Eye of the beholder
The class of 10-year-olds sat on the floor of Tate Britain and looked up at the huge abstract canvas. I looked with them at Richard Smith's vast expanse of green squiggles that he calls "Riverfall".
This was a new experience for me and for the children. They had never been to a gallery, and I had never talked about pictures before. We'd been brought together by the Young Cultural Creators (YCC) scheme, organised by London Docklands Development Corporation and Tate, the idea being that children plus author plus art equals development of visual literacy, reading and writing.
I had been thrilled to be invited to take part, but now, faced with real pupils and a real painting, I wasn't so sure my bright ideas were going to work. I'd spent five minutes explaining that when I write about animals I have to become a kind of translator of their world. Now I had to link all that to this picture.
I crossed my fingers behind my back. "Just supposing," I said to the children, "that this picture is a translation, a picture done by an animal to help humans understand its world. What animal did it? What was it trying to say?"
There was a sickening moment of silence, before their ideas bubbled up:
"A worm did it. It's saying how small it feels living in the grass."
"It's about a snake, slitherin' along. It's hungry."
"No, it's by a bird landing in a field, and the grass is going past very fast. And the bird's a bit scared."
"Yeah, it is a bit scary!"
They were off! Instantly at home with the idea that sensory information, emotional experience, and narrative could all be represented simultaneously on the same abstract canvas. The green squiggles offered no gender specific clues about how they "ought" to respond, so both boys and girls were happy to speculate about the meanings of the picture.
When we moved on to the next picture, a composition based on a single brown hexagon, they didn't need me to cue their ideas:
"It makes me think of summer!"
"Yeah, and sweets."
"And holidays and being happy."
The whole class agreed that the picture had been done by a fat, contented bee, or possibly a whole hive of bees co-operating, and there was a discussion about how and why the bees had come to do the painting.
Which led to us talking about the famous "waggle dance" that bees use to show other bees how to get to a particularly attractive flower patch and to what the world might look like through compound eyes. By the time we said goodbye the pupils were already referring to the Richard Smith works as "our pictures".
A month later, when I met the same group of children again for the planned follow-up session - all part of the YCC programme - they had taken those ideas much further.
There were pictures done through an animal's eyes - pigeons' views of the park, discarded crisp packets seen by a fly. There were dramatic stories too - ant adventures and foxy tales. And questions about pictures, about animals, about books and how they get written and illustrated.
The children definitely felt that they were now part of the world of creativity, that making pictures and books was something they could do themselves.
"I'd like my pictures in that Tate," one boy told me, "and I'm going to write a book too!"
So the equation had worked, children plus art does equal inspiration!
Many writers and illustrators are taking part in the YCC scheme. They all use different sorts of work to relate to their own writing or illustrating.
Every group of children on a YCC visit gets three authorart combinations to work with. YCC operates in London, but may expand to other regions. For more information call Tricia Kings Tel: 01736 332228 Zoologist Nicola Davies writes and illustrates children's information books TIPS FOR USING ART
* Concentrate on two or three pictures, don't do a whole gallery.
* Familiarise yourself with the works you want to concentrate on, before you take the children.
* Look for specific connections with a well loved book or with some other topic you're covering in class to help to focus their attention initially.
* Don't limit yourself to figurative and representational works.
* Abstracts work wonders for children. Just ask them what they see in the work and you'll be astonished.