'It is art created by bulldozers'
Sculpted parks and landscaping are taking place on a colossal scale in Scotland. The sites are a valuable resource for schools and inspire cross-curricular work, writes Douglas Blane
Red and orange earthmovers, belching smoke, crawl over a lunar landscape, relieved from total desolation by some spindly pines and scattered broom, bright yellow in the April sunshine. A massive pyramid of soil, stepped, grassed over and obviously artificial, topped with abstract artforms, signals to travellers on the motorway below that something strange and interesting is happening to the landscape here in central Fife.
Conceived as art on a colossal scale, Fife Earth is an imaginative departure from the usual restoration to agriculture of land ravaged by years of open-cast coal mining. Since 2003, the Scottish Resources Group has been working with celebrated artist Charles Jencks to create a sculpted park that combines abstract aesthetics with representations of significant themes, inspired by Scottish history, art, science, technology and culture.
Landscaping at the site will not be complete until 2014, but already its potential has been recognised by Education Scotland and has sparked the creativity of local teachers. “Schools were invited to the site and we drove around it with hard-hats and Land Rovers,” says St Andrew’s High art teacher and eco-coordinator Fiona Tough. “It was fascinating. I could see so many links with what we do here at the school.”
There was an obvious match, she says, in terms of cross-curricular and outdoor learning, with work in the Kirkcaldy school’s established but evolving eco-garden. “We have been trying to bring every department into that. Teachers all over the school have been involved for five years or so, taking kids out to work in it.
“It has taken us that long to form those links and conversations across the departments and get the garden seen as a valuable resource for the whole school. Everyone is interested now. It’s just finding the time.”
That is where a resource like Fife Earth comes into its own, says headteacher Patrick Callaghan. “This is a school where links across departments are encouraged and happen naturally. But it would be great to formalise some of those in a cross-curricular project, using a fantastic resource like Fife Earth that’s just on our doorstep - well, 10 miles down the road.”
That proximity makes Fife Earth immediately appealing to St Andrew’s High, but the project was conceived and designed to create an iconic landscape that would attract visitors from all over Scotland and beyond. With its principal theme of the Scottish diaspora, and its fusion of elements from every discipline, the project has immense value for schools around the country, says Maureen Finn, who was the creativity development officer at Education Scotland.
“Fife Earth is art created by bulldozers. We used it as the inspiration for an online, interdisciplinary learning resource called Marks on the Landscape, which suggests all kinds of possibilities for creative learning and teaching across the curriculum.”
Fife Earth is the initial context for that learning, but teachers and pupils don’t have to visit the site, she says. “By learning about Fife Earth, young people will learn to question their relationships with their own environments. So learners from all over Scotland can be motivated by this resource, whether or not they decide to visit it themselves.
“Marks on the Landscape raises questions, encourages investigation and promotes challenges that will help young people understand their capacity for creativity in every aspect of their lives.”
The Education Scotland online resource is aimed at primary and secondary schools. It provides background information on key themes and ideas and “suggests how they can be incorporated into curriculum planning in art and design, social studies, sciences, religious and moral education, technologies and maths”.
But that’s not entirely true at the moment, says Paul Creanor, principal teacher of maths and numeracy at St Andrew’s High. “It’s a very nice website, but mathematics is notable by its absence in the section on learning across the curriculum. People have this idea that maths is not a creative subject. They could not be more wrong.
“I try all kinds of things to get the kids to see maths as a creative discipline that can be taken out of the classroom in loads of interesting ways. The obvious one is measuring. We can go out to Fife Earth and get them using different units, sizes, scales in a very practical environment.”
One image on the website particularly captured his imagination, says Mr Creanor. “There is a grassy valley out there, with rows of big, old, rusty-looking, circular gear-wheels. So I can get my kids up there and discovering pi - which I could do in the classroom of course, but imagine them doing it outside with things that are yea big, absolutely massive.
“Another thing that would be lovely would be linking with the previous use of the site. How much coal does it take to run a power station, a school or a town? What does it look like out there? I’ve no idea but I would love to know. So I’m going to get my kids to figure out what area on the ground you would need to dig to power Kirkcaldy. You could differentiate that for all your kids, all the way from simple measurements to investigating how a power station works.”
As a teacher whose classroom walls display, alongside the circle equations, a well-loved Wordsworth poem (“Never did sun more beautifully steep/In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill”), Mr Creanor is clearly open to influences beyond the mathematical. His vantage point, directly above the school’s own combination of landscape art and useful learning - the eco-garden with its big smiley faces - also helped foster creative curricular links.
“Art and maths are at opposite ends of the school, but we stick our heads around the doors and wander into each other’s classrooms,” says Mrs Tough. “We see what’s going on, pick things up for our own teaching, bounce ideas off each other.”
Those kinds of creative contacts happen naturally at St Andrew’s, says Mr Callaghan. “So many of my teachers come to me with new and exciting ideas. You have to think about the balance, but you also try to let the teachers run with them.”
As a focus for innovative ideas, the eco-garden stimulates creative connections, says Mrs Tough. “We try to give teachers what they want - such as fruit trees for home economics and roses for the science department, which they will use to teach sexual reproduction.”
As a result of the fertile soil at St Andrew’s High - in the garden and in the minds of the staff - influences and ideas are now beginning to travel in both directions, between the school and Fife Earth.
Pupils made small, clay sculptures in art, inspired by the swirls, whorls and fluted shells of sea-creatures. “Then we thought about making these much larger to set into our garden,” says Mrs Tough.
“I was getting very interested in this,” says Mr Creanor. “We talked about doing landforming out there, digging into the bank, making an outdoor classroom, using the soil to make three-dimensional shapes - as Charles Jenks is doing at Fife Earth - and creating a sculpture garden.
“Then the Fife Earth people got excited about that, when we talked to them after Fiona’s visit. They are planning to build an education centre, so they are now thinking about going out to schools and getting pupils to do sculpture designs that can be set into their site.”
It’s exactly that kind of cross-fertilisation between a school and the country and culture that sustain it that David Cameron, education consultant and former Stirling director of education, sees as the lasting legacy of Fife Earth - even for schools that don’t use that particular resource.
“The possibilities are endless,” he says. “Teachers and pupils could find a site and use it to raise environmental awareness. They could look at the barriers to developing it. They could study the economics of creating an attraction. There is huge potential for understanding relationships in their own communities.”
Studying Fife Earth as a partnership would help learners understand the importance of collaboration, as well as the possibility of “creating something greater than the sum of its parts and partners”.
The comparison then is with the partnerships they need for their site and their dreams for that site, he says. “There are fantastic opportunities for debate and decision-making, real or virtual, using an inspirational initiative that makes possibilities concrete.
“In a world of change and challenge, the capacity to learn and adapt is the most vital. Learning thrives on inspiration and motivation, which is exactly what Fife Earth provides.”
“You can see the art when the sun comes at an angle and casts a really nice shadow and suddenly the land pops into life.
“It will take four or five years before it comes into focus. As it grows in people’s imagination, as visitors come, slowly the geology of Scotland will be turned into a sculpture.
That’s the fantasy.”
Charles Jencks speaking about landforming and Fife Earth on the BBC’s Landward programme
Marks on the landscape
The online resource created by Education Scotland from Fife Earth contains a number of components. Useful starting points for teachers looking for idea and activities are the curriculum link from the home page and design challenges from the main menu.
The latter provides contexts for creative and interdisciplinary learning, through design briefs for seven challenges, inspired by Fife Earth and encompassing aspects of art and design, social studies, maths, science, technologies, literacy, health and well-being and religious and moral education. The challenges are aimed at learners from levels 2 to 4 of Curriculum for Excellence.
Pupils are invited to tackle the design of a modern Mappa Mundi, an artwork for Scotland, a room based on an unusual shape, a computer game, a logo, a puzzle and a space for reflection.
There is also a link to details for entering a national challenge for learners to design a double-sided billboard to be seen by people entering or leaving Scotland.
These challenges offer learner journeys that take the experiences and outcomes in specific curriculum areas as their starting point, says Education Scotland.
Photo by Charles Jencks