing the process will run - so far they have shot around 14 hours. Responsible for delivering this part of the project is filmmaker Matt Hulse, whose first feature-length film, Follow the Master, was the second-fastest sell-out at last year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The highlight of the project for most of the Edinburgh children was the trip to Skye.

"It was good. It was just so different and fun to draw - you don't get many mountains in Edinburgh and there are much less houses," says Euan Hamilton, who is in the P56 composite class at Tollcross.

The island was quite a contrast to Edinburgh, agree Jacob Hutchison and Cameron Greatorex, who are in P7.

"There weren't as many houses, there were small roads and no double-decker buses - there weren't really any buses at all, to be honest, and hardly any cars," says Jacob. "I actually enjoyed Skye more than staying here."

"It was quieter and more relaxing," adds Cameron. "You weren't in a rush all the time."

Many hours spent gazing at Edinburgh's streets, monuments and buildings have not made Cameron see the city any differently. Jacob, however, says he now has a new sense of wonder about the commonplace, even if it's just a window.

"I mean, who came up with that?" he asks.

Two of the girls - Catriona MacGregor and Sorcha Macintyre - found painting the landscape in Skye more straightforward than capturing Edinburgh's hectic cityscape.

Catriona, P7, says: "At first I wasn't that interested in art, but now I really enjoy it. I just didn't think I was very good at it, but now I know there's a lot more to art than drawing. Sometimes it doesn't matter if the sketch isn't good, as long as the colour is. I've learned a lot about how to work with paints and how they mix together."

Catriona's mum, Valerie, who has helped support the pupils during the project, feels it has been a wonderful experience for them.

"Initially, some of them seemed reluctant and hesitant to tackle the work, but now they are fully confident," she says. "Their art work has dramatically improved as a consequence. It has not only taught them about artistic technique but also given them an appreciation of art in general. My daughter is now far more interested in drawing than she was before, which is great."

According to Anne Macphail, principal teacher in the Gaelic unit at Tollcross, pupils normally receive around an hour-and-a-half of art per week, but the project has seen them spend day after day drawing, sketching and painting. It has been tough to find the time and deliver the normal curriculum alongside, but she feels the pupils have really progressed.

Drawing is a universal talent, rather than something that only people with a particular gift can undertake, Ms Brook believes.

"What I like about drawing is it's open to anyone - it's a great equaliser," she says. "Some have a greater interest or facility, but if you apply yourself and practise, you become drawing fit and you can be as good as anybody."

The project, however, has not just been about art. When the exchange took place, Shona Sloan, from Scottish Natural Heritage, worked with the children to teach them how the landscape they were immersed in was formed. On Skye, they also learned how mosses and lichens can be used to create dyes and colour.

Of their Edinburgh experience, Ms Sloan says: "Despite being in the very centre of a big city, the kids discovered lots of colourful wildlife. There is so much natural history to see in Princes Street Gardens, including some wonderful seasonal features such as the changing colours of autumn foliage, the berries and the birdlife."

And then, of course, there have been the improvements to the pupils' Gaelic. All the artists who have worked with the children are Gaelic speakers, as is Ms Sloan. Regular discussions about their work have improved and expanded the pupils' vocabulary, say their teachers.

Gwen Culbertson, headteacher of the 54-pupil Bun-sgoil Shleite, says: "Their self-evaluation and peer-evaluation skills have really come on and the reflective aspects of the project have given them more confidence about speaking out, have empowered them and developed their Gaelic."

Poets have also worked with both schools, helping the pupils to compose haikus in Gaelic.

For some of the Edinburgh pupils, the visit to Skye was the first time they had heard the language used in everyday situations.

"To be in more of a Gaelic community when we went to Skye was fantastic," says Tollcross teacher Ms Macphail. "They were seeing signage in Gaelic and we went to see a Blazin' Fiddles concert where they spoke in Gaelic on stage. It's so important for them to see the language spoken in normal situations, because it makes it real, which is hard to do in Edinburgh."

New friendships have blossomed too and a strict work ethic has been instilled. "The artists are very demanding of them," continues Ms Macphail. "They have developed stamina and concentration."

According to Johnny Gailey, programme manager for children and young people at the Fruitmarket Gallery, the next stage of the project is to get other schools involved.

He hopes the exhibition will prove to be a draw. The gallery plans to run workshops which it believes will inspire schools to get out and about in their local area.

Learning materials will also be available through the schools' intranet, Glow. These will include tips on developing drawing skills, as well as information on other aspects of the project, such as Gaelic language learning and natural history.

"There has been no high concept to this project; it's not difficult," says Mr Gailey. "It's just about going out in the local environment and setting aside the time to develop children's artistic skills."

- Air Iomlaid runs from April 9 to May 10 at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. In June, it will travel to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye.


Drawing outdoors in Scotland can get cold and it tends to be a long walk to the toilet, points out Lucy Hannah, a P6 pupil at Bun-sgoil Shleite, a Gaelic-speaking primary school on Skye.

However, like the pupils from Tollcross Primary in Edinburgh, the children from Skye find it hard to identify anything they would have changed about Air Iomlaid, or On Exchange, the art project which has been running at both schools for almost two years.

And like the Tollcross pupils, the Skye residents identify the exchange as the clear highlight.

"The best bit was the exchange, when we went down to Edinburgh," says Stella Brook Young, P7. "It was really good to see the friends we made on Skye again and it was fun to be drawing a different environment.

"We've done a lot more art (during the project)," she continues. "It's been good because usually we only got art for an hour every second Wednesday. I feel I've improved. I think I have a lot."

Millie Mehan, P4, adds: "There were lots of different things in Edinburgh and you got to learn how to draw them and it was just quite fun. There were no mountains there and not many trees."

Shannon MacDonald, P4, also enjoyed going to Edinburgh but found it harder to draw than Skye.

"Buildings are quite hard to draw and here (on Skye) it's easy," she feels.

Classmate Hal Marsh says: "I think I got better at art. I was OK before, but now I would say out of 10, I'm a seven."

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