Piecing lives together

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Creating a mosaic inspired young people at a Liverpool secure centre to learn about the city's cultural heritage while realising their creative potential. Gill Brown reports

When Mark arrived at Gladstone House, a secure children's centre in Liverpool, he could barely read or write. Like most of the 20 other boys there he had been detained by the court and was not allowed out. A few months after arriving, he became part of a school group starting work on a mosaic made from tiny pieces of ceramic tiles. Recently, he was one of the two 15-year-old boys chosen to unveil the mosaic, entitled "People Like Us", a two-metre square structure hanging in pride of place inside the building.

It represents the waves of immigrants who came to Liverpool over the centuries, bringing their culture and religions to this maritime community.

The pupils designed and produced the mosaic from the start. "I just thought it would be good to keep at it," says Mark. "You could have your own ideas and the artist helped you work out what to do."

Artist John Potter says: "Everyone who took part had something to say about it. Whether they laid three or 300 tiles was unimportant. It was a huge team effort which has resulted in something everybody can be proud of."

The mosaic is the first stage of an 18-month collaborative venture between Gladstone House and Safe Productions, which works with artists in the community.

Last year, teacher Gerry Henderson went to a funding meeting where he picked up a leaflet about Safe Productions. It led to an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund. "Linking up with the company got things moving quickly," says Gerry. "If we had made the application on our own it would have taken longer, but they knew what was needed and we were on the same wavelength about producing a mosaic."

The project was awarded pound;48,000 to cover costs of artists, materials and administration. Safe Productions organised workshops, and staff from National Museums Liverpool came to talk about the city's history, bringing artefacts such as shackles used in the days of the slave trade. Ideas started to be formed. At Christmas, a one-day mini-festival featured Chinese, Kurdish and African groups singing, dancing and talking. Local poet Curtis Watt gave two rap workshops, during which pupils produced poems and reflected on the power of the written word.

"We wondered if it would be hard to sell the idea of art and heritage to the young people, but their curiosity was ignited," says Brian Dawe, from Safe Productions. "They responded so positively to the various events that we had trouble narrowing down ideas."

John cut the wooden base, more than 1,000 tiles were bought and begged from local suppliers and, for a day-and-a-half each week over three months, the tiles were cut into tiny pieces and put in place. Such painstaking work caught the imagination of some of the boys: "It was the only thing I wasn't bored by," says Mark.

In his own time he made a mosaic of a huge heart for his girlfriend. Dave, 15, also designed his own mosaic, dedicated to Liverpool football team. "It wasn't too hard," he says. "You just do it - it takes your mind off things."

Last week, "People Like Us" was unveiled by Mark and Dave. The overall effect is of a shimmering blue wave rolling towards shore. A closer look reveals words from Curtis's workshop - "trust", "respect" and "friendship".

Irish, Jewish, Celtic, Islamic and Chinese cultural symbols have also been incorporated.

To the right of the mosaic hangs a separate smaller one, in which the words "People Like Us" are surrounded by the initials of everyone who worked on the project. Headteacher Terry Feeley has no doubt that this is an important milestone. "We are required to follow the breadth of the national curriculum," he says. "It is important that our pupils, many of whom have been outside the formal education system, can develop self-esteem through schemes like this."

Mark is due to leave Gladstone House in a few months and hopes to find a work placement where he can develop his new skills. For now, along with John, he and other pupils will start work on a three-dimensional sculpture to be shown around the city as part of a Capital of Culture display at the end of the year.

* All pupil names in this article have been changed

Making a mosaic

Narrow down exactly what you want funding for and find a local community or arts group as a partner. All local authorities have a community arts strategy, so contact yours when looking for artists.

Regional arts councils can also be useful.

Non-profit companies such as Safe Productions deal with all sizes of budgets and can suggest shortcuts, contacts and advice on working in the classroom.

A class of 30 students can all partake in making the mosaic. Ask them to draw their ideas on an agreed theme and put together a collage of the best images.

Artists can work with a class of this size by taking small groups of five students in turn, so that everyone has a chance to make their mark.

To make a mosaic, simply copy the design onto a base such as plywood. Mark out the areas of colour and stick to the plan. Keep track of which coloured tiles you are using and make sure you can easily leave one section to work on another. Within this broad outline individual designs can be flexible.

It is possible to make a mosaic from off-cuts and unwanted tiles. Research local distributors and invite their involvement.

* Liverpool Safe Productions Tel: 0151 707 7879

* Artists involved in Liverpool Safe Productions have a long track record of assisting groups in the realisation of public artworks. All projects entail an educational package offering further insights into the themes of the work.

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