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From owls to action figures: supporting a young artist through Blue Cabin’s online creative mentoring project with Darlington Virtual School

Associate Artist Michelle Wood explains the work she did as a Creative Mentor on a partnership project with Darlington Virtual School.

Working as an Associate Artist with Blue Cabin always brings new, exciting and challenging opportunities. The brief for their Online Creative Mentoring project was to help a young person, supported by their carer, to work creatively, have fun, enjoy lots of amazing art resources and learn more about being an artist.

Usually, arts engagement involves working with a group of participants, meeting face-to-face in a neutral space and with a live experience of art resources and activities. The Online Creative Mentoring project meant supporting one young person and their carer, working at a distance – each in the space of our own home – and with the challenges of communicating through technology.

So, it started with a video snapshot of myself and my work and, I must admit, a bit of apprehension on my part with lots of questions:

  • Will the young person like what they see and hear?

  • Will they want to work alongside me?

  • How will this work in practical terms?

  • What if my Wi-Fi doesn’t work!?

Support From Others

As ever, we received all the support we needed from the Blue Cabin team, Lucy our Project Manager, fellow Associate Artist, Elena and Gill from Darlington Virtual School. In parallel with this project, we were also working on a range of other Blue Cabin programmes, learning how to offer art activities online and through the development of creative activity packs for young people to enjoy in their own homes. That parallel learning was really useful in many ways including building up tech training, sourcing materials and creating activity kits, and getting our home technology ready in terms of using devices, checking WiFi and having appropriate lighting.

The First Meeting

The project began with an initial online meeting using a creative kit I’d already sent to the young person which also included a simple prompt card tried and tested from a previous Blue Cabin project. This was an interview card for the young person and the carer, so they could ask each other about their Favourite Things. They both immediately started to fill it in, and throughout the meeting, the young person wanted to return to it –  “But I haven’t told you my favourite game/movie/cake”! It proved to be the key to generating a conversation in that first session and provided the very insights I needed to then develop the content of the next four sessions.

That first meeting also involved tuning into what the young person and carer were saying, being mindful of the practicalities of them making art in their home and realising the limits in terms of scale and messiness.

So, What Can We Make?

Working to a tight deadline, mapping out the young person’s interests and allowing the ideas to tumble around a bit quickly became a list of potential themes, practical activities and associated creative packs of resources. To inject a bit of mystery and magic into the process, I decided not to consult the young person further (potentially risky! but time consuming), and used their list of Favourite Things to generate four themes for the following four sessions:

  • Action Figures (he liked action movies and drawing stick figures)

  • Owls (being his favourite creature)

  • Cities (both him and his carer enjoyed action movies with skyscrapers) and

  • “I want to be a biologist” (his aspirations for the future)

As a printmaker, this meant converting printmaking with rollers and wet ink into manageable and less messy activities like rubber stamps and ink pads. For example, I managed to source some fab owl-themed rubber stamps.

It involved drawing on my experience of teaching Year 7 art and planning potential exciting and manageable art activities (but not being too much like an Art Teacher!).

It involved revisiting myself age 11, digging out my old Spirograph (from 1968!) and making an Owl with Spirograph eyes. Magic! Well, I couldn’t have predicted that when I started this project.

And, by listening to the young person’s enthusiasm for large-scale building with cardboard boxes and duck-tape as well as being aware of the carer’s comment “But our house isn’t big enough”, this translated into an activity where matchboxes and Washi-tape became a cityscape.

Without being heavy, I was keen to weave in images and inspiration from the wider art world. So, opening up the possibility for the young person to create their own imagined city, I showed them a concertina-fold book replica of the imagined and incredible ‘Skyline of the World’ – a mural at New York’s JFK airport – by illustrator Matteo Pericoli.

In response, the young person launched into making his own matchbox buildings, decorated with words, Washi-tape windows and interconnected with Velcro. The combination of inspiration, ideas and resources resulted in him announcing “I’ll be good at this!”. Result!

Let’s Play!

The young person proved to be a bit of a word-smith, something I’d picked up on from our earlier conversation, so the letter templates included in the ‘Cities’ kit were a great way of playing with ideas. Who’d have known that we’d collaborate on making a city where ‘POTATOES SMILE EONS’!

This playfulness is again something we use in face-to-face sessions, being fluid with, and open to, changes of direction from our planned activities. This was equally critical to our Online Creative Mentoring sessions.

Being in his own home meant we could play games and try out playful activities like striking action poses for his carer to draw or pretending to be a ‘special agent’ or the young person would dash off to his room to find a book or something he’d made to share through his computer screen. This is definitely something we couldn’t do in the usual face-to-face session, and it provided a more personal insight and a reminder that is was a privilege to work alongside the young person in their own, safe space.

Challenges Can Be Overcome

There were challenges with the technology, difficulties in not being able to always see and hear what they’re doing, and the idea that it wouldn’t be as good as a face-to-face experience. It was tiring as I sometimes found myself peering into the screen, needing to really listen closely and even talking to their dog who decided to sit in the middle of the action!

However, my early concerns about how this project would work have evaporated. It is possible to inspire, support and offer art experiences to young people and their carers through online activities and creative activity packs. It just means thinking a bit differently, lots of upfront planning, investing in a bit of tech, seeking support from others and having fun!

Right, I’m heading back to play with my Spirograph and Lego. You never know when you need it!

Associate Artist Michelle Wood, Sea Tern Print

February 2021