Designing ironwork stretches children's imagination. Eric Alexander reports. What does a catfish look 1ike?" If Craig Knowles had been a biology teacher rather than a blacksmith, he would doubtless have given a factual answer to the nine-year-old girl who asked this. What he actually said was, "Use your imagination."
The result is a mythical creature, a feline mermaid: just one of the images of marine life festooning the gate for a new recreation ground beside the River Wear. All these images were created in clay by children at the Dame Dorothy Primary School then copied in iron for incorporation into the gate.
"Sunderland's riverside is changing," says one of the publicity leaflets. Tyne and Wear Development Corporation aims to involve the community in these changes through the work of artists such as Craig. In the four years the St Peters Riverside Sculpture Project has been running, all its art has been generated using the ideas of local people and their children.
"Children are much more imaginative" is the view of Jane Strawbridge, a young blacksmith from Barnsley who has been working on community projects with both children and adults. When Meadowlands Trust was preserving a stretch of ancient meadow land they called in Jane and a stonework artist, Suzanne North. Two entrances were needed. Schoolchildren from the village of Hoyland Swaine helped Jane fill the gates with images recalling the history of the area.
The involvement of smiths in these projects illustrates the way that iron is experiencing a renaissance as an artistic medium. Graeme Hopper has worked at several schools in and around County Durham. The children visit his forge to see him at work. "I let the older ones get hands-on experience." A conspicuous example of Graeme's work can be seen in Stockton High Street, where four lamp standards feature cut-out images drawn by children.
The idea of working with children to produce locally distinctive art has also been used by Richard Farrington in Cumbria. His task was to produce steel sculptures marking 12 access points on the Whitehaven-to-Ennerdale Cyclepath, part of the Sustrans national network. All the schools along the route were involved.
Each of the first eight way markers was designed using drawings from a different primary school. The clusters of images - people, creatures, local features - are striking, whether viewed in silhouette or with sunlight gleaming on their galvanised surface. The only secondary school is marked with a "tree" built from pupils' signatures and topped by a bird. Richard has since applied this approach elsewhere.
A recreation ground, a meadow, a cycle track . . . what about a school? Ask Kate Maddison of Chrysalis Arts, whose work for the fence and playground at St Philip's Church of England School, Salford, has won high acclaim. Kate and her partner Rick Faulkner are primarily designers who call in craft specialists to implement their designs.
At St Philip's the design has again evolved from the children's ideas, and iron is here in abundance. It has been cast, it has been profiled. A firm specialising in railings has produced the bars that fan out around the image of a cartwheeling girl. But no forge work: "We use it sparingly, because of the budget."
Chrysalis Arts has also contributed to one of the most vivid displays of child based design - at St John the Baptist School in Ragworth near Stockton. "Every child has been involved in at least one artistic project," says head teacher Meg Cooper. "And many of the parents and governors."
To appreciate the full extent you have to go inside and see the display of work in ceramics and textiles. But the view from outside is impressive enough, with iron playing the star part. At the main entrance (shared with the adjacent neighbourhood centre), Chrysalis Arts's welcoming sign is matched by a line of brightly coloured fence panels.
On the opposite side of the school is an even more colourful display, seen from the road across a broad stretch of turf. The school's name emblazoned on the wall; a weather vane on the roof; railings sporting a row of cut-out children holding hands: much of this is Graeme Hopper territory.
Winter has bared the "tree" profiled on the gate: not a leaf to be seen. By contrast, the school's name blossoms amid the luxuriant "foliage" of a metal plate "tree" nearer the road. There is a real tree too, with a steel guard in "organic" style - bars that curve and twist: some of the forming has been done by the children.
A notice at the entrance acknowledges the sponsorship of the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, Stockton City Challenge and the European Regional Development Fund. One begins to appreciate why so much of this work is found in the north. Where financial deprivation is perceived, counter-measures are needed.
Nevertheless the south does provide instances of children's imagination being expressed through ironwork: Richard Bent's railings for Leeseland Junior School in Gosport and his "weather vane tree" on the Cupernham schools' campus in Romsey; Richard Farrington's garden seats for the Red House Museum in Christchurch and his sculptural way markers for the Centurion Way cycle path near Chichester; Michael Malleson's gates at the Gryphon School in Sherborne, unusual in containing feature panels designed by a group of sixth-formers; window grilles overlooking the playground of the Soho Parish School in London, an example dating back to 1988.
Schoolchildren involved in these projects experience the excitement of helping to produce a durable work of art. They start to acquire new skills and the confidence that goes with them.
Chrysalis Arts's work at St Philip's includes a group of "totems" representing the members of staff and mounted on the uprights of the fence. Each one was cast from a model sculpted by one of the pupils. "You might think," head teacher Lynn Connor told a conference, "that some of the kids would want to have a go at them. But not one has been touched."