#ArtUnlocks Talent

Writer Chris Sharratt speaks to SCAN members and explores how access to visual art at an early age develops vital skills, builds confidence and creates important experiences for young people.

For Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery, developing the skills and confidence of young people and children is all part of its mission to “bring people together around new art”. The pandemic, believes Interim Director/Head of Programme Siobhan Carroll, has made the value of such activity even greater: “The impact of the lack of socialisation and play, especially outdoor play, has been really quite catastrophic, especially for kids within areas of depravation. So it felt more important than ever to maintain the focus on learning through play.”

Collective subscribes to ‘loose parts’, a pedagogical approach to play that emerged in the 1970s and, put simply, involves using everyday objects to facilitate learning with undefined outcomes. It’s a perfect fit for the expansive, creative ideas of artists, and Carroll explains how the organisation’s learning programme is regarded as “an extension of our commissioning programme, and as another way to support artists’ practice”.

It’s a philosophy that acknowledges how artists bring something special and unique to a learning environment, enabling a sense of possibility and creative confidence, alongside the development of more specific skills through team working and hands-on making. “It’s a mutual relationship,” says Carroll. “The creative process that comes from an artist’s practice is something quite different from the set curriculum. And within the loose parts approach there’s something that both kids and artists understand inherently.”

While the gallery itself had to close to the public during lockdown, Collective made sure that its loose parts-inspired activity packs for kids were always available, targeting those most in need by distributing them through Edinburgh’s network of food banks. When able to, it has also put to good use the extensive outdoor space at its City Observatory site on Calton Hill. This month, for example, sees the third Collective PLAY event for under-12s, with a focus on percussion, and soon to be launched is a new architect-designed outdoor play/learning shelter, which among other things will be used as a drop-in for kids on Friday afternoons (all Edinburgh schools finish at 12.30pm on Fridays). The guiding principle of all this activity is, explains Carroll, “about giving those involved confidence in their own imagination and their own decision making, rather than setting a task”.

Building confidence is also a key part of the work being done in Arbroath, Angus at Hospitalfield’s Young Artist Club, which launched in May as Covid restrictions were relaxed. Funded by the Scottish Government’s emergency Youth Arts Fund – intended to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the creative and cultural sector – the 29-week project is aimed at young people aged 14-18 and meets each Saturday, 10am-3pm. The 12-15 regular participants were recruited through an open call, and also via Hospitalfield’s network of local partners. Attention was paid to ensuring that those who attend can really benefit from their involvement – and that they come from diverse backgrounds.

Kirsten Wilson, Hospitalfield’s Engagement & Volunteer Programme Manager, explains that nurturing talent and enabling the participants to recognise their own creativity is at the heart of the club’s approach. A big part of this is the idea of the club as a peer group with shared ambitions and ideas – and challenges, too. “Maybe they have barriers, maybe they didn’t know anyone else who’s interested in art,” says Wilson. “At Young Art Club there’s 15 young people who are all interested [in art] and have similar problems, or issues, or difficulties in day-to-day life.”

Local artists play a key role in the club, with Dundee-based Amy Jones acting as Lead Artist, assisted by Arbroath-based Kristina Aburrow and Rachel Simpson. They bring their own art skills and creativity to the mix, working in a fluid way that allows the participants to help shape the direction the weekly meet-ups take. “For me, it has to be led by what the young people are interested in, alongside a framework of introducing new skills and techniques,” explains Wilson. “One of the most important things is just listening to the young people, because people that age aren’t listened to a lot of the time. It’s giving them the confidence to find out what they’re passionate about and what brings them all together.”

Among the skills being developed are photography, ceramics, performance and printmaking. “They’re trying different media and techniques and a lot of them are particularly interested in printmaking. For example, they are doing a cyanotype workshop which will hopefully contribute to a large banner work to be part of an exhibition in December. The idea is to unfurl this giant banner from the tower of the Hospitalfield building, and they’re also going to have a manifesto of what Young Artist Club is, what it means to them and what this process has meant. They’ve created their own font, too.”

Hospitalfield Director Lucy Byatt adds that there is very little infrastructure for artists in Angus, a county without a city or university, and that creating opportunities for artists to live and work in the area is a crucial aspect of the organisation’s activity. The nearest city to Arbroath is Dundee, which the Young Art Club has visited on a research trip. Although a small city, Dundee has a strong and well supported artist-led scene, a lively art school, and in recent years has seen its already vibrant creative scene bolstered by the arrival of the V&A. Central to its art activity is Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), which alongside a gallery, cinema and print studio runs a busy education programme centred on the venue’s Create Space.

DCA’s Head of Learning Sarah Derrick describes the airy rectangle room as a “core resource for DCA’s learning programme”, explaining how it is used for groups across the age spectrum, from its Family Art Lab for 0-3 year-olds to working with adults in late life. When it comes to the idea of unlocking talent, Derrick sees the role of early years workshops with children and parents as crucial. “Talent’s a funny word,” she says, “but kids have to have formative experiences and parents are the gatekeepers of their early education and learning, and so if you’re going to unlock talent you’ve got to start really young and have all the context in place. Create Space is about those formative experiences, connecting with audiences through their lives.”

Workshops are led by local artists and sometimes those exhibiting at the gallery, such as Glasgow-based Alberta Whittle during her 2019 show, ‘How Flexible Can We Make The Mouth’. With the renowned DCA Print Studio downstairs, good use is also made of in-house printing expertise and facilities. “We do a lot of printing,” says Derrick. “A Family Art Lab might involve learning how to do stencil printing as a monotype, or use gelli plates for textural prints. We have a portable press with locking wheels that comes out into the space, and we have done etching and linocut with older children.”

Derrick mentions DCA’s Young Photo Club (currently on hold due to Covid) as an example of how art activity can have a wide-ranging role in skill development. Aimed at 11-16 year olds, while this programme of fortnightly workshops did include plenty of ‘how-to’ activity, the opportunity to discuss photography in its many forms, including the work being produced by the group itself, was just as important. “The youngsters gain confidence in having an opinion,” explains Derrick. “So it’s not always about the art techniques – the talking and writing is part of it, too. So it’s 50% about building skills and 50% social, feeling safe and building self esteem – and also working with adults who aren’t their teachers or parents.”

In a similar way, DCA’s strong links with schools in Dundee sees it playing an important role in the development of students’ ideas about art and their ability to express these. Working with department heads in the city’s high schools, every pupil who has chosen Art and Design at Higher level can come to DCA as part of a Critical Studies day, where they are given the opportunity to discuss and write about contemporary art. “It’s about seeing art at first hand,” says Derrick. “And we know that has a huge impact on their confidence, their skills, their interest levels.”

There are many more examples across Scotland of artists and art organisations unlocking talent across all ages – talent that otherwise might remain dormant, held down by a lack of opportunity and low expectations. It’s work that is central to the ethos of so many in the visual arts, and for good reason. As Hospitalfield Director Lucy Byatt puts it: “We’re really dedicated to it because the impact is so great.”

Image: Dream Therapet Chlidren’s Carousel by Sally Hackett. Image courtesy of Hospitalfield.