This short ethnographic report is about the fieldwork I conducted over three days in a Primary School where I followed and recorded a year group of school children (year 5 from Ridgeway Primary school, Staffordshire). There were 46 pupils in total ages 9-10 years of age. All the children were participating in a special sculpture project that was being conducted by resident artist of the area Peter Walker, a locally renowned sculptor who the children had met on a previous occasion when the sculptor had unveiled large scale bronze public statues in the local area. I followed the children and the teachers as they were educated in the knowledge of sculpture and art by the artist himself and so I gathered their experiences and thoughts on their work throughout the time I spent with them as well as my own observations during my participation at the school.
The school itself first struck my attention to be very well decorated in art materials which showed it already had a high value towards the arts and crafts as upon entry to the school at every corner, wall and notice board there were many displays using different media to depict the students areas of education – large hanging mobiles adorned the hall, masks from different cultures they had learned about, even in the staff room teachers were busy making props ready to be used for the school Christmas play. There was a display on one wall all about the work the children had previously done with the artist at a previous time. The children were highly energetic and enthusiastic about the artist visiting again and upon introduction by the teacher and artist they also learned about my role there as a Social Anthropologist. On the first day, the children were asked to design some sculptures for the town and were helped by the artist to re-discover words previously used to describe art work –such as ‘abstract’, ‘realistic’, ‘subtractive’ and this was made an exciting part of the lessons for the children as the artist designated a word to an individual and they had to stand up each time the words were explained which they enjoyed. The drawings they produced were all very imaginative depictions of what they would like to see in the town in the future and many designs seemed to be based around the projects recently learned about with the artist such as the recent finding of the Staffordshire hoard in the local area.
Then the children were all escorted up to the local town centre Library and outside of which stands the latest statue which depicts the mining heritage of the area- a miner and pony proudly stands on a plinth here. We were all asked to attend the unveiling of a new plaque which commemorates the lives of the miners and families of miners who all worked in the area, even beneath the statue where there once stood a coal pit. Approximately 200 people attended the unveiling of the plaque. The children sang Christmas carols at the unveiling to mark the occasion and members of the public gathered around the statue as a speech by the local councillors and a blessing by the local vicar was also said as a mark of respect to the miners and families. The school children were also joined by a further 30 children from another school (Chase Terrace primary) who also came to participate in the unveiling of the plaque. Afterwards, the public and the children gathered in the library to watch a short film the artist had made which covered the making of the statue and also interviews of ex-miners of the local town of Burntwood. I was most impressed by the questions and answers that the children asked the artist afterwards, they were intrigued by the notion of people going down under the ground it was a concept they had not come across before, and they wanted to know how this was physically possible how structurally people were able to make the tunnels and asked all about the circumstances they would find themselves in and also if women were involved in the mines. Luckily there were many experts that had turned up that day to see the public unveiling, there were local members of the history society group and even an ex-miner there to help answer their insightful questions. Overall the children were then inspired for the next day’s events with the artist as there education from this day appeared to creep into their artwork.
On the second day the children were shown how to make large willow and tissue paper sculptures, they were free to design anything they felt appropriate with the materials. The children produced spitfires, a miners helmet, a Christmas tree, a mining cave with hanging diamonds, a heart of love, a mini-music cathedral, a large butterfly, an open book for the library, tennis rackets, and many other objects some to do with the Staffordshire hoard . The year was divided into two groups and as one group made these another learned how to make clay sculptures, they learned to use this different media and had sculptural tools to shape and model objects of their own design or remnants of the hoard. This session was teaching them all about form and material shape. Once again the children created many imaginative items – including a statue of Winston Churchill and a unicorn that turned into a shark! The day was enjoyed by the children. Throughout the day there were moments of frustration if the images that they had in their minds were not physically appearing in front of them through the magic of their hands, but this was the learning curve of learning hand –eye co-ordination, perseverance and persistence and as they pushed through with determination they stood with their final sculptures they had made and were able to explain them and discuss them with their peers at the end of the day with proud looks on their faces and a sense of achievement. The artist explained to them that they were all learning about art and that making sculpture is all about perseverance, and well he should know after all.
On the last day the children turned up giving the artist and myself big hugs and Christmas cards. They were asking if we were with them all week but this was our last day with the children. The groups were divided into two again and they both had chance to make small detailed work with wire, they chose a shape to follow – a Staffordshire hoard remnant and they attempted to follow with the line of wire this shape. The children found this the most challenging task as it was more intricate in detail and took a lot of concentration. They also worked on the computer and typed up their experiences, a mini- social anthropological report that they each wrote, and they also designed a poster for their own exhibition of their work to be viewed in the local library by the public.
Overall the dedication of staff at the school to the art world was highly commendable, the head-teachers support was refreshing to see and the work of the teachers and teaching assistants to support and encourage the arts with the children was a joy and one which showed the pupils to be a step ahead in their learning and education in this area. I viewed the progress over such a short time with these children and it was only on leaving that I was informed about certain pupils and how they normally find certain tasks difficult, or about certain pupils who often have difficulty with concentration and involvement with lessons and needed particular assistance, however during my observations in this time period, I didn’t see any lack of participation in the sessions, all the children were thriving off being allowed to self-express and create something with appropriate guidance and support. They showed imagination, determination and thoughtfulness beyond their years and showed they could all push beyond their skills set to learn something new and inventive.
I was able to say goodbye with a feeling of happiness that the next generation were open minded, and willing to learn about their heritage and create new exciting designs for their local town, a wonderful addition to the population of Burntwood.