Is your school tuned in to Black History Month? It was the catalyst for creativity among Year 5 pupils involved on the Me, Myself and I project. George Cole reports
"I was really excited and looking forward to it. I've got a computer at home but I hadn't done this before," says Muhammed Musadik, aged 10.
Muhammed was one of two dozen Year 5 pupils from Liverpool who took part in a remarkable arts project that combined art, ICT and history. The project, "Me, Myself and ...", saw the children working with a digital artist to create a series of imaginative portraits that have been exhibited both on the internet and in one of Liverpool's major museums.
The work was the brainchild of Louise O'Brien, project manager for BBC Project Merseyside. "I have dreamed of being able to show publicly the work of black children in the city and doing it in an exciting way," she says.
Paula McAdam, senior broadcast journalist at BBC Radio Merseyside, who also worked on the project, elaborates. "If you go into Liverpool museums, and you look for curatorial artwork that reflects a multi-racial society, you'll find maybe two or three paintings. It's not the fault of those running the galleries today, because they didn't purchase the original collections. But we said to the museums 'What if we get you actual artwork that is culturally representative of Liverpool now?'"
The project was planned with National Museums Liverpool, with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The idea was to get children to use computers to create self-portraits which would be used during Black History Month in 2003. Two schools were selected, St Silas C of E Primary in Dingle, and Kingsley, a tri-faith school (Catholic, Church of England and Islam) in Toxteth. "I chose the schools on the basis of how many pupils were from families that do not have English as a first language and are from the most deprived areas of the city," says Louise O'Brien.
Twenty-four children took part in the project last September: groups of around a dozen pupils went to the BBC's open learning centre, where 14 PCs and an interactive whiteboard are widely used by the local community (many sessions, for example, are designed for adults who wish to learn IT skills). The children were told how their images would be used during Black History Month and they met digital artist Fiona Hawthorne, who ran the computer art session. She took six children at a time, while the others did research on the internet, and introduced them to the tools they would be using: Corel Painter (a paint package) and a PC tablet and pen.
"She told us about each of the different things and then what to do. She showed us how to draw a picture and put in a background," says Michael Neary, a pupil at St Silas. "She taught them as if they were using paper and pencils and then opened up lots of pages for them to work on," says Paula McAdam. The children were encouraged to experiment with the tools and effects offered by Corel Painter. Then they were each given a mirror and asked to draw a test self-portrait, before creating a second and final version. "As the children were drawing their portraits, I was displaying them on the interactive whiteboard, so they could see the work in progress," says Paula McAdam.
The vast majority of children enjoyed creating art on a computer, as Kingsley pupil Shellesa Coke, explains: "It was more fun than using a pencil and paper." Her contemporary, Connor Coker, adds: "I liked using the computer because it was easy to rub out things and you didn't make a mess or tear any paper." But a third Kingsley pupil, Gemma Bjlrkhaug, wasn't so impressed. "I prefer pencil and paper for drawing because with a computer, you had to keep looking up at the screen to see what you were doing." But everyone agrees that the computer opened up new areas of creativity. Asha Elmi from St Silas noticed that the light from a window cast a shadow over her face, and she used this effect in her finished portrait. Muhammed Musadik made his portrait look as if it had been created with pastels rather than on a computer, while Tahani Baggash (above left) used a copying effect to include a multitude of tulips. "It was fascinating to see how children approached the task," says Paula McAdam. "One student, Nzimah Akpan, got obsessed with how you could constantly change all the colours because it was digital, and he ended up with an abstract picture that looks like a funky headscarf. Michael Neary's portrait is blue, as if he's underwater."
The children were interviewed by BBC Radio Merseyside as they created their portraits. There was also a competition to find the winning portraits and an awards ceremony was held at the Museum of Liverpool Life, with many pupils and parents in attendance. The winners received a large display board bearing their portrait to take home. "A lot of the families do not usually feel comfortable going into museums and galleries, so it was good they came to see their child's work," says Louise O'Brien.
In addition to being exhibited at the Museum of Liverpool Life (and its website), many portraits were made into postcards and displayed on the BBC's website. The work was also shortlisted for the Chrisi Bailey award, a national arts award for young children, and Tahani Baggash's portrait was used for the cover of an Arts Council document.
Christine Osborne, ICT co-ordinator at St Silas, says: "The project made the children aware that computers are not just about playing games or writing, but reach into other areas of the curriculum. It made them more aware about themselves and Liverpool history. There was also the community link with Kingsley. And as a result, we're using paint software packages more often in school."
Lawrence Crilly, head of St Silas during the project, adds: "The children were surprised that their work was displayed in such a significant gallery.
And to be able to stand a child up in assembly and say that their work is on the cover of an Arts Council brochure - that's some celebration of a child's work."
Almost any classroom computer can be used with a paint program. Digital artist Fiona Hawthorne uses a computer tablet and pen made by Wacom, but many other similar products are also available.
The children used Corel Painter paint package, although St Silas uses Indigo Learning's Dazzle for its classroom activities.
The Liverpool Museums website features an online gallery of pupils' portraits at: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.ukhamlynmemyselfandi
The BBC website describes the project at:
The BBC site also displays many of the portraits:
BBC Merseyside has been running another community arts project this year, as part of the Liverpool Biennial MonthLiverpool City Council Faith in the City year. The project involved the BBC's open learning centre and the BBC Bus. The project will be showcased on October 19.
BBC Radio Merseyside: www.bbc.co.ukenglandradiomerseyside
Fiona Hawthorne's website is at: www.fionahawthorne.com
More information on Black History Month www.black-history-month.co.uk