From little acorns... mighty ideas grow

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Tom Deveson reports on a London-based sculpture project that introduces students to the pleasures of working with wood and other materials

Three weeks ago, an oak was growing in a Kentish woodland. Now six of its limbs are lying in the corner of a school in south London, where six Year 9 students from the Academy at Peckham carve them into strange evocative shapes. The bark has been stripped with axes, and now finer work is being done with razor-sharp gouges. The resulting figures will be displayed as a group opposite the school foyer.

Though few of them have worked in wood before, more than 100 students have contributed to the carving. Over the last 15 months, the artist Suzy Tutchell has organised an inspiring sculpture project commissioned by the Peckham EAZ. Ten schools in the area have welcomed gifted sculptors in wood, stone and other materials. Each school has developed its own work, celebrating the collaboration of young people, teachers and artists. A trail from school to school will also lead to the Livesey Museum for Children where a sample of each piece will be housed. Together they will bear witness to a remarkable three-dimensional story.

Cheryl Hughes and Clinton Chaloner are guiding the work at the academy.

"It's not unusual," Cheryl says, "for students to start by asking: 'Is that tree-wood?' But their uncertainty rapidly turns to pleasure."

"It feels empowering," Niko Pfister says, "hitting a huge piece of timber with a little piece of metal and changing it." Sylkia Eugene has found a smaller tree figure within her limb and is defining it with a bent gouge.

"I'm learning to make shapes and I want to do more and make it clearer,"

she says.

Along the road at John Donne Primary, the sculptors are much smaller. Year 2 children shifted earth in a small garden area to build a U-shaped mound.

Now in Year 3, they are turning it into a water feature. The flow will move down layers of slate and clay pots, some decorated with fragments of mirror or brightly tinted pieces of stone. Taijohn Vergo-Trent recalls the earlier stage: "I liked taking care of the worms." Tia Williams thinks of future generations: "They will see the bright colours and they will feel calm."

In St Mary Magdalene CE School, the playground makes a magnificent setting for the Friend Ship. This is a single trunk formed into a boat-shaped place for children to sit when they feel the need for a "buddy". Pupils in Year 5 helped select the tree and saw it felled. The punning title came from a discussion with teacher Tracey Johnston which led to five words - trust, love, respect, generosity and loyalty - being carved among a bountiful display of maritime images. Waves and whales, a mermaid and a dolphin make it a delight to the eye and a balm for the mind.

A Friendship installation is also taking shape at St James the Great RC School, but here Year 3 children are covering a huge concrete slab with a mosaic of coloured glass. Anita McGuinness's class has worked on forms suggested by their PSHE work on inclusion and making friends. They have learned about tessellating shapes in Maths, discovered how the Romans used mosaics and applied their knowledge to the creation of a permanent design.

As Anita says in words that might speak for the entire project: "They see that art is part of everything."

Lesson tips

Clinton Chaloner's tips: Safety: talk about confidence and possibility rather than anxiety and prohibition. Dangerous tools are friends if you take care.

When working with wood, study the grain and learn why "going against the grain" is more than a metaphor.

Learn to think with your hands: don't start your design with writing and theory, but look closely at the materials.

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