The Harley Gallery. Bringing Art and Writing Together.
The Harley Gallery is a small art gallery in the heart of the Nottinghamshire countryside and on the Welbeck Estate. I went there last week with writer Lisa Shipman to watch her in action giving a children’s poetry writing workshop based on the current and delightful Quentin Blake ‘As Large as Life’ exhibition. The paintings were commissions undertaken for hospitals and ranged from mothers and babies underwater to lively circus performers and friendly aliens.
The children were asked to make notes on the things they saw in the exhibition so they could use them later for writing their poems. The result of the workshop was a wonderful poetry reading from the children that was both funny and a pyrotechnic display of imagination.
This is not the only event run by the gallery, so I decided to talk to Dayle Green the gallery’s engagement and education manager to find out more about the gallery and her work with it.
Describe your work with the gallery.
As the engagement and education manager, I am responsible for education, be it with adults, children or families.
Every exhibition we have we will offer six free workshops, for schools which may be with me or a visiting artist or writer. It just depends what fits in with the exhibition. We also offer outreach as well. So I came up with a drawing project which I did last year with a Harley studio artist. We worked with a school for six sessions and focused on portraits.
We also support artists, offering studio spaces and opportunities within our Education programme. I often work with artists on delivering our school workshops. Writer’s also come under the remit of artists and writer Lisa Shipman has recently run a poetry workshop for children that ties in with our Quentin Blake exhibition, and writer Pippa Hennessy worked with us last year on a prose project. This enables us to deliver a breath of creativity so that the children can engage with the exhibitions and learn about art and use visual language. This helps them to form their own opinions and give them confidence in expressing themselves in a creative way.
We also offer a lot for families and every Wednesday on a school holiday we have a drop in activity in the gallery where it doesn’t have to be exhibition related, but is about using hand skills, imagination and making. The parents may have to stay for some activities, which hopefully encourages the parent to work with their children and then gives them something they may be able to do at home.
I run an art club for one Saturday a month for two hours and they stay on their own without their parents and we do different art activities such as screen printing or drawing maps or mark making. This enables them to build the skills they need to produce a successful artwork, and engage in activities that my might not necessarily do in school.
The education programme is about developing creativity all of us and this is key when programming and planning.
You were talking about children’s imagination. How do you help them unlock their imagination?
I think I have to mention my grandfather when I think about answering this. He was always very good at drawing. So he really made me think in an imaginative way. I’ve never been very academic, but art has always meant I could express myself. So I think because of the way my mind works it’s been possible for me to break the creative process down into something that I can pass on to someone taking one of my workshops.
The way I do it is to look at an exhibition and consider what the key points are about the exhibition that means something to me. For example, how does it make me feel or what visually stands out for me? I also need to see the exhibition from a child’s viewpoint and try and work out what they might take away with them and remember. A child will look at an exhibition and not understand it in the way an adult might, so one of my aims is to see that they leave with a better understanding of what it’s about, even if it may not be a complete understanding.
The idea of getting them to use their imagination and seeing lots of things they might not have seen before is important. So if they can come to a gallery and a place that they might not normally visit, I hope unlocking their imaginations can be taken back to school and used in other ways in drawing, making something or writing.
It’s also about developing co-ordination and the ability to do things with their hands?
Yes, I’m keen on building up their skill levels, particularly their manipulative skills. I noticed when I first started this job, that a lot of children can’t do much with their hands and find it difficult to do things like cutting out using a pair of scissors.
It’s a similar thing with doing something like a poetry workshop, where the children can build up their vocabulary, but also think about and using different words, as well as the action of actually writing the words down.
Does the fact that children aren’t in the school environment, make a difference to them in terms of creativity and producing some work.
I am not a teacher as such, so it’s a much more informal environment to learn in. The workshops offer a new experience for the children. They can feel more relaxed because they’re going to do something that’s fun and they see a result at the end of the day in a new environment.
I like to challenge the children when they are here, so I ask the children to move around the Education Room and select materials they would like to use and so on.
By doing this it adds a different experience to the one they have at school. The visits to the gallery are about building choice and freedom into the activity.
Do you find they respond to this?
It’s interesting because some children just don’t know what to do when you ask them to choose. But I think asking the children to choose when they are in a workshop is important, because it makes then use their initiative and builds their confidence, as well as organising the task they have to do and make whatever they’re doing original, even if the subject might be the same. Being an artist is about having a different style and not what’s good or bad or what’s wrong or right. The children are doing what they’re doing and their friend may be doing it differently, but that’s all right.
How do you tie in with National Curriculum?
I don’t specifically link with the National Curriculum, but when I send out the information I do say that it can be linked with a number of different things to do with the National Curriculum, because there will elements of the activity that will cover some of the aspects they need to cover. I work with the National Curriculum in mind when I’m planning workshops, but it does not dictate the activity. I am offering an experience the children would not normally get in school. This means they can work with an artist or a writer or work with a material, such as wood, that they would not normally be able to do in school, because they don’t have the facilities or the budget.
I do get teachers say they want to work with using ‘found objects’ or drawing faces, or other special requests that tie in with the work they are doing in schools. I’ve never yet had anyone specify a particular part of the National Curriculum that they would like me to cover.
When they come here it’s all about the children having a new and enriching experience they might not normally have in their daily routine. Supporting schools and teachers is the way to achieve these experiences for children.
Would you talk about what you mean by visual language?
It’s about me being able to interpret or describe something. It’s the classic thing of ‘Choose something you like’, and then saying to the person ‘Why do you like it?’ It’s about developing a descriptive language.
I may get children to start by looking at things like colour, shape, texture. This helps them to understand what they’re looking at and how to express what they’re seeing using words. My job is to tease that out of them. It’s not a skill they can pick up with one visit, so it’s something that needs to be developed over more than one visit to the gallery. It about them being able to form an opinion and say they like it because, for example ‘It’s an interesting way to use colours because they’re bright and they look right side by side’ or ‘I like it because the material they used feels interesting.’
In the Quentin Blake poetry workshop we’re asking them to think about taking what’s in the pictures and using the objects (nouns), the things that are happening (verbs) and colours (adjectives) to help with literacy. It’s the same idea as describing what they’re seeing with the art, but from a different perspective.
It seems you are using the exhibitions to increase perception and description. Using writers like Pippa Hennessy and Lisa Shipman add another dimension to the exhibition. So how do you co-ordinate with writers to do this?
Lisa: You have to be really clear that it’s the gallery running the show, so you work under their direction. We met up before the workshop and I asked Dayle what she wanted from me. From the discussion we decided that, given the art work of Quentin Blake, poetry was the most appropriate form of writing to explore.
Dayle: We’d done stories with Pippa Hennessey, but Quentin Blake’s work has a very performance feel to it because there’s a lot of movement in it. So ultimately poetry performance/drama felt right.
Lisa: Yes poetry had a very dynamic feel to it and Quentin Blake’s drawings are very lively and expressive. His illustrations all tell a story in a very concise way. Poetry is short and concise and full of imagery. So the two media complement each other and I do think it’s wonderful to have writing, poetry and art together.
Dayle you seen a couple of writing workshops one prose one poetry. As an artist and education officer, what was your impression of each of them, with regards to what they brought to the creativity aspect of the gallery’s remit?
Dayle: Using art as a starting point for writing is a unique way into unlocking children’s imaginations and normally not something they would experience in school. When I worked with Pippa Hennessy last year, I couldn’t believe what she teased out of the children with an object. It’s the same with Lisa, the way that looking at the pictures has facilitated the use of the children’s imaginations. I think that bringing in writers really draws out something that would not normally be there. I certainly wouldn’t be able to run these writing workshops, because I am not trained to think in the way writers do.
Lisa: Similarly I would not be able to run an art workshop, so this is where the two areas of expertise dovetail well.
Dayle: Yes, it’s about looking at people’s strengths and using them in the right way. What was nice about these workshops is that they are able to include all the children, regardless of their level of academic achievement. This means everyone has a chance to put their ideas across. The whole activity is highly accessible.
Lisa: There is a preconception that art and literature should be divided. They’re both creative and they’re both expressive, so why not bring them both together.
Dayle: I think drawing and writing are quite closely linked together and I don’t think this is explored enough.