Picture a poem you can portray as a painting

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
The man without a face

In the park Kerry and Steve saw a man without a face.

He was playing the piano.

All of a sudden the man started to sing but he had no mouth.

His stomach was moving like it was singing.

We ran home not saying a word.

Lauren Butterworth, Year 6.

Chrissie Gittins took Year 5 and 6 pupils to the Tate Gallery for a combined art and poetry project.

I had used works of art myself as a jumping off point for writing poems, usually in reproduction. How would it be to take children to a gallery and ask them to "look and write", and then to make a painting from their own poem? Apples and Snakes, an agency which runs a poets-in-education scheme in London, offered to fund half the project if a primary school would come up with the rest. St Bartholomew's School, Sydenham, took up the challenge and the planning began.

The funding covered six workshops over three days. On the first day, Year 5 and Year 6 would travel up to the Tate Gallery, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I had selected two pieces which we would look at - a painting and a sculpture. The painting ("The Inattentive Reader" by Matisse) was fairly conservative and I thought that would give the children a way in, both to being in the Tate and looking at and responding to what was on the walls. And in this case suspended from the ceiling, since the second piece was Rebecca Horn's "Concert for Anarchy".

I had been warned by the education staff at the Tate that art works were being continually re-hung, and that I would need to check the week before we arrived to see whether the ones I wanted to use would still be in the room I expected. In addition, if a group hosted by the Tate were using a room which I'd planned for us to work in, we would have to leave. It was only possible to predict this up to a point. I checked the scheduled talks and tours through the galleries and we were clear.

In the event a splinter group from the Whistler exhibition was using the room where the Matisse was hung when I turned up with half a class in the afternoon. I did have plan B prepared - a back-up painting in a quieter gallery in the British collection. I worked with half a class and their teacher at a time. There were enough support staff and parents for the other half to wander around the galleries. The Matisse shows a rather dejected-looking woman sitting at a dresser with a book open. Instead of reading the book she stares out of the painting at the viewer. Without mentioning Matisse or the title of the painting I began asking questions in order to engage the imagination of the children with the woman in the painting. What was her name? Why did she look so glum? What sort of building did this room belong to? They were asked to identify the room, think about what could be beyond the frame of the painting, what the woman could see and hear, and suggest what might have been her predicament.

The answers came thick and fast. As to her predicament, I was presented with a catalogue of contemporary ills - redundancy, unemployment, relationship breakdown, separation, divorce and the death of a child. Finally we thought about a title for the picture. The children then made notes in response to a series of un-numbered questions on a prepared sheet - questions similar and identical to those we had discussed. In the increasingly large spaces between the questions I asked the children to note down their ideas. This would be part of the material we would use to build poems in the follow-up workshop.

The Rebecca Horn piece is a grand piano suspended upside-down from the ceiling. For long moments it is still and silent, then the top and lid open, the keys shoot out and it plays some discordant music. We sat under the sculpture and waited for its surprises. I'd asked staff to steer groups away from this piece until I had worked with them. To talk we moved to the side of the Sackler Octagon where the piano was suspended, and away from its threatening weight. We began this time by discussing a possible title, and considered the kind of world where you might find such a piano. When it came to writing I vetoed any ideas about ghosts, vampires, monsters and other received notions of horror. I wanted the children to explore their own surreal landscapes.

In the follow-up school sessions we talked through our memories of what we'd seen and I suggested a possible structure for a "room" poem, and a context for a "piano" poem. I encouraged drafting and re-drafting and looked at individuals' work in the third session while the classes were making their paintings.

Every child produced at least one poem, and a painting. The children read their poems to each other and collected them into a book which could be passed round. They were also made into displays with their paintings. And the children did seem to enjoy it. Lauren Butterworth, Year 6, wrote her first poem that didn't rhyme. Stephanie Legister, Year 5, had a change of attitude to her own skills: "Once I did that picture, I've actually been doing good at art. My teacher says so." She also said she'd tried much harder with this poem than any other. Harry Burchill, Year 6, said, "We don't normally write poems about pictures. I thought it would be exciting, but it was more exciting than I thought it would be."

Chrissie Gittins writes poetry, short stories and scripts and can be contacted via Apples and Snakes Poets-in-Education scheme, Hatcham Park Mews Business Centre, London SE14 5QA, tel: 017l-639-9632.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today