Story Makers, conceived in 2010, is a partnership between Helen Edwards and Fusion Arts. Participating schools to date include Bayards Hill, Cutteslowe, Rose Hill, New Marston and Wood Farm Primary Schools and John Henry Newman Academy School. Museum partners have been The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, The Pitt Rivers Museum, The Oxford University History of Science Museum and The Natural History Museum.
Story Makers, a participatory arts approach
In Story Makers, everyone is treated as an artist and creates new work alongside each other, sharing and trying out their own new ideas. Stepping out of traditional educational roles encourages children and adults to have new experiences of themselves and of relating differently in a learning group.
Direct sensory contact with inspiring objects and natural materials using the hands and body can build self awareness and confidence. The playful, trusting atmospheres built in the groups may serve as potential safe spaces to share thoughts and feelings not previously articulated and thus develop self reflection. Such creative dialogue can lead to the natural enrichment of speech and language.
Inspiration is taken from active engagement with Oxford Museum collections to bring alive the richness, beauty, human ideas and endeavour held in these world renowned collections. The Museum hosts an End of Project Exhibition of Story Makers work and a Family Open Day which all participants and schools are to attend.
This year groups will be a living museum – University of Oxford Botanic Garden, exploring the diversity of plants, their adaptations to different environments, the relationships between them and also between humans and plants. We will think about why these plants are being cultivated in the Botanic Garden and what can be learnt from studying them. Spending time in the gardens is vital time for the natural environment to stimulate sensory experiencing. Participants will use movement, imagination and sensory engagement to bring alive the living science in the gardens and drawing, clay modelling, printing and expressive colourful materials to portray and sculpt inner felt experience of the plants and the environments in which they grow.
Story Makers will study sensory experiences in the gardens – sight, focal and peripheral, sound, birds and insects, smell, air, plants and ground, taste, touch (temperature), movement and growth in the gardens. Story Makers will use balance, movement, sculpting and drawing for this exploration, raising self awareness and bringing alive their ideas about growth and blossoming, developing creative imaginative stories inspired by these studies.
In William Wordsworth’s words – “let nature be your teacher” – being open to the qualities of nature a child may enjoy space offered by the natural world in which to grow to understand the natural order and feeling of things. Story Makers will use words and poetry to articulate learning together and sculpt colour and paint to build understanding of feeling and emotion.
“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature one should listen to…..the feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures” – Vincent van Gogh.
Story Makers attention to the senses and imagination may deepen mind/body awareness. Play, movement, sound, gesture, and improvisation support the loss of self consciousness. As images appear in clay, drawing, paint and sculpture they offer new meanings, bridges to understanding deeper communications already understood through sensing, touching, holding, moving, colour, forms, free association and play. Through meditation and active imagination Story Makers will listen to how deeply felt experience of nature may flow into a mode of communication, a language of quality and gesture, captured and conveyed in writing, painting, sculpture, sound, music/ dance; a place where science meets art.
Group play and improvisation
Simple games, sounds, movement and balance link breathing, texture, movement, sound, gesture, body parts (eg hands and face), mark making, support articulation and integration of emotional and psychological learning. Play encourages relaxation, openness and sharing. Growing self awareness and confidence supports new language to emerge which is both accessible and meaningful. This process has contingency with ideas about the acquisition of schematic memory in representational patterns of experience in speech and language. Story Makers may build capacity to live creatively and learn about key developmental processes.
Story Makers nurtures an active participatory learning approach, teaching coming through engagement as a group together. Adults and children explore together in an active process between all participants who are encouraged to be present to their own experience, emotions and modes of expression and communication. This locates learning potential in supportive relationships between adults and children, children learning from other children etc and in the context of human evolution as represented by the Museum collections.
Why The Oxford University of Botanic Garden?
Botanical Gardens and the cultivation of plants have been around for thousands of years, the first examples dating around 3000 years ago in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Romans were keen gardeners and also aware of the medicinal properties of plants. The monks followed on from the Romans in identifying the medicinal properties of plants, also using the beauty of plants and flowers as a celebration of god. The first monastic gardens were created in the 8th century were pre-cursor to the physic gardens appearing in the 16th century.
None of these gardens could be regarded as “botanic gardens” though , a botanic garden is not an easy thing to classify – though an underlying scientific basis is a necessity. So the world’s first botanic gardens were the physic gardens of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. These gardens were purely for the academic study of medicinal plants. By the 16th Century these medicinal gardens had spread to universities and apothecaries throughout central Europe. The University of Oxford Botanic Garden was the first garden established in the United Kingdom in 1621 with a mission to promote learning and the glory of god.
Story Makers engagement with this living museum collection brings transcendence of the everyday, bringing the ordinary into the realms of the extraordinary and placing our work in the context of the evolution of human endeavour. The Garden engages the human body with nature and the natural environment, awakening the senses and the imagination. The ground is rich with life and diversity, and the adaptations made by plants and researched scientifically in the Garden offer a window into learning about evolution and creativity. The ‘physic’ takes us into the body and origins of relatedness within human nature offering a point for understanding feeling central to the work of many artists particularly Van Gogh and other impressionists. Poets such as Wordsworth portray nature through poetic language and show how we bring our world to life through developing such poetic language artwork of participants. Study of the Physic Garden opens Story Makers to ideas about healing.
With nearly 6,000 different types of plant, the garden is a year-round oasis of biodiversity, in the heart of Oxford. Visiting the garden is an ideal opportunity for Story Makers to engage with the natural environment. The herbaceous borders and glasshouse are home to plants taking you all round the world. The garden aims to promote a love of the natural environment and support and encourage future generations of botanists and conservationists.
Story Makers hopes to bridge divides between science and art in education. Story Makers values and builds on the bridges created in the meeting of the languages of art and science as a foundation integral for holistic sustainable growth, development and human evolution.
Story Makers theoretical background
Story Makers approach has roots in ideas drawn from theories of child development, Art Psychotherapy and artistic practice. Working artistically from body movement, gesture, breathing and presence, image making may reveal self experience and raise awareness of associated muscle tensions and thought patterns. Past experiences may come to light through safe immersion in art materials previously felt to be traumatic, unacceptable, unbearable and therefore buried. Old fixed patterns of tension may thus be safely uncovered, and brought to the conscious mind. Conscious expression and communication of feeling can allow laying down of new experience. This may deepen engagement in the present moment and in relationships, increase physical regulation, verbal articulation and language. Dialogue about the creative process and imagery may embed and consolidate these transformations.
Reflection capacity, ability to think about sensations, thoughts and emotions passing through our awareness as information about inner and outer worlds, enables symbolic thought. The practice of being conscious or mindful calms the reactivity in the autonomic nervous system and produces a state of neurological coherence that is stable, adaptive, flexible and energized. Such conscious awareness may enable choice and self agency. It also seems to develop the areas in the brain associated with happiness. (Siegel 2007).
Christopher Bollas, a psychoanalyst coined the phrase the ‘unthought known’ (Bollas, 1987) referring to what we know but for a variety of reasons may not be able to think about, have forgotten, act out or have an intuitive sense for, but cannot yet put into words. In psycho-analytic terms, this refers to the boundary between unconscious and conscious mind; the “preconscious mind.” Through an active participatory approach the human imagination may be engaged enabling revelation of hidden potential, ideas and capabilities both individually and collectively as a group. A collaborative group process can allow a child the possibility to develop new ways of representing experiences of collaboration contingent with self experience. “Forms of cooperation with others later become internalised individual functions of the child self” Vygotsky (1972). The art images, and reflection on these, may bring deeper insight and an anchor between imaginative, abstract thinking and conscious awareness thus deepening inner coherence and unity.
Attachment theorists, Bowlby and Winnicott suggest individuals who can convey a coherent narrative of their early history have developed a coherent sense of self, based either on secure early attachment experiences or an ‘earned’ secure attachment. The idea of an earned secure attachment refers to the finding that although someone may have been born into a situation that afforded him or her little opportunity to develop a secure attachment, it is possible to “earn” or synthesise a more coherent self narrative/ secure attachment later in life through reflective work. The self may then “make sense rather than being riddled with inconsistencies, hang together as an integrated whole rather than fractured by dissociations and disavowals: and be capable of collaboration with other selves.” (Wallin, 2007). Story Makers emerging images and poetic communications may be symbolic of developing self structures underlying growing communication pathways, telling stories of the synthesis and integration of new reliable self experience in relationship to the art and to others.
The educationalist Rudolf Steiner, took on Goethe’s research in his theories. Goethe strove to free up habitual qualities and categories and see new elements in the relationship between things, rather than working from prior knowledge, theory driven observation or hypothesis testing. Story Makers takes inspiration from this using sensory experience, perception, colour, form and texture as symbolic new research information. Using drawing as a tool to deepen understanding and open up language access to new words and descriptions may be uncovered. Working with the senses may help the instinct and imagination to engage with our study and creativity focusing the mind to be inspired to the stories of our studies.
Meditation is not to struggle with the mind to quieten it, but to focus it. The unruly mind may become happy and cooperative when it has a task to perform, especially when this task relates to the deep seated instinct in everyone to evolve. The physical body can relax and the mind may become directed to focusing on an original theme and working out all its qualities and possibilities. Meditation has immense value at any time, but when it is immediately followed by drawing or painting it has the added value of the visual appearance on paper of the most unexpected forms and beauty, indicating to the performer great unsounded depths and abilities with him, which may be of special benefit to children.
Resourcing education to develop learning of capacity to give and care rather than take is now essential in the modern world of consumerism. Inside every human lies something unique to give to the evolution of humanity. Story Makers intention is to help realise when one has received something precious, to synthesise experiences of receiving, to feel joy to radiate the gift and be an inspiration (Smithwhite M, 1988).