A Memory of Trees


Art and Architecture at Oakfield School 

The brief was to integrate art into the building of an extension to the school by fully involving staff and pupils.

The artist conducted a series of school visits to introduce himself and his work and the project to the pupils through assemblies and classroom sessions. He discussed the project with teaching staff and it emerged that many of the children had been very worried by the destruction of the wooded area cleared for the extension.

It was decided to involve the whole school as far as possible and to make the focus of the project the idea of remembering the trees that would be felled to make way for the new building. This would involve using material from the felled trees for external seating and internal and external art works. Following a health and safety assessment of the site and tools the artist then took groups of ten children at a time to draw, measure and discuss the shapes of the timber which had now been placed securely fenced, in the school grounds. There had been several weeks delay as the builders were unable to move the material into position as they were fully occupied with the initial stages of the erection of the steel skeleton. 

The smaller children were encouraged to explore texture and teamwork in interacting with the material while those older were asked to prepare design ideas using their initial measurements and drawings.

The material was collected by the artist who also collected ideas from teaching, support and office staff. Following this he selected  and combined ideas which fitted the brief and were strongly related to the material and processes.
In thinking about the seats and benches and wall sculptures the artist wanted to echo the clear geometric forms of the building but also to suggest the organic forms both of the trees providing the material and the children, the life of the building.

Staff had been very attracted to an external  “tree” wall sculpture - it was felt that this  way of using  the thinner curved oak branches could form an appropriate decorative form linking the two buildings with one tree on the facade of the new building and one on the facade of the old school. The sculptures would also provide a memory of the removed oak trees and  a place to display different seasonal material from the life of the school as well as being able to form a Christmas white light  display. Several staff had suggested a wooden tree independently and the working of the material offered scope to the smaller children in smoothing the forms while  the task of creating a tree  form to fit the wall space had great potential for design work for the older classes. The construction company made the necessary steel fixings to the artists specifications.

Ideas for the internal pieces  ranged from a very precise drawing of a bird in a nest in a tree, to more conceptual ideas for “a sculpture which could be moved around the school”. Insect coat stands, leaf seats and  a statue of a child/teacher were other  favoured ideas along with “something to display our work”. The children were very enthusiastic about seating which  could be carved to depict the birds and animals that had lived in the copse area (and still inhabit the  remaining woodland adjacent to the school). 

There were also suggestions to carve  “a reading seat with a girl looking  over the shoulder of someone reading”. This gave an impetus for the series of “african” chairs. Office staff liked the idea of something to welcome  visitors and act as a focus in the foyer area. The artist prepared drawings based around this input and inspired by, but not limited to, forms of the material available on site.

Once work began children were involved in all aspects, swinging small axes to remove bark, smoothing with surforms, mass sanding for reception, carving with gouges and mallets. The excitement and involvement spread throughout the school and pupils constantly added new ideas and suggestions as the project evolved.

For example the moveable bird/nest has the inner bowl of its head painted gold as a result of a declaration that “You want some gold in there, that would look really good" The presence of the artist over a period of months was a key factor in the success of the project as children became confident in their relationship with him and understood that they would be listened to and their ideas appreciated.

This really was a whole school project and the school now boasts a mobile golden headed bird/nest sculpture, a reception area with four carved oak chairs and a sycamore display sculpture, entitled “Head in a Book”, a large oak bench sits outside the infant area and two blue tree oak wall sculptures welcome visitors to the site. Willow trunks and cleft planks form a quiet seating area shaded by oak trees - wherever you turn there is a memory of trees. 

Jeff Higley