Exhibition has pupils hanging on for more

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Every two years, art becomes the focal point at St Columba's in Kilmacolm

Turning an entire school into a gallery for pupils' artwork sounds like an art teacher's dream. But it becomes reality every two years at St Columba's School in Kilmacolm - although not for as long as Helen Beall, head of the design faculty, would like.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could do this for a week?" she says, glancing hopefully in the direction of headteacher David Girdwood, who doesn't flinch. "This is wonderful," he says, indicating the paintings, parents, perfumed guests and shining pupils, mingling, chatting and carrying trays of vol-au-vents.

"Not just for the art department but the whole school. In the two days of the art show, just about everybody connected with the school comes to see it - parents, guests, professional artists. Knowing that, the pupils focus on their artwork and do their very best. They all raise their game."

That includes pupils who have no intention of art as a career, says Laura Watson (S3), who aims to study medicine. "I love art. It's a talking- point. It inspires you. It's striking and calming at the same time."

The hall grows quiet as Winnie Ewing, who lives nearby, opens the art show. "There are a few perks to being a politician," she says. "One of the best is being asked to events like this, where you see wonderful work by young people.

"Women often fall in love with those who paint them, and having had my portrait painted several times, I know why. You get to know each other well through long conversations. One of the artists who painted me is here tonight."

With a large moustache and a long brown smock, Norman Edgar, whose iconic image of Winnie hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, looks every inch the artist. But it wasn't always so, he says.

"My father was a bank manager. The only reason I got to art school was that he knew damn well I'd be a schoolteacher at the end of it. He never thought I'd make a living as an artist. This show lets young people see that you can."

After the opening, Helen Beall conducts a tour of the school, whose every corridor and classroom wall is adorned with pupils' artwork. Glittering, elegant shoes await dancing feet. Bright and dark masks display good and evil. Long, pale dresses hang expectantly from the ceiling. Painting after painting, of figures and faces, wildlife, ladies and winter landscapes, reveal the ability of artists to absorb, reflect and re-create the world.

An array of wooden goblets, vases and abstract shapes, carved to highlight the grain and bring out the beauty in the wood, is watched over by Timmy Cooper (S6). "I would love to earn my living making these," he says. "I've been doing it since I was five, when my grandfather showed me how."

Pupils in the classrooms chat about how they made the art on display. "We worked in hot or cold colours to create a design based on our names," says Lucy Bishop (S2). "It took us a long time. So it's pleasing that people come in and see what we've done."

Downstairs they pick out paintings they like by artists and former pupils. Lucy is drawn to a hairy Highland cow. "I love the way the fur is smoothed out, and it has all this detail in its face. The eyes are great and the horns so perfect."

A huge face in bold, bright colours that bear no resemblance to human skin-tones captures the likeness of tennis star Andy Murray. "The variety of colours makes this interesting," says Greg Cunning (S2). "The eyes appeal. They look focused and directed."

Jack McAlpine (S2) is impressed by a scene with a "restricted palette", he says. "That shows you it was done in winter. The reflections in the water are good. I'd like to be able to do them, but I'd need more practice using colours for highlight and tone."

Displaying their own work alongside that of professional artists inspires rather than inhibits pupils, says Mrs Beall. "It shows them what they can do. It makes them feel special. Bringing the artists' work into their environment makes them comfortable with it - almost as if they own it."

By comparing their art with that of senior pupils, former pupils and professional artists, the youngsters see how skills develop. Putting on this kind of show is a huge amount of work for two art teachers - herself and Maria Robinson - says Mrs Beall. But it is worth it.

"I also teach in the primary school," says Mrs Robinson. "I tell the 10- year-olds this is their first exhibition and the start of their CVs. They're thrilled."

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