Rob Smith, Head of Education at Bow Arts, an arts educational charity based in East London, writes on how the students of Bow School took to the challenge of commissioning public art inspired by Matisse

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  • Bow Boys School students at Tate Modern
    Bow Boys School students at Tate Modern viewing designs
  • Bow Boys School at Tate Modern
    Bow Boys School students at Tate Modern
  • Bow School Public Art knitting

It’s not unusual for public art commissions to form part of a new building programme. It’s also not unusual for young people to be consulted as part of this process. But what happens when you put young people in charge of the commissioning process themselves?

With the help of some fantastic artists, a couple of excellent project mentors, and a fantastic exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs for inspiration, we set off to find out.

Bow School in Tower Hamlets first approached Bow Arts about 18 months ago to deliver a series of public art commissions to brighten up their new school building and the surrounding areas. The brief was to make works that helped the clear and safe navigation to the school site, transforming the walking routes to the school, the rather challenging crossing through a dim and dismal underpass beneath the A12, and the entrance gates to the new school itself.

We put together a team of students to form a commissioning group, with responsibilities for research, community engagement and the look and feel of the artwork itself.

Bow Boys School students at Tate Modern
Bow Boys School students at Tate Modern

Our first task was to open the student’s eyes to the possibilities of public artwork. We spent a couple of inspiring days visiting Canary Wharf to look at the rich array of work on site, meeting artists working in the public realm, researching the cultural heritage of Tower Hamlets with the Bishopgate Institute and uncovering local stories that resonated with the young people. We took a visit to the new school site to start the process of imagining the transformations that would become reality. We spent time working with the architects and local planning department to understand the practicalities and parameters of making work in the public realm. With heads full of ideas, we set about the task of creating an artist brief for the commission.

Bow School Public Art - learning things today

I’m fascinated by the process of peeling back the layers of working with young people – moving beyond the politeness and niceties of what they think the adults want them to say, to uncover their own unstoppable ideas and inspirations – a rich display of imagination, creativity and real sense of responsibility for the project and those will experience it into the future. The students joined the interview panel, and unanimously agreed on the lead artists for the commission - with their playful approach, bold and vibrant style, and interactive process – it had to be design studio make:good.

Several community knitting workshops later, and having gathered over 100 local words of wisdom, the artists were ready to generate some initial designs. To aid this process we joined forces with Tate, as part of our partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, for the group to explore the legendary cut-out works of Matisse and get a behind the scenes snapshot of the exhibition. They generated a wealth of content for the artworks, which were then handed over to make:good to incorporate into their final designs.

Bow School Public Art design work
The Bow School Public Art Project design work

And the results are fantastic – a rejuvenated underpass, a series of 60 pavement and step riser artworks with local words of wisdom, and a vibrant artwork for the entrance gates building up the layers of textures from the cut-outs and knitting!

We’re proud to unveil the artwork, and equally as proud of a remarkable group of young people who have most certainly proved that when put it comes to commissioning public artwork, they are more than capable of rising to the challenge.

Rob Smith is Head of Education at Bow Arts

The Bow School Public Art Programme was managed by Bow Arts, delivered in partnership with Tate, and with the generous support of Bank of America Merrill Lynch