Summer in the City

It may be September tomorrow and also the end of another non-existent summer but, despite the rain, overcast skies and waterproof clothing, there were some non-weather-related things worth hanging around for this summer!

Here are my Top 5 magic summer workshop moments:


1. Watching this boy, his Mum and little brother spend hours in the Early Years Atelier at the Whitworth, as they played and constructed with paper together. They made sculptures, drawings, body armour, headwear, paper cuts and then finally a kite which was flown in the Art Garden outside the studio. 


2. Observing young children and their adultsas they took the time to simply stop and enjoy the views out of the window overlooking the Calder weir, outside the Hepworth Wakefield.


3. Dreaming up ideas, setting up for and watching my summer 'takeover' unfold at Manchester Art Gallery as participants responded to Kandinsky's colour-shape theory and immersed themselves in some proper primary colour magic. It was lovely to work with such an ace, supportive team too. Please read the previous blogpost for more details!


4. Watching Toby and his Nan bond with lots of fun and laughter as they explored the concept of balance in numerous ways, as part of the Hepworth Wakefield's Toddler Tuesday session.


5. Welcoming children of all ages into the Atelier every Monday to vote for their favourite artworks and work in their own unique ways as they formed connections with themes like the Possibility of Paper and Printed Patterns.


6. Ok, I know I said Top 5 but I can't resist adding the classic boy-with-a-colander-on-his-head photo. He walked around the studio for 10 minutes shouting, "Mummy, I'm here. Look!" as he hid behind the colander after having clanged it around on the stone floor for a further 10 minutes to explore what noises he could make. The colander revealed a lovely, cheeky face complete with a fully-fledged charcoal beard.

Manchester Art Gallery Takeover: Curious About Colour

It has been a colourful week in the Clore Art Studio at Manchester Art Gallery as I took over the space and developed an immersive, interactive environment for participants of all ages to explore.

In response to the theme of pattern and colour, I took artist Wassily Kandinsky's colour theory as a starting point. Kandinsky believed that if people are given three shapes (circle, triangle, square) to colour in with the three primary colours: red, yellow and blue, then there is an intuitive pattern or universal correspondence that people are likely to follow when matching the shapes with the colours. He believed that people were more likely to match the colours and shapes as follows: blue circle, yellow triangle and red square. He handed out a survey to his students at the Bauhaus school in 1923 and surprisingly there was a consensus which agreed with his theory. Although one could argue that he may have influenced his students.

I wanted to test this out with younger participants who knew nothing about the theory, some of whom are yet to be conditioned (culturally) to see colours in a certain way. I asked families who entered the space to colour in the three shapes as an introduction to thinking about how we see primary colour. They were asked to think about their choices and write down what each coloured shape reminded them of. The display of colour-shape correspondences grew over the week (but I have yet to count up the results as there are so many of them!). Watch this space to see which colour-shape combination was the MAG favourite.

Participants could also interact with the primary colours through form, line and light which were incorporated in different ways within the interactive installation space. It was interesting to see how absorbed participants were with the space as people spent hours moving around the different areas, exploring texture, light, movement and paper construction. I also learned that some children and adults found it quite hard to articulate their choice, and if anything is clear just by looking at the visual display board, most people couldn't agree on a consensus. 



The Fabric of the Land: Porto Patterns

I've been going through my old photo archives and found some eye candy. Last autumn, I visited Porto and began to spot some pleasing patterns hidden in ornate wall tiles, mosaic floors, fancy iron railings, shadows, colourful murals and artful grafitti. I decided to trawl through the city and try to collect as many patterns as I could, some of which you can see here. It's no wonder it took me so long to go from A to B!

Walkabout in Reggio Emilia

Resident Gallery Atelierista


Working as an artist, creative practitioner and atelierista for different galleries, children's centres and schools across the North of England, I have often referred to the Reggio Emilia approach within both my research and also on a practical level for guidance and inspiration. The wealth and depth of documentation, publications, seminars and academic papers from the schools in Northern Italy have underlined its influence as an exemplary education model where theory is tightly woven into practice.

Since the Whitworth re-opened in spring, I have been developing and delivering the weekly Early Years Atelier . This has provided the opportunity to observe a dynamic atelier space in action each week. The atelier runs in the Clore Learning Studio every Monday as a free, drop-in space for children aged 0-5 years. The fundamental difference being of course that in contrast to the Reggio Emilia atelier, our atelier is situated in an art gallery with a flow of different participants of mixed ages, dropping in throughout the day, rather than it being a space inhabited by one small group within a nursery or pre-school classroom. It is perhaps more informal too, in that there is no teacher present. Operating within the context of learning and interpretation within a gallery environment, there are also no Early Years Foundation Stage learning objectives to be monitored and assessed, although that doesn't mean that we aren't achieving the learning goals.

Since opening, a range of materials and immersive spaces have been set up to form each atelier, inspired by key artworks and exhibits as starting points. Atelier themes have included black & white, natural materials, indoors-outdoors, geometric patterns and movement, light and dark, heavy and light. As the images below show, a range of materials have been used in both conventional and unconventional ways as children have brought their interests and imaginations to the space:

Reggio Emilia - impressions of a town


Having run the atelier for over six months, I decided it was time I visited the town of Reggio Emilia to research atelier spaces at the International Loris Malaguzzi Centre.  I was also keen to see whether there was something about the town of Reggio Emilia itself that reflected the work that was going on within the world-renowned schools. It is impossible to visit the schools without signing up to a paid research study trip, so this time I wanted to get a feel for Reggio Emilia as a place beyond the schools.

On a fast, cool train from Bologna, we arrived at an ultra-modern and rather deserted high speed rail station just outside the town of Reggio Emilia. The light and shadows cast by the extraordinary white beamed 'ceiling' above the platform were highly impressive and once in the main atrium below, each time a train passed over at high speed the building was filled with an immense burst of sound. Already our senses were alive in the sweltering heat! It was here at a vacant information desk that we also discovered that Reggio Children have created the Children's Park at Milan Expo 2015 , which runs until the 31st October.

Taking a bus into the town centre from the high speed station, Reggio Emilia felt like a typical, sleepy little Italian town with tree-lined stradas, useful for people to find shade under in the intense 37-40 degree heat. It was also clear that the recession has taken a bite even in a prosperous town like Reggio as, upon asking for directions from a friendly Nigerian man, we were told that many people were struggling with long-term unemployment as jobs in the town were hard to come by. This perhaps explained the number of men hanging around in the shade in the parks and outside the train stations at midday.

As with most hot countries, in the the afternoon, the town seemed to become completely deserted as the heat intensified. However, night time in Reggio was a different matter as the streets were filled with activity. A number of free, large-scale, outdoor, cultural events took over the piazzas in the centre as live musicians played in the street, DJs took their decks outside, ballet companies performed on temporary platform stages in the central square, and tango dancers and circus acts entertained the crowds. In one small square, some local women had brought out vintage toys and games for families to play with as children stayed up well past the average UK child's bedtime. It was also really impressive to see the huge crowds of unsupervised teenagers and young people welcomed in the street for the events. Here there was a sense of the whole town community (young and old) coming today as people set up fun, free, DIY, pop-up interventions.


The International Loris Malaguzzi Centre


After absorbing the tastes, sights, sounds and atmosphere of the town, we took a day to visit the Loris Malaguzzi Centre. Named after the visionary educator and founder of the Reggio Emilia approach, the centre showcases different aspects of the movement in a large, former Locatelli warehouse. It was well worth visiting the centre in mid-July as the building was virtually empty, so we were able to take in all the displays, images, videos and spaces in our own time. Perhaps the week earlier would have been a different matter though as the website had advertised a study visit and conference for educators.

Upon entering the building we bought a swift americano and biscotti to wake us up. The first stop was the Pause cafe - one of the designated areas of the Atelier of Tastes. A nice touch to this area was the open-ended materials placed in a small children's area in the corner of the cafe, giving a taster of the Remida creative recycling project. Here, different samples of materials, image flashcards and words in different languages provided an insight into the way Reggio have worked to create a local, creative, recycling, resource centre, receiving industrial waste materials which are then sent on to the local schools to be used as open-ended resources in the classroom and ateliers.

Moving into the exhibition display areas, long, detailled documentation boards charted the history of Reggio Emilia as a partisan town whose citizens bravely resisted fascism duing WWII. A long timeline charts the influence of this progressive, forward-thinking town, whose inhabitants wanted to insure that such atrocities would never happen again. This strong sentiment led to the decision to create the Reggio schools and the displays illustrate how the visionary education approach came to be. To mirror this progression, in another corridor, a rich documentation board describes the way children were consulted in the development of the current Children's Park at Milan Expo - which focuses on engaging children with the theme of sustainability through interactive, sensory exhibits, games and activities. The boards document the ways Reggio schools worked with young children to develop ideas and content for the Children's Park.

The main reason I visited the centre was to get an insight into the way Reggio set up their atelier spaces. Both the digital and light ateliers are really worth visiting as they are huge rooms set up to demonstrate the numerous ways children can encounter and question light, transparency, translucency, shadow, reflection, objects, images, landscapes, projections, film, colour, rainbows, refraction, etc. in thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing spaces. Provocations and open-ended questions line the walls alongside the exhibits, and for further insight into how the ateliers in the schools would work, a Reggio atelierista runs a paid guided tour for visitors. Unfortunately, taking photos in the centre was strictly forbidden, so I spent much time taking notes and watching extensive video footage of children in the Reggio schools, exploring the world of natural materials, pens, mark-making, etc. 

You would need at least a day (if not longer) to explore the Loris Malaguzzi centre as there is a lot to see and absorb, such is the nature of the approach. Hours passed quickly as we focused on the detailled displays, documentation and discourse. There is also a bookshop in the centre which sells all the publications which provide further extensive information to carry away. AND the Pause Atelier of Tastes restaurant is really worth a visit too, especially if you have a starving husband in tow. He was happy to return to the centre for Day 2, on the condition we return to the restaurant which is run by friendly, talkative chefs and seemed to be the place where all the Reggio staff spent their lunch hour - in true Italian style. 

Unfortunately, there were no children to be seen though, as it seems most were either out in town or on holiday. The centre is more for educators and professionals to meet up and learn more about the thinking behind the approach. Reggio Children had also taken over part of the subway underneath the railway lines nearby as further documentation showed how adults and children had illustrated bicycles through drawing, wire and bike parts - quite apt as numerous adults and children zipped past as I took photos, in the region of Emiliano Reggiano - known to be the most progressive, bicycle friendly region in Italy.

All in all, I definitely think a return visit to this town and region is on the cards again soon. Hopefully along with a trip to Milan before the end of October!

Reggio and I


Young children, art and artworks: participants selecting their favourite artworks for an upcoming toddler-selected exhibition at the Whitworth this October

Over ten years ago, I was inspired by the world-renowned Reggio Emilia approach in my practice as a visual artist and creative practitioner. This came after a time of soul-searching when as a graduate artist, I had already travelled to and lived in both France and Brazil, having had the experience of teaching English to children and adults, which in turn widened my perspectives of language, different cultures and working and living abroad. Here I began to recognise the importance of 1) participating in cultural exchange within education, the field of art and beyond and also 2) developing my own approach to conversing with a multitude of (creative) languages beyond English grammar! Subsequently, after a bit of globe-trotting, I returned to Manchester in 2003 to practically engage this experience and consider how to meaningfully apply my art and creative practice beyond the studio walls.

I first came across the Reggio Emilia approach when I worked on a project as a 'collaborative' artist within 2 local children's centres as part of a city-wide partnership project initiated by Manchester Children's Services. Here, the Reggio approach was highlighted as the guiding inspiration for a practical way of working, in which the teacher (pedgogista) and artist-trained educator (atelierista) work in a reflexive, co-constructive relationship with children to form an emergent curriculum, situated within the environment of the school / community as a 'living organism' and 'third educator'. My role within the project was to develop the creative learning environment, which for me, is still a big, warm, fuzzy cloud of ideas, aesthetics, actions, relationships and happenings that I continue to observe, consider, develop, engage with and reflect upon in my work to this day.

Having the Reggio Emilia approach placed on the pedestal in this project, I quickly began to question how much of it could be taken from the context of northern Italy and applied to the very different landscape of the English Early Years Foundation stage and beyond. At this point too, the previous Labour government's flagship SureStart Children's Centres (1998 -2010) were positioned as one-stop shops for children and their adults in socially deprived, diverse communities - a world away, I thought, from the prosperous Italian town of Reggio Emilia and its private nurseries and schools. Now, much has changed since the days of SureStart and creative education in England is being sidelined and trivialised more and more within education policies of the current government - which makes it even more important to look further afield in order to question the value and importance of exemplary creative education approaches.

Being recognised as a 'creative practitioner', I often question what use it is to be creative in a time where being creative seems less on the (political, economical and educational) agenda. What did my own experiences of art and creative education teach me? What does it mean to be creative and what does this bring to our society and the wider world? How do I realistically enthuse others with this creativity in ways that are meaningful and useful? How do I convince others (of all ages) to give their creative side a go?

The different learning programmes and studios in galleries I work in across the north of England, currently embody at least some of the principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach - co-constructing ideas, interpretations, knowledge, skills, activities, happenings, exhibitions with different communities of participants (many of whom) return again and again. The rich anecdotes, comments, positive feedback, learning journeys and inspiring stories, all help to answer at least some of the bigger questions. Creating carefully considered, playful aesthetic environments which are enjoyed, observed, inhabited; bringing peace, tranquility, relaxation and joy are all well-documented and evaluated (as my blog hopefully partially testifies).

It is, a priveleged position to be able to work in such a way to engage others on this quest for creative, co-construction and so to remain creative, one needs to look beyond oneself and constantly formulate ideas and create connections with others in the wider world. For this reason, currently working in one of my roles as Atelierista developing the Whitworth's own version of the Early Years Atelier, I have been thinking that it is high time I pay a visit to the town of Reggio Emilia. An official Reggio research study trip would be ideal. However, I feel it would perhaps be equally useful to visit and get an overall sense of the town of Reggio Emilia while paying a trip to the International Loris Malaguzzi Centre

Watch this space to see how it goes...!



Words sometimes connected to creativity: abstract, alternative thinking patterns, art, artistic, childish, complex, concentration, courage, curious, design, destruction, drama, divergent, endurance, energy, enthusiasm, expression, fantasy, flexible, flow, ideas, imagination, impression, innovation, insight, inspiration, intelligence, interpretation, intuition, language, lateral thinking, left-brained, magic, mindful, misunderstood, music, naive, open, passionate, playful, perseverance, perspective, poetry, questioning, rebellious, richness, sensitive, theatre, values, vision, wisdom

Flickr Upload: Turning Japanese!

After sorting through 1000-2000 photos, I've been busy editing and uploading some photos of a trip to Japan on my Flickr site . Click here to see my visual diary journeying through complimentary landscapes (urban, sea, lake and mountains). The pictures speak a thousand words....


And the winner is.....

Gathering of Strangers

.... the Whitworth!

Beating off some very stiff competition, the Whitworth has won the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2015 prize! After being shortlisted along with five other finalists: Dunham Massey, Altrincham; Imperial War Museum, London; The MAC, Belfast; Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Tower of London, director Maria Balshaw received the award at Tate Modern last night. 

Watch the presentation of the award here.

Listen to an interview with Maria Balshaw on BBC Radio 2 here

Well done the Whitworth! 


Flickr Upload: The Early Years Atelier at the Whitworth

A moment of focus amidst a buzz of activity in the Atelier.  Image courtesy of Karen Hewitt, 2015.

How many pictures do we take in a lifetime? Every Monday I take at least 20-50 images in the Early Years Atelier alone! You can see some of these images on the Whitworth's Flickr  photostream here.

The Early Years Atelier is a new concept in the Clore Learning Studio at the Whitworth. It runs every Monday from 10am-4pm and is a free, drop-in space for young children and their adults.

I have been developing and delivering the Atelier since the gallery opened this February 2015 and each week different materials and objects have been introduced as provocations for open-ended play, exploration of materials, expressive language development, conversations, role play, action, movement and positive interactions between young children and their adults.

At the time of writing we have had over 1500 visits to the Atelier - which is very exciting. I really hope that a wide range of people come to use the Early Years Atelier as a valuable resource and space which they can return to again and again. To get a sense of some of the ways participants have encountered the space, click here


The Big Wild Rumpus

I've been buzzing around the Whitworth today working in my Forest of Mischief installation, as part of the Big Wild Rumpus - a celebration of the classic book 'Where the Wild Things Are' by Maurice Sendak. The Big Wild Rumpus commenced with a reading of the book by actor Maxine Peake, which officially launched the 'rumpus' as musicians created a riot of sound.

The Forest of Mischief was an immersive space with a window to different photographed forests. The installation was full of wild sounds, creatures, ever-growing vines and other objects of mischief (of one kind and another) that took over the Whitworth's magnificent Grand Hall. Elsewhere in the gallery, a giant squirrel danced and made music to gramophone records and visitors could get up close to a selection of Manchester Museum's real wild things.

The Whitworth Way

Since the Whitworth Art Gallery's re-opening on February 14th, I have been tasked with managing an ambitious and fun-packed Early Years learning programme. This has kept me very busy as I have tested out the new Welly Walks guide with families and school groups out in Whitworth Park, woken up as an early bird to simultaneously set-up and run busy, weekly Toddler Art Club sessions x 2 and also the new Early Years Atelier which runs all day every Monday. 

It's my last week of covering the role of Early Years Learning Coordinator and I'm excited to be switching to the position of the Whitworth's resident Atelierista or studio artist as I immerse myself in fully exploring the possibilities and developments of the weekly 'atelier' space . However, before I start this role, I will set up one last sensory, gallery installation designed especially for small babies and their parents (in the form of Brass Baby and Art Baby - Music Baby) as musician and vocalist Nancy Elizabeth creates a melodic soundscape with her mini harp. It has been an absolute treat to take over a different gallery space each week. It has also been extremely useful to talk to the many mums/dads who have told me what a godsend the weekly sessions are, as they provide the perfect excuse to leave the house, spend some quality time with their little one, socialise with other children and adults and experience stimulating gallery environments and artworks.

The photos above give a snapshot of the numerous activities on offer each week and demonstrate how lucky Manchester residents are to have such a variety of free cultural institutions and weekly / monthly activities for all ages from birth onwards..