By Helen Barry
Playing with Art and Architecture was a new six-week contemporary visual art course for children within Project 20/20. This was a new partnership with the Centre of Talented Youth in Dublin City University. The course focused on offering a practical hands-on approach to exploring contemporary art but it also aimed to build-on the childrens visual literacy skills and to increase their confidence in talking about and discussing contemporary art. The 16 children, all in 5thclass were nominated from 8 DEIS schools in the Dublin1 area.
Prior to facilitating this course I had just completed Visual Thinking Strategies training with DCC Arts Office and The LAB Gallery. I was eager to integrate this with the making aspect of the sessions. Visual Think Strategies (VTS) is a methodology that invites the viewer, children and adults to explore artworks through a line of questioning that is based on their own experience and understanding; they become much more invested this way than by being given facts, figures, context and history by someone else. It shows children that they have the means and the where-with-all to interpret art themselves thus demystifying the gallery experience. This approach works in sync with my approach to working in collaboration with children an intrinsic part of my own practice.
Session One – ‘Watching the Dynamic’
Playing with Art and Architecture was primarily based in DCU itself but the first and last sessions were held DCC Arts Office on Foley Street. I was aware that for many of the children that this would be their first experience of a contemporary art gallery. Session One would be a first on many levels. It would be the first time that the 5th class children would meet each other and the first time that I would meet them.
The session started in The LAB Gallery’s larger exhibition space on the ground floor with the focus on a practical activity within the space. Using the large windows as their canvas I gave the children clear directions as to what they were required to do allowing the exhibition to be stumbled across almost accidently. Leaving the exhibition in the background allowed the children to look at the work in their own time. I hoped its content would evoke the children to ask questions or make comments about the work. So Through The Singing Land He Passed, Sabina Mac Mahon, was the exhibition installed in the gallery in April and it was both intriguing yet perplexing and I was unsure of how and what the children would make of it.
As the children drew portraits of each other through the glass panes their laughter echoed throughout the space. Not the giggles and sniggers brought about by the classical nude sculptures of museums but roars of laughter fell about. This was the first time I had attempted this particular approach to portraits. We all learnt a little about looking, perspective and drawing but the most successful elements was the laughter. It was at that moment I noticed how the presence of laughter is to set the group at ease allowing the children to take in what they were surrounded by.
As directed by the VTS approach the children were invited to look at the work and they were encouraged to ask questions if they had any. As the children drew they explored the work asking many questions and offering comments. These I responded to on a one-to-one or smaller group basis. One of the children wondered whether one of the pieces of work was finished and whether it was or wasn’t why do galleries only show finished work? She had a point I have been wondering on this question since?
We looked briefly at John Beattie, curated by Sheena Barrett and Donal Maguire the second exhibition in The LAB Gallery. The dynamic of the group was eager and open and here again the children looked and asked many questions. This show used slide projectors of the old fashioned type rather than digital technology. An element of what the children saw was an artist’s use of small sketchbooks to record the artist’s daily observations. It was these two particular elements that we worked with, integrating these ideas onto the portraits we took upstairs with us. They worked quickly and eagerly as I observed their dynamic and listened to their chat until it was time for the children to go back into the rain with new sketchbooks in hand and enthusiasm and intrigue in their minds.
The childrens drawing skills were at a strong level and many were interested in drawing emojis, cartoons and fantasy. My plan was to introduce thinking and building in 3D, using ourselves and the buildings in DCU as our starting point. Based on the strength of questions asked by the children throughout this session I felt confident that the children would be able for and enjoy this task.
Session Two – ‘Rethinking’
My collaborative work with children is an intrinsic part of my practice. Where possible the children and I set the direction and content of what we would do together as the sessions progress. For Playing with Art and Architecture I had designed the course prior to meeting with the children. Architecture and space would create a focus point and we would work on scale, constructing both on a miniature scale and on a very large scale the latter would demand that the children would work together possibly creating two large pieces of work. Session Two allowed me to pitch my ideas to the children and to figure the logistics of the space we were be working in.
As with all groups of children embarking on a new course the participants may change a few times, Session Two offered a few new faces. We started with a couple of simple drawing exercises, self-portraits on a reflective surface and life size body mark making on a 8metre roll of paper placed on the floor. From here we took the 2D nature of the drawing to 3D. Using tape, string and our bodies we connected together creating forms and shapes. Initially we worked as one group but we divided into three smaller groups. Some of the children seemed to be quite self-conscious as we drew awareness to the body. At this point I asked the children to come out of the pieces and find other anchor points within the room to build their sculpture pieces, shortening this activity. On reflection the concept of this activity was perhaps too abstract and quite challenging for the children to grasp for a second session.
Unfortunately the technology on the day failed us and we were unable to look at the digital images of 3 contemporary art works I had brought with me. Instead we discussed my ideas and their ideas for the course. The children were particularly interested in learning how to build the 3D structures that I had suggested, on their own and not in groups. The children also wanted to expand their knowledge of and skill level in the drawing styles and themes of their choice. I also observed that many of the children were very driven in developing creative projects in their spare time and not in school time. I wanted to be able to integrate their ideas and choices with mine whilst broadening their exposure and understanding of contemporary art. The logistics of the space itself also impacted on my initial ideas hence I had to rethink my approach.
Session Three ‘Constructing Our Ideas’
My approach to exploring contemporary art with children is to identify a core experience or feeling that evokes a response from the child. This may take the form of laughter, mischief, the recollection of a story or event, annoyance but essentially what happens is that they identify something specific and unique to them. I believe that their ability to explore and understand a concept is to ensure that it can be connected to an experience of their own. This also transfers to work they will create themselves. Work created by the child based on their own experiences will delve far deeper delivering a much richer experience for the child that is reflected in the quality of the work they produce
Session Three was all about making a building in 3D in a world of fantasy or fiction that would host a character and that character needed a narrative. The children were familiar with comics and story boarding in 2D but this task asked them to think about how this would work in 3D. I had brought a variety of materials with me of which many were transparent and suitable to write and draw on. Within the structure of their buildings the walls, floors or windows would provide a canvas for developing or depicting the narrative within their buildings. I wanted the children to understand that contemporary art often incorporates lots of different forms from text, to sound, to pages of the artist’s sketchbook to using found objects; there are no limits to what and how something can be used.
I worked one to one with the children discussing their ideas as the sketched. As the ideas formed we looked at the construction and materials. Lots of attention was given to the technical construction of their pieces, I wanted the children to focus on finding solutions for their constructions whilst learning practical skills. I was also aware that the children would need to see the beginning of their ideas realized in 3D before the end of this session. Each piece was completely different from the next and this demanded a lot of extra support that came from Natalie and Roisin. The buildings started with a polystyrene block that is easy to build up from and quickly the structures rose from the white blocks. I was quite astonished at the speed of which some of the children worked both in their ideas and their constructions. As the children worked I discussed the narrative for their characters with them. I noticed that the boys in particular had begun to delve quite deeply into the personality and scenario of their chosen character. I asked the children to develop this aspect for the next session and I took a long list of materials that the children felt they needed for their work for our next session.
Session Four ‘Growing An Idea’
It is wonderful to see when an idea takes root and grows. At times a child can struggle with understanding of what forming a concept means and how then to transfer their ideas into a visual form. We had spent much time in the previous session teasing out ideas and exploring the potential use of different materials. Each idea was formed around the design of a building. This building could be a representation of an existing building or come from their imagination. I asked the children though not to recreate a building that they had seen in a film or read about as this would influence the narrative that would be contained within their buildings or structures.
The children all worked at different paces. For some they became quite caught up in the idea and others in the construction. For most of the children they had never worked in 3D. Accessing and exploring the range of materials enabled the children to find the right material for their piece and with great precision. As the children developed their builds so too did their ideas, no two pieces were the same. Jack’s piece very quickly mirrored his very simple sketch and indicated his observational skills of Dublin’s architectural landscape. As their characters and narratives developed I began to get to know the children a little better.
There were some very interesting storylines developing. Michael’s piece was called The Sad Mans his character was extremely thought through, showing an acute observation of reality. Killian’s piece demonstrated a great sense of humor, Tori’s depicted popular culture and Andrea’s celebrated friendship and Dominiquea’s showed her interest in fantasy fiction.
All of the children work intensively and the 1 and half hours together went incredibly fast. Some of the children were working on parts of their pieces at home. Their confidence was steadily growing and so too was their vocabulary for describing space, construction, textures, and buildings. The children asked to increase the course to two sessions a week that I took as a good sign that they were enjoying the course. The following session was the last one based in DCU as our final session saw the children return to The LAB. Having met the wider team there on their first visit the children were keen to return to The LAB and have their work seen by the staff of a contemporary art gallery.
Session Five The Everyday In Art
This was our final Playing with Art and Architecture session based in DCU. We had been using a lecture theatre in one of the science buildings on campus. We had all been reading the rather odd signs about the building telling us which lift to use if certain chemicals were present! I wondered whether the students using this facility looked at us doing odd things too. The children were completely caught up in the thinking and making of their odd and individual sculptural pieces. In such a short space of time they have honed their ability to develop a concept and take it through a process where it gathers the momentum of making a piece of artwork; the logistical stumbling blocks of the making and experimenting pushing their ideas to the final stages of where and when they instinctively knew when its done.
Over the weeks I had placed postcard images of contemporary art works on the tables. I invited the children to look at these as they worked. As with the VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) approach the questions I asked were open ended what do you see in the picture? when the children initiated the question I used the language of their question to allow them to look at why they had asked the question. All of these discussions had taken place on a one-to-one or small group basis. There had not been the opportunity to have a group discussion on contemporary art works but we had discussed the works being made by the different children together as a group using the VTS approach. The children’s ability and confidence to talk about their work increased over the weeks. Their language and vocabulary became more diverse and some of the children were able to draw parallels with others pieces being created by other children in the group. I was surprised to see so many of the boys use experiences of the everyday as the stimulus for their work rather than the girls. My experience to date would have suggested that girls use the everyday and the boys use history and fantasy/super natural as their stimulus.
The detail and precision of what some of the children wanted to achieve was frustrating for some of the children. Tom’s weaving to recreate a prehistoric village was testing his patience, he was tempted to simplify the piece but found this did not depict his idea well enough so he persevered. Dominique completely pulled her piece apart and rebuilt it from scratch. Killian put the car on the pinnacle of his car sale showroom and he was ready to add his text. Tori made her paper-mache piece for her building at home. Natalie who is normally based in The LAB had worked closely with her to ensure that the complicated piece would fit together. Both Natalie and Roisin who is based in DCU had been working extremely well with the children. We have 16 children in the group all with very ambitious ideas and complicated builds. This has demanded a lot of extra adult support to work with the children. Having this adult to child ratio enabled the children to create their ambitious pieces.
The children were very keen to invite their parents and siblings to The LAB where the final session took place. Yvanne from DCU’s Talented Youth Department was instrumental in ensuring that the logistics of getting everyone from A to B and back again took action and organized parents and children for our final session.
When I work with children one of my ambitions is to create new opportunities for them to develop and explore a sense of self. An objective of Playing with Art and Architecture allowed the children to explore elements of who they are and how they expressed themselves through a visual language. We had many interesting conversations with the children in how symbols, emojis, objects, text, materials and textures say or do not say what and how (they wanted) to communicate to others. As the children’s artworks were nearing completion they became better able to make clearer choices of how best to simplify their ideas or present a suggestion or offer something more ambiguous to the viewer rather than provide all of the answers.
For our final session we revisited The LAB on Foley Street. We were based in one of the very large studio spaces on the top floor. This was a practical hands on session that enabled the children to complete their work whilst being observed by parents, siblings, DCU’s CTY staff, a representative from the Matheson Foundation (who supported the programme) and The LAB’s arts team. The latter led the observers through the exhibitions in The LAB prior to joining the children who were busy at work in the workshop space upstairs. We used the term observed to allow a more informal manner that would assist casual conversations to develop. I felt it was more beneficial to allow the observers to wander throughout the room and talk to the children as they worked rather than inviting the children to present their work.
In parallel to the completion of their individual artworks I invited the children to create a new artwork together as a group. They had to design and build a structure from specific materials together. This would be a group piece that would challenge what the children had learnt about construction and form whilst responding individually to their experience of the six weeks. As they created the piece the observers were also invited to respond to what they saw in the room by adding to the piece.
I felt proud of what the children had achieved and how they had engaged in the process. At the beginning the process raised a few skeptical comments even if was just in the form of a raised eyebrow from the children. It challenged their ideas of contemporary art and demanded that they had to think through a concept rather than starting with a drawing as they were used too. The children worked diligently through the six weeks and all of their ideas were completely unique to them. I hoped that the children took from the course a sense of their capabilities and enjoyment of their uniqueness as well as a new appreciation of contemporary art. It is also very important to recognize that the level of work could not have been achieved without the ongoing support of Natalie from The LAB and Roisin from DCU. Their practical assistance and ability to communicate with the children was crucial. When the sessions took place in The LAB gallery the Arts Team engaged with the children that in reflection gave the children an understanding of the importance of how The LAB sees and works with children.
Playing With Art and Architecture was set within a programme of specially designed course for children across different subjects at the Centre of Talented Youth in DCU. A few weeks after the course finished the children were invited to receive their certificates from Dr. Colm O’Rielly and Dr. Leo Varadkar TD at CTY’s Celebration Event in DCU along with their parents and almost 300 other children participating on other courses.
By Helen Barry