A Space for Curiosity and Free Play

After a long period of planning, research, studio time, workshops, material sourcing, installation, documentation, delivery and reflection (phew!), I am uploading my experience of working on the new Clore Art Studio at Manchester Art Gallery. Working in collaboration with fellow artists (and partners in crime) Sarah Marsh, Katy McCall and Family Learning Manager Alex Thorp, we created and produced the Clore Art Studio, a playful, interactive space which took initial inspiration from Grayson Perry's current exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences. For more information about the exhibition click here. The process behind Grayson Perry's work can also be viewed in his Channel 4 documentary In the Best Possible Taste (still available online on 4OD). 

Our brief was not to develop a direct interpretation or response to Grayson Perry's tapestries. Nor was it about creating a learning experience that attempted to 'educate others' and explain the concepts, processes and ideas behind Grayson Perry's work. It was more significant for us to respond as individual artists, distilling visual or aesthetic elements of Perry's work which related to our own practice and interests.

In addition, the intention was to create a space that would provide opportunities for free play, open-ended interaction, conversation and inter-generational activity, whilst at the same time making connections to Grayson Perry's exhibition in the neighbouring gallery . 

To develop this space, Sarah and I initially tested out our creative ideas and activities on a class of 5-6 year olds from St Augustine's Primary School, Monsall, Manchester. Workshops took place over one week, allowing us to develop themes, processes and a wish list of materials, resources and structures. Sarah was interested in 'lines' and I focused on the interplay of objects, colour and sorting. These themes were all pulled out as conceptual strands from Grayson Perry's tapestries, during our initial planning meetings.

As the week of research progressed, we began to understand the ways children could totally pull apart, deconstruct and re-figure a theme or idea! With this in mind, we needed to create a space that could provide endless opportunities for interaction with a number of robust, appealing objects and materials within an equally engaging, unbreakable installation framework. At this point, Katy came on board to lend her wisdom to the positioning and installation of tables, storage, furniture and objects. 

The end result was a deconstructed version of Perry's world of furniture and colourful, domestic objects in a vibrant, quirky installation. In his work, Perry suggests that different household objects and interiors are indicators of a particular class taste and identity, but what happens when children are placed into such a space? At what age does a child begin to demonstrate a sense of taste and a preference for one item over another?  And why? Would children even place such meanings and values over a particular object or would their response be completely 'innocent' and untainted in relation to adult-oriented notions of class taste and identity? 

In the Clore, a storage unit fashioned out of reclaimed deep, blue crates displayed an arrangement of enticing, colourful, domestic, pound shop items, textiles and ribbons laid out ready for play. White, deconstructed furniture provided a framework for play and interaction within the space. Opposite, a drawing table was laden with silverware and looping lines of words, which encouraged people to look at and choose objects to draw in a continuous line. Meanwhile, key words were positioned around the space, prompting action: wrap, stack, sort, shadows, line, patterns, twist, weave, hide, same, different, etc. Meanwhile, on the side walls, photographs of children from St Augustines were displayed, facing old TV monitors with films of children playing within the studio space.

To follow-up on the installation of the space, we were invited to facilitate artist-led interventions within the studio during the weekends, while a team of volunteers were trained to maintain and run the space throughout the week. The studio became a lively, popular place for visitors of all ages and many observations were kept of the variety of weird and wonderful interactions and happenings witnessed over the four months! All in all, it was a rather, wacky, ambitious and fun project to be involved with, once the inital stress of rushed installation deadlines was out of the way!! 

For more information, see Manchester Art Gallery's Studio Sketchbook blog. Click here for a write-up by Alex Thorp and also click here for my Top 10 observations working in the Clore!

Mini Art Club at 60

Mini Art Club at Manchester Art Gallery is still going strong at 60! Well, it's probably a lot more than 60 as we actually run the same session twice every second Friday of the month. The session has certainly evolved and progressed since I first started running the session in June 2008 ... that's five years ago!

Here are a selection of pictures taken from Mini Art Club over the past few months. Sessions responded to Cyprien Gaillard's video The Smithsons, Kelley Walker's Dreams Without Frontiers exhibition, Paul Nash's Nocturnal Landscape and Marion Adnan's The Living Tree. We incorporated themes such as 'cityscapes', grids, musical dimensions and surrealist landscapes and dream spaces. 

Many thanks to everyone who helped support and run each large-scale installation and session.

Click here for the latest on Manchester Art Gallery Family workshops.

Culture Babies

Working alongside Kids in Museums, Manchester Art Gallery hosted a national 'Culture Babies conference' today, focusing on the importance of creatively engaging young children (aged 0-2 years) and their adults in cultural institutions.

After having run Mini Art Club for a good three years at the gallery, we had reflected on the need to engage 0-2 year olds as there was a lack of activities available specifically for parents with very young children. Baby Art Club has since been launched and is proving to be more popular than ever! 

As part of the Culture Babies conference today, I delivered a taster session in the studio. As always, our starting point comes from identifying suitable artworks to respond to in the gallery, in this case the 17th Century gallery on the first floor. A key artwork in the current display is the painting 'Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife' by John Souch (see link below for an image). The subject matter in this artwork is rather dark and macabre. However, the gallery also exhibits other paintings which depict family life in the 17th Century through formal portraiture.

It is an interesting exercise to respond to artworks that we may overlook or deem to be unsuitable or inappropriate for certain groups and then try to tease out interesting thoughts, ideas and responses.

I thought it would be useful to begin to pull out key themes and imagery from the artworks and, having spent some time looking, began to notice the intricate, lacy details on the clothing of the characters in the painting. The heavy contrast between dark and light  / black and white was also apparent. Black and white became the sensory theme for our sensory installation downstairs and this proved to be a theme that could be explored, pulled apart and questioned downstairs.

Black and white materials were laid out and contrasted in the studio environment downstairs, to create a strong visual contrast aimed specifically at babies' eyes. We also wanted to question the stereotypical understanding of the symbolism of black and white. Black is not often associated with young children. In Western cultures, white is often viewed positively as something which symbolises purity, light, life and innocence. In opposition, black is often associated with death, shadows, darkness and even the occult. 

We somehow wanted to invert this so that black could be cast in a positive light and could even be portrayed as something that had the quality of something light, whereas white became heavy. Furthermore, we wanted to explore ways of interpreting the sensory qualities of black and white, i.e. what would black sound / feel / taste like, as opposed to white?

A small group of babies and mums entered the space and were invited to explore a variety of materials and objects with all the senses, i.e. heavy white balloons and cobbles, vs. floating black balloons, white and black velvet, lace, flowers, vegetables and even a black and white keyboard. Here we had attempted to create our very own black and white 17th Century still life installation.

While the session continued, groups of conference delegates were invited to visit the space, make observations and ask questions.  

Most of the mums hadn't attended Baby Art Club before and many were pleasantly surprised by the taster session. In particular, one mum commented on how she thought it was "refreshing" to attend a session that wasn't adult-led, but rather allowed space and time for her to explore and play together with her baby.  

It was a lovely session to run, even if it took us all morning to set up the installation! Many thanks to Andrew Moseley, Alex Thorp and Jess Wild for all their help. 









Just So Festival 2012: Away with the Fairies, The Tent of Surprise

After a long and lovely weekend working at the Just So festival at Rode Hall Parkland Cheshire, I've finally found some time to load up a few pictures.

Hidden in enchanted woodland, 'Away with the Fairies', my Tent of Surprise revealed a paper forest (literally!) growing inside the tent. With baskets filled with surprises to rummage through, families were able to explore objects through all the senses. Torches revealed paper-cut shadows and bugs (both imaginary and real!), pots of perfumes or potions conjured up responses, emotions and memories, children listened out for noises and the feely basket was full of surprises - including a real frog that had accidentally landed in there and gone to sleep! Perhaps it was the fairy queen who had been out casting spells...