Penelope with her Suitors
There are many great patrons of the arts, and Heidi Johnson-Paul, Head Teacher at Hampton Wick Infant and Nursery School, is just one of those. We have worked together over many years, developing and nurturing the young artists at her school. Heidi has commissioned me to work on a variety of creative projects and the school is brimming with some of the colourful and artistic results.
This year Heidi invited me to be the school's Artist in Residence, as part of an arts week exploring the Take One Picture project from the National Gallery in London. The picture selected for 2016-17 is Penelope with her Suitors by Italian artist, Pintoricchio. The staff planned an exciting cross-curricular week of activities around the painting and the school was buzzing with children making mythical beasts, costumes, hats, building mermaid houses, fish prints and a host of other fabulous experiences.
The children were captivated by the myths and legends theme of the story of Penelope and her long-lost husband Odysseus. He had gone off on a ten-year journey to fight in the Trojan wars, and plenty of other adventures along the way. Whilst Penelope waited for his return many men were attracted by her beauty and showered her with offers of marriage. The painting depicts these finely dressed men in their patterned hose and fancy hats. In the top right-hand corner is Odysseus returning disguised as a beggar to win back his wife. She doesn't recognise Odysseus so sets the challenge of whoever can fire one of the arrows from Odysseus' quiver and bow will win her hand. Of course the only one who can do this is Odysseus himself.
Children from Nursery through to Year Two accessed the story on a variety of progressive levels. My role as Artist in Residence was to facilitate all 300 children participating in creating a piece of artwork in response to the painting. The artwork was to be site-specific within the school on the new library wall. Skills were differentiated between the year groups and children supported on a variety of levels within each group of ten from every class. My starting point was the school-wide theme of weaving as Penelope sat at her loom weaving each day as she said that she would give an answer to her suitor's proposals when the fabric was completed. At night she undid all the day's weaving so it was never completed!
Heidi briefed me as to what her expectations were and the anticipated outcomes - so here is my plan...
One of the themes within the painting were the many frames in Penelope's weaving room - the loom itself, the window, the tiles on the floor. I had to consider the order of construction and what skills the children would learn or apply during the art-making activities. I also wanted to focus on the woven element and the blocks of colours within the composition.
Everything for the week was packed into one bag making me feel like a modern Mary Poppins!
Year One were to work on weaving fabric strips through a mesh to create A4 size material boards based on certain colour blocks. Fabric was pre-cut and kept in colour ranges for the children to select their materials. The mesh was oven mesh for cooking chips on - thank you Poundland! It kept it's shape through the week and was very sturdy for hanging later on.
Year One looked at the painting to identify elements of composition, characters in the painting, the colours used, decorative elements, the use of weaving and then discussed the artwork plan.
Nursery children came to sit in the artist's studio (a.k.a. the Secret Hall in the school), and I invited the children to identify the colours they could see in the painting. Some children came up to pretend to be different characters from the story and I draped them in different coloured fabrics and arranged them to stand in the same places as the painting. So we looked at colour and composition in a really simple way. The children then threaded pony beads onto strings, which were then used as the 'loom weights' on the bottom of each frame. They counted their beads and shared what they had threaded to each other to start to look critically at other people's work.
Reception came along to talk to me as an artist - lots of incisive questions from four year olds! They also looked at the colour and composition through simple role play as I had done with Nursery. They then were super-keen to have a go at weaving using simple lolly-stick looms. These were strung with eight warp threads of string and they choose their weft threads from trays of pre-cut ribbons. The stiffness of the ribbon enabled them to work on the 'over and under' technique without worrying about needles, over-long threads or how to turn at the edges.
The beautiful length of weaving across the frame was done with the children by a Mum who was a textile artist and had a portable wooden loom. Each class was given an opportunity to select their coloured threads and everyone wove a few rows. The edges were wired and came to represent the belt f the central suitor in the picture. It was a great opportunity to use a machine loom alongside my interpretation of weaving and an example of whole school community involvement.
Year Two then joined the project to work on the assembly and decoration of the frames. They also worked on completing some of the woven mesh mats. They recalled an astonishing amount of detail about the story of Penelope and her suitors and showed their expertise of observation and interpretation. So our plain wooden frames went from this...
Several of the frames were then fixed together with the help of the lovely Mr Wright, the school facilities manager, who also constructed the frames. So after five days, countless lolly-stick looms, hundreds of fabric strips and everyone in school participating, here is the final piece. Ta dah!