Myth, legend and the 'Unicow'

Cromer Academy


The Sainsbury Centre Outreach team visited Cromer Academy on Monday 17th October to deliver a session as part of the Cromer and Sheringham Arts festival, Coast. 

A group of 25 year ten students from the School, studying for an art GCSE, worked with the Sainsbury Centre team and artist Jacqui Jones. The day was designed to look at the visual representation of identity. 

The morning began with a quick group activity, whereby the pupils were asked to think about their own identity and what makes them who they are. Some groups thought about physical features such as eye colour, other groups considered how the music they listened to influenced their identity, one group discussed the way religious or non-religious beliefs affected who you were and how you behaved. 

After this exercise, the group took part in a handling session looking at objects from the Sainsbury Centre. The handling collection objects were from Papua New Guinea, a seemingly contrasting environment to North Norfolk, but also a rural landscape inhabited by people who are very knowledgeable about their surroundings and its cultural heritage. Through close observation of the objects, asking questions and drawing, we hoped the pupils would begin to think about how their locality influenced their individual and shared identity. 

The pupils looked at ancestor figures and spirit boards, both of which are examples of visual representations of identity. The students were encouraged to ask the objects questions as if they were getting to know it: Where are you from? What do you do? How old are you? This questioning developed and the students became more confident in their interpretations: Do the patterns represent a part of your environment? The groups shared a couple of their observations about their object with the rest of the class and ideas about representation or symbolism repeatedly came up in this discussion. 

After break, the pupils wrote down interests, places and people that were important to them and that have informed or shaped their identity. Again, there were a range of approaches to this question, some acknowledged their family or friends as influential people, and others chose Barak Obama or professional sports people who they admired, an indication of the diverse individual identities in the room. 

Jacqui introduced the art activity to the group, they were to work collaboratively to design and make contemporary ‘spirit’ boards on transparent Perspex, building on the work they had done in the morning and considering their own individual and group identity. 

The class had looked at abstract art in a previous art lessons and the teacher Miss Pearce talked about how the pupils could create abstract representations of their environment as we had seen on some of the objects from Papua New Guinea. 

Working in small groups, the pupils began by selecting items to draw from the rich word bank they had created. They worked initially on acetate to create overlapping transparent layers, representing their multi-layered characteristics. Most of the groups were quite reserved to begin with but later experimented with the wide range of mixed media that was available to them. Some took the opportunity to use the schools digital cameras to include photographs of themselves and one group decided to cut their board into a circle. The resulting ‘Spirit’ boards were full of detail, effectively using text and texture to convey their sense of self, place and identity. The layering technique in many of the boards produced a mystical quality reminiscent of the artefacts and ‘spirit’ boards they had studied earlier in the day.

A girl commented that she would have rather had more time making and less time looking at the objects, but after a bit of discussion she acknowledged that many of the ideas she was pursuing in the practical activity had stemmed from observations and discussions she had had earlier in the day. 

This comment did however raise questions for the Sainsbury Centre team about the real impact of the object handling, the discussions generated from it and the practical activity. Looking at the work produced, we spotted motifs that related to the objects from Papua New Guinea: one group explored the notion of animal hybridity, legend and myth, creating a ‘Unicow’ for the centre of their board. The ‘Unicow’ is a hybrid of the mythical creature the Unicorn and a creature common in North Norfolk, the cow. The representation of different animals’ physical features to symbolise specific characteristics can be seen in many of the objects. 

Reflecting on the day, Jim Collin, Head of Art commented that he could see the impact of the object handling and the benefits of looking at art from another culture in the pupils work. He noted a more ‘free’ working style and more confidence in using abstract images and shapes. 

The spirit boards will be exhibited at The Brickworks, West Runton as part of Coast Festival from the 27th-29th October.