Artists draw out talent by example

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Working artists, whether in residence or on visits to schools, can help to develop pupils' creative talent, reports Di Hope

Gail Wigley is beginning the last term of her two-year residency at Edinburgh Academy's art department, where for three days each week she runs the photographic darkroom, creates and exhibits her own work and interacts with pupils on an individual basis or in small groups.

With the position came a small studio, materials, full darkroom use, computer facilities, a small salary and time for her own photography practice. Like previous holders of the school's artist-in-residence post since it was established more than 10 years ago, Gail has found it provides an ideal transition between studying for her Master of Fine Art degree and life as a professional artist, giving her time to develop her ideas in a protected environment.

"My two years of being artist-in-residence have been great," says Gail. "I have been able to get exactly what I wanted out of it and now feel confident about continuing my practice and working as an artist in Scotland."

Her work is being exhibited in the Street Level Open show in Glasgow until tomorrow and will be included in a Society of Scottish Artists touring show and the Project Space at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. Gail feels very optimistic about her future as well as more confident in her communication skills.

"Beyond this, I have found the residency experience to be immensely rich in other ways," she says. "I love working with the pupils and helping them realise their ideas in the darkroom."

For pupils such as Jamie Wightman, aged 15, and Sarah Prentice, who is 16, the experience has given them an opportunity to find creative ways to explore ideas while increasing their insight into contemporary art practice.

"That's the best bit," continues Gail. "Working with people like Sarah and Jamie is great because they have so many ideas and so much enthusiasm. They have both worked really well, trying out lots of new techniques, which have been very successful."

In a department with a high proportion of pupils going on to art college, Gail's input has been seen as invaluable, both by example as a recently graduated practising artist and as a skilled instructor in lens-based work, which is a developing area of fine art. Jonathan Ellis, the head of art, describes it as "much more than a two-way process, with immeasurable richness gained all round", even in a department staffed by practising artists.

Another fruitful partnership between artists and a school has been demonstrated at Sciennes Primary in Edinburgh, a school which has a strong and confident arts policy. As part of a project to study Scottish art and artists, the painter Barbara Rae, who lives near the school, was invited to lead a series of workshops. They resulted in highly creative work from the pupils and the donation of a silkscreen print from the artist, with the suggestion that it be auctioned to pay for future art events. Several other local artists, including Elizabeth Blackadder, David Michie and Bob Bachelor, also donated their work, and to conclude the project, exhibited in the school alongside work by the pupils. The exhibition was then open to the community each evening for a week.

Headteacher Lindsey Robertson attributes the marked increase in the quality and vitality of the pupils' work to their exposure to real art. "Every child in the school had a piece of work on show," she says, delighted. "For me, the very best part was seeing all these families coming in, some with their pokes of chips, to see what had been done."

Sciennes Primary has a specialist art teacher and an after-school art club, but Mrs Robertson is keen to continue welcoming practising artists into the school. The auction of the donated artwork has provided funds for this, as well as donations to charities, including the local children's hospital.

Gallery education programmes also encourage artists to pass through school gates. Davidsons Mains Primary in Edinburgh has seen excellent results from collaborating with the Fruitmarket Gallery, with class visits being followed up by artist-led sessions in the school. Headteacher Scott Meal is full of enthusiasm for the increased confidence and creativity that collaboration with artists has brought to his pupils, saying proudly: "The school is full of art. Even the plasma screen in the entrance hall is bursting with it."

Tracy Morgan, education manager of the Fruitmarket Gallery, is planning to use artists more as part of its highly praised education programme and as part of an initiative being hosted by the National Galleries of Scotland.

The idea, says Maureen Finn, head of the National Galleries' education department, is to create through training a pool of artists to contribute to the education provision of the six Edinburgh galleries involved and, ultimately, to create residencies in schools.

Edinburgh's creative and aesthetic adviser, John Turner, is enthusiatic about the principle of artists-in-schools and sees short-term projects as being most viable. He says: "We had great success using the Travelling Gallery in our schools, with a van taking an exhibition out to pupils, then artists following up with workshops. The results were excellent.

"I would love to see more artists in schools."

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