Artist Victoria Burgher has been working with students and staff at Phoenix School to deliver concrete workshops to support the school with their expressive arts programme and work-related learning.
The project began with exploratory sessions in which the students looked at physical examples of concrete, made observational drawings and experimented with the material. They were encouraged to think about the different ways artists and architects use the material and to understand its use in their local community and the world around them.
The group visited iconic brutalist buildings including Balfron Tower and Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, and explored the use of concrete in the new Switch House building at Tate Modern. Inspired by their findings, the students made simple clay moulds which they used to cast concrete in, creating beautiful plant pots, candle holders, pendants and paperweights to sell in their termly school enterprise fair.
We asked Victoria and Steve to tell us more about their recent collaboration…
How did you work together?
Steve: Victoria and I shaped the project by looking at the various targets and learning outcomes required of our students and developing a plan centred around the material concrete. We worked closely with one another in the lessons themselves and always made sure we could reflect on what worked and didn't work at the end of each session.
Victoria: I shared initial planning with Steve and suggested key words to use for the students' PECS resource (Picture Exchange Communication System). We developed this as the term went on, reflecting on each session and students' participation.
What were the benefits of collaborating?
Steve: I have learnt a lot from working with Victoria. Our project has made me consider the way students can reflect on their own work using photographic evidence of the previous session to build a narrative that includes them as an active member of the project.
Victoria: It did feel like a genuine collaboration with Steve, which was great – he was very supportive, was very interested in the practical side of working and casting with concrete – suggesting ways to make it easier for the students e.g. scaling up cardboard moulds to suit the level of fine motor skills among the students.
What do you think you brought to the relationship?
Steve: Although Victoria has plenty experience working with ASD students I felt I was able to offer further advice on embedding communication for our students and structuring lessons to win the attention of all our students.
Victoria: I brought an enthusiasm about the joys of concrete as a material and a confidence in the ability of the students to create high-quality work that they could sell at their enterprise fair and display in the school.
What do you think they brought to the relationship?
Steve: Victoria built strong relationships with our class and team of teaching assistants. She is a very calm and consistent character which meant our students could trust her quickly. She allowed enough time and space for the students to be creative which was great to be a part of.
Victoria: Steve was always very positive and enthusiastic about the project. I think he has a real gift in getting the best out of the students by being sensitive to their individual needs and having high expectations for their contribution – I have seen such progress in some of the students having been in Steve's class – communicating much more readily and confidently, working in a happy and focused way.
What was your most successful achievement from the collaboration?
Steve: Our group produced large nature-inspired sculptures, with a hint of gold paint, which are now a feature in the school garden.
Victoria: By the end of the term all students were really clear about the process of mixing and pouring concrete into moulds and seemed to really enjoy each session, however the greatest sense of achievement came when one particularly tactile defensive student donned all the H&S equipment (mask, goggles, gloves) and so was able to participate fully in the making.
Were there any inspiring incidents or valuable lessons learnt along the way?
Steve: One pupil has gone onto work experience helping in an art class on a number of weekends which has had a really positive effect on him. Another pupil outright refused to wear the goggles and mask in the first session. Little-by-little she began to wear them for short periods gaining more confidence. By the end of the project she was able to participate fully.
Victoria: We had a very fun trip to Tate Modern to see the structural concrete in the Tanks and some artworks using concrete, such as Phyllida Barlow's – one student was flagging a little after the journey, but when I gave him my camera to use he totally came to life and became a paparazzo, snapping all and sundry as well as taking some really arty shots of the building – hilarious and inspiring to watch in equal measure!