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Through young eyes

Children with their creations inspired by The lady and the unicorn

With props at the ready, they move swiftly through the Gallery spaces, gaggles of Year 6 children in tow, greeting artworks like old friends. What do you see? What do you hear? Answers, laughter and hot debates on art echo through the Art Gallery of NSW as children dress up; play artist, curator and critic; and actively learn and make art. The adults who led them return, lesson imparted, to the entrance court, and this time take a group of kindergarteners in tow. Who are these passionate art warriors? They are the Gallery’s children’s guides and volunteers. Hear the stories that captured their imagination.


Sarah Elliott Murray

Sarah Elliott Murray, children’s guide

It was a scorching December day and Year 1, red-faced and sticky, were not enthusiastic. It’s too hot, they said. We’re thirsty. I cajoled. I inveigled. I gesticulated wildly at wonderful works of art. They regarded me with pity. We’d really rather go swimming, they said. Stop trying so hard, was the implication. It’s embarrassing for all of us.

I took them to Five bells, John Olsen’s masterpiece. Look, I said, the harbour! How cool and refreshing! Let’s dive in! I pulled swathes of watery fabric from my bag. I distributed blue and green ribbons, pieces of netting. I quoted the artist: ‘I am in the sea-harbour, and the sea-harbour is in me’. Let’s create our own sea fantasy in response to Olsen’s work! Let’s be fish! Sharks! Bluebottles! I draped the fabric on the gallery floor.

Behind me I heard thumping. I turned to see six seven-year-olds bouncing, their hands held to the tops of their heads. We’re rabbits! they said. My expression must have betrayed my bewilderment. Look, they said, pointing, there’s a rabbit swimming in the painting!

I turned back to the work. Two unmistakable ears. The suggestion of a twitching nose. Even the possibility of paddling paws. An aquatic rabbit. Never before seen and never, now, to be unseen.

The rabbit seen in a detail of John Olsen Five bells 1963, Art Gallery of New South Wales © John Olsen. Licensed by Copyright Agency


Jess Hanning

Jess Hanning, children’s guide

Tibias will be forever etched in my memory. Mid-tour with his kindergarten group, it was obvious that he had something very definite to say, but, when asked, said that he ‘needed the microphone to say it’. From that point on, the microphone became a regular feature of the tour and previously private thoughts flowed freely.

One young boy made the most wonderful and insightful comment before a portrait in the Archibald Prize exhibition; his teacher told me later that he rarely spoke at school, so his thoughts became even more precious.

There are children who prefer to speak with ribbons and movement rather than words (through paintings like Roy de Maistre’s Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor); there are those who prefer to speak as a roaring lion (in The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon); and there are children who speak best through their artwork at the end of a tour. A crayon is their best voice. Every young voice is different (as is every children’s tour) and how wonderful that is.

Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor 1919, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Caroline de Mestre Walker


Choon Quek

Choon Quek, children’s guide

While we were discussing the impact of colour in Joie de vivre by Mary Webb, one of the students, Josh, said that the painting represented a day in his life.

The yellow and grey with shades of salmon in the top-right corner, he explained, show him sleeping comfortably. His hand then followed the colours to shades of red (anger) and dark green (moody). This, he said, is when he wakes up. He moved on to some neutral grays and said this is him in a daze as he gets himself ready for school. Suddenly there is a burst of orange and yellow, which is pure joy when his mother surprises him by making pancakes for breakfast even though it is a normal school day. He goes to school in a good mood and the bright colours continue as he arrives and meets up with his friends. Now, though, come the reds and dark reds. It’s time to start class and it’s his least favourite subject!

Mary Webb Joie de vivre 1958, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Estate of Mary Webb


Julie Collins

Julie Collins, children’s guide

History comes alive through young eyes. As I discovered with a group of seven-year-olds, The Dickinson family by Marshall Claxton is a wonderful painting to stimulate the imagination through role-playing.

A volunteer, please, to be the family dog, Tiny? Can you see him jumping up? A volunteer immediately. Next, the father and mother, please. Two somewhat reserved but positive offers. This is good, I think. Now, who would like to be Helen Mary? The most enthusiastic offer of all from a waving and broadly smiling girl. While our models imagine themselves beautifully dressed and groomed as in the painting, other students become artists, brush and palette in hand, canvas propped up. Everyone keenly participating. Suddenly, Helen Mary asks to see her portrait. Everyone looks at her in silence. Does she think this is actually happening, I wonder? Then she laughs. How good it is to all laugh together.

Marshall Claxton The Dickinson family 1851, Art Gallery of New South Wales


Jenny Parker

Jenny Parker, family programs volunteer

There have been many memorable moments from the drop in and make programs. Among my favourites are the activities created by the Gallery’s Victoria Collings to support The lady and the unicorn exhibition, particularly the construction of a unicorn headdress. Although a demonstration was given to all family groups, with samples on hand showing various stages of the process, adults were somewhat daunted when given the four pages of instructions. However, our young artists and designers rose to the occasion, deftly managing the cardboard strips of different lengths. As the full assembly took around an hour, there were many interpretations of the headdress, with some creatives opting for smaller works, which could fit comfortably into a bag or backpack. Others chose not to construct a cardboard cone for the horn, instead using the gold paper to fashion other accessories. The final flourish was achieved with a flowing mane of curling ribbon in coordinated colours, which matched gardens, bedrooms or favourite sporting teams. As our young artists left the Gallery wearing their creations, the results could only be described as magical!

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May 28 2020, 9am
by Together In Art