Outside the box

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Postmodernism confuses many adults, but can inspire children to think in new ways. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

Can contemporary art be used as a starting point for children's creativity? If a small exhibition this April in the Tate Modern on London's South Bank was anything to go by, not only can schools use such works but they should. Adults sometimes have trouble understanding such pieces as Louise Bourgeois's giant spider, "Maman", Rebecca Horn's body sculptures (which you wear) or Susan Hiller's collection of boxes, within which she displays her "private relics, talismans and other souvenirs", but children are fascinated and quickly inspired to produce works of their own.

The exhibition sprang from a joint venture between Tate Modern's schools programme, Goldsmith's College School of Education in London and six primaries. Goldsmith's was looking for an enlightening experience for PGCE students. The college felt that direct involvement with juniors in an art project rather than observing for a day in classrooms would give secondary teachers a better insight into the challenges faced by their new pupils.

The schools were chosen for their high standards in art and design, and each was allocated two students to work with Year 6 pupils. Teachers had an evening at the Tate to consider which part of the collection they wanted to focus on and this was followed by an activity day at the gallery for the pupils and four all-day sessions at the schools.

"Art is central to our school," says Glenys Ingham, headteacher of Myatt Garden school in Lewisham. "This is a multicultural inner-London school and one of the best ways of appreciating other cultures is through art. By investigating other artistic techniques and looking at the beautiful things created our pupils can do this. And anyway if children can't be artists now when can they be?" Art is everywhere. Every floor has an exhibition of children's art on themes including African and Chinese cultures. They are at present working on Native American sand paintings, an American quilt and a 200-foot mosaic on a sloping wall outside the school.

And now, also outside the school, beautifully set in white gravel, are a number of impressive sculptured pillars derived from the Tate Goldsmith's project. They are about three feet high, made of cement and imprinted with shapes- some abstract and some more recognisable, including scissors, a swirled rope and a bowl.

The pillars are the result of a stupendous amount of work done with the two Goldsmith's students and an art specialist who visits the school, which included making models from Plasticine and building a wooden cast into which the cement, mixed with colour, was poured. Initially, cement-mixing was done by hand, but when the teachers realised what an impossibly big job it was, a mixer was hired and the children taught to use it. The imprints were created using egg boxes, bowls, ropes and boots at the bottom of the cast.

Teacher Lesley Whelan says of the visit to Tate Modern: "For a lot of the children it clarified what art can be about. It can be very personal, ver private, an emotional response andor a great deal of fun. Also they realised that a lot of time and effort goes into it."

The school decided on two projects: one group made the concrete pillars, the other constructed boxes based on the work of Susan Hiller.

Pupils at Lauriston primary school in the London borough of Hackney were also inspired by Hiller's boxes. "They were particularly taken with the idea of something being different on the outside than it is inside. Hidden worlds became the leitmotif," says deputy head Peter Sanders.

They also formed an important theme in the work of pupils at Sandhurst junior school in Lewisham, who did a large textile piece in which each child represents his or her own inner world using text, abstract symbols and colours. Poems are placed behind veils, reinforcing the idea that they represent an inner world of private meanings, hopes and concerns.

Teachers in all the schools emphasise the amount of cross-curricular learning that went on. Subjects for the Myatt Garden children's boxes included dreams, nightmares, Greek theatre masks, wrestling and snakes, all of which were meticulously researched. The children also kept a diary describing the processes involved.

"There was loads of talking and showing each other," said Peter Sanders. "The PGCE students really teased out thoughtful responses from the kids, and they were given time to be reflective to change their minds about colours and shapes. They could be like real artists."

Children were also encouraged to write about themselves and their work in the first or third person in the manner of the small descriptive pieces that accompany works at the Tate.

Glenys Ingham intends to do the box project independently every year with Year 6. And Tate Modern and Goldsmith's too have plans to repeat the project next year, increasing the number of primaries involved to 20.

For further information contactPaul Dash at Goldsmith's School of Education. E-mail: edsolpd@gold.ac.uk


Lauriston school was invited to take part in a project of modern art at the biggest art gallery in Britain. This piece of work is called "ACouple of Trees". It is an abstract piece and that means it might mean different things to different people.

JACK WHITEHEAD: My box is rated 'U' considering the sea is a safe place.

My box is a final fantasy for fish.


"Dull Lifeless Box": Every Friday we would work on our art, building it up as we went along. We treasured our ideas and created the pictures as we thought and now we have become real artists. You have to look at the outside carefully so that you know what's going on inside. I got my ideas from Louise Bourgeois as she is my favourite artist. She did "I do, I undo, I redo" which we saw when we went there.


We visited the Tate Modern. We were asked to make some modern art. We went to the Tate Modern again to see the boxes that we had made. It was a real experience for us to see ourselves as real good artists.

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