Flour power

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Sarah French joins pupils on a day out at a former mill which is now one of Europe's largest contemporary art venues

Seven-year-old Jack rolls up his sleeves, adopts a nonchalant pose over the low table and picks up his pencil. First he draws a horizontal line across the page, followed by a curve that arcs from one side to the other.

"These bits have to be really soft," he says as he draws vertical lines in the white space.

Looking out of the window it's easy to see where Jack and most of his classmates have found their inspiration. From the education suite at Baltic, the centre for contemporary art in the former Baltic flour mills at Gateshead, the Millennium Bridge over the Tyne looks almost within touching distance as the children set to work cutting out recycled materials to print their own version.

"This is printer's ink," says artist Louise Bradley, holding up a fat, blue tube. "You need the same amount as the toothpaste you put on your brush in the morning. Don't squeeze hard otherwise you'll end up with a great big worm and that will spoil your picture."

Louise is one of 15 artists, print-makers and designers drafted in to lead workshops with schoolchildren at Baltic.

Growing up in the shadow of Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North sculpture on the edge of Gateshead, Jack and the other Year 2 children from Harlow Green Infants School are no strangers to art, but are still full of excitement when they arrive at the first stop of their day at Baltic.

In the centre's cinema, they're shown pictures of how it used to look before it was transformed from a 1950s flour mill on the south bank of the Tyne into one of the largest centres for contemporary art in Europe.

There are "oohs" when a picture comes on screen of Anish Kapoor's "Taratantara", a giant red installation which filled the void during redevelopment, then laughter at Antony Gormley's "Domain Field" of "models wrapped like mummies," as described by a girl in the front row.

Next it's off to Archigram in one of Baltic's vast exhibition spaces. It is based on the work of six architects in London in the early 1960s. The children run through the high-ceilinged space having been asked to find as many bridges as they can. The bridge theme will run throughout their day, picking up on work they're doing at school.

Judy Thomas, head of the education at Baltic, says the centre provides days tailored to the individual needs of schools. "Teachers will tell us 'we are doing a project on X' and we try to link it to what the children do during their visit and match it with exhibitions going on at the time," she says.

Teachers are encouraged to make a preparatory visit. If they opt for an artist workshop, Baltic selects the artist whose skills fit best. A range of educational material is also on offer.

For the pupils and staff of Harlow Green, there are many advantages to an education day at Baltic. All the schools have to pay is transport and a fee to the artist.

It's also an opportunity for everyone to get to know the area better.

Harlow Green, for instance, is only 10 minutes away but some of the children have never been as far as the Quayside.

Teachers are also invited to take part in their own education days. In low cost half-day sessions at the centre, they take part in workshops with teachers from other schools and professional artists to get fresh inspiration.

Practical workshops include book-making, sculpture, print-making and drawing and enable teachers to pass what they have learned on to their pupils.

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