Freedom to make memories

17th November 2000 at 00:00
DAISI is a liberating arts force in Devon, says Susannah Kirkman

A multicoloured felt mermaid floats free in an azure sea, jostled by vivid tropical fish. The image is one of 10 banners made by textile artist Jo Tyler and children at Mayfield school in Paignton for pupils aged two to 19 with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties. As artist-in-residence, Jo Tyler taught felting, finger-painting, tie-dying, silk-painting and stencilling during the school's recent arts week. "It was a unique way for children of such different ages and abilities to collaborate," says Isabel Creer, the school's art co-ordinator. While the younger children particularly liked pounding the raw wool into felt with their bare feet to background music, the more physically dextrous enjoyed stencilling shapes on to pieces of silk. Staff benefited, too. The chance to experiment with different media has given them more confidence in their own artistic skills.

One reason for the project's success was the careful collaborative planning. Isabel Creer chose Jo Tyler with advice from DAISI, the Devon Arts In Schools Initiative, which has a database of more than 200 artists who work in schools. DAISI encourages schools and artists to work out their objectives before the project starts. "Without agreed aims, you can't measure success," says Chloe Bardolf, DAISI's administrator. Mayfield is now planning to stage another arts week next year, although the school will probably have to find the money. This year, the project was jointly funded by Torbay LEA, Sea Visual, which is a local artists' group, and DAISI, which is co-ordinating 17 arts education projects for the LEA.

Mill Water Community School for pupils with profound and severe learning difficulties in Honiton has also benefited from a DAISI project. Aideen Cusack's class of 11 to 13-year-olds took some outstanding photographs after working with artist Simon Gray. The school has a tradition of excellent art. Pupils have exhibited models at the Tate Gallery in St Ives and their art has been praised by OFSTED inspectors. But the photography project inspired some remarkable images from the pupils, some of whom find spoken communication very difficult.

They focused on the work of James Ravilious, a north Devon photographr who took pictures of the landscape and country people over a period of 30 years. After studying Ravilious's photographs at a local gallery, pupils took pictures of their environment and mounted their own exhibition at the gallery. The photographs give the pupils' slant on life in Honiton, a traditional Devon country town. Two elderly men in cloth caps peer into a shop window, their faces reflected in the glass. Emblazoned on a mug, the Queen Mother gazes benignly down at a jumbled display of souvenirs to mark her 100th birthday. Bronze lobsters and crabs gleam on a fishmonger's slab.

The project gave pupils a chance to step outside the rigidity of the timetable and produce a polished piece of work. The stimulus and enjoyment inspired the children to communicate, including those with autistic spectrum disorder. "The presence of someone such as Simon, who isn't a teacher, encouraged the children to open up. He has become a part of their school memories - I think they'll be inviting him to their weddings!" The freedom to use all the materials they needed was also liberating. "It is very inhibiting when you're always afraid to make mistakes because you don't want to waste resources," says Ms Cusack. Pupils took hundreds of photographs before they finally selected those to be displayed .

The Mill Water project was part of 10 county-wide "Groundswell" projects, initiated, organised and funded by DAISI with pound;250,000 "Arts for Everyone" lottery funding, the schools contributing as little as pound;50. When this funding runs out in March, DAISI will have to rely on money from the New Opportunities Fund (NOF), trust funds, LEAs, the regional arts council and schools. Pippa Warin, chair of the Devon Association of Governors and of DAISI's board of trustees, hopes schools have enjoyed such a rich experience that they will be happy to bear more of the cost of arts projects themselves. DAISI, originally set up by a group of Devon governors, argues that its firm roots within schools make it relevant to schools' needs.

"Some arts projects are too focused on the artists; cynics would say that they're run by artists to get more work. DAISI is able to focus on school's needs," says Pippa Warin.

DAISI, PO box 147, Exeter Devon EX2 7XY. Tel: 01392 385214385215

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