YOU’LL often hear people complaining about school. In their eyes, it is still a ‘monotonous vault’, as described by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. The very word ‘school’ evokes feelings of dread, brought on by memories of a particularly testing teacher or of hours spent in abject boredom.
But things have changed. The launch of the Creative Engagement Exhibition in Douglas Park on Saturday was proof enough.
The exhibition was the result of 20 hours’ work from first-year students of Cork Educate Together Secondary School (CETSS), under the guidance of their teacher Dawn O’Sullivan and in collaboration with Tadgh Crowley in The Glucksman, UCC.
This particular project, one of many under the Creative Engagement banner, is called ‘Future Spaces’ and funded by NAPD. As the title suggests, it involves young people designing their future ‘space’, their future Cork city.
Facilitated by Dawn, and artists Claire Coughlan and Helen O’Keefe, students began by engaging in numerous activities: debate, stencil art, film analysis and, impressively, making their own 3D mini-cities from objects in the world around them.
“The students feel really passionate about the environment and sustainability,” enthused Dawn. “They are amazing, just so energetic and engaged.”
Watching Dawn gesticulate passionately about the project, it is easy to see where this enthusiasm might come from.
“They really want to create a city that is welcoming, safe, diverse and happy. They are incredibly responsible and environmentally aware.”
The project went far beyond the classroom. Their architectural skills were honed by award-winning architect Gareth Sullivan, who discussed the potential of multi-functional buildings with them. The Glucksman itself acted as inspiration, its form working in harmony with the trees and the river around it.
Tadgh Crowley, senior curator there, explains that the buildings of UCC played a key role in the project.
‘It’s about looking back as a means of looking forward. We examined the history of the different buildings, the origins of the different styles in different ages. The emphasis in the planning of UCC has always been on preserving green spaces.
“The kids really responded to this idea and we were genuinely impressed with their knowledge around the environment, and their desire for change.
“Working in collaboration with schools is wonderful as we get to involve amazing artists like Claire and Helen, who do really significant work around creativity and change. Similarly, getting Gareth Sullivan, an architect of such calibre who is recognised for his innovation, is just superb.”
The students were particularly fascinated to learn about ‘Copinhill’ in Copenhagen, a waste management plant that uses its waste to power a ski slope, along with a hiking trail and the world’s highest climbing wall. Sustainability strikes a particular chord in these young students. Copenhagen is striving to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city and these kids have similar hopes for Cork. “They also quite liked the idea of an entire building of pigs, powered by the pigs themselves!” Dawn chuckles.
“Water became a key area of interest for them,” she adds. “They want to really embrace it, rather than cut it off.”
Fitting, then, that their final exhibit in Douglas Park involves a gigantic sail with key words that inspired them along the way. Words like ‘happy’, ‘equal’ ‘peaceful’ and ‘green’.
Dawn adds: “These kids have such great ideas, and they are being given a voice; they realise that they can impact the future in a positive way and that is so wonderful to be around. It is often young people who bring about real change.”
Tadhg Crowley is similarly passionate about working with different groups, young and old.
“As curator, a huge part of our approach is about enabling all people to have their say. We want them to know that their life experience and their knowledge is just as valuable as what they might see on museum walls.
“It is also very important that they are given the opportunity to showcase their work and to reflect on that achievement.”
Tadgh is true to his word as this is the second time the students have displayed their work. They contributed to the Glucksman’s Future Forms exhibit in March and now are attracting the attention of passers-by in Douglas. “This is great, as it means we are reaching different audiences and different demographics. We are no longer a museum for the eyes of the few; we want to reach out to as many people as possible.”
Tadgh returns to the idea of education.
“We want the students to see the process. We want them to get comfortable with visiting the university and museum. It is lovely to see that over a period of time, they seem more comfortable here.”
I left the exhibition thinking again about Dickens’ teacher in Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind. I remember him being described as ‘square’ in every sense, demanding nothing but ‘facts, facts, facts’.
As I watch the kids’ creation, flapping happily in the breeze, one thing is certain — Tadgh Crowley and Dawn O’Sullivan are doing something very, very different. And from where I am standing, something very exciting too.