Thorpe Primary School

The Brief
Earlier this year I was commissioned by Thorpe Primary School to create a permanent
art piece that would be inspired by Michael Rosen’s “Reading Revolution” campaign
providing an inspirational experience on reading and stories as part of their
2015 aim to ‘raise the profile of reading’ within their school community.
In short a commission to collaborate with children creating an artwork about
storytelling and books. A fabulous opportunity to do the kind of work I enjoy
the most.
Their original thought was to produce something on wooden boards to hide the
barriers in their playground during a building extension.  Once finished the work could be moved to a
permanent site indoors. It was apparent to me that there would be safety and
practical issues regarding mounting wooden panels to construction fencing, with
the additional problem of finding a site inside school and again fixing them
permanently indoors safely. After exploring PVC banners and similar materials I
suggested we look at producing a piece that could be printed onto some kind of
material, giving length and size without the safety issues, or the storage and
moving issues either.

With this material they have flexibility to move the artwork depending on
changes to the school, decorative or practical, in the years to come. Wooden
panels can deteriorate very easily, especially if left outdoors.
The subject; books, reading, stories and storytelling, and importantly the joy
and adventure of reading, alongside trees and forests, are important themes to
both me personally and my work. Libraries also happened to be the theme for a
series of new work produced at the same time called “Light Prisms &
Rainbows”.

Research
After my proposal being approved I set about further research. I took some children’s
books from the Central Library, read essays on the symbolism of forests in folk
and fairy tales, reviewed Vladimir Propp’s main characters, and at the various
histories of each of the four trees and the role of the library and the forest
in psychological and symbolic terms.

I managed to find these programmes on BBC Radio 3 on their nightly mini-documentary series called “The Essay” , an amazing reservoir of 15 minute audio essays on a huge range of subjects. I seriously recommend exploring the list.
Holly-The Essay BBC Radio3
Birch -The Essay BBC Radio3

I also researched Shrek and Frozen’s use of stock characters, and used these
films as examples of hero, heroine, villains and helpers. The forest setting was inspired by their school ‘house’ names which are named after trees, Holly, Silver Birch, Horse Chestnut and Willow and the school itself is named after a forest, the nearby “Thorpe Wood”, and the fact that the forest is the archetypal setting for folk, fairy and children’s tales.

Method

I delivered 1 hour sessions with each year group of 60
pupils, making this a collaboration piece with 480 pupils. All their pupils,
from Nursery to Year 6, were involved in this process. 
During the assembly introduction to the whole school I asked each pupil from
the 4 houses to stand up and do a quick tree action, e.g. everyone in ‘Willow
house’ stood up and did big swishy gestures and sounds. This got them warmed up
for when they came into the hall later for their session.
I compiled an image heavy PowerPoint to use as my stage prop, with Shrek and
Frozen characters to illustrate Vladimir Propp’s concept of stock characters,
and obviously adapted it depending on the age group. Well, with the exception
of Reception & Nursery, with whom we talked about trees and forests, doing
actions for these and then did some very expressive mark making with them on
the giant rolls of paper.
It was important that they went away with both a learning outcome/s and a sense
of what they were working on. Thinking about stock characters and getting a
visceral sense of the forest as an evocative infinite location allowed them to
generate 100’s of stories, apply the characters to the reading of other
stories, enriching their interpretation of stories generally and to aid them in
writing their own. With a whole year group drawing together on one roll they
get a feel of the collaborative process and it connected with the size and shape
of the final piece.

Production
At the end of the 2 days of fast paced workshops there was well over 160 meters
of drawings and stories created by the 480 pupils. 

To be honest, this was a lot more than I had planned.
Having photographed all 160 metres of the work I then used Photoshop to create
a composition.
The concept was to have it read like a narrative tapestry, which referenced
that worked like a children’s illustrated book but weaving the snippets and
glimpses of their stories to create a stream of stories on the canvas as
various characters made their way through a long tangled forest filled with
unusual heroes, villains and helpers.
This took more time than planned. The issue I ran into was the first company I
spoke to regarding printing asked for a file size of 1200dpi. This was not
possible. I tried then to work at 300dpi, as this the resolution that the photographs
are taken at (on its highest ‘RAW’ setting). This generated huge file sizes
photographing 160 metres’s of drawings. It was very difficult to work with
processing these (at this point the aim was for 12 meter image) My software was
responding very slowly with this load. 
This slowed me down for quite a while whilst I sorted solutions,
workarounds, advice and so on. At one point I even considered switching the
whole concept and collaging the original drawings onto a full sized collage on
boards and then photographing this to produce a final image, rather than
layering 100’s of image onto one digital file. During this research I contacted
some other printers and found one who were very helpful and advised me that a
72dpi would be fine with their process and I even got a much better quality
material to print on as well. I was nervous. I don’t like printing at such a
low resolution. However, I also noticed that due to the effect of felt-tip ink
on paper there was no edge, the ink had a large bleed. The higher resolution
actually did not give a better overall image in this instance, as the source
was not in focus, the ink on the paper was itself soft and ill-defined the
closer you looked. 
Once I had ironed out these I re-started the composition. Re-Photographing at
72dpi and got my workflow going. Then the composition came together and the
elements rapidly made sense.

Results
The final artwork was printed in Manchester by a specialist fabric company. It
was printed onto canvas designed for yacht upholstery, making it weather-proof
and resilient. The artwork now hangs in the schools courtyard for all the staff,
parents and pupils to enjoy.
Like all commissions I have learnt many things during the process. On this
occasion I have gained an insight into the role of the forest in folk-lore and
fairy-tales, had a chance to study children’s books and illustrations, to think
more deeply about forests & libraries, and to study closely the drawings
and mark-makings of children. Which is something worth studying closely, as it
yields great swathes of information about what they are hearing, what they feel
to be important or true. They can capture the essence of the thing with such
sublime clarity and ease that we often dismiss it as uninformed, but look
closer.
I have also found a reliable
digital-fabric printer I can work with.
I also learnt that the Horse Chestnut tree is not native to the UK, it was imported here during Heny the VIII’s reign, and that the Silver Birch is a ‘pioneer’ species, which grows rapidly and decays rapidly creating the conditions for slower growing trees to create forests.
The work was printed and delivered towards the end of the Summer term, but was
presented to the whole school and then mounted in their courtyard during the
Autumn term. Overall it has been a rewarding project to embrace my love of
stories, reading and art to produce a collaborative piece of work that will be
hanging in their school for many years to come.

Using Format