Big picture of a small isle

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Looking at the big picture really means just that to the pupils at Sleat Primary in south Skye, Miranda Fettes writes.

At Sleat Primary, they know how to think big. A visual arts and performance project involving all 74 primary and 21 nursery children and their teachers has been ambitious, far-reaching and taken two years to fund and complete.

At the heart of An Dealbh Mor (Gaelic for The Big Picture) is a painting measuring 14m x 9m which represents south Skye.

"It is bigger than our gym hall!" say the children.

Local artist Julie Brook - who has children at the school - came up with the idea and a steering committee of P5-P7 pupils and art education workers was set up in March 2004. The committee, named Lasair Ealain (Blaze of Art), drew up a plan and spent a year raising the pound;84,000 needed to complete the project. Funding came from the Western Isles, Skye and Lochalsh Leader+ programme and the Scottish Arts Council, among others.

Between April and October last year the children, teachers and artists made day trips, in groups of 25 to 30, to various locations in south Skye to make pencil drawings and watercolour paintings of the landscape. In class, they used their sketches to create A1 charcoal drawings. An element of peer assessment was involved, with the children discussing each other's pictures.

In early November, the children translated their work to a charcoal drawing measuring 5m x 3m, plotting the whole of south Skye and representing all the places they had visited. This was used as a basis for the 14m x 9m picture, which they worked on three days a week throughout November and December, using acrylic paint on canvas.

Then, from January to early March, the children worked with choreographer Clare Pencak and composer Piers Hellawell, creating movement and dance, music and song which explores the geological evolution of south Skye.

The project culminated this month in a series of performances on the painting, which was laid on the cafeteria floor of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College next door, with the audience looking on from the balconies.

An accompanying art exhibition continues until mid May.

A sheet of white silk covering the painting at the start of the performance was gradually withdrawn, representing the melting of the ice cap. The dance and movement re-enacted volcanic eruptions that formed the Cuillin. Using voices, shells, stones, glasses filled with water, accordions, violins, saxophones and a keyboard, the pupils evoked the beauty of the landscape.

Every child in the school and nursery participated in the project, which doubled up as the school's enterprise topic. Lasair Ealain held a workshop to demonstrate what they had learned to the public.

Alison MacLennan, acting headteacher at the school, says: "The beautiful thing about this project is it has been all inclusive. Every child has gained something from this project, whether it is confidence or expressing themselves through painting or dancing or music.

"I think every child will come away with a memory of this that they will carry into adulthood. They've done something amazingly creative, inspiring and fulfilling and they've been able to work with professionals."

It has stimulated tremendous pride in the island, too. "The children realise it's part of their heritage but it's also an inheritance to pass on," says Mrs MacLennan.

Ms Brook says the project has been unusually rewarding. "People are bowled over by the strength and vibrancy of the drawings. Artists have been round and aspire to do work like this.

"Some of the children who struggle with the academic side of school have really flourished. It has been a great equaliser.

"When you take children out drawing, they're working hard but they don't feel that they're working. I feel that it's about self-awareness and self-reward."

The school plans to tour the exhibition of working drawings of An Dealbh Mor and a documentary of the project and give performances later this year and next to celebrate the Highland Year of Culture, hopefully visiting Portree, Stornoway, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

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