JUNK: A Collaborative Art Project between Chelsea College of Art and St Johns Primary School, West London
I am leading an ongoing collaboration between Chelsea College of Art and St John’s Primary School in West Ealing. I have been working with two other Chelsea MA Fine art students, Ian Barrington and Denzel Wachoupe. The school has recently moved to a new Conran designed building, which is part of the huge Crossrail related regeneration programme in the area. There is an opportunity for artists to install work in the many large white architecturally inspirational spaces in the school and to work directly with the children. The headteacher, Mrs Marilyn Borlase is aiming to create an inspiring learning environment for the children. She is enthusiastic about the role of the arts in education, and feels that Chelsea College artists could offer an innovative creative input to the school and its children.
In an initial meeting with Mrs Borlase, we identified that the school had virtually no art making in its timetable due to national curriculum directives which place an emphasis on academic subjects and demands for regular testing.
The school serves the large Green Man Lane estate in West Ealing known previously for the scale of its deprivation. It is racially diverse with many of the children from refugee families that have lived through traumatic events. There is also a range of language and communication difficulties amongst the children, with 42 different languages spoken in the school and other more emotional and socially based communication problems. The school actively works with the children in these areas, employing a speech therapist and a ‘Place to Be’ counselling and play therapist. There is a strong ethos of inclusivity and of encouraging the children to work together helpfully and to communicate with each other. Mrs Borlase aims to make her school a welcoming, safe place for the children and we certainly found that the children did perceive school in this way and looked forward to attending. There is also minimal tolerance of any behaviour that prevents others from learning which creates a calm yet industrious environment.
We identified two obvious points of intervention for the art project:
For the Children:
1) To encourage the children to communicate through creative collaboration.
2) To allow children the freedom to ‘think like an artist’ rather than thinking in more prescriptive, literal and academic ways demanded by the national curriculum. By 'Thinking like an artist' we wanted there to be an open way of approaching things, a tolerance of ambiguity and ‘not knowing’ where you are heading. Presenting a different, more positive attitude to risk and failure, thus offering a balance to the testing culture imposed on schools where there is an emphasis on right and wrong, success and failure.
For Chelsea College students:
1) To fill the school with permanent artist only installations and artist/children collaborative installations.
2) To offer Chelsea students the opportunity of working in a supportive external environment, gaining skills and experience that could facilitate an entrance into the teaching profession.
The workshops were planned around junk modelling, using Scrap Store as a source of free and inspiring industrial waste. The children worked in small groups and given simple open ended instructions like: ‘make a hat for someone imaginary’ or simply: ‘build something together’. We didn’t plan overmuch in advance, but allowed each session to have a loose structure and to take its course. We would then try to take the theme forward each week. This is in contrast to teaching sessions where lessons have to be carefully planned and structured in advance. Our way of working borrowed more from my experience of running therapeutic creative sessions and also from the way that we as artists approach art making. We showed, and talked about, our own work to the students as a way of allowing them to see a diversity of practice. We allowed time at the end of the sessions for the children to talk about what they had done. This seemed to be a very important part of the session and revealed interesting and complex group narratives such as: ‘this was the boys bit, this was the girls bit, and then we decided to all work together so this is the all of us bit. .’ (not an exact quote). Also: ‘This is an exhibition and these are the people wandering around the exhibition, some of whom have super powers’ (again, not an exact quote). Some of the more memorable characters created were: ‘The Queen of the Clouds’, ‘The Cloth Stealer’ and ‘King of many Crowns and Kingdoms’. The children seemed to be learning on the spot about collaborative skills and building narratives together, which had a second stage of development in the concluding group discussions. Although the workshops seemed chaotic at times, we felt it was important to work with this rather than impose more structure.
I have been asked by the Head Teacher of the school to promote a next stage of the Chelsea and St Johns school project which will seek to strengthen links between the two institutions. There is every reason to look positively towards the future as the project is mutually beneficial to the Chelsea students, as it provides valuable workshop experience and possible entry into teaching as a career and to the school which receives much needed and appreciated input from practicing artists. Potentially too, artists can install their own work in the school.
The school has very much appreciated the input so far and Mrs Borlase said that the children understood that they were experiencing a ‘different kind’ of creativity and pinpointed the workshops as one of the best things in their academic year. Let us hope we can continue.