Year of the Artist

All over the country, arts professionals are setting out to paint the town. Heather Neill reports.

Remember the traditional image of the artist? A dreamy character, probably flaunting eccentric clothes and, when not stuck in that lonely garret, given to fits of "temperament"? Well, it was always a travesty of the truth, and the next 12 months should see the back of such cliches for good.

For, after months of preparation, we have just embarked on the Year of the Artist, launched by Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Media, Culture and Sport, last week. Between now and May 2001 some 1,000 artists, representing every discipline, will work, singly or together, in all kinds of unexpected places all over the UK. The various arts councils and local arts boards will play their part, so that from Birmingham to Pitlochry, Merthyr Tydfil to Bognor Regis, on Radio 4's Today programme and the Internet, in churches, supermarkets and schools, people of all ages from the arts aficionado to the surprised passer-by will experience the arts first-hand.

Children and young people will have especially rich opportunities: to help create site-specific installations, to take part in making theatre and music with professional artists, to hone their creative computer skills and generally have their eyes and ears opened to new experiences. Here is a taste of what is on offer.

The Little Room of Big Questions is already under way: eight artists, six of them Asian, led by installation artist Shanaz Gulzar and writer Adam Strickson, are putting the finishing touches to a special "school room" which will eventually be visited by hundreds of primary pupils in Yorkshire. The 20ft by 14ft portable classroom, made up of decorated panels, will travel to Bradford, Batley, Huddersfield and Sheffield to be assembled in a public venue in each town. The room itself will simply contain six desks. Susan Burns, company manager of Chol theatre, the group responsible for Little Room, says that "Inside, it could be a third world classroom".

The aim is that children will fill it with their ideas. Half a dozen at a time, they will visit the room and talk and think, look and remember their own past with one of two artists; the other will be outside helping the rest of the class give form to the resulting ideas. Among the artists will be a dancer, a musician and a writer as well as visual artists, who will work in different media such as textiles and digital imaging. At the final venue, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, next January, the youth theatre will prepare a performance with a dancer, writer and designer. The artwork and music made by younger children on the Little Room's journey will be exhibited alongside the performance. The project is multilingual, using Gujerati, Urdu, Bangla and English, the ultimate objective being a sharing of cultures. Chol, by the way, is a Bangla word which both describes the sound of water lapping against a boat and means, appropriately enough, "Come o, let's get going".

Another, quite separate, multicultural event is scheduled for next spring in Sheffield. Composer Douglas Young and children's author Malorie Blackman will work with children to create a performance at City Hall that will include music, theatre and drama. At Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in Berkshire, new technology will play a leading role when a multimedia artist takes up residence. After an initial meeting, he or she will guide young participants via the Internet in their own multimedia projects, which will lead to a website exhibition.

In Keighley, between now and November, artist Alan Pergusey will help students at Whinburn school create a record of life in 2000 by arranging boxes, or pigeonholes, of objects. In Whitby an education programme will run alongside an artist's residency which will be attached to the archeological dig this summer. Bishops Waltham Palace is a 12th-century Hampshire ruin which is about to be brought to life in a project managed by Winchester Rural Theatres. During the October half-term, Bouge de La, an experimental theatre company, will lead a group of young people aged 14 and over in making a site-specific piece of drama.

Prize-winning Hungarian artist and former teacher Bal zs Kicsiny, who lives in London, has presented his work in galleries in Germany, France and Scotland as well as Hungary and England. His unusual pieces combine elements of his personal heritage, especially Catholic symbols and the role of working people, notably miners and sailors. His work often features coal and anchors - the latter being an ancient Christian symbol as well as a maritime one. His residency is in St Clement's church in Boscombe, Dorset, not far from Bournemouth, where he was artist in residence at the Russell Cotes Art Gallery between 1995 and 1997 and where an exhibition of his work will mark the re-opening of the gallery after refurbishment in December. While at St Clement's he will work with the community, especially nearby schools. Bal zs has already addressed the congregation and is delighted to have been welcomed both by them and in schools where he is impressed by the standard of artworks on show. The St Clement's symbol, he was thrilled to discover, is an anchor. His piece will be completed by St Clement's Day (November 23) and will consist of figures dressed as sailors placed alongside worshippers. "My work," he says, "is provocative, not sacred; it is on the edge, on the balance between the sacred and the profane." After seeing the installation, the children will create their own pictures "in the most absurd and free way". These and the work of the community will then be displayed in the church.

Bal zs Kicsiny's objectives - to surprise people, to make them think about objects and symbols in a new way, to encourage them to share experience - could stand for the Year of the Artist generally. So, Chol! Let's get going!

For information, tel: 0870 070 2787;

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