Say yes

This week I’ve been leading a project based on Brett Dean’s orchestral work Beggars and Angels, with young musicians aged 8 to 13.  Brett Dean’s music is always incredibly evocative and visual, and this work was in fact inspired by an art exhibition in Potsdam in 1994, created by artist (and Dean’s wife) Heather Betts.

Rich material indeed. I showed the children some scanned images from that exhibition, but I’d also asked them to create their own art work, inspired by the idea of ‘beggars and angels’, and influenced by their impressions of Dean’s orchestral work. I think that visual art is a powerful way for children this age to approach an intense, contemporary, esoteric piece like Beggars and Angels.

They responded immediately to this request – one parent later told me that, as soon as she had read my email request out to her eight-year-old son, he got straight to work, and was absorbed for hours.

A ten-year-old boy said to me at the end of our first day of workshopping, “Gillian, can it be something other than a painting?”

“Yes,” I answered. “What sort of thing? Are you thinking of a photo or something?”

“No,” he replied. “A sculpture.”

“Absolutely!” I said. “Of course! That would be wonderful if you wanted to make a sculpture.”

Minutes later, as we were packing up, he approached me with a bag in his hand. “I have to unwrap it,” he said self-consciously, taking an object out of the bag and unwrapping the wads of bubble wrap that protected it. He had created a weighty, intricate beggar, its sturdy body studded with one- and two-cent coins, bolts and screws and scraps of cloth. Its feet wore make-shift shoes from thin pieces of cork. Its hands were large outlines made of wire, and its head was a champagne bottle cork, with white hair made from cotton wool. It was extraordinary in its detail and use of symbol.

Imagine if I’d said No, I thought to myself later! If I’d misinterpreted his careful question about whether a non-painting was acceptable, and said No, to keep the instruction simple. I had no idea he’d already made his artwork. Always say Yes, in workshops. Where there’s doubt or ambiguity, say yes, so that you find out more.

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