I work with clay a lot; I used it at school myself and later it was one of the main materials I used in my fine art degree at Bretton Hall way back over 24 years ago and I've loved it ever since I was a child.
Clay is such a rich, tactile and versatile material - and a huge connection with the natural world: it is refined mud and its so easy to dig up your own clay and use it raw from the earth.
Because with groups I work in a way that is very exploratory and enables people to really have a tactile connection with materials, I don't always work towards "finished" products, though sometimes this feels exactly the right thing for a given context. I've been working with clay at Dunkirk for a really long time and we use it inside and outside in so many ways; the children really explore the different properties of clay and it felt exactly right that we should therefore create a permanent artwork together in which each person could really make their own mark.
Abbey Campus is a relatively new part of the school, but my connection with the site goes back a long way because I was one of the resident artists there when it was Lenton Primary School many years ago (and it was closed down when role numbers fell several years ago). I had a deep fondness for Lenton Primary and its been really good to work with the buildings again now as part of Dunkirk.
We've been developing a range of things to adorn the outside entrance of the site - including a set of large signs I've created with photographs, text, quotes and drawings from the children. The clay tiles sit alongside these on a long low wall - which is backed by the red brick Victorian building. The tiles are made in both terracotta and white clay, so work well colour wise against the wall but they also echo all the ornate late Victorian patterns in the red brick buildings in the area.
The children and adults who I worked with really loved learning how to roll and cut their own tiles - and deliberately we went for a range of different sizes (in squares and rectangles) so they have a real individual feel to them. Many other things were created alongside the tiles so the children were continuously experimenting and exploring all the permeations of the clay. I'd spent ages collecting and gathering a range of things that we could use to create imprints and patterns onto the clay - but as always the children had so many other ideas and suggestions: I loved what they invented. And with the adults I worked with we had a good supply of refreshments with us - and when someone noticed just how patterned the biscuits were, we ended up creating lots of patterns by pushing different biscuits into the clay (see if you can spot which well know brand we especially loved using!).
It was a real feat to find enough space at school to enable all the tiles to fully dry out and stay flat before they could be taken to be fired. We don't have a kiln at school so I took them all off to a close friend who does have access to a kiln and who did a brilliant job of firing them and then packing them SO very carefully.
It also took a couple of days to glue all the tiles onto the outside wall, I was trying to ensure they were mixed up and that they fitted together in a sort of "organic" way. I didn't want a solid block, I wanted the arrangement of them to reflect the idea of a community group of children and adults of all ages and heights.
I've had some wonderful conversations with people as I've been fixing the tiles up; Dunkirk places huge importance on working with families and I really value this about the school, the depth with which families are valued and involved in school life is amazing and adds such a richness. It really feeds into the work that takes place with the children and enhances their learning so much. Many parents stopped to talk and people were really excited to see their tiles after they had been fired. I was incredibly touched when one Mum told me that being part of the project had really made her properly feel that she was a part of the school and how welcomed it had made her feel. Other parents said they really felt it was their school because their own mark was now fixed on the school wall.
I do love the detail, the thought, the individuality and the quirkiness in the final tiles - it really makes me think of the wonderful vibrant mix of the school community.
Huge thanks to everyone involved for such amazing ideas.