The questions "what is are" and "who am I?" auspiciously came together in a Yorkshire primary's prize-winning project. Catherine Boyle reports
"What is art?" is a question that has exercised thinkers from Aristotle to Albert Camus, but it seems an unlikely subject for discussion in key stage 1. However, it is one the young artists of Carr Green Junior Infants and Nursery School in Calderdale have been debating, and the art group's ideas have led to their success in winning the five to 10-year-olds section of the Unilever International Schools Art Project, and seeing off competition from winners in secondary age groups to emerge as overall UK victors.
Carr Green's KS1 art group is run by Lesley Bowyer one lunchtime a week and, along with the KS2 group, is heavily oversubscribed. Art features constantly in class time as well, Lesley says, as teachers "try to go for a cross-curricular approach by using the arts to teach literacy, science and history. We look for any opportunity to be creative in how we teach." Since they began meeting in September, the KS1 group have experimented with pottery and taken photographs around the school using a digital camera.
Some of the photos have been blown up, framed and hung in the hallways, along with watercolours, Japanese-style art, and paintings based on the work of Joan Mir".
Their debate on what is art was the first time that the group had dealt with contemporary art and Lesley found it exciting. She began the discussion by pointing out that art was "not just a statue or an oil painting". They looked at images of modern works of art. One piece in particular, Paul Neagu's "First Tactile Table" (1970), intrigued the children, who wondered what could be in the little boxes that form part of it. This triggered a discussion on what each child would put in their own secret box.
"Connecting and Communicating", the theme suggested for the Unilever competition, made them think of the telephone. They explored using a telephone to suspend self-portraits, with the string going through each subject's ears "to show that they were connecting". Like the traditional do-it-yourself children's toy, the telephone was made out of old cans and string.
Next, the children painted their faces on to paper, cutting them out and adding coloured wool hair after they dried. Since the children drew their faces before cutting them out, rather than using a template, the picture size varied, emphasising each pupil's individuality. Inspired by their discussion of the Neagu boxes, the group decided to hang special things from the portraits. Their intention, Lesley explains, was that "anyone looking at their work would feel like they were getting to know them".
Pupils brought in very different items to illustrate their personalities.
Seven-year-old Isabelle Firth included a family picture, and George Martin, five, hung a piece of camouflage fur from his mother's shop. Kate Leadbeater, aged six, chose her first hair braid, first birthday candle, a bell from her toy rabbit, and other memorabilia of babyhood. Hannah French, also six, had a photograph of her sister in special baby care, with a syringe used to feed her, while five-year-old Uzair Ali's portrait featured family medals and certificates.
Finally, the children explained their work to a whole-school assembly, and Carr Green further widened the scope of their achievement by organising family-based events, including a trip to a local art gallery and a Japanese art day.
Discuss what art is. Use a piece such as Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" (a urinal), placed next to a picture of a classical statue. Ask children why Duchamp might think that his urinal is art. Point out that he has signed it like an artist would a painting. Is there more skill or work involved in the Duchamp or the statue? Organise a trip to a local gallery where children bring their families along. On the day, have a treasure hunt, with questions about the art. Get families to nominate their favourite works afterwards.
Use samples of work by Joan Mir" as an inspiration for pupils to create their own art. Supply children with a range of colours and materials and get them to cut out different shapes, arranging them to create a work which looks like Mir"'s.
"The definition of art has changed almost every day since the first artist created the first art work at least 50,000 years ago" (Thomas Honig). Using this quotation as a starting point, discuss different works of art through the ages. Take a picture of one of the Lascaux cave drawings of bulls (www.culture.gouv.frculturearcnatlascauxen). Encourage pupils to compare and contrast it with Van Gogh's Cows (After Jordaens) (www.vangoghgallery.com). Neither of these paintings look "realistic". Why? What might the artists have wished to convey, apart from how the cows look in reality?