Over six days, students from Northfields and the Taunton Centre PRUs attended workshops by Karina Thompson and Megan Players at Bridgwater & Taunton College. These workshops were selected as an extension of the previous ones held throughout April and May. The aim of this phase of the project was for students to be allowed more time to develop a piece of work both individually and as a group as well as experience the college environment and access its facilities.
Across two of those days, Karina Thompson ran a textiles workshop; encouraging students to explore the potential of sewing and embellishing machines. The first session saw two young men from Northfields try the sewing machines. They admitted to having had little or no previous experience, yet very quickly took to having a go! They practised using the needle to draw onto different types of fabric and trying different programmed stitches. Using the analogy of learning to drive a car, Karina was great at making students feel comfortable at being allowed to make mistakes and the importance for taking time to familiarise with the machines. It seemed to work and the silence and concentration from the students was testament to their engagement in the activity. Students also tried the college’s embellishing machines and made some felt, badge-like pieces. I thought the freedom of allowing the students to first try and then create what they wanted to make worked really well. Given more time one of the students would have likely continued their drawing piece that they had made using the sewing machine; it was really rewarding for both them and me to see what they had created.
Staff also participated in Karina’s workshop, a slashing technique in which layers of fabric are sewn, cut and then distressed with a wire brush was really successful. They often told me how valuable it was learning these skills that would benefit next year’s students as ideas and techniques could be fed into future lessons. It also opened a dialogue with the college and technicians who were very supportive in allowing access and advice in using the equipment.
During these sessions the idea of creating pockets, or ‘things in which to hold things’ arose through a conversation with students. In Karina’s second workshop staff and students worked together cutting up samples they had previously made to make a collage of pockets that could contain the pewter pieces made with Jacky Oliver or thoughts and aspirations written on luggage tags to hang on the outside.
The most successful aspect of this project I feel from having observed and participated was the way in which none of it was forced. The decisions have been a dialogue with support from staff and adapting from the artists; students have always steered the workshops to make what they choose and have been encouraged to try everything but been allowed to develop in the things in which they enjoyed the most. It is also important to note that these workshops happened at the end of the GCSE final year for many students. Those who came commented on enjoying the chance to do something practical after having sat so many written exams.
The other five workshop days were with artist, Megan Players in the ceramics department. The kilns, the potter’s wheel, cupboards of glazes and racks with other students’ work waiting to be collected meant that all of the college environments were particularly exciting for students and we talked to them about how they were hoping to study here the following academic year.
During Megan’s workshops students were given crank clay to make pinch pots, which later they would add their own personalised tops to turning their pots into Egyptian inspired canopic jars! This idea related to the theme which emerged in Karina’s workshop of creating a vessel, a space in which to contain or hold something. ‘Holding’ became a really important word for talking about holding dreams, aspirations and knowing when to let go of some of the more negative things in these young people’s lives. Tiny scrolls of paper tied with string held secret and individual messages written by each student and will later go inside their pieces once they’ve been fired.
Five days allowed much more time for production and students from both PRUs were prolific! Many students making more than just their pot and working on branches, leaves, a portrait bust and other objects to add to the group display we were making. Lots of exclamations of, “Look what I made!” and even a “Can I take a photo for my mum?” as students reflected each day on their efforts.
A touch of gold is still to be added to each pot, Megan explained during the firing process which seemed to generate a sense of pride and importance to what the students were making. The gold signifying a kind of hallmark of worth and approval that feels very deserving of all the students and staff who have taken part and shown us that they are motivated, conscientious and more undertaking than preconceived, often negative, stereotype of PRUs. One of the most memorable moments I experienced in this project was when a student taught me how to make a pinch pot. They explained and showed me how to mould the clay in my hand and use my thumb and fingers to pinch, forming the sides with the other. Another observation of a student who had made a pot which hadn’t been so successful showed resilience in making a second pot which was much improved. Generally all the students who came over the five days spent a minimum of three hours, in most cases far longer at carefully perfecting what they were making which was great to see and meant that the results were all the more personal. “Can I make my cat?” was mentioned more than once, as many people used their pets for inspiration and we did get many as well as a dog, birds and organic shapes and forms made, each one reflecting a story or something of their maker.
“I like their enthusiasm,” commented Megan watching students literally get stuck-in to the physicality of making. Everyone was very quick to take part and not fazed by the challenge of making their own pot, “I love the feel of it [working with the clay],” remarked one student who was ambitiously starting to sculpt a large portrait. Students were interested in the firing process and as before in Megan’s workshop the session allowed students to feel at ease and talk. It has been a pleasure for me to work alongside all the students involved throughout this process, they have been very welcoming and forthcoming to try new things. I believe that the number of students who participated and outcomes they produced and developed further in their art lessons is but one example of evidence that makes a case for why more PRU students should have access to working with artists, as it opens up new ways in which to communicate and develops confidence in learning something new. The lasting impression I had from a student on the project, “Didn’t think I’d like it until I tried it,” summarises for me the shift in their attitudes that should be matched by our own open-mindedness to providing opportunities and inspiring these young people.
A video documenting these workshops made by Nathan Sibley will be available to see here soon and with the support of SAW the outcomes and other work made throughout the project will be exhibited for the public to see at the Taunton Flower Show this August.