The Pilot Project

Socially Engaged Sculpture at an EBD school (2015)

The framework for the pilot project was the weekly, one and a half hour long social sculpture lessons for students with Emotional Behaviour Difficulties at Philpots Manor School (PMS).

Being a private school for students with EBD (aged 7-19), PMS had the flexibility to design its own curriculum and nurture experimental subjects. Socially engaged sculpture as a subject had been running for the second year and been timetabled for three classes of various age groups. Socially engaged sculpture as a subject had emerged in 2015, from a combination of woodwork, sculpture, Forest School and some aspects of improvisational drama that had been taught at the school for at least the last ten years.

According to the subject's description, the three main pillars of social sculpture classes were nature, creativity and team-work. These three values were inexorably woven together in the project-based lessons. Creating these projects, the students developed some essential qualities. Co-operating as a team could be one of the most challenging educational goals at an EBD setting. By working as a team, a structured model of social cooperation was emphasised. Resilience, self-esteem and self-confidence could intensively develop in a situation where the students were likely to achieve, especially because resourceful lateral thinking was encouraged.

The students also had the opportunity to acquire various creative design and craft skills, a culture of responsible use of tools and relevant health and safety considerations, alongside learning about sustainability, respect for nature and the appreciation of locally sourced material. All projects were adapted in co-operation with the class teacher. The projects were age and skill appropriate and tailored for the group. There was an indoor Studio supporting the outdoor projects, also used as a contingency facility in hostile weather. To date, the most successful project of this new subject was Our Playground.

Our Playground (2016)

Each of the three classes created a playground feature as a group activity. The students visited creative playgrounds, they shared their researched ideas and artist profiles, created models, then took measurements and visited a sawmill to select the wood. They used various saws and battery operated drills to assemble their chosen project, working as a team at all times. After decorating it with woodcarving and painting, and preparing foundations on the playground, they installed the equipment which is now a permanent feature at the school.

The Portal of the Senses project was next in the socially engaged sculpture lessons, building on the success of the previous projects.

The Portal of the Senses (2016)

The pilot project of this research was called The Portal of the Senses. Students (with challenging behaviour) planned a festive activity day for the rest of the school. As a preparation, they made various sensory objects to assemble on a pair of parallel-growing trees that was considered to become a portal in the middle of the field.

On the festival day, they blindfolded the secondary participants, whom they guided through this textural portal, while creating various sound and smell effects around them and offering sweets. Photographs and video footage documented the process, including interviews with the secondary participants that one of the student facilitators conducted.

According to Gablik (1992), art that can heal and build community seeks to elevate the spectators to the role of participants. It is a model of "connectedness and reciprocity", where the "distinctions between who is and who is not an artist - begin to blur" (Gablik, 1992). During the interactive stage of the Portal of the Senses, the participating audience was instrumental for maintaining the energy of the project. The engagement with the participating audience brought qualities such as 'care' to the surface in the initial group of students.

The main aim of this pilot was to gain insights on the logistics of making a 'portal' as an activity, exploring facilitating strategies and successful methods of session delivery and assess the possibility of an observational methods based methodology. A summative report concluded this pilot project.


The 'script' of the event successfully improvised by the participants confirmed the possible presence of the 'group genius' that operated through the 'group flow' during the presentation day (Sawyer, 2008).

However, during the weekly sessions of preparation time, maintaining the creative 'flow' or energy from one session to the next, was a real challenge. The energy seemed to re-build differently at every session and it was not always fully compatible with the continuous project. This aspect was particularly emphasised as the participating students struggled with emotional behaviour difficulties.

As a possible indication of longer-term effects, after the completion of the project, the group arrived excited, with a 'ready for action' attitude to social sculpture the following week. When working on their next project, they were unusually focused and exhibited a surprisingly high creativity level.

Sailing Visions (2016)

The energy of the Portal of the Senses project was transferable: The Portal of the Senses was a transient artwork for a day, yet it had subsequent reverberation that prompted two further artworks. The first artwork was by a group of teachers. They wanted to experience the process themselves and requested a session on socially engaged art at the next staff development day. It was concerned with contributing to the development of a shared vision within the staff. It was a very relevant theme. The staff development day fell on Halloween and so the project was aligned to this seasonal festival. During the socially engaged art session, the group created pumpkin boats with a word on each sail that represented a leading thought. In the evening, the boats were carried to a nearby lake, where they were joined together creating an armada of thoughts and carrying a nightlight each.

Easter Team Building Games (2016)

The second artwork was requested by the original group of participating students. Enjoying the experience of guiding others to participate, they wanted to do something similar. The group decided on facilitating a day of team activities as part of the Easter festival. They created team building games and equipment over a number of lessons that they used for facilitating a fun session for the whole school community on the appointed day. The equipment was then given to the games teacher for further use.

These linked artworks illustrate the unforeseeable effects of socially engaged art and the way the energy created may transform into further artworks or action. This requires openness and flexibility to the possibility of allowing the artwork to take its own course and initiate further actions, transforming the original concepts or other aspects that may become essential to the participants into a new form.