Last week at Dunkirk Primary and Nursery School the entire school was busily involved in creating a huge flock of birds – and we’re really excited by the ideas, thoughts and imaginations of the children and adults who worked together to make them.
The birds are going to hang up in the library area of the school’s new campus and every class in the school took part in sessions to make the installation. We were joined by lots of parents and family members too, which feels incredibly special and is something that always really shines out in projects with Dunkirk.
Abbey Campus, the new part of the school, is in the old Lenton Primary School site. I was artist in residence at Lenton Primary for a few years and knew the space really well then – so its felt very special to see it brought back to life and given new purpose as a part of Dunkirk School. Lenton Primary was closed when school role numbers fell and the building stood empty for about 5 years. A lot of renovation has now taken place and we are busily making the Abbey Campus a place that lets the schools ethos shine through.
The library area is in the older part of the building and has a wonderful high ceiling which cries out for something special to be placed there… We had lots of ideas but wanted to make something that everyone in school could create a part of. Its become a key part of projects at the school that we make things in which each child (and as many adults as possible) can place their mark – so that both individuality and community identity is valued.
We had a wonderful stock of old books from Lenton Primary, most are now being used in Abbey Campus but some had become damaged by damp whilst the building had stood empty or were rather worn through use – so, to give them new life and purpose we have transformed these old books into the flock of birds. It felt a really fitting use for them, especially as they are to hang up in the library.
So, last week Julie Wise (another artist who works in the school) and I set up a bird studio in one of the empty classrooms and throughout the week the whole school came along and made their birds. It’s a rare treat to have empty classrooms to work in so it was wonderful to be able to set up a dedicated space and create a studio atmosphere (my bird-song identification CDs played in the corner!). It meant we could cover the walls in images to give ideas and we could hang up all the birds as they were made.
The space worked really well and we also got very excited by the light as it flooded into the room and illuminated the birds, there was a particular time of day in the afternoon when the sun cast the most wonderful shadows through the big windows…
We had decided to have quite a tight design brief with the birds, which gave some interesting parameters for the children to work within. Normally we are really open to the children investigating very wide factors, but in order for the flock (which was being made by children aged 3-11 and adults too) to hang together and have a “wholeness” to it, we decided that we would use black and white pages as much as possible and create the birds just with the paper – by folding, cutting, scrunching, tearing and gluing…
There was a lot of really interesting problem solving involved in the project. It was really interesting to have conversations with the children around use of colour (“can we paint them?” etc) - they actually began to look incredibly closely at the book pages to find pattern, shades of black / white / grey and little details of colour etc within this tighter colour palette. So in many ways a huge aspect of the project was about looking really closely and noticing interesting things about the old books.
It also provided the children with several technical / dexterity challenges – we didn’t want to use tape because that risked coming undone, so the birds had to be glued / stapled / stitched together. The birds also needed to be as three-dimensional as possible, which gave another interesting sculptural challenge to the children.
We had several basic techniques which we gave each class as starting points – but they could then take these and make them their own, or use totally different ideas to make their birds. We tried to have techniques which we knew would work for the wide age range of the children – and also techniques which could be adapted and added to in lots of quirky decorative ways.
Of course because we were folding paper, origami cranes made a big appearance – and these really took off in a huge way with the children. It ended up as a bit of an addictive thing with some children (and adults!) striving to see just how small – and big – they could make their cranes. I was amazed by what was created – origami cranes as small as my fingernails, origami cranes that carried messages, cranes with babies… it was wonderful.
Another really key aspect to projects at Dunkirk is the asking of Big Questions – it’s a crucial part of the school ethos. So, with this project, it was vital that we were not just making birds, the conversations had to be deeper and explore the issues around this. What do birds symbolise? Why a flock of birds? What does the library space feel like now? How might it feel when the birds are hanging up? How does it feel making things out of old books? What do you notice in the old books? What happens when we each make something that is individual but we put them together to form a group? What does being individual mean? The questions went on…
We talked a lot about birds as metaphors and symbols, birds in myths and legends around the world. One of our wonderful colleagues from Raastala School in Finland was visiting last week and it was really interesting to have conversations with her around stories of birds there. The children at Dunkirk come from many countries and were able to draw upon all sorts of ideas from all over the world. We hope to use the space as a story telling area once the birds are installed – the idea of sitting underneath them and watching them as a story is created is really appealing.
Many children also created stories about their birds as they made them. A really stunning tale was created by one of the nursery children when Julie spent an afternoon working with them – the little girl had made a bird the previous day and then adorned it with stories of lights, coats, covers, nesting, friends and all sorts of really imaginative ideas.
One of the crucial things with projects like this is all the things that happen around the periphery of the design brief. So, with the birds we had everyone busy making their own bird to add to the flock and then many children went on to invent additions or extensions of this – lots of sculptural ideas with paper folding emerged, birds on nests were made, elements of costumes appeared and lots of children wanted to “play” with their bird before we hung it up to dry.
It was a busy week for us and I’m also really luck at the moment to have Abbie Balkitis, an art student, on work placement with me for a few months. Abbie got stuck into the bird project brilliantly (and set the ball rolling for creating teeny origami cranes) and it makes a huge difference having that extra willing and interested person around. It was also wonderful to have so many adults with us – parents came along with each class and that feels very special, it really adds to the community feel of the school.
We’re really looking forward to seeing the birds in situ soon after half term – and just aware that there’s a lot of climbing up and down and large ladder to make that happen!