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Pandemic Portraits at Haberdashers'

7th January 2021

Creative Practitioner Emily Wilkinson created a project called Pandemic Portraits for Haberdashers’ Abraham Darby school in Telford. Postponed from the spring, Emily led the project from October to December 2020, using digital communication and going into school for feedback sessions.

A drawing of a girl's face with words on it

Pandemic Portraits focussed on portraiture and text-art. It was the first project that Meadow Arts had undertaken with this secondary school, which is situated just outside Telford and was recommended to us via our ex Youth Trustee, Katie Hodson. It was originally planned for Spring 2020, but had been postponed due to the first Covid-19 lockdown. The Meadow Arts team and the school were keen to ensure that the project could take place safely and with a new emphasis that reflected the seismic events of the previous six months.

We are always open to examining different themes and subjects with schools and are keen that each project has within it an exploration of both subject and idea that is personal to them and the young people who participate. Like many secondary schools that we work with, Haberdashers’ were really keen to look at the idea of self and transition into adulthood.

“Its interesting to see how many of our schools take the notion of examining one’s self and connect this with both good mental health and wellbeing. They naturally look at creative subjects such as art to articulate this and to allow young people to express themselves in an honest and reflective way. It’s particularly pertinent in rural areas where many young people can be both geographically and socially isolated.” Steve Wilson, Meadow Arts Education and Engagement Manager.

The concept of Pandemic Portraits came from our Creative Practitioner, Emily Wilkinson. Emily worked with the school to come up with a project that would address how the groups of young people felt about themselves, but also about the new locked-down world in which they were suddenly living. We were all interested in giving the young people an opportunity to take a new look at themselves and to reflect and articulate how they were thinking about themselves and about the school community.

“When we revisited the project to deliver it in the autumn term, the school wanted to re-orientate the project to focus on the pandemic, self-expression and strengthening the student community through art-making. I enjoyed this new direction and felt the original ideas were carried through despite the project being postponed for so long.” Emily Wilkinson, Creative Practitioner

After a lot of planning and organising the school selected a group of year 8 pupils who they felt would most benefit from the activity and who would be beginning their journey to selecting subjects for GCSE’s. Over 90 pupils took part, with Emily meeting each group of 30 children via three online classrooms, a new and enjoyable experience for Emily.

With Emily’s guidance, the school and enthusiastic teacher Carrick Siddell led the hands-on activities. Firstly, pupils photographed themselves either looking straight at the camera or choosing to look away or into the distance. The variety of images began to reflect the individual personalities of the young people. The images were printed out and pupils copied or traced their image onto paper. Some chose to present themselves in a comic-book style, others concentrated on certain features, for example the eyes.

The young people then began to embellish the shape of the face with text, which they based on how they were feeling during this period. Words such as ‘boredom’ were used but also words that linked to games and social media. These words gave an insight into how the young people were thinking.

At this point, Steve and Emily came into the school to discuss, view and comment on the work with a selected group of around 20 young people. They talked to the whole group but also individually to the young people.

“We were incredibly impressed by the work of the young people and the work they produced. They were very receptive to discussing the work with us and sharing personal portraits with each other,” explained Steve and Emily.

“In terms of the logistics and number of weeks from start to finish, this was a real marathon effort! Big thanks to Emily, the school and the pupils for making it happen,” said Steve.