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Teaching for independence & innovation

Interviews: Melissa McGrath; Stephen Armitstead

Filmmaking Workshop, Warnbro Community High School Filmmaking Workshop, Warnbro Community High School
photo Poppy van Oorde-Grainger
In 2011 Perth Institute of Contemorary Arts’ Spark_Lab became part of a three-year research program, Growing Future Innovators, involving five schools in collaboration with Edith Cowan University’s Education School and with the support of the Fogarty Foundation. RealTime spoke with Melissa McGrath, PICA’s Education Officer and Stephen Armitstead, Head of Arts Learning Area at Warnbro Community High School, 50km south of Perth, the first to implement the research outcomes in partnership with PICA in a two-year program across 2015-17.

Involved in Spark_Lab now for just under a year, McGrath tells RealTime that she started at PICA as a gallery attendant, including undertaking education tours while studying Art History at Curtin University. “I studied to be a curator so I’m really interested in the ways you can engage audiences with work, make it relevant and stimulate a sense of agency around viewers participating in gallery spaces.” She says Spark_Lab looks at “alternative ways of teaching for leadership, independence, innovation and creative thought. The three-year trial period connected the lab with five partner schools, public and private, from a variety of districts and socio-economic backgrounds. Projects took place in schools but students also came to PICA to collaborate with artists in the gallery spaces in workshops, displaying their own work or visiting exhibitions and seeing performances. Right from the beginning, Spark_Lab’s purpose has been driven by the needs of the schools that we’re involved with and particularly by the students. The discussion we encourage with students is about the ways they think. Activities are structured for problem solving and facilitating autonomy so a lot of the activities are quite self-directed and flexible in a way that students are inspired to take them on.”

“A great example of this as a short-term project,” says McGrath, “was the three-day workshop we completed earlier this year with our partner, Warnbro Community High School. Three film and sound artists worked with groups of students over three days to write a song, record it and make an accompanying music video. Everything was up to the students: they wrote the words and decided on the images and iconography they wanted. Spark_Lab gave them a methodological structure to work within but they then held the reins. The workshop was structured so that classes ‘cycled’ through, with smaller groups working with the artists for a few hours over each of the three days so that they weren’t overwhelmed and built confidence, becoming more comfortable with creative risk and putting themselves into what they’re making.”

The video was premiered at a community launch in May at the school as well as at PICA, placed online and played on the large video screen in the Perth Cultural Centre. Taking the art made in the school with Spark_Lab to PICA and out into the world is central to the program. The participating artists were filmmaker Poppy Van Oord-Grainger, filmmaker, visual artist and project facilitator Curtis Taylor and musician and sound artist Brian Lloyd. McGrath says, “Curtis and Brian are Indigenous artists who have done projects with Indigenous communities engaging with young people in creating music, video and visual art. Poppy is a community arts worker as well. Another reason we selected Curtis as the lead artist in that particular group is that his work is quite aligned with that of Tracey Moffatt, whose work we had on show at PICA earlier in the year. All of the students who participated in the workshops at Warnbro saw her exhibition, Kaleidoscope. It wasn’t just about what they were creating but that they could align with contemporary art in a wider context. The school’s located in the south of Perth and somewhat disconnected—by pure distance—from the cultural hub of the city centre. Our opportunity is to give the students a context for what they’re creating and provide avenues to take them beyond their art classes and beyond high school.”

Warnbro Community High School’s Arts Head of Learning Area, Stephen Armitstead, teaches electronic art and is himself an occasional practising artist. He’s passionate about the Spark_Lab program. The school’s approach to the arts is an ideal fit with its Creative Arts Specialist Program (CASP) which has been running since 2009 and currently has some 80 students.

“It’s like a mini-arts school within a high school,” says Armitstead. “The current director is Joanna Sweetman who oversees the curriculum for all of the students, years 7-10. Year 7 and 8 students get to know all of the arts we offer—dance, drama, visual arts, multimedia and a little music as studio and performance practices. In years 9 and 10 they specialise, choosing between studio and performance. The program involves students in four hours of practice per week.” Armitstead says there are bonuses for CASP students: when they stage exhibitions it’s very collective. They install the work, “create media around it and really come together and value what they’re doing...and they enjoy working in the art space during lunch times and sometimes after school.”

“Critically,” says Armitstead, “Spark_Lab fills the space in the large leap into the university and the contemporary art scene from year 12. It offers us a direct connection to contemporary art and how it operates. We wanted a program that would create a portal between us and what PICA does. ‘Two places, one space,’ that was the idea behind the collaboration. It was always going to be flexible and organic. We wanted it to mirror what was happening at PICA and that it would, in turn, reflect what was happening at our school in a two-way celebration of learning about the processes of contemporary art. Their staff have been very responsive to our wishlists. It’s a true collaboration.”

Key to the program, says Armitstead, “is a series of short-term workshops and residencies across multiple disciplines and not traditional long-term artist residencies. Ahilan Ratnamohan [see page 10] is about to run a workshop at the school and later students will see him perform at Mandurah Arts Centre. Then he’ll be with us early next year and the work will be devised between his visits.

“We’re keen to work with two or three visual artists to create an interactive work with the students and document the process at the same time.” Armitstead’s keen to pursue this because he’s “noticed that galleries over the years are increasingly not simply exhibiting artists but are working through ideas with them, which is what we’d like here, with artists responding to what we’re doing at the school.”

Workshops take place at the school but also at PICA. It’s envisaged that after Year 11 exams, students will have an art workshop at the gallery one day a week over three weeks. “They’ll study works exhibited there and create their own in response, as well as to other themes. It’s a unique opportunity for students to feel that they themselves are in-residence as artists.” RT

Planners for the Spark_Lab partnership: Melissa McGrath, Laura Evans & Minaxi Ma of PICA and Joanna Sweetman and Stephen Artmitstead from Warnbro Community High School. A PDF of Growing Future Innovators by Dr Julie Robson and Dr Luke Jaaniste can be found at here, and other information at For PICA’s Spark_Lab go to

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 8

© RT ; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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