Fourth Plinth Schools Awards 2014

by Guest Writer

Alison Gill is an art teacher at the City of London School and tells Cass Art about how she has been getting involved with the Fourth Plinth Schools Awards this year.

Greetings from City of London School and ARK Bentworth Primary Academy.

For the last few years it has always been exciting to hear news of the Fourth Plinth Schools Awards and to use it as a springboard for a sculpture project with my year 6, 7 or 8 class. It has become an annual fixture and this year I am also working with pupils and teachers at ARK Bentworth Primary Academy who have already set up an after-school Sculpture Club and will be entering for the first time.

I love making sculpture and find that most children I teach share this passion. Although it is often more time consuming, messy and challenging than other media, the results are worth any extra effort. Each year I try to make it a bit different and change the emphasis to keep it fresh, so last year we attempted to make clay plinths and made the sculptures out of paper clay and florist wire. The plinths and sculptures were fired and glazed. An alternative, if you don't have a kiln would be to use the air-dying clay with fibres in it – “the hairy clay” and florist wire for an armature/internal structure (it bends and cuts easily). In other years, we have used a combination of rubbish/recycled materials, modrock/plaster bandage, clay, wire and the great fix and seal-all – PVA glue. Anything goes, but there are certain rules and techniques to sculpture making, which are learnt along the way.

This year we started by looking at the current sculpture by Hahn/Cock by artist Katharina Fritsch. 

I made a Fourth Plinth Pinterest board and some on sculpture and techniques.

Along with a range of books on sculpture, this helped to open the discussion on sculpture, both historical and contemporary and give some context to the place/site ie Trafalgar Square, London. There is more often than not a sense of humour in the work on the Fourth Plinth and the class, respond to this. It is a really good starting point for discussions about contemporary public art and sculpture in particular.

We also looked at other sculptures by artists and discussed these, introducing ideas about form, subject matter, art movements etc. We also run through the ways of making sculpture: Modeling, additive, soft materials (clay, wax); Carving subtractive (wood, stone, polystyrene, soap); construction/fabrication – check Richard Deacon’s new show at Tate Britain. He covers this! But it could equally be cardboard and cable ties or string, tape - thinking about joining and assembling. Casting and Mould-Making: casting a positive form in plaster or bronze etc. from a Mould – the container (plaster, alginate, fibreglass etc) of the negative space that holds the cast. When I tried to explain this the other day to year 6 pupils at ARK Bentworth without an example to hand, a jelly mould sprang to mind and they all got the idea. It is great though, if you have physical examples to show and over the years I have collected a box of such things and can usually point to pieces of work around the classroom. We tend not to get into casting until GCSE although press moulds into clay and making casts in plaster backed with hessian scrim (for reinforcement) can work well with younger years.

After this, which usually takes up over half the lesson, once the class has appeared to have got some grasp on what the Fourth Plinth is about, what sculpture is and how things like context and scale can effect it. Once they know the range and limit of materials and roughly what they can do with them, then we set to work on making ‘Drawings Towards Sculpture’. This is a problem-solving exercise and sometimes involves making a small model of the form in plastercine or clay. I emphasize looking in the round, sculpture is 3D and it is a spatial skill that has to be learnt. This is going to be seen (theoretically) from all directions so I encourage them to go beyond a pictorial sculpture viewed from one angle and get them to think about the viewer. This is when they are reminded that everything may change when they start to make the actual sculpture! There is something very important about working with the properties of materials, seeing what they will and won’t do very well, dealing with calamities creatively (collapsing sculptures etc.). This is the part where the class really takes off; they start helping each other and working things out. Its art, meets engineering and design. It builds confidence, resilience and imaginative innovative solutions.

Some of my class asked if they could work in pairs. Why not? If Elmgreen & Dragset can, then they can too! But they must each participate, contribute and each make there own drawings and plans. I will be watching to see how effectively this works and there is an  interview with Elmgreen & Dragset here.

There isn’t usually much time for this project, from its announcement to the deadline, so there is a sense of urgency that builds up along with the genuine enthusiasm. I expect this year that the sculptures will be painted. We will look at sculptors who use colour and talk about that. If you haven’t done this before, entered the Fourth Plinth Schools Award, just make sure you have time to photograph the work and upload the submissions. We have used an A1 white portfolio sheet as a background so that the sculptures can be seen without studio/classroom clutter. Maybe we will try something different this year. At Bentworth we were talking about using a projection of Trafalgar Square as a backdrop. It is a good excuse to experiment.

Thinking about how artist title their work and bring meaning to their sculpture is usually one of the last things pupils do. I encourage them to think up their own titles and they write a statement for homework about their piece. All along the way the discussions are central to the actual imaginative process…it can get quite unpredictable, much like engaging the public with contemporary art, but with the added enjoyment of being involved in the making and creating of something new - sculpture for the 21st century.

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