A miniature fashion collection, usingfinds from the garden, transported children to new creative heights. Nigel Williamson reports
You cannot really begin to describe David Ellwand's art. To say he creates fairy dresses made from entirely natural objects such as dried flowers, leaves, shells and feathers is accurate, but it risks making his work sound fey and precious - like a bunch of would-be costume designs for the next Lord of the Rings film.
When you first see his book, Fairie-ality: the Fashion Collection from the House of Ellwand (Walker Books, pound;25), the title tends to confirm initial prejudices. But when you turn the sumptuous pages, all cynicism evaporates. The presentation is extraordinary, the designs out of this world. Exquisite miniature dresses, jackets, trousers, hats and even shoes, are all created from simple resources offered for free by nature.
The clothes look so life-like that it's no wonder the fashion world has fallen in love with the House of Ellwand, as if his designs were genuine, full-scale, haute-couture creations rather than an elaborate fairy-sized faux-collection designed to satisfy his own audacious imagination.
Since the book's publication last autumn, he has promoted Fairie-ality via tv interviews, features in style magazines and publicity trips to New York, courtesy of his US publishers. But he found time to conduct a workshop in the art room at West Chittington Primary School, Sussex, where his five-year-old daughter Lydia is a pupil.
He has brought along several large cartons of dried blooms, sheets of pressed flowers, mounds of feathers, fresh lilies, boxes of acorns, jars of shells and coloured stones. About 20 children from Years 3, 4 and 5 carefully examine the book, and girls and boys alike are awestruck.
"The way I always start," he says, "is to make a sketch." As an example, he cuts a length from a cardboard tube, in traditional Blue Peter style.
Taking a fresh leaf, he wraps it around the tube and shows them how to glue it in place. Immediately the tube is transformed into the green bodice of a dress, made more dramatic when he takes a bunch of highly-coloured feathers which become the swirling skirts. "If you don't want to make a dress, you can make a jacket or a hat," he says. The hat idea is enthusiastically adopted by several of the boys. "Can we make shoes?", asks Lauren. "Shoes are the most difficult thing," he says. "Hats and dresses and trousers are simpler."
Toby, nine, asks: "What gave you the idea of designing dresses out of leaves and flowers?"
"Well, I'm a photographer," Ellwand explains. "I was photographing some lilies and I noticed that when they died the texture took on a silk-like quality. I thought it resembled a shirt and the idea of making the book started from there."
"Can we wear the clothes we make?" Georgina asks.
"Not really," he says patiently. "Think more of an Action Man or a Barbie doll."
This doesn't satisfy Elliott: "Can I make a jacket for my guinea pig?" When told the animal would eat it, he reverts to the hat option. He insists on a full-size topper, covered in huge dried leaves from a London plane tree and with a melodramatic plumage of pheasant feathers protruding from the top, and asks: "Can I wear it on the way home?"
Fortunately, while many designs match Elliott's in artistic ambition, most are more modest. Sitting next to Elliott, William also opts for a top hat, but cannily constructs one in Action Man size, smaller but every bit as effective.
Ellwand's advice is much in demand. "How can I make these shells stick to this leaf?", Becky asks. The children work at different paces. Over the next two hours, some produce two or even three creations, others one minor masterpiece. The ingenuity shown by almost all of them is impressive. His own sophisticated designs have provided the starting point, and their imaginations have taken over.
There are dresses made from dried dahlias, ornamented with silvery pressed ferns imported from the US and known as "Daisy Millers". Flowery bell-bottom trousers are popular. And Ellwand's warning that shoes are too difficult to make is taken by many as a challenge. By the end of the afternoon, no fewer than 11 of the children have offset their designs for dresses and jackets with footwear. "Shoes are very fashionable," says Lauren knowingly. Several have used shells, with raffia bows glued expertly to them. One child has fashioned a pair of orange clogs from two dried lantern flowers.
"I've never seen such concentration from you two," headteacher Gail Vickers tells Toby and William when she comes to inspect their progress. She cannot conceal her delight at how well they have responded. Under her leadership, the school prides itself on its work in the creative arts. Alongside the routine self-portraits and "My house" pictures, a collection of African masks made by the children adorns the walls; and last year the school won a gold award under the Arts Mark scheme.
"Something like this adds another dimension," she says. "Tomorrow they will feel they have achieved something and their self-esteem will go up. The national curriculum for a while seemed to under-value the creative arts.
Now it's bringing them back. But at this school we never lost it."
By the end of the session, David Ellwand is exhausted but uplifted by his first schools workshop. "I had no idea how they would respond. But they were amazing, girls and boys alike," he says. "It was a real eye-opener."