Lisburn Hosts Children's Arts Festival

Lisburn's Island Arts Centre hosts a month-long series of exciting, eclectic workshops themed around urban landscapes

In art, as with everything in life, some people seem to have more natural talent than others. But, as the Island Arts Centre’s month-long Children’s Arts Festival shows, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us lack artistic flair. The evidence to the contrary is all around us.

In applying make-up or choosing what clothes to wear, in presenting food, painting a house or decorating a Christmas tree, we all tap into our artistic banks. The creative mind is exercised in customizing a car, imagining a tattoo, styling hair, taking a photograph, landscaping the garden and building sand castles.

Graffiti – that great divider – can be an eyesore, but the best examples can turn a wall into an al fresco gallery that transforms our built environment. No matter how ugly or grandiose the architecture, how questionable or stylish the clothes sense, how simple or elaborate a garden design, all represent people’s creativity and desire to display.

At the Island Arts Centre, for the duration of the Children's Art Festival – which runs until the end of August 2014 – children from toddlers to teens are encouraged to unlock their inner Banksy, Stella McCartney or Nick Park. 'What they do is left up to their imagination,' says community arts officer, Lesley Wilson. 'We stretch their imagination by engaging them in creative activities.'

 

The festival offers plenty to stimulate fertile young minds. Week-long workshops engage children in a wide variety of artistic pursuits, from film animation and model making to graffiti writing, t-shirt design, ceramic work and radio production. Drawing, painting, stenciling and poster design are all in the mix, as is disco dancing for toddlers.

A group of participating teenagers look psychedelically splendid in their tie-dyed t-shirts: 'We did a lot of tie-dye this week,' explains Catherine, 13. 'They gave us t-shirts to tie-dye and then we all brought in stuff from home to tie-dye because we really enjoyed it.'

For Catherine, a veteran of three Children’s Arts Festivals, variety is the spice of life. 'We do loads of different stuff. I learned how to do graffiti writing properly and I really enjoyed it. It’s a good way to spend the week and we always go home with really nice stuff that we’ve created.'

With urban landscapes as the festival’s dominant theme this year, the younger children have fittingly created factories from cardboard boxes. Facilitator Brian Cunning reveals, 'We’ve got an ice-cream factory. We’ve got a zombie factory. We’ve got a pet factory where dogs are assembled. You give the children the imaginative spark and it runs away with them. All you have to do is encourage it.'

The Happy Hamster factory produces genetically modified hamsters, reversing their nocturnal instincts so that the kids can play with them during daylight. The level of detail and imagination is impressive – one child uses old mouse mats and turns them into roof tiles.

The Old Bushmills Distillery factory, meanwhile – created by twins Patrick and Erin (7) – produces wine. 'It’s special wine that gives you special powers. You can fly and go invisible,' explains young boffin, Patrick.

The creative spark certainly isn’t lacking amongst these children, and neither is an awareness of their urban environment and prevailing social issues. A cardboard jelly-bean factory is run-down, covered in graffitti and empty: a victim of the recession. 'That didn’t come from us,' adds Cunning. 'This is stuff that’s on the children's minds. It’s great to see them switched on and understanding it.'

An open exhibition area of urban-style building blocks also invites toddlers to get creative. 'Kids have come in and restacked and rejiged them,' Cunning continues. 'Their interpretation of skylines is incredible – like crazy jenga. It’s all about free play and letting them use their imagination. If you leave enough stuff out, with free association children will engage and interact with it.'

A labyrinth of urban walls designed specifically for the festival by Leo Boyd and Laura Nelson similarly provokes artistic reaction and interaction from older children. 'There are no rules,' Cunning underlines. 'They can do whatever they like.'

The themes of street art and the urban environment have also influenced short animations that the children have produced. Compete with titles, a soundtrack and credits, the participants have used their own materials and story boards to fashion quite impressive little movies.

 

'They take pride in their work,' says Cunning’s colleague, Helen Lavery. 'But they realize that if they cooperate as a team they have much greater material at their disposal. One of the things that we really focus on is group activities. They have to ask each other for help or materials and interact with each other.'

Team work is core, but so is the children’s sense of autonomy. 'They use the cameras themselves and we just edit it,' Cunning affirms. 'It’s the kids’ imaginations driving it. There’s no direction from us. I think it’s a real testament to how aware and how competent they are. They can go as big and bad as they want to go.'

The days are long for children and artists-facilitators alike, admits Lavery. 'Eight hours is a long day for anyone, so we break it up with a tea break, a lunch break and a breakout in the exhibition space. We’ve also got games like Pictionary or charades – games where they still use their skills and that keep them focused. With the younger ones, we’ve had to introduce five or six different songs a day.'

From personal experience, Lavery understands the importance of words of encouragement at an early age in stimulating children’s creativity. 'When I was young I didn’t consider myself to be a good artist until someone told me I was. When I was four or five I got encouragement and it motivated me to do art. Having that confidence helped me develop my own skills.'

The children’s artistic individuality has impressed the artists-facilitators. 'I am constantly surprised by their design qualities, their imagination and the narrative behind what they want to make,' acknowledges Lavery. 'Some veer towards three-dimensional sculpture and others are quite content to focus on two-dimensional drawing.'

The third artist-facilitator, Jamie Harper, sees the children’s artistic expression as a social tool. 'Art is really important because it’s a great way when you’re young to be able to communicate, which maybe you wouldn’t understand how to with language or words.' Cunning agrees: 'I think art is really important for kids to develop socially. It’s a gateway into opening up and building their confidence.'

Some of the children, clearly inspired by their experience of the Children’s Arts Festival, already have their own ideas on that score. 'I’m going to try and expand my artistic skills because I really want to do more,' says Katiejean (10). 'I might want to be an artist or I might want to run an exhibition or an art gallery.' What will be in her future gallery? 'Lots of stuff,' enthuses Katiejean.

As freelance artists, Cunning, Lavery and Harper frequently work with adults, but when it comes to imagination and free-association the children seem to have a head start. 'Adults have a much more set idea of what something should look like,' says Lavery.

'A lot of the adults that come to me are lacking in confidence and self esteem. Most of the people who do my courses go on to become professionals in the specific field of what I teach, which is really interesting. For many, art is not a hobby, it’s an exploration.'

The Children’s Arts Festival has been running since 2002, almost as long as the Island Arts Centre itself. 'It has grown,' says Wilson. 'It’s a very popular festival. The kids come in with the jelly tots classes and you see them in their teens coming back. It’s lovely to see the development of the young people.'

Without exception, the children’s parents are uniformly delighted with how the 2014 festival is panning out. The verdict of Helen, mother of magic wine scientists Patrick and Erin, is typical: 'They had a fabulous time. They’re very proud of what they’ve made. They love it here.'

It helps that the welcoming atmosphere of the Island Arts Centre immediately puts parents and children at their ease. 'It’s a secure place,' adds Wilson. 'Parents feel comfortable leaving their kids here and they know that we’re using quality, professional artists who are educating the children during the summer period and stretching their imagination.'

Children’s Art Festival runs at the Island Arts Centre, Lisburn until the end of August 2014.