As part of Sian’s commission, she created a ‘Conversation Booth’ to interact with young people who had visited the GenART exhibition. In return for chatting, people would be given a ‘gift’, usually a portrait, drawn by Sian. Sian wanted to involve the group of young people she had been working with in this part of her commission so they could experience the way in which she works as an artist. We observed how Sian interacted with the children who entered the booth and the kinds of questions she was asking, e.g. “what surprised you about the GenART exhibition?”, “do you see yourself as a child, adult or young person?”. Sian then asked us to take over her role as the artist and talk to people who came into the conversation booth. This was quite a daunting task for the group of young people as it was very much up to us to lead the conversation and took a certain level of confidence to do so. All of the group were reluctant to go in but Sian offered support alongside the booth. As there was quite a large queue of children, who all responded really well to the booth and were curious to take part and share their thoughts on the exhibition, it made the task a bit more overwhelming for the group of young people who would be leading the conversation with them.
Once in Sian’s booth, the young people were engaged in conversation and took part in creating illustrations. However, the experience of talking with and drawing for such a large amount of children was not particularly relaxing as it didn’t come as naturally to us as it did to Sian. It was challenging to work in another artist’s style and find a quick type of illustration that we were comfortable doing.
After this session, where the group experienced how it was that Sian conducted the ‘Conversation Booth’, we practiced being in the booth and drawing each other to find our own style within Sian’s work. This exercise helped to boost confidence and made the group more enthusiastic to take part.
When the booth was set up at Soft Touch, the flow of people lessened in comparison to New Walk Museum and so generated a more relaxed environment to act as the artist. Visitors were intrigued by the booth and really eager to share their views on the exhibition and the kinds of artworks they liked. Due to such positive engagement and feedback from visitors, the young people working with Sian decided that it would be good to leave the Conversation Booth in the exhibition until the end date. As Soft Touch is a more familiar environment for the group of young people, we took ownership over the booth on this site and were much more comfortable as acting as the artist and interacting with different visitors.
The launch of the artist commission took place with Sian and the group of young people she had worked with to produce her artworks. After the first two sessions, in which the group had shared ideas and given Sian the inspiration she needed to make her sculptures, we split up and worked on individual smaller boxes. Working in a more solitary manner meant that the individuals in the group had to be motivated to create their own work, however without guidance from Sian people were not as driven to do this. It was difficult for some of the participants, as practising artists with their own style of working, to create work in a similar style to Sian and to be restricted to the limits of the Perspex cube. We were all also slightly limited in time so our work lacked the commitment we would like to have given. Continued workshops as a group may have helped this and kept the initial energy of the project going. As a couple of people were not engaged in this part of Sian’s commission, they did not produce any work. However, we had all featured in Sian’s own work and our conversations had inspired what she had done so the people who hadn’t produced their own boxes did not feel at a loss.
Lewis Buttery, a young person involved in the artist commission, said;
“Considering a big part of Gen Art has been about getting young people involved, and I think that’s the reason we were part of the artist commission at all, I think it would have been nice if the boxes we had to use were the same as the artist’s. Even though the boxes we used for our main pieces were bigger than the ones she gave to us to practice on, they were still very tight to work inside. Sian’s boxes were huge by comparison, which almost implies that our boxes weren’t as important. It would have been nice to feel like we were working in collaboration with Sian, rather than just being part of her commission. Maybe young people could have worked on one or two of Sian’s bigger boxes and Sian could have created work using one or two smaller ones. That way we would have all had the same materials at our disposal, which would have drawn up a nice comparison between the quality of a professional artist’s work and our own work as young people; which is something that the artwork in Gen Art has already scratched the surface of in visitors. Not only that but it would have given us the freedom to work to a scale that suited us.
It would have also been good to have time creating our works alongside Sian in a workshop environment. We had some meetings about what the project would be and then we were given about two weeks to complete them in our own time. All of us have pretty full schedules so we could have done with designating some time-slots for getting creative. I would have enjoyed discussing ideas and influencing changes as we went.”
Although working alone meant that a lot of the group lost engagement in the process, it also heightened the sense of excitement when all the works were brought together for the launch. For most people, it was the first time we had seen each other’s work and all of Sian’s completed sculptures. Sian really encouraged everyone to take part in the curatorial process and make decisions about how and where they wanted the sculptures to be displayed. This stimulated group discussion and reinforced the sense of collaboration. Putting our works together gave the young people the opportunity to work with a practising artist in a new way and feel part of an artistic unit. There was a feeling of pride amongst the group as the artworks were displayed and members of the public were drawn into Soft Touch and New Walk Museum to find out more about the work. People’s interest in the sculptures and the open, public exhibit of the young people’s artworks enhanced the value of what we had all created and made us feel part of the whole GenART exhibition.
The attendance of reporters and photographers from local press gave the launch a sense of excitement and contributed to the young people’s pride and feel that the work presented a positive image on young artists in Leicester.
The second GenART workshop run at Soft Touch was with a group of children from an Adventure Playground in New Parks. The workshop followed the same structure as earlier in the week but with a different group of people. The participants were asked to look at the exhibition through viewfinders and extract parts of the artworks that they particularly liked. They were then provided with different materials to create their own works in response to the exhibition. Before the workshop began, the group arrived at the Soft Touch building and began looking around the exhibition. All the young people seemed really interested in the works and were discussing them as a group without being prompted.
When we then asked them to go over and look at the works at New Walk Gallery, the young people continued moving as a group and studying the artworks together. This may have been because they felt more comfortable sticking together as a group but it meant that that more discussion took place and they spent longer looking at each of the works. A couple of children broke off from the group and took photos of the artworks that they liked. We noticed that those who had stuck together in a group produced similar sorts of artworks and those who had explored the exhibition as individuals were more confident in creating their own style of work.
Initially, all of the children chose pencils and white paper to work with. They found it difficult to get out of the mind-set of creating a picture of ‘something’ rather than just particular parts of a picture. A lot of them sat for a while saying they “didn’t know what to draw” and had difficulty experimenting with the materials. They all wanted to work on canvas but were scared of making mistakes and wanted ‘practice paper’. We showed them how some of the materials could be used and set up the paints to encourage experimentation and help to remove their hesitations. After a little while, all of the children had created multiple works with various materials and relaxed when it came to their fear of making mistakes. There was a mix of approaches within the group; some children used the materials in a direct, painterly style and created multiple, quite abstract artworks, whereas others chose precise mediums which allowed them to make more considered marks and spend longer reflecting on single works.
When we went round the group to present and discuss works, the children were enthusiastic but seemed slightly unsure about what to say about some of the art. They lost a bit of concentration in this part of the workshop and were more engaged in the practical side of it. However, they were reasonably confident in presenting their works and showed a lot of pride in what they had produced.
They came up with very inventive ways of displaying their works as a collection and chose to make the shape of a volcano to mimic the volcano picture in the GenART exhibition and some of the volcano artworks they had made. At the end of the session, some of the young people in the group were taking pictures of the display of work, which highlighted their sense of pride in their achievements.
Lauren and I devised a community-based workshop to be run with two different groups at Soft Touch; parents and children from New Parks estate in Leicester, and a group of children aged 8-13 from an Adventure Playground, also based in New Parks. The first group, the parents and children, were very mixed in age and so were quite difficult to engage all at the same level. The workshop we provided, we tried to make accessible for all ages by allowing all the participants to react to the instructions quite freely. They were asked to look around the exhibition with viewfinders and pick out particular parts in the artworks that they liked (based on colour, texture, line or other artistic elements). The group were provided with arts resources and asked to create several works, experimenting with all the materials and responding to artworks in the exhibition. When we first explained what we would be doing, a few of the participants reacted by saying that they “couldn’t do art” and weren’t confident in their abilities to produce something of a high quality.
However, as the group looked around the exhibition they seemed interested in the artworks. They stuck together as a group for a short while at the start but then split off to explore works they liked individually. As this happened, the group became more engaged in the activity and studied the artworks in more detail with the viewfinders.
All members of the group created very diverse artworks and played around with the different materials. They responded extremely creatively and crafted three-dimensional and textural works as well as paintings and drawings. As they were a group who already knew each other from around their estate, there was a very relaxed atmosphere, which put no limits on people’s confidence and resulted in a more experimental nature of working.
We asked everybody to go round and present their works to the rest of the group. Again, when first told to do this a couple of people in the group seemed hesitant but as we went round they all gave positive, intelligent feedback and reinforced feelings of confidence. The group were increasingly engaged as the session went on; this seemed to increase because of everybody’s positive responses and a relaxed attitude to making work. There were some difficulties in keeping the younger children engaged for the full two hours as they were unable to take part in the group discussion but they enjoyed doing the practical work. Although they may not have followed the exact directions of the workshop, the younger children still made decisions between mediums and how they applied these to the materials. Rather than rushing to put pen to paper, all members in the group thought about what materials they wanted to use and how they were going to use them.
Everybody was then asked to choose one of the pieces they had created and put this up on the wall for a ‘mini exhibition’. The group spent a considerable amount of time contemplating which artworks would work well together and how they wanted to arrange them on the wall. They showed a lot of pride in the works they had created and at the end of the workshop were surprised at how effective they looked as a collection.
A group of young people, who all have various learning disabilities, came from Leicester College to take part in a workshop organised by Soft Touch. The workshop involved studying the artworks ‘Feeling Stones’ in the GenART exhibition and having a look at the words that had been stamped on them. The group all enjoyed holding the stones and working with them in a more tangible way than looking through a Perspex display case. They were also very interested in the rest of the exhibition and independently looked at the other artworks on display. Although the session was lead by members of Soft Touch and Leicester College, all the individuals were very happy to explore the exhibition freely and talk about the artworks amongst each other and to members of staff. Though several of the young people had difficulties in communication, they responded enthusiastically to the artworks on display and the tactile elements in many of the artworks.
We asked the group if they could recreate their own ‘Feeling Stones’ and gave them all a lump of clay to work with. Initially, some people felt uncomfortable about touching the clay but once they were given gloves to wear they were all really engaged in the workshop. The participants responded very creatively and each produced their own versions of the stones. Due to their difficulty with language and communication, some people needed guidance with the messages written on the Feeling Stones and were lead with picture prompt sheets of emotions and activities. This enabled them to take part in all aspects of the workshop and every member of the group, although with varying abilities, to produce work as part of a collection.