Tag Archives: outreach

My contribution to a year of culture in Waltham Forest

In January 2019 the London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF) became the first London Borough of Culture and so began a year-long celebration of the arts and creativity across the whole authority.  Cultural activities in different sizes, shapes and forms have been planned and led by professionals, community groups and enthusiasts and people have been coming together to share their artistic interests.  Until recently I lived in Walthamstow and I’ve been working in Waltham Forest for a number of years as a storyteller and facilitator at The Vestry House Museum and William Morris Gallery most recently devising and delivering  an outreach assembly charting the story of the area.  When it was announced that LBWF was to be London’s first Borough of Culture I was very keen to be involved and despite moving to Sussex I am really excited to have been asked to deliver another outreach project, this time promoting fun through art.

If you looked at my calendar it gives the impression that this storyteller isn’t doing that much at the moment.  In fact this summer I am working as a presentation facilitator, visiting 37 primary schools in Waltham Forest to work with over 2500 children and enabling the young people I encounter to create mass art pieces based on their cultural identity and interests.  The way we work is that the children are each given a piece of coloured card.  They are then asked a question relating to who they are (their favourite foods, the languages they speak at home and their artistic interests).  To answer the questions the children move around the room.  It’s a bit like what would happen if one of those mosaics you see crowds make at international football matches was achieved by playing an enormous multiple choice game or what happens to a pallet of paint as the brush moves, blending and mixing the colours.  As the children move new patterns emerge which are as unique as the children in the room. We take photographs of the process at different stages which become the artwork.

This is a very ambitious project which relies upon a massive amount of team work between myself, the school staff and the children involved and so far the sessions have been received enthusiastically.  The images that we are capturing are very striking but what’s also striking is the eagerness of the children. Waltham Forest is a very vibrant and diverse place and our sessions are as much about creating a forum to discuss identity as they are about making art. As the children make their choices there is invariably a positive buzz around the assemblies and when asked for feedback, everybody wants to share things about their families and their interests.  The children aren’t the only ones who are enjoying themselves. As a storyteller I am fascinated by family stories and how they are valued so being a part of the discussions has been a wonderful experience.

The project is not without its practical challenges.  Whenever you ask 120 children to move at the same time you risk a certain amount of chaos but by far the biggest challenge of the project has been communicating the outcome to schools.  Holding up pieces of card in front of a camera to make an art piece is a fairly abstract idea.  To make it even more confusing, we instruct the children to use their cards to cover their eyes, nose and mouth so their faces cannot be seen – this means they have no idea of the bigger pictures that they are making.  It’s been my job to keep the sessions bouncing along, to try to keep some very large groups engaged and to assure them (and the schools) that the pictures we are making look great.

At the time of writing we are about a third of the way through the project which will run until the end of the school year.  I think it’s fantastic that the Borough of Culture have tried to engage children from every part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest with arts, creativity and culture and it has been a privilege to be invited into so many schools to take a glimpse into the worlds of the children.  Waltham Forest has undoubtedly shaped me as a storyteller and I hope that for some young people this kind of experience and the opportunities arising from a year of culture on their doorstep might also have a long lasting legacy.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools, libraries and museums as well as literature festivals and events. For more information about his work or to make a booking use the contact form.