When Friday comes, try pencilling in graffiti

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Want an art project that will engross pupils and meet the revised national curriculum requirements? Tom Hartney has an award-winner

The prospect of a new Year 9 class on a Friday afternoon did not exactly fill me with joy. To spark their interest I taught lessons on Graffiti Art, a subject more commonly associated with sandpaper and desks than art lessons. I hoped these lessons would not lead to an outbreak of graffiti in the local area.

The class needed no encouragement to begin making drawings from the book Subway Art by H Chalfont and M Cooper. After devising their own "graffiti alphabet", I introduced them to the work of Keith Haring, an artist famously linked to graffiti art. Their enthusiasm inspired me to develop a three-dimensional collaborative project. The class worked in groups of three or four and the task was to design and construct large figures based on Haring's drawings.

We decided that the sculptures would eventually be suspended from the art room ceiling, a handy way of solving the problem of storage. This decision would influence the shape of each piece because the sloping ceiling meant each site was different. We discussed several ideas before the children decided to make a snowboarder, a diver, a parachutist, a Keith Haring "radiant" baby and a bungee jumper. Work began on small maquettes, translating ideas and drawings into three dimensions. The discussion and development of ideas took some time as the figures would need to look good hanging from the ceiling. Although the class found this difficult, once the ideas started to develop there was a sense of breakthrough. From this point on I was stunned by the students' energy and commitment. Many continued the work during lunch-time art club, often with the help of pupils from other classes.

Each group scaled up their maquette to full size using one person as the model. Suddenly the room was dotted with strangely contorted Year 9s in athletic poses. Once the cardboard figures were constructed from thicker card, we covered them in layers of papier mache, powder paint and PVA glue.

In 1999, I won the London Institute Young at Art "Street-Style" Teaching award for this project and the work has been exhibited in several galleries as part of the exhibition Celebrating Creativity. The work has also had many favourable comments from, among others, the Office for Standards in Education, the school governors, staff and parents, and remains an outstanding achievement of the class. Their work is still on display at Vyners School in Hillingdon.

When the pupils reflected on the project they were very positive. Jonathan felt it was the "simple, bold colors" and the "originality" of Haring's work that he found so "inspiring". Although many of the class found the graffiti alphabet "challenging", it was the sculpture that the majority singled out as most enjoyable. Katie mentioned the novelty of producing site-specific work, or "sculptures on the ceiling", that were "different from anything done before" and "fun to make". The work has become a talking point in art lessons, particularly for younger pupils who want to know when they can do the project. Pupils often ask about Keith Haring and his work, with many independently printing out information and images from the internet.

This project fulfils the new national curriculum key stage 3 programme of study which states that "pupils should be taught the knowledge, skills and understanding through ... working on their own and collaborating with others on projects in two and three dimensions and on different scales".

See panel (right) for details.

Tom Hartney teaches art at Vyners school, in Hillingdon and is studying for an MA in art and design education at the Institute of Education


With basic materials and resources it is possible to run a similar project.

Make drawings of Keith Haring's work, with emphasis on developing a familiarity with his style. Split the class into groups of two or three. In groups, brainstorm ideas for a sculpture. Inspiration should come from a combination of Haring's work and pupils' ideas.

Make initial drawings of the intended piece from several viewpoints, leading to a final plan. Make a small maquette from thin card and masking tape. Construct one section at a time, such as a leg or arm, adding on the body, head and base (if the piece is to be free-standing).

Scale up the maquette to the required size, a section at a time, making sure that the body parts remain in proportion. The final model should be made from panels of corrugated cardboard. The cardboard figure should be covered in several layers of newspaper strips dipped in cellulose paste, followed by a final layer of newsprint.

Paint the figure in brightly-coloured powder paint or similar, and finish off with a coat of PVA glue thinned slightly with water.Materials:l thin cardl masking tapel corrugated cardboardl newspaper and newsprintl cellulose pastel powder paintl PVA glue Graffiti Art first emerged in New York in the 1970s. The phenomenon was documented as it occurred in the book 'Subway Art' by H Chalfont and M Cooper (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984). Keith Haring (1958-1990) was influenced by graffiti and break-dancing as well as Pop Art and cartoons. www.haring.com

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