Fortune favours braves

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Jane Norrie explains how an Arts Council project paid off fora primary school working on the theme of Hiawatha

Inspired by the tale of Hiawatha, children at the Michael Faraday School in Southwark, London, were buzzing with activity. Some worked with copper, embossing pieces of the metal with pictures of animals, some measured string to loop through "moose horns". Others were using wire and willow, feathers and cones to make "dream-catchers" - charms to keep bad dreams away. A lucky few painted a real canoe with native American designs, an activity that kept them absorbed long after the ringing of the final bell.

The project, which lasted throughout the spring term, was one of several pilot schemes funded by the Arts Council under the newly-launched "Artists in Education" scheme. Mary McDonagh from the Arts Council outlines the thinking behind the scheme: "It aims to broaden the scope of art education - to support projects that are artist-led and which demonstrate innovative approaches to the involvement of artists in school. Drawing on the artist's perspective should allow us to enhance enjoyment and increase access to contemporary art."

The two artists involved at Michael Faraday are Kate Miller and Andrea Sinclair. They share a studio in Burgess Park, a short distance from the school. Teacher Catherine Davies saw their exhibition of children's workshop art, liked what she saw and sowed the seeds for a term-long residency.

An intensive preparatory session with school staff established the theme of Hiawatha, as the school was already studying the poem as part of the English curriculum. For the artists it was ideal. Ms Miller says: "The story is multi-layered. It is about nature, birds, beasts and plants, as well as being about spiritual matters and a child growing up." In a school with a large multi-cultural intake the theme of native Americans also seemed appropriate.

The Arts Council grant enabled both artists to work in the school on each Tuesday throughout the spring term. They each received Pounds 120 a day from the grant and Pounds 100 a day from the school. The school also received Pounds 150 towards the cost of materials from the Newcomen Collett Foundation.

Three classes from Years 3 and 4 were involved with a total of five teachers and 90 children taking part. Ms Davies, who is employed part-time under Section 11 at the school, acted as co-ordinator, liaising between the teachers and artists.

The project started with a visit to the artists' studio in February. "Getting the children to see us in our own environment," Ms Sinclair emphasises, "was crucial. It increased their respect for us, gave them ideas about life chances and rooted the theme in nature. Seeing the lake and gardens helped the children imagine their roles in the story as fishers or medicine people gathering herbs. They were also encouraged to respect nature."

Whereas Hiawatha used bark as a construction material, the children took tree rubbings on brown paper, which acted as a substitute.

Throughout the succeeding weeks, the children drew from imagination and observation, and as well as their horns and dream-catchers, made copper amulets, paper boats and coloured pouches for holding herbs. Each of the children adopted a "protective" animal name and embossed its image on a copper leaf, which was then attached to a leather cloak.

The project culminated on March 25 with a live performance of Hiawatha in Burgess Park. The procession was presented as a ritual journey - symbolic of the passage from childhood to adulthood. The child judged to have grown up the most wore the cloak of leaves while the rest of the children carried the objects they had made. In the park they performed a symbolic dance and, once back at school, re-enacted the performance for the rest of the pupils around the canoe.

"We were eating, sleeping, breathing Hiawatha," say the artists. But the children's own comments revealed the real rewards. "Look, I have mixed this lovely pale gold colour," said one. Another said: "That's hard copper, we etched it last week, we scraped it and then it went into acid. This is soft copper. I'm drawing on it then I'll embosss it." Another, giggling, asked: "I'm called hooter and hunter. This is my picture. What am I?" One boy, writing an invitation to his parents, recited the opening lines of Hiawatha, beating out the rhythm and pointing out that "the lines of the invitation have to be in eight syllables - like the poem". Not bad for a nine-year-old.

"The children," confirms Ms Davies, "have been enthusiastic, vibrant and motivated." She and the artists ascribe this to the fact that "the idea was well thought out and the project long enough to make an impact. The pupils' enthusiasm was stirred by having an end product in view, with special needs children becoming noticably more confident and willing to take responsibility. "

The length of the project meant the whole school knew about it, and the teachers made displays of the children's work as it progressed, which helped reinforce its importance.

Ms Davies also used Hiawatha as the focus of drama sessions, while a colleague linked the theme of new life with his science lessons, where the children were growing things.

All these factors helped make the art project part of school life.

The project at Michael Faraday school is just one of 11 pilot schemes, from Liverpool to Devon, that have so far been funded by the Arts Council.

The schemes have involved all kinds of media and many educational situations, including work with ex-offenders.

A second London scheme, for instance, involved Shacklewell Primary and the October Gallery (which has just received Pounds 10,000 funding from Marks and Spencer for its education work) in making self-portraits. Artists in Bristol were involved with Fairfield Grammar School, exploring youngsters' reactions to bullying.

In Devon, three artists and 26 young volunteers worked on a week-long "Our Bodies: Ourselves" event at Bidwell Brook School for children with special needs. And teachers have not been neglected. This summer a course at East Anglia University will help equip them with the necessary skills for using multimedia in the classroom.

The Arts Council has already started to evaluate the pilot projects with a view to identifying the best way of aiding learning and exploration. The Hiawatha project, however, seems to have fulfilled the council's criteria particularly well. The initiative was taken by the artists, who initially advertised their availability in local schools: the park was used as a resource and site for performance.

Perhaps most importantly, a working partnership was formed between the school and the artists, which enhanced the value of the work. When the evaluation has been completed the council will issue guidelines for artists and teachers who wish to make applications for next year, when around Pounds 60,000 will be available.

Teachers in the region of the University of East Anglia can phone Sue Page on 01603 592625 for details of Rethinking Boundaries: Visual Arts and Electronic Media, which will take place in late June orearly July.

For more information on the Artists in Education Scheme, contact: Mary McDonagh or Viv Reiss on 0171 333 0100

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