Bigger and better

6th June 2003 at 01:00
A national arts initiative launched last year brings artists and children together with great results. Hilary Wilce bigs it up for Big Arts Week

For 10-year-old Tiffany Ocitti, the memory of the willow sculpture she and some friends made at school last summer is crystal clear.

"It was this bird's nest thing. We worked together as a team. We thought about happy things and happy feelings. It was hard at first, but it got easier. I told my Mum about it, and then I brought her to see it. She was amazed. She said, 'Did you make that?'" Berger Primary School sits among the bleak council estate blocks of Homerton, an impoverished part of east London, and life for its pupils is not always about happy things.

Many know far more than they should do about poverty and the many disadvantages it brings, so the school's decision to embrace last year's Big Arts Week meant bringing a welcome splurge of colour, music and creativity into their inner-city lives.

The Big Arts Week was launched last year as a national drive to get artists into schools to work with children for a week in the summer. But Big Arts Week organisers say, despite creative industries bringing in more than pound;67 billion a year to the UK, four in five teachers struggle to find time to teach any art.

Nine out of 10 teachers fear that this dearth in arts teaching will affect children's imaginations, with 40 per cent saying it will result in fewer artists in generations to come.

Backed by TimeBank, the Forward Arts Foundation, the BBC and the Arts Council, Big Arts Week managed to sign up 2,000 volunteers, who brought mask-making, drumming, poetry writing, photography, pottery, puppeteering and stained glass work into schools all around the country. Children in the Tyneside town of Cleveland learned the South African gumboot dance; in Devon they learned to sing barbershop harmonies.

At Berger Primary their allocated artist was Naomi Claire, a dance choreographer, who worked with Year 2 students to create an intricate dance routine based on their sense of self. Students performed it for their parents, and can still remember it in detail nine months later.

"Look," says 7-year-old Helena Georgiou, "I put my hands like this, and then I do this. What we learned was that the spirit of dance is not just fun, it's learning as well."

"And we learned it's not just showing off," adds Sharon Pokuwaah, "It's being yourself. It's our heart that makes us dance, not our head."

"We had to learn to jump up," says Mertcan Huseyin, "and shout out what we wanted to be. Like 'Actor!' or something like that."

The school also recruited local sculptor Lisa Bittlestone, who helped Year 4 pupils make imaginative, withy (willow twig) constructions. "We based it on nature," says 10-year-old Alex Cobb. "We looked at pictures of Andy Goldsworthy's work for inspiration, then we did drawings, then we voted for which design we wanted. Most people voted for the bridge."

Elif Pala, also 10, loved it. "When it first started and we drew our designs, I felt really happy. The lady who worked with us was really kind and helpful. She gave us the memory of how we can now make other things. I was so sad when it finished. I wanted it to go on and on."

Other participants remember the teams that they had to work in, and how they had to find ways to work together to achieve what they wanted, and also how several different children's ideas were blended together in the final sculpture - a withy bridge slung between trees with, says Alex, "these big, massive conkers hanging from the trees".

Lisa Bittlestone, who works as a visual arts outreach co-ordinator with Chats Palace, a Hackney arts centre, says it was a good project, but any artist going in to work with children needs to realise that, "there'll probably always be one child crying in the corner. Don't have too definite ideas of the outcome - and prepare yourself for chaos."

"Schools can be variable," she says, "but if you've got a good support team, then it will be very successful. And a short workshop, like this one, where the results are immediate, allows pupils to explore their ideas and see the results straight away."

Amanda Turner, the school's arts co-ordinator, and herself a sculptor, points out that Berger Primary stages a lot of arts events. It has held drawing and painting days, and dancers from Sadlers Wells theatre come in to hold sessions.

"But Big Arts Week is the big one. It's like Red Nose Day and it went really well. We moved into a whole new field with the expressive arts and it really motivated the children in class. It enthused them with a belief in themselves, and the feeling that they can go on and achieve other things."

National organisers of the Big Arts Week say last year's success means the event has already, "secured its place in the arts calendar". This year's week runs from 30 June to 4 July - after exams and before the holidays - and is aiming to draw in 5,000 schools and even more artists than last year.

A few lucky schools may even find a really big name striding in through their doors. Soho Parish School in central London was last year allocated Sam Taylor-Wood, who worked on photo collages with the children.

"It was really exciting to have her," says head Rachel Earnshaw, "and she was very nice with the children. But I'd say to any school, be very sure you've discussed the programme with the artist beforehand, and make sure you've got everything you need in place - I spent the whole time she was with us at the photocopier!"

To sign up to Big Arts Week Tel: 020 7654 0023,

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