On National Children's Art Day, Elaine Williams looks at the future of visual literacy.
Kentan Jackson might be six years old and living on one of the most socially deprived housing estates in Europe, but already he has a full portfolio: beautiful, sensitive charcoal drawings that have made him a winner in the first National Children's Art Awards (Artworks).
Kentan is a pupil at Gellideg infant school in Merthyr Tydfil, capital of the Welsh valleys, devastated by the collapse of the mining industry. Headteacher Branwen Llewellyn Jones has consistently used art to build achievement across the curriculum and has certainly brought out the best in Kentan, a boy whom she once perceived as painfully shy with low self-esteem "but sweet, gentle and naturally creative. Giving him the opportunity to develop this creativity, bringing out his naturally sensitive personality, has made him more confident in all his work."
Kentan asks to draw constantly at home and school and stays in at playtime to finish pictures. He caught the attention of judges with his charcoal pictures of miners' faces, inspired through looking at the work of the late Josef Herman, who lived locally and whose pictures of miners Kentan's class had been studying.
Although he is a winner in the "motivated individual" category of the Artworks awards, judges were impressed by the way Kentan's abilities had been encouraged through the nature of art education in his school - constant visits to local galleries and use of visual art across the curriculum.
The first annual Artworks awards will be presented today by David Ginola, 1999 Footballer of the Year and Artworks patron, in a ceremony at the Tate Modern in London. A total of pound;45,000 funded by the Vivien Duffield Foundation will be shared out. Sixteen schools have won sums of up to pound;2,000 to fund art activities. There are smaller awards for art trips, materials and classroom art resource boxes. Each winning school and child will also receive a limited edition print by the artist Anthony Gormley, another patron. But there is more to the awards than a competition. They have been designed to promote visual literacy in schools and to celebrate and encourage quality teaching and learning in art. Sally Bacon, executive director of the Vivien Duffield Foundation, says: "Because of changes to the school curriculum and renewed emphasis on literacy and numeracy, we became concerned about standards in visual literacy which have not received much attention." The foundation has donated pound;7 million towards museum and gallery education in recent years and wanted some of the excellent work and good practice created through schools' partnerships with galleries to be disseminated nationally.
The awards, which were split into three categories - for group projects, gallery partnerships and motivated individuals - were given for creativity in making art, rather than for the end result. Indeed the judges, who included Lars Nittve, director of the Tate Modern, and Helen Storey, the fashion designer, were critical of entries which they said placed too much emphasis on a slick finished product and were based on too narrow an artistic canon. They also expressed regret that drawing from observation seemed to be in decline. Storey says: "I believe the ability to sit still and concentrate and observe in quiet and solitude is an important and acquired skill. Schools seem to opt for greater impact from multimedia work."
Judges said the best work came from collaborations with artists-in-residence and where teachers had gone "above and beyond the call of duty to raise the status of art in school".
A winner in the gallery partnership category involved Perry Common special schools in Birmingham. Inspired by a visit to a craft exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the schools called in Craftspace Touring, which organises craft education projects. The company placed three artists - Semba Jallow-Rutherford, a Birmingham poet who is also a wheelchair user, Darcy Turner, an automata maker, and Karen Macdonnell, a photographer, to work for four days with 15 Year 9 pupils from two of the schools - Wilson Stuart for physically disabled pupils and Priestley Smith for visually impaired pupils. The result was a video performance called The Blue Blood Travel Agency, which conjured images of an alien world through sculpture, movement and words and featured 20ft sculptures of monsters which pupils made from rolled newspapers and strapped to their wheelchairs.
Art teacher Chris Rowlands, who initiated the project, said that apart from gaining technical, creative and social skills, pupils had benefited in terms of self-esteem and were much more able to apply themselves in other areas of the curriculum. "They are now willing to finish off pieces of work and their writing is much more fully-formed." She was deeply impressed by the scale and ambition of their work. "It was stunning. I was teleported into a truly spooky alien environment."
* Another Voice by Helen Storey, Briefing section, main paper Artworks, PO Box 105, Rochester, Kent ME2 4BE. Tel: 01634 291122.Fax: 01634 290175. e-mail: email@example.com The Artworks website, www.art-works.org.uk, has details of today's National Children's Art Day celebrations - activities for schools in 40 museums and galleries throughout the UK - as part of Museums and Galleries Month. The website is also expanding its service to teachers from today, especially in the area of working with galleries. An exhibition of winners' artwork will tour Britain later this year and it can be seen on the site's "virtual galllery" from today.