7 Apr 2022

Through workshops and exhibitions, Dartmoor pupils had a chance to unleash their creativity, with support from The Arts Society

Painting by student Emilie TG

When mixed-media artist Luna Redhead joined Okehampton Primary School in Dartmoor, Devon, in 2009, she began as a teaching assistant. But it didn’t take long for people to recognise and take advantage of her expertise. In 2014, Jan Goffey, a trustee at the Museum of Dartmoor Life and a committee member at The Arts Society Dartmoor, decided to put together an exhibition on World War I using works created by primary school students. ‘I knew Luna and a local potter, who was also a member of The Arts Society,’ Jan says. 

In a series of workshops, Luna and ceramic artist Susan Eckles helped children put together a show based on the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. ‘[The children] pretended they were the mothers or families of soldiers at the front line; they wrote letters to and replies from the soldiers in the trenches and looked at the poetry,’ Jan explains, adding that students studied the different uniforms worn on the battlefield before making clay models of soldiers. ‘Not one child made a soldier with a gun, which we thought was very interesting.’ 

Painting by student Jessica J

The success of the first exhibition led to one taking place each year at the John Young Gallery in the Museum of Dartmoor Life (other than when restricted by the pandemic), with support from grants provided by The Arts Society Dartmoor. Each had different themes related to the local area. In 2015, Lichens and Mosses included artworks inspired by pictures, samples and descriptions of mosses and lichens found in Dartmoor. Another titled Two Rivers Meet looked at where two nearby rivers, East Okement and West Okement, joined. By 2019, Luna was working with around 60 children each year.

While it’s common for a primary school to offer art classes, teachers are often only provided with 45 minutes to teach a lesson and are rarely equipped to teach pupils advanced skills. ‘Primary school teachers are generalists,’ Jan says. Until students are in secondary schools, teachers provide classes on almost all the subjects their students are learning. ‘In normal primary school art classes, they give the kids about six different pots of paint and say, “paint me a picture”. That’s lovely, but there’s no art teaching,’ Jan says. ‘Unless you get somebody who is particularly artistic and knows how to teach art, you will not get the same value of teaching that you get when you employ somebody who is a specialist.’

Painting by student Abigail G

Jan believes that a good lesson should provide pupils with the skills to look at a work of art and understand how they can do something similar themselves, which is why Luna’s sessions were considered valuable: ‘She was teaching them techniques, such as using their eyes to look at a picture and pick out how an artwork has been done.’ Luna adds, ‘I prompted [the children] in the right direction... We’d spend a whole day looking at acrylic paints: how to use them and mix them.’ However, she explains that teaching art to children isn’t all about techniques. ‘It's more about experimenting with mediums, making mistakes and understanding how to correct them.’ 

‘It’s about their passion, how they problem-solve when working with paints, and where their ideas come from.’

The workshops also created an environment that children thrived and felt comfortable in, part of which was down to choosing the right students to attend. ‘I don’t care how they draw,’ Luna says, regarding which children were selected for the workshops. ‘It’s more about their passion, how they problem-solve when working with paints, and where their ideas come from.’ Before the workshops, most students had never worked with acrylic paints or canvases. Luna also sought to make sessions inclusive. ‘I made sure to include [students from disadvantaged backgrounds] or who had special educational needs, as they were missing out all the time.’

Painting by student Matthew C

Despite their young age, Luna has seen pupils nurture the skills they’ve learnt in the workshops after leaving primary school. ‘I’ve had children tell me that they've gone on to art colleges or universities because of the impact of those workshops,’ she says. But, beyond evident educational and creative skills, Luna has also noticed that children who leave the workshops acquire new-found confidence. ‘You see them go into a classroom and they take the lead. It's almost like I have these small little teaching assistants.’

Sadly, Luna moved on from Okehampton Primary School last year, resulting in the end of the project in its current form. However, Jan plans to recreate the workshops outside the primary school and with new teachers later this month. ‘It was sad that I had to leave,’ Luna says, which was her decision after the school cut down the sessions to 40-minute slots. ‘It just doesn’t work,’ she adds. ‘After I left, I had quite a few parents say, “I only put my children in this school because of what you do”.’

About the Author

Precious Adesina

Precious Adesina is a freelance culture writer


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