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True life confessions

When GNVQ art and design students and a year 9 English class conspired to share their secrets, the results were startling. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Not many teachers would dare give their students the theme of "Confessions", especially if the work is to be displayed in public. But it's a subject which inspired a group of students from Caister High School, an arts college near Norwich, as visitors to the city's new and spectacular Millennium Library would have seen last summer.

Subjects ranging from broken ornaments to drugs and petty crime found expression in artworks moulded into three free-standing acrylic columns by a Year 10 part one intermediate GNVQ art and design group and poems by a post-SATs Year 9 English class.

A link with a screen printing firm, ScreenPrint Plus, a request for work from Norwich Library, an NQT, Swedish artist Ylva Rosen, who injected new ideas and creativity into the department, and English teacher Katie Bateson's plans to explore confessional poetry all came together to create a startling vision.

Head of art Geoff Litchfield had been reflecting on families and children.

"My mother had passed away a couple of years before and there were many things I wished I could talk to her about. In fact, there were things, some important, some trivial that I wished I could own up to her about. It occurred to me that we all have secrets tucked away inside of ourselves of which we would gladly unburden ourselves." Confessional art, he reasoned might appeal to teenagers. But would they be willing to open up?

To make it easier, all work would be anonymous, a list of names was displayed at the exhibition, but not attached to specific works. Two art staff and a graphic designer at ScreenPrint Plus also contributed. Students were "reminded of our study of the use of symbols in Year 9," says Geoff Litchfield. "They came to see that the important factor was the telling - the externalisation of the confession rather than it needing to be directly understood by the viewer. Once this coded approach had been grasped many of the group set about provisional ideas for their first confessions with relish," he says.

Enthusiasm mounted. "Pupils regularly worked at break and in lunchtimes and some were using a number of the pieces to confess how they felt about themselves rather than a discrete incidents," he says.

The work was essentially collage, which was chosen to overcome any difficulties with drawing and painting and to make the project accessible to all 15 participants. Some students found images on the internet, downloading them and manipulating them, others scanned into computers the images or collages that they had made with paper and other materials.

All the collages were colour photocopied and transferred to plain paper using a cellulose thinner (because of fumes this was done outside, wearing masks and other safety clothing). Pressures during the process created accidental effects which the student could choose to keep or not. Most students created about 10 images and then whittled these down. In the end there were 30 images and 30 poems.

Technical and financial help was provided by ScreenPrint. Students visited the company for hands-on experience with graphics software such as Adobe Photoshop and the four-colour printing process. The company scanned the final work and printed it onto the transparent acrylic columns, chosen to reflect the lightness and airiness of the library.

"It was nothing like I've ever done before", says student Penny Talbot. "I was used to doing painting and still life. I was unsure at first about secrets. I didn't think there was much I could really confess. My favourite image was about my nan who had recently died. It was a way of me putting across my feelings. It was a way of expressing things you cannot say. I felt a lot better for it."

"I was excited when told about the project," says student Tom Blake. "It was a great opportunity to get stuff out." His favourite was entitled "Cracked Glass", a simple but very powerful image, for which he used a picture of cracked glass from the internet. Underneath are the words: "I'm like safety glass I'll crack but I won't shatter." "It was really about a lot of things I'd been through - a lot of stress. It was really about a state of mind.

"It was hard to plan. If you're working from an emotional point of view, you can't pinpoint exactly what you want to do. I just experimented." Tom got most of his images from the internet and the rest was text.

Says Katie Bateson: "They loved having their work displayed and celebrated.

It strengthened the two departments and enabled pupils to bond. It also encouraged them to have some responsibility for their own learning and forms of expression."


Use outside agencies, for example, industrial links or an artist. Have a real deadline, for example a date for an external or school exhibition, but give students enough time to experiment and learn properly. Allow time for discussion and reflection and work alongside the students. Don't ask them to do anything you aren't prepared to do yourself. Admit to your own mistakes and failures as you go along and evaluate your own work. Document everything, keep records in photographic form. Students often find that something they have thrown away would have been useful as part of a piece or as work in its own right. Where possible link the project with the examinable curriculum so students don't think it's an add-on.

Useful artists:

Raoul Hausmann

Peter Blake

John Heartfield

Roy Lichtenstein

Kurt Schwitters

Price: about pound;200

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