Journey's end

1st June 2001 at 01:00
Local artists can help pupils go far, reports Gillian Thomas.

Nine large brightly-coloured "balloons" made from papier mache have just been hung from the lofty ceiling of the newly refurbished library at Oaklands primary school in Ealing, west London. Each is painted to depict the flag of a different country and has a related object, also in papier mache, dangling boldly from it - a sombrero for Mexico, a kiwi for New Zealand, a mosque for Pakistan, a shamrock for Ireland and so on.

Nearby at another primary school, St Marks, an outside wall facing a main road has been covered in a mosaic based on the same theme, "Journeys," showing cars, boats, a viaduct and a canal. The creations were made by classes of nine and 10-year-olds in the two schools, each working with a young local artist, and they will remain on permanent display.

These imaginative creations have resulted from the Elthorne Public Art Project, which aims to raise the profile of art in public places. It is funded by the Green Corridor Partnership as part of a Government initiative to improve the environment beside the M4 and A4 roads. The motorway passes Elthorne Park in Ealing so the local authority was allocated pound;8,000 to fund four workshops in the area. The "Journeys" theme was chosen with this connection in mind. Both primary schools had weekly two-hour sessions for a month, together with a high school and an old people's home.

The project was run by Ealing's Arts and Cultural Services team, part of the LEA's Lifelong Learning department. Based at the Pitshanger Manor and Gallery in the centre of Ealing, the team's four members provide the main driving force behind art in schools, including 17 high schools, as the borough has no specialist art or music inspectors.

"The Elthorne project reflects what we constantly strive to achieve - a community that is better informed about public art," says Carol Swords, arts and museums officer.

Feedback has been very positive. The teachers involved felt the visiting artists had brought a new dimension to the classroom. Their ideas and skills were particularly welcomed by the two primaries as a way of focusing outwards from the national curriculum. The children certainly enjoyed it, particularly knowing that their creations would be put on permanent display.

Working with a real artist was regarded as special and they enjoyed trying out techniques that were new to them, such as mosaics and papier mache. "My favourite part was dipping the newspaper in the glue and getting it all over my hands," says nine-year-old Melanie Fong at Oalands. "I learned that to make it neater you put all the strips on the same way and also do the same with the paint."

The artists first discussed their ideas with co-ordinator Gina Martin and then with the teachers. However, the pupils themselves came up with the design ideas and decided where their work would be displayed. Artist Jacqui Harrison, who worked with Oaklands, showed the children some of her own work based on travel and then asked them to suggest objects to represent different countries for "A Balloon Trip Around the World". From these the most striking and practical were chosen for making in papier mache (an inexpensive medium that children can easily learn to handle).

At Elthorne high school, Zoe Fairman sparked off ideas for "MacroMicro Journeys", a set of six complex wall sculptures, by getting her group of 11 to 14-year-olds to research pictures in magazines such as the New Scientist. "The children's commitment was extremely high considering most sessions took place after school," says Brigitte Stuart, Oaklands' head of art. "They all got really interested."

Organising education workshops is very much part of the Arts and Cultural Service's remit. The bi-monthly exhibitions it stages at Pitshanger Manor and Gallery are always accompanied by "twilight" sessions for teachers led by the artist involved.

The team also commissions local art teachers to write teachers' resource packs for each exhibition. "Writing them is always a sought-after job," says Neena Sohal, the head of the service. "Teachers appreciate being valued professionally in this way, especially as art is not among the highest of priorities in schools."

The Elthorne project enabled the team to discover and train the four artists for its education programme. It is often asked for advice by other LEAs and welcomes teachers from outside the borough at the twilight workshops.

In July it is also launching "Creativity in Early Years", an Arts Council-funded CD-Rom. This was made during workshops for pre-school teachers led by the artist David Royle during a recent exhibition of his work at the gallery.

Also in July the service is staging its annual High Schools Exhibition of work by pupils, including some in special schools. "We present these shows exactly as if they were by professionals and see them as an important way of valuing and highlighting art by young people," says Carol Swords.

* Ealing Arts and Cultural Services teachers' workshops are free to Ealing schools; pound;5 to others. Tel: 020 8567 1227.


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