Session One: Fingers and Thumbs, Taking a look at Dexterity

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Artist: Helen Barry

Teacher: Bríd McGovern

Class: Junior Infants (4&5yrs)

School: Our Lady Of Mercy School Convent

Art equips us with the skills to deal with life. Art is not what we make or do with our hands or our bodies: art provides us with the freedom to think for ourselves.                                                              Helen Barry 2017

It is particularly apt that our first session looks at Dexterity as it coincides with a publication from Creative Ireland that details my outlook and approach to working with children from 0 to 18 years. I strongly believe that the arts support personal and social growth on many different levels. When I embark on a new collaboration it is essential to plan with the teacher and the children. Every class/group offers its own dynamic and each school presents a new context. I also learn as we build a journey together. Before we embark I need to observe and listen. (A full statement can be read on page 31 through the link below)

https://creative.ireland.ie/sites/default/files/media/file-uploads/2017-12/Childrens_Plan_AW.pdf

Prior to our first session I had popped into the school to say hello to the children and take at look at the school building. The architecture of the schools reminds me a little of walking through a dolls house. It is spacious without being overwhelming. I know for the first few sessions together I will bring ideas into the classroom and use previously tested projects. This will enable me to get to know the children and the teacher and for them to get to know me. As each class has their own dynamic so too will each group present different levels of dexterity. I invited the children to draw, cut, push through and follow a series of instructions. The activity also asked the children to work with another child, take turns, observe, describe things and invent something. Initially I need to understand the skill set of the children and their ability to take an abstract concept and develop it in their imagination. I find children in the lower stream of primary school grab an abstract concept far more eagerly than older children. I also need to pace my own language to one that best suits the particular group.

I brought with me lots of different coloured and textured paper including handmade made papers, card and tissue paper. The children drew around their hand and cut it out. They needed to ask the assistance of the child sitting next to them to draw around the other hand. I decided to jump straight into building an installation that would alter the look of the classroom and show the children something less traditional in art terms. Each child threaded their paper hands onto a very long piece of fishing gut, separating them with pastel coloured straws. During the lunch break I installed a fishing gut grid system from the ceiling that we shall use over the coming weeks. The first pieces attached are the pieces made in our first session together.

In the week prior to the first session with the children I had set the children a task to observe birds, how they fly, how they move, how they walk etc. I reminded the children as they went out on lunch break. On their return we took some time to describe and show some of the movements they had observed. We spoke about how birds move together in flocks. In the distance their detail cannot be seen but we recognize their V like shape moving in the sky. To further explore this image I gave the children small pieces of coloured sticky contact paper. The children cut 3 or 4 V shapes that the teacher and I stuck directly onto the window to create a flock of birds. Whilst we did this the children watched two short films, one on ‘murmuration’ and the other a excerpt from ‘Swan Lake’ showing the dancers bird-like movements.

 

 

 

Session Eight: Independence & Stability

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20th March 2017

Artist: Helen Barry/Teacher: Sharon Smyth

I would have to note that there has been a sudden increase in the children’s independence. Previously Ms. Smyth and I will rearrange the classroom furniture prior to the session commencing. This week Ms. Smyth asked the children to do it. And with such swiftness and co-ordination I was taken aback. She had already noticed and wondered how much of this newfound sense of awareness of being part of a group and approach to tasks is being influenced by the creative process. We try to build in time for us (the teachers and I) to talk about the impact of a creative approach on the children’s ability to learn, focus and communicate with each other.

Once the children had rearranged the desks they went out for a quick break to run around and be ‘ready’ for the session ahead. The insulation piping had been introduced in the previous session and we had focused on building an independent structure, so the children knew how it worked. I was aiming to be more experimental this week, having tried out some ideas I was still not sure if something would work or not. But I was hoping the children would find a solution for me. I had also hoped that we would have had more time for the children to have ‘free-play’ with the materials to but we ran out of time.

We started by using the piping to connect us all together. We looped all the 30 pieces of piping around and through each other. The challenge then was to see if they could move about in one unit. We moved backwards, forwards, to the right, to the left and round in a circle with lots of laughter. Our warm up finished I showed the children the cardboard semi circles I had brought with pre-cut holes that were just the right size for the piping to push through. We divided the class into 3 group. Each team was given a cardboard semi circle, 12 pieces of piping, 6 chairs and lots of Velcro straps. Our aim was to build 3 domes structures. My design was flawed the domes kept collapsing in the centre. The cardboard was perhaps to heavy or as the children pointed out the ‘pipes are not stable enough’. I had never seen or heard the children study the collapsed domes so with so intensity. They were very vocal in their suggestions offering different ways in which we could make our domes more stable. I was I would have to say somewhat consumed with not being able to get the domes to hold but Ms. Smyth was delighted with the children’s response. It is often when something doesn’t work when we learn the most.

I am learning a lot about myself whilst I work with this class and their teacher. Ms. Smyth has provided a wonderful space in which we learn, make mistakes, find solutions and create together. I would like to emphasis how crucial the relationship between and artist and the teacher is to the success of the collaboration.

In the week prior to this session I had been offered some willow cuttings. I suggested to the class that we would revisit the idea of domes again in the next session. Domes being a structure that has frequented my work for many years I was delighted to have the opportunity to plant a willow dome in the school grounds. For our next session we shall head out of doors and plant a willow dome. The dome will grow with the children as they go through primary school. I too will remain in contact with the school and visit them to help maintain or ever changing dome structure in the coming years.

 

 

Session Seven: Building A Playground

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27th February 2017

Artist: Helen Barry/Teacher: Sharon Smyth

At the end of our previous session I had asked the children what would they like to do next. Many of the children asked to do more construction and sculptural work. A number of the children asked to do the spaghetti structures again. Thinking sculptural and having a preference for creating on a larger than life scale I brought along my 2metre insulation piping and cardboard boxes.

We started the session with some gentle stretches and balancing exercises. I also introduced some breathing exercises to help the children focus and bring down the dynamic a little. This is always a good thing for me to do also. We were sitting in a large circle with plenty of space between each child. The children always find the lengths of insulation piping intriguing. It is always essential to allow the children to play a little first before we use them to construct with. As with most children their age and younger very little instruction is required. The pipes and cardboard boxes are colour coded and with a little direction the structure builds before them with them in charge. I find that this construction workshop offers the children a fantastic sense of achievement. It is very solution driven and requires great team co-operation whilst providing an understanding of the design and engineering of a solid structure. This initial workshop will give the children skills they will require to create large scale builds themselves in future sessions.

I had brought other pieces for us to exploring the building of structures further but we decided to give the time to playing in the construction and we would continue exploring for our next session.

Session Six: Blast Off

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13th February 2017

Artist: Helen Barry/Teacher: Sharon Smyth

Our rocket was coming to completion. I needed to attach the rocket head and rocket base to the main body of the rocket. With all parts attached it was going to measure almost 9 feet in length. The attaching of all the parts demanded a lot of patience and teamwork. It was a delicate task and each stage did not need all the children working at any one time. Hence it was important to create some other task to enable all of the children to be engaged in the process. Using a huge hoop with which I did a little warm up with (see photo). We drew and cut out a very large circle on sliver foil. I then invited the children to draw around and cut out their hands from the silver foil. The hands would become the stars in our galaxy and the very large circle the moon. We had come so far there was no point in cutting back now.

I asked one of the children to take charge of the camera and document the session. With lots of moving, balancing, holding and propping up we had all the parts firmly attached together. Before suspending the rocket from the ceiling our final task was to attach the portraits of the children onto the outer shell of the rocket. We literary have been to the moon and back for this session. Though I will be more careful in the future as some of the children thought that once our rocket was complete we would be actually travelling to outer space in it. There were a couple of very relieved children when we clarified things.

It was some feat to get the rocket suspended from the ceiling. My bragging of a wonderful high ceiling was now not such a great thing! But with a little tugging and a lot of sweating we are now on our first mission to outer space.

 

 

 

 

Session Five: Outer Space

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Artist: Helen Barry / Teacher: Sharon Smyth

6th February 2017

As I reflect on how we came to arriving in outer space I cannot recall but ether way I am delighted to have arrived here. Without a doubt expeditions to outer space are a must for everyone’s imagination. We all, myself included have allowed ourselves to become carried way with where our ideas have taken us.

Having done some extensive calculations, worked through lots of ideas and collected several more bundles of plastic containers in all shapes and sizes we were ready to build the final piece of the rocket – the rocket head. The children were invited to work in small groups or as individuals. I had my equipment at hand a very hot glue gun and with strict instructions not to touch the glue gun we were ready to start.

In the previous session the girls had had the opportunity to explore different ideas of construction; how to build things upwards and outwards and how best to balance things. Having had a practice session the children were much more adapt t choosing specific shapes of plastic for their designs. Ms. Smyth remarked that some of the children remained particularly focused on their pieces. Many of the children worked on their own and had very clear ideas of what and how they were going to build their pieces.

I was surprised at how decisive the children were. Again their approach was grabbed with both hands and worked through to completion. There is some discussion between the children but it is nearly always about the work we are doing. At times this group reminds me of a group of artists in a studio rather than children in a classroom.

When the children had finished their pieces we took everything into the centre of our huge classroom and looked and discussed each piece together as an overall group. There were some really beautiful pieces and some clearly demonstrated the children’s understanding of patterns and symmetry. We had completed a lot more structures than I thought we would and had to begin the discussion on which piece or pieces would make the most suitable rocket head. The children identify two pieces that they felt could be joined together that would make a perfect rocket head.

All the other pieces also looked fantastic displayed across the wooden floor that we decided that all of the pieces should become part of our voyage to outer space. Hanging everything will be next weeks task!

 

 

 

 

Session Four: Spaghetti Structures

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Artist: Helen Barry / Teacher: Sharon Smyth

30th January 2017

It is always with a little trepidation that I embark on a session with a teacher other than the normal class teacher especially with the younger classes. For the younger end of the primary school the teacher is crucial to the dynamic to the group, He or she is often the substitute parent and without them all ‘hell can break loose’! I was relived and taken aback at how the children got about their business for this session. Ms Smyth was unable to be with the children and a new teacher came to take her place and was also a new face to the children as well as myself.

The children in senior infants requested their task for the session and just got on with it. They needed very little direction and approached the task in small groups assisting each other and supporting each other’s ideas. I have never seen a group so young remain so focused using their initiative without their core teacher present. They seemed to be so responsible with the task in hand. We were working on structures building in 3D. We had been discussing construction and designing in 3D in the previous session. I had intended to use the spaghetti structures as a very brief activity primarily because the spaghetti has a very short lifespan. But unable to buy spaghetti I discovered long pasta tubes approximately 4 normal spaghetti thick. They did not break and were very robust. They results were fantastic and some were incredibly complicated and very interesting to look at. They children experimented, talked through their ideas with each other, held and supported the construction of the different pieces. They were disappointed when after an hour it was time to move on to the next part of the session. A note for myself: it was always the inferiority of the pasta that limited the children’s imaginations and concentration not the perceived limitations imposed on children themselves.

The second part of the session we referred back to the suggestion Olivia made in the previous session in putting forward ideas for creating the cone shaped rocket head. What shape would it be, how and what we could make it from. Olivia suggested that we constructed it like a staircase, wider at the bottom and gradually building inwards. I was very impressed at how she understood the logistics of this and was able to explain her idea to the rest of the class. They completely understood what Olivia was saying. The children had brought in a large collection of plastic containers that would be lightweight and relatively easy to work with.

I rolled out a very long and very pink sheet of paper. This was our design pad. With pens, markers and lots of plastic containers the children constructed and deconstructed in small groups. We did not glue anything in place but experimented and discussed the potential of our designs in order to practice for the final designs we would glue on place in our next session.

Session Three: A Game of Cat & Mouse (Rat)

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23rd January 2017

Artist: Helen Barry/ Teacher: Sharon Smyth

I think that children in Senior Infants have growth spurt over the festive break. They all seem a little taller and definitely a bit more mature. January brings the children back to school with a new eagerness and willingness to learning and being with friends.

With all four wings prepared we were ready to stick all the pieces in place. This took some co-ordination and patience to get this to work. As we were using polystyrene we could not use the hot glue gun and even heavy-duty glues just melt the polystyrene. Hence much of the beginning of the session the children had to stand still holding the various pieces in place. Thankfully everything is very light so staying still is the most challenging part. We worked in small teams hold the pieces and one small team worked further on the overall design of the rocket focusing on the head of the rocket.

We were all a little impressed when the rocket stood in the centre of the room. We then looked at the design teams ideas for the rocket head. What shape would it be, how and what we could make it from. I knew that it would need to be cone shaped and I wanted the children to think about the construction of building this. In the midst of this discussion Olivia suggested that we constructed it like a staircase. Wider at the bottom and gradually building inwards. I was very impressed at how she understood the logistics of this and was able to explain her idea to the rest of the class. They completely understood what Olivia was saying. We then looked at what kind of materials we would need for this and all agreed to collect and bring in plastic containers of various strengths and sizes for our next session.

Putting our thoughts of rockets and outer space aside we moved our of creativity to a little Jolly Phonics. I asked the children to rhythm Hat and we got Cat, Rat, Mat, Fat, Bat……. Etc. We divided the class into groups of 6. Each group was given one word e.g. Hat. And six small black cards and coloured chalks. Each of the six children would take the word Hat and in either tiny, medium or huge draw or write the word. This took some co-ordination to communicate this to the children. Once complete we had six ‘flash cards’ for each of the five rhyming cards.

Now we were ready to play our game. As I held up each card the children had to match their voice to the size of the image or picture. With a little trial and error and lots of laughter we successfully recorded our voices shouting and whispering Hat, Mat, Bat, Cat and Rat. Note for the self – the pictures of Cat and Rat can be a bit too similar!