Artists drawn out of their boxes

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Danny Sheehan's school residency culminated in a handbook, not an artwork. Harvey McGavin reports

Danny Sheehan sits in the staffroom of Westwood Park primary, a folder full of paperwork on the table beside him. Passing teachers nod in greeting or hardly notice the familiar figure in their midst. But Danny Sheehan isn't even a member of staff. He's an artist. So what is he doing in a school staffroom?

It is fitting that Danny Sheehan should be found here rather than in some paint-spattered corner of this Salford school because, unlike most artists'

residencies, his six- month association with Westwood Park is redefining the way teachers and artists work together.

He has been working as an artist in schools for 14 years on and off, combining his personal work as a painter, printmaker and sculptor with short-term residencies across the North-west. But his collaboration with Westwood Park has been different.

"This is the first project I have done where the main aim of it really is to get artists involved," he says. "In most schools they bring the artists in and say 'we want this doing'. But this is the first time I have had to slot my work into how they work."

Hence the paperwork. Danny Sheehan's brief has been to look at the curriculum and - in consultation with teachers - to come up with ways in which art might be used to deliver aspects of it. The starting point for the Creative Partnerships-supported project, which is known as Our Place, was the local environment. However, Danny is quick to point out that "the definition of environment is very loose". So, after observing a Year 1 lesson on changing materials - in which pupils saw how butter melted on toast or made "gloop" from flour and water - Danny Sheehan went away and devised his own take on infant science. He sent the class out to scour the school for objects, and pupils made plaster casts of the things they came back with - keys, pegs and so on - preserving a little bit of their environment and seeing how the soggy paste they started with solidified.

"Structuring the way I work to fit in with how the national curriculum is delivered has been a challenge for me," he says. This approach to teacher-artist relations has required a reassessment by both sides.

"It takes a quite a lot of trust on the teacher's part, and building up that trust has been a really important part of the process," says Danny Sheehan.

"It's natural for a teacher who is controlling a budget to try to get as much as they can from an artist. There's a tendency - and it's understandable - for the staff and children to want something tangible at the end of it. But this isn't about the end product.

"When I first came in and started talking about the environment everybody thought Changing Rooms. But this is about the process and about exploring ideas. It's not about commissioning a piece of work."

Instead, Danny Sheehan's role has been as a kind of artistic adviser. As well as contributing his own talents, he has arranged short placements for a textile artist, dancer and storyteller to enhance the teaching of various topics. Digital artist Dorrie Halliday is the most recent visitor to the school, where she trained teachers on how they might use photographic software in their lessons.

"It is opening teachers' eyes and making the curriculum more exciting," says Roger Wormleighton, Westwood Park's headteacher. "It's not just about putting art in its little box. It's about spreading it through the curriculum."

He adds: "There's creativity for its own sake, as an important aspect of children's education. The other side of it is that it helps children whose mind works in that particular way to access the curriculum. And there's a lot of enjoyment to be gained from it. There are issues in an area like ours about engaging pupils in their education and motivating them."

Having an artist in school over such a long period has been "excellent professional development for the staff", he adds. Jane Huxley, key stage 1 teacher, needed no convincing. A former advisory teacher in dance, Jane's enthusiasm for the subject meant that she often incorporated some fancy footwork into history, RE or science lessons. "My line manager once said to me 'Good God! You teach anything through dance," she laughs.

Having Danny Sheehan in school helped the staff to make those kind of cross-curricular links again.

"He's an important part of the set up," she says. Danny Sheehan has concentrated his efforts on working with five nursery and infants classes at the 300-pupil school. The key stage 1 curriculum lends itself to the environmental theme of Our Place - topics such as where we live, for example, allowed for some observational painting under his tutelage. And the development of children's fine motor skills has been assisted with clay modelling and the creation of a 3D map of the school and surrounding area.

One thing Danny Sheehan will leave behind is a practical guide for teachers to working with artists, a "how to" handbook listing the best places to obtain materials, the ins and outs of commissioning an artist and so on.

He hopes it will strengthen links between teachers and creative practitioners and do away with the concept of artists as people who come into a school, make something nice to look at and then disappear, never to be seen again.

"With some projects, they clear up at the end of the week and that's it," says Roger Wormleighton. "This has been about much more than that. It has been about bringing out the artist in every member of staff."

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