Kenny, a lecturer in the School of Art here at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), visited Forrester High School in Edinburgh alongside his sculpture Yield Brother, running creative workshops using clay with S3 school groups.
Within the secondary school Art & Design curriculum, the focus of grading is so often on the end product that many pupils are left unwilling or unsure how to work in an exploratory manner. The focus on process over the finished product was something that Kenny stressed is crucial for students to develop, especially if they aim to go on to art school in the future.
Yield Brother was particularly apt for this age group (13-14 year olds) because it depicts a work in progress. The ape's head is presented on a sculptor's table as though the sculptor has just left the room to take a break from working on what is seemingly an emerging stone carving (but is, in fact, a hollow acrylic-resin cast).
Like all of Kenny's sculptures, Yield Brother raises more questions than it answers. It is a depiction of an ape, but is the creature smiling or grimacing in fear or anger? The title hints at our evolutionary link to these animals, but is complicated by the use of 'yield' – do we gain something from animals, like the yielding of a crop? This questioning is in line with his wider approach of subverting expectations of who or what we commemorate in sculpture, focusing instead on the 'un-monumental', the title given to his opening presentation at Forrester.
Inspired by Yield Brother, the pupils were tasked with giving clay a go – the first time ever for some – in order to sculpt their own animal. Prompts were provided in the form of visual examples from Kenny’s works, and provocative questions such as 'Which animals do people commonly eat that we can also keep as pets?' and 'What metaphorical associations do we have with certain animals, such as a scapegoat?'.
The pupils' choices were illuminating. The most popular animal was a tortoise with its protective shell, followed by kindly domestic pets (cats, dogs, rabbits), but there were also rarer animals such as a brave lion, a peaceful elephant and a snappy crocodile. Following Kenny's advice to avoid sculpting animals on potentially unstable legs (these were made without armatures since they were to be fired in a kiln), many of the pupils decided to sculpt their animals in restful positions – sleeping dogs and dragons, cats and rhinos seated on their haunches.
"The calmness of the poses reflected the peacefulness of the workshops – every time we work with clay in schools, I'm astounded by the concentrated hush and evident mindfulness that takes place" says Shane Strachan, Learning and Engagement Officer (Scotland and Northern England) at Art UK who helped facilitate the workshops. "With the opportunity to work beyond the usual one or two periods available for Art & Design classes, it affords pupils the rare opportunity to just enjoy being in the moment."
Sculpting with clay allows for a far more exploratory, fluid way of working than most other mediums. If a mistake is made, it is very easy to be reshaped and corrected, but sometimes the 'mistake' becomes the direction the sculptor wishes to go in, and it is the rest of the piece that is ultimately adjusted.
Reflecting on the success of the event, Sandy Wood, Collections Curator at the Royal Scottish Academy, explained that “the opportunity to bring our collections out of storage and engage school kids, who could be the artists of the future, is an inspiring thing to be able to do. Art UK's Masterpieces in Schools programme is a fantastic way for us to make our collections uniquely accessible to young audiences.”
This feature is adapted from one originally published on Art UK by Shane Strachan. Shane is the Learning and Engagement Officer (Scotland and Northern England) at Art UK and helped facilitate the workshops.