‘Villads’ School Project

DSCF7740‘Villads fra Valby’ was the working name for a huge art project I worked on during the first half of 2017.

The project was originally conceived by the local Bornholm council as a way of encouraging a more fluid and less stressful transition from nursery to school for Bornholm’s 5 and 6 year olds. At some point in their discussion and planning, they had the bright idea of involving local artists, and that’s where I was called in, together with local artist and illustrator (and Glasgow School of Art graduate) Tilde Lerch Engstrøm. The idea was to create an art-based project that would encourage the children to feel more positive about starting school, while at the same time giving them the opportunity to meet their new school mates, teachers and surroundings in a comfortable and creative emotional and physical space.

Originally, Tilde and I were given the popular Danish children’s book and film ‘Villads fra Valby’ as a theme or subject from which to  base our project, but actually we rather quickly dropped Villads and worked within the framework of self-portraits and communal self-expression instead. The project that we created was thus: Four sessions with every child of school-starting age on Bornholm (over 300 kids). Two sessions at their nursery/playschool (not sure what the correct English translation of børnehave should be – but Danish kids don’t start school until they’re 5, 6 or sometimes even 7) followed by two sessions at their prospective school. Running throughout spring 2017, the idea was that, come their first school day in August, the children would already be familiar with their new school, their teachers and their new school mates, and would be comfortable working in a creative and expressive way with each other.

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The idea was that the children would produce a life size self-portrait (cut out from Foamex panels) which they would draw and paint themselves – paying particular attention to how they felt about starting school (shy, proud, expectant, nervous, etc.) and how these feelings could be represented on their self-portrait (position of eyebrows, arms, colours and so on). On their figure would be a ‘secret’ door, behind which the children could draw something special that they loved. At the school, the children would then work together to arrange Foamex triangles together to create a giant artwork.

The first session was a bit of an eye opener for me, as it had been ages since I had worked with children this young – it seemed like ages in fact since I had even talked to a young child. But the kids quickly brought me back to earth with a bang, and we concentrated on practicing drawing techniques, mark making and generally having fun. The second session, where the children began to draw and paint their figures, was even more eye-opening, as the difference between what I thought the kids could do and what they actually could do became obvious (not to mention the huge difference in ability and engagement amongst the kids themselves). The third and fourth sessions at the schools were no less challenging, as it became clear that my inexperience with working with young children meant that I had seriously overestimated their ability to work together.


Bu no matter! A lot of enthusiasm and good will, will go a long way, and throughout the process Tilde and I were supported by a fantastic back up team that organised all of the practical and organisational matters, as well as the professionals working at the nurseries and schools, for whom I now have the highest regard and respect. Furthermore we were helped by other groups of people the ‘mijløpedaler’ that ferried the Foamex sheets around the island, and the ‘remissen’ that cut them all out (all 312 of them…)

‘Villads’ was a pilot project; a vast and ambitious project that was challenging and even disruptive in many ways for many people. Along the way much hard-won experience was gained and hopefully this will lead to even more successful projects in the future. Despite all of the stresses and difficulties, however, my abiding memory of ‘Villads’ will be the children themselves and their joy and pride when showing off their figures to their friends and families at the ‘private views’ (all 15 of them) that we held around the island in May and June. For what its worth I really enjoyed working with the children – almost as though I had forgotten how much fun they could be. The way children of this age can draw – completely free from fear – is a wonder to behold, and they created some truly wonderful self-portraits. It really was uncanny to see how they somehow managed to capture their expression or their personality even, with a few deft strokes of the pen. Amazing…

If you’re any good at Danish, here is a film of one of the private views, made by Øens TV, Bornholm…

More photos and film soon…