The world is littered with micro acts of fun and fabulousness...
...even if sometimes you have to look around on the floor for a while to find them.
Eibhlín Jones, studying Drama at the University of Sussex, was on placement with Artsadmin for 5 weeks. In her blog, she reflects on her time working on Tim Spooner's project with Canon Barnett Primary School, Monuments of Tower Hamlets.
Early on a March morning, the lights in Toynbee Studios’ empty theatre were switched on. The space had that ‘the morning after’ feeling, as remnants from the event the night before lingered in the aisles. A group of people in suits and ‘smart’ attire turned up to reception to sign in for their training day, chatting cheerfully in a way that tells one that yes, it is, indeed, a Friday. The building was shaken awake for the day.
Artist Tim Spooner, Artsadmin’s Education Producer Siobhan McGrath and I (a student on placement at Artsadmin for a couple of months) sat on the stage and talked about what would be happening in just half an hour, each one of us speculating on how the morning’s event would go and concluding that none of us would really knew what to expect. Then, at 9.30am, thirty one 6-7 year-olds arrived, AKA the whole Year 2 class at Canon Barnett Primary School. We didn’t need to speculate any longer.
Canon Barnett Primary School is Artsadmin’s next-door-neighbour, and yet the pupils were in absolute awe when they entered our theatre, a space that many of them hadn’t known existed less than 100 feet from their school. A chorus of “ahhhs” and “wows” filled the space as they entered in two-by-two, on their best ‘out of school’ behaviour. When they were allowed to run up on to the stage, they switched to ‘performance mode’, dancing and gesticulating to the empty seats in the auditorium. When Siobhan introduced herself and asked “has anyone been in a theatre before?”, only half of them said that they had. “Well, now all of you can say you’ve been in a theatre AND on stage!” she responded, and their faces lit up with triumph.
Tim explained that they were all going to be artists in a project called Monuments of Tower Hamlets. He told them they would be exploring specific areas nearby for forgotten, discarded and neglected items, collecting them to make their own individual sculptures. The sculptures would then be exhibited as part of Artsadmin’s 2 Degrees Festival which they would all be invited to along with their family and friends. Tim showed them some of his own sculptures causing a flurry of reactions and responses: “That looks like a little man!”, “No, it’s a flamingo!”, “It actually looks like an elephant in a wig.”
Tim asked them to look around the auditorium and see if they could find any small items to collect. We expected them to find a few things but they found loads! If you want to know where all of those lost paperclips and hair ties have gone, ask a 6-year-old to hunt around in all the spaces you thought you’d looked. Tell them it’s for an art project.
Exploring Toynbee Studios
Now it was time for a tour of Toynbee Studios by Artsadmin’s Admin Assistant and resident tour guide Alex Brown. He told us all about the history of the place and what kind of thing happens here on a daily basis. We walked into the Artsadmin office to witness everybody hard at work (ahem) and the children got to see a little bit of what those strange-art-people-from-next-door actually do from day to day (a lot of sitting at computers, so it seems). One of the producers was Skyping an artist in Beirut and got the class to wave hello to the camera. I kept thinking about the kids telling their parents about school today: “What did you do today darling?” “Oh, you know, rifled around on the floor of a theatre for a bit looking for objects that other people have dropped, Skyped with Beirut. That sort of thing.”
As we left the office, one of the little girls looked up at me and said very softly “Eibhlin, can I work at Toynbee Studios?” I felt tears spring to my eyes with the sweetness of it all. I felt like saying “Yes, yes of course you can! You can have anything you want! We can create a whole department for you RIGHT NOW!” But instead, to prevent her from informing her teacher that, in actual fact, she didn’t need to go back to school with the rest of the class as she had a full time job at Artsadmin now, I said, “Yes, of course you can, but you have to finish school first!”
We walked all the way up to the top floor and into the brilliant open space of the Steve Whitson Studio, where, after a lot of diligent listening, the children were let loose. Pressing their noses against the large windows that give a wide view of the area, many of the kids were quick to point out buildings and houses that they knew. Well, that they thought they knew. One girl exclaimed excitedly “I can see my house from here!” to which a teaching assistant replied, “No you can’t. You live in Barking!”
When the children left, Siobhan and I remarked that it didn’t feel right to just sit at our desks and do work — we were too excited! We decided we’d much rather run around and play instead. Maybe that little girl and I could swap places for a day?
Collecting materials from in and around Tower Hamlets
To gather our materials, we took the children to a variety of locations like St Botolph’s Church, the basement of Toynbee Studios, Gardners Bag Shop, Whitechapel Gallery and Brady Arts Centre.
Each day brought new excitement for us as much as the kids. We were so impressed by how the children engaged with their task. They were inquisitive and vigilant explorers, forensically examining all the nooks, crannies and corners of every room we went into. Each morning when Tim asked the children if they knew what we were going to be doing, there was always an awareness that we were somehow embarking on the process of making art, even if they couldn’t quite see how it was all going to come together yet.
Moving a group of children through the streets of Aldgate was tricky (read: a little bit terrifying), however, they were incredibly well behaved. Siobhan noted how great it was that the children were able to meet influential members of their community and get to know the area surrounding their school a little better. Paul Gardner at Gardners Paper Bag Shop told us that the shop has existed for almost 150 years and that it is Spitalfields’ oldest family business. Paul himself (whose great-grandfather founded the shop) has been working there for 47 years, a length of time that seemed unfathomable for a group of 6 and 7-year-olds (“you must be really old!”). He is also the founder of the East End Trade Guild, which now has about 300 independent businesses as members, and has become something of a local hero. Look him up and you can see pictures of him in his famous brown paper hat, a sight the children all delighted in.
Every person that agreed to let us come and rifle around on the floors of their workplace was so kind and welcoming to the children and the adults. Education Assistant, Jenny, at the Whitechapel Gallery, Colin at St Botolph’s Church, Jerry at Brady Arts Centre and, of course, all the staff at the Artsadmin office were marvellous. They all told us all a little bit about the place we were in and what that place does for the community. As an out-of-towner, for me, the whole experience functioned as a kind of walking tour of the area, each place telling me a little bit more about the community I was working in.
The variety of the materials found in each location was the most interesting and surprising part for me. In Gardners, the children found old coins, little tags and (perhaps unsurprisingly) lots of small coloured pieces of paper. In the beautiful St Botolph’s Church there were stones, beads and some bright red feathers among other curious things. In the basement of Artsadmin’s home, Toynbee Studios, there were a number of quite extraordinary objects, most shockingly a variety of small doll’s shoes that seemed to have arrived there as if by magic…
In our office there were (also unsurprisingly) paperclips, business cards and pen lids, but there was also a scattering of delicate dried rose buds, offering a pleasing combination of the natural and the manufactured. In the Brady Arts Centre, we were invited into a secret area under the stairs and into an artist’s studio where there were lots of small beautiful pieces of stone from a recent carving workshop. In the Whitechapel Gallery, the children were taken to a room littered with offcuts from the artworks that are currently being exhibited, which were all interestingly shaped and spattered in different coloured paints. It was a satisfying thought to me, and one that is reflective of the nature of the project, that the pieces of material that were discarded in the creation of art were now going to be used to create new works of art.
Whilst there was plenty of variety in the materials that we found in each location, somehow there always seemed to be at least some shiny sequins, little bits of confetti and tiny flecks of glitter on every floor that we explored. The world, so it seems, is littered with micro acts of fun and fabulousness, even if sometimes you have to look around on the floor for a while to find them.
Transforming scraps into monuments
After all that gathering, we weren’t quite sure what to expect when the first making workshop came around. We knew that all of the children had more than enough interesting objects to be getting along with, but we weren’t quite sure how we were going to communicate the fact that it didn’t matter whether they made something that looked like anything in particular, the sculptures could be abstract.
Tim told the children that they should choose the most interesting objects from their collections. They could make whatever they wanted and what they made didn’t necessarily have to look like any one particular thing.
I asked the children if they had chosen their favourite objects to work with yet and one boy said to me “they’re not our favourite objects, they’re the most interesting ones.” I felt confident that the artists knew what they were doing!
Once they had chosen, the artists got right down to business of creating and before we knew it requests for “more glue!” were being thrown around like confetti. Some worked whilst chatting away to each other, vocalising each stage of their artistic process and comparing strategies. Others chose a more solitary route, carefully testing out ways that different objects could fit together in silence, preferring to work as independents.
By the end of the session, each one of them had a beautiful, intricate and intriguing sculpture. When Tim asked if anyone had any thoughts about what they had just made, one of the little girls put her hand up and said “It’s like we had nothing and then we made something and it could be anything!” Us adults looked at each other, astonished that was a better explanation of abstract art than we could come up with!
Although, very sadly, I couldn’t be there for the other making workshops, I have no doubt that all of the children made wonderful things. Siobhan told me that a couple of the kids asked “where that other lady was” when I wasn’t there, which did fill me with a bit of warm glow. I’m glad I haven’t seen all of the sculptures, though, as I’m looking forward to being surprised when I see the exhibition. I’m also excited by the prospect of the children showing their family and friends what they’ve done in a professional setting. I hear they’ll be going to be a private viewing for the artists and their special guests — with canapes and Shloer!
Learning to see Tower Hamlets in a new way
As I come to the end of my placement at Artsadmin and am reflecting on all of the things I’ve been involved with and what I’ve learnt, I feel incredibly lucky to have been around when Monuments of Tower Hamlets unfolded. Explaining the project to other people without going into massive amounts of detail has been difficult (“basically, we’re taking children to places around London so that they can find stuff on the floor”), but I hope that this blog post can give a little bit of an insight into what a fun, heart-warming and interesting experience this has been for all of us. My experience allowed me to get to know an area that I have no previous attachment to, through the eyes of children that it belongs to and with a level of detail that I would have never have got had I just walked around the area and kept my eyes above ground level. Whether you know Tower Hamlets well or not, the artists from Year 2 at Canon Barnett Primary School will allow you to see the area in a new way and, perhaps, encourage you look down to the floor every once in a while yourself. You don’t know what you could be missing.
Canon Barnett Primary School and Tim Spooner's free exhibition Monuments of Tower Hamlets is on show 4-9 June at Toynbee Studios as part of 2 Degrees Festival. On Friday 6 June from 4-6pm, local residents are invited to a special exhibition event with refreshments. The exhibition is supported by Tower Hamlets Council.
Gathering materials and making workshops with Year 2 students and artist Tim Spooner. Photos by Rob Harris.