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As I come to the end of my role as Learning and Engagement Manager for Art UK, heading up the learning component of an ambitious national three-year sculpture digitisation project, I would like to reflect on some highlights from our Sculpture Around You programme. To date the learning team has co-produced over 61 bespoke projects – ranging from workshops and tours to events and trails, working with diverse audiences, creative practitioners and collections right across the UK.

In just two examples of the range of our work, we enthused inter-generational participants at a Southampton City Art Gallery family day, with visitors taking over the galleries and testing out many types of sculpture-making from 3D printing to junk modelling. And at The Bowes Museum, we worked with social enterprise TINARTS to re-engage a group of adults with learning difficulties to explore their sculpture collection, make work in response and curate their own exhibition.

Children at Southampton City Art Gallery try out sculpture making

Children at Southampton City Art Gallery try out sculpture making

In Spring 2018, artist Laura X Carle and I set off on an adventure to explore Milton Keynes Hospital's sculpture collection. Though initially not top of my list of suitable locations to run a family-focussed sculpture event, we were intrigued to be taken on a tour of a stunning art collection with plenty to inspire us, including the impressive Monumental Family by Jon Buck (b.1951). Excitingly, we were able to work with the hospital's Arts for Health team to celebrate the NHS's 70th birthday through engaging families of staff and visitors with a series of sculpture activities inspired by artworks in the hospital grounds they might have overlooked.

In June 2018 Laura and I ran our first event. Supported by volunteers and the Arts for Health team, we engaged families of hospital staff to get involved in a playful offsite making activity.

An intricate cardboard tea party installation made by families of NHS staff

An intricate cardboard tea party installation made by families of NHS staff

Working collaboratively to create a celebratory tea party out of card, complete with a giant teapot, cups and saucers, cakes, cocktails, a watermelon (!) and tiered plates of sandwiches and buns, participants spent hours getting very intricate and creative in their making.

The artist’s daughter enjoys putting sugar cubes in her make-believe cup of tea!

The artist’s daughter enjoys putting sugar cubes in her make-believe cup of tea!

Readers will be relieved to know that after all the groups' hard work, much-needed real food and refreshments were provided – some of which can be spotted hidden within the artwork below! 

Tea party installation

Tea party installation

In July we ran our second event, a large-scale collaborative drop-in onsite workshop in one of the hospital courtyards, creating an opportunity for inter-generational play and experimentation.

Joyful cardboard decorated figures make shadows in the sun!

Joyful cardboard decorated figures make shadows in the sun!

On this incredibly hot day, NHS staff families came to make and decorate life-size cardboard models of themselves (by lying on the ground and drawing around each other in different poses), working with Laura to arrange them playfully around a large cube-type card structure.

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We were pleased to find that visitors to the hospital and patients (who were outside getting some essential rays) were also enticed into getting involved. Over 43 people participated in these celebratory events.

A large-scale installation created by staff and visitors in the grounds of Milton Keynes Hospital

A large-scale installation created by staff and visitors in the grounds of Milton Keynes Hospital

Another unexpected collection brought to life through Sculpture Around You with a hard-to-reach audience was at St George's Hospital, Tooting.

The group find out about wall-based sculpture 'Dragon'

The group find out about wall-based sculpture 'Dragon'

In April 2019 I collaborated with Art Director Joanna Wakefield and audio describer Lonny Evans, recommended by one of our sculpture partners Vocal Eyes, to take a group of 11 visually impaired and partially sighted adults on a fascinating touch tour of selected works in the hospital sculpture collection.

Participants explore sculpture at St George’s Hospital, Tooting

Participants explore sculpture at St George’s Hospital, Tooting

The group, who had met for the first time during this tour, enjoyed touching the artworks, learning about their history, how they had been acquired by the hospital, their location and materials. At our recce, it was hard to prepare for the hospital being so busy and noisy at times, but we found sanctuary in the sculpture situated in their beautiful gardens and chapel.

The group explore a luminous artwork 'Opt' by Chris Wood (b.1954), in the chapel

The group explore a luminous artwork 'Opt' by Chris Wood (b.1954), in the chapel

After a tricky start, one of my most enjoyable Sculpture Around You events turned out to be a collaboration with Towner art gallery in Eastbourne and the Royal Society of Sculptors. The aim initially was to jointly run an October 2019 half-term family event off-site in a local park, inspired by the David Nash (b.1945) sculpture Eighteen Thousand Tides. However, on the day, exceptionally high winds put a stop to activities and we had to re-programme for January 2020 for an on-site gallery event linking with the major Nash survey exhibition '200 Seasons'.

A family enjoys making their sculpture

A family enjoys making their sculpture

Inspired by the monumental work of David Nash, Royal Society of Sculptors Learning and Participation Officer Dan Curtis, myself and the Towner learning team and volunteers supported families to collaboratively make lantern-like structures using withies of varying lengths and thicknesses, covering them with coloured wet-strength tissue and PVA.

Families working amongst artwork in the Nash show

Families working amongst artwork in the Nash show

Inspired by the natural materials in Nash's work, an array of beautiful, delicate and highly individual artworks were amassed and hung and displayed in the education studio throughout the day.

It made for a very enjoyable creative session for a family. It is lovely being part of creating an idea from the beginning, feeling inspired by a current exhibition and seeing the project to the end. Also, it's great seeing the other projects in all their uniqueness.

Staff at Towner were impressed with the turn-out. As Karen Taylor, Collections & Exhibitions Curator enthused: 'I'm absolutely blown away by the participation numbers for the pop-up, 316 is amazing … I'm so glad, after all the false starts this event had, that the outcome was so successful and a great start for Willow's [Art School Coordinator] first large event at Towner.'

A family of three generations get to grips with willow and wet-strength tissue!

A family of three generations get to grips with willow and wet-strength tissue!

I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with such a dedicated and specialist team on the sculpture digitisation project, overseeing 40 of my own learning events (14 of these being bespoke activities for the Sculpture Around You programme) before the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 put a stop to any more in-person learning activity. The learning team's quick and unexpected shift to digital engagement has, however, given us an opportunity to reflect on events and share ideas with a wider audience through our Home School series and expanding dedicated learning pages.

The Sculpture Around You programme was made possible thanks to the generous support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Arts Council England, the Scottish Government and a number of other trusts, foundations and individual donors. For a full list of the programme funders, visit our sculpture project funders page.

Selina Levinson Drake, Learning and Engagement Manager at Art UK