Finished Painting

Here are some photos of the finished paintwork on the fish we’re building for Thursday’s Gapuwiyak Festival. The design is inspired by concepts the students came up with during a studio workshop a couple of weeks back. Tomorrow they’ll add the lights and bottles and then we’ll be ready to party! The turtle is also nearly finished. Mahra is adding the last few bottles onto the shell at the time of writing. Can’t wait to take some night time photos when everything is lit up.

A few week’s back I wrote a letter describing how the idea for this project came about. You can read it here. And I’ll be posting a full project journal detailing the process from start to finish when its all over.

Gulun Story

In this post I describe a recent bilingual walking, talking, story project aimed at connecting students in years 2 and 3 at Gapwiyak School with traditional ways of knowing and being. The project was inspired by The History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory (Springer 2017), which I read in my first few weeks as a volunteer art educator at the school. I’d been puzzling over the problem of literacy in community and trying to understand why kids in a region with a first language other than English are taught solely in English. What I discovered in that book and by speaking with other members of the community is a stunning story of undertaking in the 1970s to make written words from a set of languages that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I won’t go into more detail than that in this post but if you’d like to know the full story about how I came to be doing this project you can read my letters titled “Speechless” and "The Light Side".

After speaking with some Yolngu teachers we decided the best way to start a project like this was with a walk to the lake. There we’d split the boys and girls and the former would learn to build a traditional shade shelter and the latter would make mud babies our of clay wrapped in paperbark and learn about traditional ways to care for the young. The whole experience would be framed with a playful narrative, like a game of ‘house’. And afterwards we’d retell the story in English and in Yolngu Matha and create a storybook.

We made sure that the experience would be open ended, that is, we didn't know what the story would be, only that the theme would be traditional ways of living. What ended up happening was both comical and also tragic (something we hoped would happen) and ever since the kids haven't stopped talking about it. Some highlights were the boys making spears and getting painted up by one of the older boys like warriors, and the infamous snatching of one of the girl's babies by a dingo, which catalysed a group effort to find the baby. Unfortunately she didn't make it, but the story has become a legend. It brought everyone together, provided an opportunity to nurture empathy and inspired a possible direction for the next chapter, the story of death. 

Since that first day, walking to the lake has become a much loved weekly experience. On the days without a Yolngu teacher to accompany us I run the sessions in the way of Nature Education, which I learned to do in my time leading bush school at Centennial Park in Sydney. That approach is a great fit for the Yolngu kids. It involves nature play, eco art, some bushcraft and storytelling.

The success of this project was a collaborative effort between myself, the classroom teacher and two Yolngu assistant teachers. I loved working with them and we continue to have a blast every week. Already new stories are bubbling to the surface to be captured in future books and to inform classroom learning through a ‘both-ways’ frame of reference.

After finishing the book, Jess, the classroom teacher recorded the students and some staff reading the pages and made an audio book that she showcased at a student assembly. I took the recordings and made this video version.

Improvements to the project would be to more carefully transcribe the Yolngu Matha and English translations. I found that when I consulted a few different Yolngu teachers to help with translation, it was hard to know which changes were stylistic and which were linguistic. Of course the days are gone when a team of linguists would be on hand to help but its a start and in the coming weeks we will water this seed and rejoice to discover the last of its fruit.

Trash Update

Earlier this year I completed a project called Trash Orchestra that involved 175 primary school students over six weeks. The kids constructed musical instruments from discarded materials and recorded an album of original music with Australian contemporary artist and vocalist Tina Stefanou and composer Joseph Franklin.

In a poetic twist following the completion of the project, the instruments themselves were then reused by Tina for an artwork entitled Can I Bare Children?. In Tina's words:

"Transported into the exhibition space these childhood relics act as questions marks - playing out narratives of consumption, objects and there relationships to each other, and the question of child rearing in a time of environmental and economic uncertainties. Can we re-design our cultural memory to meet new needs and new economies of being without baring [sic] weight on our shared lived ecology? The objects are not limited to themselves but to space and time. Once a sound is made it is never unmade - it ripples infinitely. Like the materials that form a bigger narrative, the components are orchestrated to decompose at different rates - the child, the rock, the cardboard, the wire - all move with us and beyond us in this living morphology of beingness. Not seeking to resolve or produce, Can I bare children? explores fluctuations and indeterminate factors of being in time as felt through the artist’s ageing female body."
(Stefanou, T (2018), 'Can I Bear Children?', Tina Stefanou, viewed 1 July 2018, http://www.tinastefanou.com/#/new-gallery-3/)

Here's a photo of the installation, which included a 14 minute loop of the original album.

  Can I Bear Children?  2018, found objects, enamel, acrylic paint. various sizes, two channel audio

Can I Bear Children? 2018, found objects, enamel, acrylic paint. various sizes, two channel audio

Street Art Project

This is a summary of an arts project I completed this term (term 2, 2018) at Wenona School as part of Design School (co-curricular creative arts for junior school students).

The project involved two groups of 15 to 18 students over 9 weekly 2 hour workshops. The aim of the project was to explore the world of street art and for the students to express their ideas in tags, paste-ups and murals. It was a rich learning experience with a lot of development potential. In this post I follow a description of the project with some general comments and insights.

What happened...

To begin I showed the students some videos about street art, emphasising its relevance to freedom of expression, breaking out of the gallery and as a mouthpiece for young people. Then each student was given a 'wall', a piece of plywood 600x200 on which to experiment each week with different processes. The idea was that their designs would be layered on top of each other to reflect the way street art builds on itself (a concept called succession).

The processes I introduced included tagging (repeating an alias or phrase in a personal font and style), paste-up (creating works on paper and sticking them onto a wall) and mural (using spray or poster pens to create backgrounds and imagery).

I encouraged students to come up with original concepts that reflected their interests, ideas and messages for others. And along the way I introduced them to concepts such as succession, tag-up (only covering something with something better), scribble (the vandalism end of the street art spectrum) and cross pollination (collaborating or tagging with others).

After 8 weeks the completed walls were photographed and I rendered the images (with artistic direction from the students) onto found photos of actual walls in the world. Conceptually its street art in the digital world, treating found images of walls on the internet as the public spaces on which to make digital street art.

In an unexpected twist around week 6, some students noticed three cubby houses in an area of the school grounds called Woodstock covered with chalk scribble by students in K to 2. Their discovery presented an opportunity for a real world project based extension.

With my help the students measured up the cubbies and designed a series of murals. Then together we submitted a proposal to the school offering to install the murals as a way of addressing the scribble problem and demonstrating to the younger students that "street art isn't scribble and scribble isn't street art". The school approved the proposal and the murals were installed by the students in the final week of term.

All of the walls, photographs and a video presentation will be exhibited at a co-curricular creative arts showcase in term 3.

Some general comments and insights

Street art represents a way of communicating that comes naturally to these kids. Its all about memes, snippets of text and images that express something about themselves or send a message to others. From the idealism and depth of "Love is Who We Are" to the unapologetically insider "Yawn Now" and the popular swath of variations on "Unicorn". The students were able to create a map of their interests and self concepts. They were also able to locate themselves on the maps of their peers by creating transferrable tags or memes to share with others. By the end of the project several students had new nicknames and one had even devised a concept for her own brand of Lemonade, which she plans to give away for free at the exhibition next term (her tag was a Lemon). And the process of 'painting' the images on actual pictures of walls in the internet was a futuristic expression of the street art process that opens up new possibilities for how to inhabit and navigate digital spaces. The popularity of games like Minecraft show how these kids love to construct their worlds in the digital space and they are very good at it. Last year during the Architecture project one student designed her whole building in Minecraft. Suffice to say its difficult to know how to integrate tech into these spaces sometimes but this time at least it felt very natural. I hope to build on this project in the future by distilling what happened into a more streamlined process and use the new space to add elements such as the possibility to travel the digital world in search of walls, the social impact potential of the kids' memes and collaborations with photography for digital street art with older students. There are obvious links to my favourite subject - mapping - which which will no doubt be drawn out in future iterations.

Trash Orchestra

I'm stoked to have completed this project at Nicholson Street Public School in Balmain, Sydney as part of their Artist in Residency program for 2018. Over 6 weeks I set about constructing musical instruments out of discarded materials with all 175 students at the school. Then together with Tina Stefanou (vocalist) and Joseph Franklin (composer) we recorded an album of original music.

The project was an opportunity to bring together everything I had been developing as an educator up to that point. I integrated nature connection practices, storytelling, games, process driven art making and arts education to guide the project towards open ends. Wherever possible I drew on the approaches of innovative contemporary art makers to bring the edge into the school. And I documented everything in a project journal. The feedback from teachers, parents and students was fantastic, especially from those teachers who found it difficult to go along with the open ended nature of the project but by the end felt they had benefitted personally from the challenge.

Moving forward I see with renewed clarity and creativity the potential for this kind of project based art making with children and I have some new ideas about how projects can align with social good. I'm taking what I learned into my next project, Street Art at Wenona School.

In the meantime here is the album, Elementary, inspired by the elements. And check out the project journal.