Sheffield gets a face lift

9th December 2005 at 00:00
A gallery's request for children's artwork gave a community the chance to shine, says David Bocking

Three thousand ears: large, small, pointed, elephantine and cauliflower.

Three thousand eyes: green, brown, blue, black and orange. One and a half thousand faces: black, white, brown, yellow and varnished magenta. Such were the features of the primary-age children of Sheffield, displayed to the public in the city's Clock Tower Gallery.

"The Clock Tower asked us if we could fill the space with children's artwork, and we thought it was an opportunity to do something amazing,"

says Diane Stokes from the north-east Sheffield Excellence in Cities Action Zone. The area has high social and economic deprivation, says Diane, and includes lots of single-parent families and people with English as a second language. "In fact, the show was more amazing than we thought it would be.

Children saw their work there and knew they were part of something big."

The In Yer Face exhibition, funded by a grant of more than pound;32,000 by the action zone, was created by children from 15 schools, under the leadership of Limpsfield Junior, which holds an Arts Council Artsmark award. Sketches in black and white and colour, huge multicoloured heads, written pen portraits of children's everyday lives, and an Anthony Gormley-style tableau of 1,000 fist-sized gargoyles were all on show.

"Faces are very engaging," says Limpsfield head John Bainbridge. "That's what we're about, isn't it? So the explanation of the exhibition we gave to the children was that it was a portrait of all the boys and girls in our area." Careful structuring of the project and its constituent parts was important, he adds. "You need to structure an arts session so kids can get a reasonable outcome at the end, but a sensitive teacher can take it to a place where you can stand back, and then it begins to happen if a different way."

Limpsfield arranged workshops on art techniques for volunteers from the action zone schools, each led by an experienced teacher from Limpsfield. Up to 30 teachers attended each workshop, which usually involved a demonstration followed by a "have a go" session. "It was a good way of teaching people skills they could use in the classroom that they hadn't come across before," says Ross Watson of Hartley Brook Primary School.

The use of oil pastels, for example, which give intense smudgeable colours without getting too wet and messy, says John Bainbridge. "You get a very colourful mark, which makes the child feel successful," he adds. Oil pastels are relatively expensive, but the project taught children to value and respect the resources, says Chris Ord from Concord Junior School. "They know to use materials carefully and put them away carefully, and they respond to that," she says.

Or there are willow withies, an alternative to chicken wire for sculpture bases: Vicki Grayson, Limpsfield deputy head, showed how to soak withies in the school pond overnight before making a skeletal framework for a series of huge papier-mache head sculptures. "You can use them for modelling with masking tape, and the children love working with them," she says. "They're quite cheap too, and you can even grow your own."

Teachers picked up on teaching ideas from each other, ranging from resources and where to buy them, to classroom methods. "Often an arts teacher is working in isolation, but groups like this coming together with an interest in the same thing is very valuable," says Barbara Staniland from Concord School. "Enthusiasm is catching, for children and teachers."

LESSON IDEAS

* Make fearsome gargoyles: gouge out a hole in a big ball of clay, then insert a small ball of clay to make bulging eyes. Be as wild as you like.

* Mount a good looking exhibition: make several preliminary visits; plan the displays around the space you are sure of; work on several levels; don't even think about Blu-Tack.

* Enthuse children about writing: blow their work up on the photocopier and stick it on the wall. "We often get four or five kids standing round a piece of written work chanting it off," says John Bainbridge. "It's lovely."

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