Toddlers' Choice: Whitworth Collections Centre Exhibition

This summer I worked with families with young children in the Whitworth Atelier to find out what their preferences were to viewing artworks taken from the Whitworth's art collection. Having drawn up a longlist with EY Learning Coordinator Lucy Turner and curators Amy George and Frances Pritchard, sample images of wallpapers and textiles were presented on a wall in the atelier over a number of weeks, for participants to choose their favourites. Weekly activity in the atelier also corresponded with an identified visual theme for each group of images (such as linear, geometric patterns; monochrome patterns and silhouettes; fruit and floral patterns; lines, weaving and movement).

The artworks selected by participants are now on display in the Toddlers' Choice exhibition in the Whitworth's Collections Centre. It's really great as some lovely examples of the children's artworks made in the atelier this summer can be viewed alongside collection artworks in the exhibition. You can also view a short film about the process made by filmmaker Jess Wild from Wild Bees. Today we officially opened our exhibition with an Art Party (preview) in the 'atelier of tastes'.

To take a closer look at the toddlers' choices ,  you can access images, as catalogued by the Whitworth curators. You can also follow my new Diary of an Atelierista blog on tumblr for more information, under the username the-scribble-kid. Finally, here's a glimpse of the exhibition below.

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. 


Playing with Cameras, Light and Colour

I've just finished an ace project working with a nursery from a school in North Manchester. Our focus was on promoting speaking and listening and creative development through art workshops and an identified key theme. 

My focus or theme was initially photography, which then became broader as we began to consider the basic principles behind photography such as light, dark, colour, reflection and refraction. We also used key artworks and studio spaces at Manchester Art Gallery to further explore light and shadow, positive and negative. Children were also given cameras to use throughout the project to record their experiences and their language and observations were recorded throughout. 

Here are some of the things they got up to:

-Focusing on taking photos in indoor and outdoor spaces in their school.

-Projecting different objects, drawings, materials

-Exploring shiny materials and reflections

-Spending time focusing on drawing Antony Gormley's sculpture 'Filter' at Manchester Art Gallery

-Exploring positives and negatives through paper and projections

We packed a lot of activity into a few days and we're hoping to create a blog about the wider project too (3 artists, 3 different groups!). I'll shout out when the gallery blog goes live!

Far Far Away - The Pre-Raphaelite Experiment, Manchester Art Gallery

It has been a busy summer of creating Pre-Raphaelite story worlds and paper play!

As part of Manchester Art Gallery's current Pre-Raphaelite Experiment, I worked alongside artists Katie McCall, Sarah Marsh and Family Learning Manager, Alex Thorp to develop, create, install and co-ordinate activities in a large, interactive story world on the top floor of Manchester Art Gallery.

Programmed for the summer holidays, 'Far, Far Away' invited children aged 0-11 years and their adults to follow a treasure hunt through the Pre-Raphaelite galleries, finding characters from different paintings along the way. Families were encouraged to work together to make up their own stories inspired by the different exhibited paintings. As a way of sparking their imagination further, paper clues and props were laid out in baskets along the way to help.

Rather than returning to the usual learning studios to do a creative activity, the whole of the Gallery's top floor temporary exhibition space had literally been transformed into a land 'far, far away'. Children followed a trail of leaves to begin their journey through the story world.

In the main gallery, three large tents were suspended from the ceiling - each stretching across at a diameter of 5 metres. Families visited each tent to put together the elements of their own story:

Katie created and co-ordinated the 'Who' tent, where children could create a costume to turn themselves into a character from the paintings.

I created and co-ordinated the 'Where' tent, a shadowy, multi-sensory paper forest, where children could be inspired to think of the setting for their story.

Sarah developed and co-ordinated the 'What' tent - the final part to the story - what happens to your character along their journey. Here children could make speech bubbles and put together their plot to act out in front of the camera. Their films were then cast as huge projections onto the gallery wall!

0-2 years - activities for parents with younger children

As a way of providing activities for parents with very young children, I was responsible for providing a multi-sensory, exploratory experience in the paper forest! Birds recorded during a recent trip to Poland could be heard hiding in the trees, among a growing army of paper leaves. Natural forest materials (e.g. leaves, flowers, apples, pine cones, etc.), fluffy birds and torches were hidden in 'treasure tubs' filled with ripped paper that children could search through. Older children began to make stories up about the objects they found, whilst younger children enjoyed tipping the paper out, shining torches or sitting in the tub itself to have a paper bath!

The tent also housed a light box to investigate the details of natural materials using magnifying glasses (as inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites' attention to details in nature). Older children could also make paper cuttings to make the forest 'grow' and some began to make hidden box gardens which they shone their torches into.

As an extension of this fascination with nature, I also worked with a team of volunteers to develop a landscape outside the tent:

  • a nature trail - a winding path around the tent which revealed hidden messages, leaves, scented flowers and herbs, etc.
  • a paper corn field, which families could create out of tubes of yellow card
  • a clay area for capturing natural prints and constructing
  • a mark-making/printing area to capture the details of leaves and flowers with ink (these changed with the 'seasons' over the 4 weeks)
  • a river of pebbles that young children loved to position and build with around the outside of the tent

Please see above for images taken over the course of the project!