Make and mend

13th October 1995 at 01:00
Art-in-action workshops stimulate and boost the confidence of children who miss school through hospital stays. Jane Norrie observes the benefits

For a child unlucky enough to be plagued by ill health, being unwell is often only the start of the problem. Missing out on school work and losing the company of friends compound the poor health syndrome. To compensate for the loss of school attendance, Sue Cowley, Head of the Birmingham Children's Hospital School, told me that the pupils in her care have to work very hard indeed, often on a one-to-one basis.

She should know. One hundred and forty children attend the hospital school each week. Some, say with a broken leg, are short-stay patients; others suffer from a chronic illness such as cystic fibrosis, requiring recurring hospital visits, while a high percentage are long-stay patients, most receiving psychiatric care.

In a potentially sad situation my own visit to the classrooms proved joyful. A link with the Ikon Gallery has led to an imaginative long-term art-in-action programme currently funded by Central Television. Friday afternoons are devoted to art, either visiting a new Ikon exhibition or taking part in school workshops led by professional artist Kate Wrigglesworth.

Trained in theatre design, Kate has worked as a tutor with the Midlands Art Centre, and has also been engaged in street art - a useful background for a job that requires versatility and adaptability. Over the year and a half of the project's duration she has experimented with a wide variety of media in the workshops and has worked with numbers of different children both in the classrooms and on the wards.

The group I met consisted of seven long-stay pupils aged 9 to 16, two requiring wheelchairs. The previous week they had visited the photographic exhibition "Unseen Evidence", showing portrait photography by black British artists alongside work by African photographers. The Ikon prides itself on showing cutting-edge work by living artists - work which adults often find "difficult". So what, I wondered, could hospitalised children get out of it? That was before I met Richard Gagola, the Ikon's ebullient Education Officer, a firm believer in the healing power of art, who works "from what the children know" to make the gallery "open, supportive, creative, a beautiful experience".

Focusing on the artist Maxine Waller, who uses props such as a blonde wig to present herself in different guises, he and Kate had introduced the idea that different clothes and accessories send out different messages. To prove it the group played dressing up games and had their photographs taken.

Now, back in school and under Kate's wing, one girl donned a black silk costume, making a striking model for the rest of the group to draw. It was the first time they had used charcoal and to begin with they made only the most tentative of marks. They were also very quiet with none of the backchat that often accompanies practical sessions. As Kate encouraged them, however, their drawing became bolder, they began to use the side of the charcoal to produce intense shiny black passages to represent the silky dress and to smudge the black lines with their fingers to create shadows.

Half way through the session two others from the group took over the role of model, sitting back to back and presenting a pose that for me at least was highly challenging! The pupils, however, attacked the problem with verve, some combining charcoal with colour to striking effect. There was a noticeable and welcome rise in the noise levels so that the afternoon finished on a note of relaxation and warmth. This was one factor that contributed to the pleasure of my visit.

The other derived from witnessing the collaboration of so many unsung professionals - school staff, gallery education officer and artist - coming together to offer an enriched curriculum to the pupils. The classrooms are too small for the numbers but are nevertheless decorated all over with artwork. So too is the long-stay dining room where last term a group worked together over six weeks to produce two bright and glowing panels.

For an insider's view of the project I turned again to the head, Sue Cowley. "Through the artwork the secondary and long-stay children in particular can celebrate their own achievement. They gain confidence in themselves which spreads to other areas of the curriculum. In this respect the continuity of the project is of enormous importance. Kate is seen as part of the staff and has come to understand and satisfy the needs of the children.

"From a social point of view it is one of the few times that the children can be taught in a group, providing a step back to normality and the ultimate goal that they can get back into school and society."

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