Children can create tomorrow's antiques through modern craft techniques, Elaine Williams reports.
The room is in uproar. Bits of fabric, raffia wool, plastic pots, seedheads, brightly coloured tissue and felts, wire, pipe cleaners, wool are piled up on tables as Robin Hood Primary's Year 4 get to grips with creating effigies of their heroes.
Michael Schumaker looks decidedly jaunty behind his bottle top steering wheel and squeezy top lazer lights. Rebecca Smith, eight, has given her Scoobie Doo a pair of heart-shaped button eyes and a fabric tongue which is hanging out. "He's seen a pretty girl," she says. Leah Townsend, also eight, is making an angel figure on top of a mound of gold fabric. She says: "That's my mum on top of a hill like an angel. The gold is a sign that she will look after me wherever I am. She's always been there for me."
The children work with a sense of purpose and urgency, for these heroic figures are destined to be shown in a major city gallery, alongside the work of professional artists. Their industry is given direction by Samantha Bryan, a professional craft maker who is spending the day at Robin Hood to talk about her own work, made from found objects, and to show pupils how they can create things from salvaged materials.
Bryan's own work is appearing in "Recollections", an exhibition by nine women designer-makers at the Craft Centre and Design Gallery, Leeds. The show focuses on childhood memories and "old loved things". The women have created a series of small, exquisite, collectible structures and hangings from remnant fabrics, embroidery, tin, papier mache and found objects.
Bryan herself makes beautiful ornaments of fairies doing everyday things, being a lollipop lady for example, or riding an outlandish Heath Robinson-style exercise machine, their bodies stitched from tiny bits of leather or created from seed pods and delicate wiring.
Gallery staff have been looking for the opportunity to extend the gallery's work into community and education partnerships and to promote contemporary craft. This exhibition, with an easily accessible theme, seemed like a good starting point. Louise Haley, gallery publicity co-co-ordinator said: "A lot of people think of craft as throwing pots or basket-making, but today the term is used in a much wider sense. It is about promoting the collectibles of the future, like modern antiques, high quality objects that merge the boundaries between art, design and craft. People who know about the work we show come from afar. But we also want to build up local interest."
Janet Chin, the gallery's education officer, approached Robin Hood Primary, a school in a former pit village, now commuter belt between Wakefield and Leeds, which her own children attend. Robin Hood, a beacon school of 320 children, prides itself on maintaining a focus on the arts to broaden the curriculum and leapt at the opportunity of such a partnership.
Year 4's creations of the Queen, Elvis Presley, a leather-haired Rachel from S Club, Bart Simpson, David Beckham or just plain mum or dad, will now take pride of place alongside professionals' work during the Craft Centre and Design Gallery "Recollections" show. In addition, pupils in reception and Year 1 have produced drawings about "memories" which will be magnified to hang on boards or reduced to form the backdrop to jewellery showcases or be made into a book for visitors to look at.
Samantha Bryan explained to pupils during the workshop that her sculptures were a "bit mad". She said: "As a kid I used to love the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and I always wanted to make wacky things like the inventions in that film. When I was little my nan also used to tell me stories and she never told the same story in the same way twice. It always had little different things in it. If you look at all the little, tiny things in my work they tell stories too."
Bryan and Janet Chin had made sure that pupils had plenty of "bits and bats" to work with when making their pieces. Gallery staff had put aside a box weeks before the Robin Hood workshop, filling it with small items such as lids off jars and bottles, yoghurt pots, fabric remnants, scraps of leather. Pupils too had been collecting cast off items from home. They also made sure that pupils had been prepared for the workshop by first producing drawings with their teachers. Bryan said: "The more stuff pupils have to work with, the more individual the outcome. Also, if they have done drawings first, they are straightaway into a more structured way of working."
She also felt it was good to work from what the children were already knowledgeable or enthusiastic about, hence the heroes theme. She said:
"They enjoy the feeling of creating something out of bits of old junk and it's important to show them that there are no rights and wrongs. Some of the children here felt that what they were doing was 'rubbish'. Having me here has helped them to see that the choices of materials they make are the right ones for them. I point them in a few directions and they then have the confidence to go for it."
Gaynor Ramsay, Robin Hood's art co-ordinator, said she felt pupils would also gain a great deal from seeing how a gallery put a show together and displayed work. Headteacher Carol Kilburn said pupils were fascinated to see an artist make a living from creating models from throwaway things. She said: "Since nursery they have been making models from cast off materials, but to actually see an artist working who has refined that process and makes her living by it, that is so exciting and it gives the children a greater sense of pride in what they do."
Robin Hood is a high-achieving school, despite a mixed catchment, and gained 100 per cent level 4s in key stage 2 SATs last year and in 2000 with year groups of over 40. Carol Kilburn believes that giving pupils broad rich experiences is part of the success in raising standards. Each year the school runs four focus weeks, devoted to topics such as animal welfare, health and fitness, countries of the world, the Commonwealth, or careers, which draw in all areas of the curriculum.
Helping children to understand the nature of contemporary craft and how beautiful objects can be made from everyday, found materials was part of this process.
Carol Kilburn said: "They would never normally have an opportunity to do this, but I am always on the look-out for the chance to give pupils a wider sense of the world, it helps them to make choices later on. I imagine very few would imagine you could make a living the way Samantha does, but now they will think differently. This is called learning for a purpose."