Strong Children project

 
Mexic City street child portrait

Martin, a street child in Mexico City wanted his image to reinforce his confidence that he could return to school, so he drew the landscape and asked me to draw him as a giant

Strong Children is an ongoing collaborative art project based on portraiture. My aim is to offer a tool for reflection and communication to children in difficult circumstances in order to increase their resilience, sense of self, and confidence in engaging with the world. They design and draw the image, into which I put their portrait according to their instructions. The process is a circle: it begins with a positive experience that produces a piece of art; this is then used to reinforce the child’s aims, and communicate with family, communities and policy makers; hopefully returning some practical benefits back to the child in an improved situation.

If you would like me to work in partnership with your school or project with children or young people, or you would like to commission me to make a portrait of  your child, please get in touch. Scroll down for images from Japan, the UK and Mexico City

Strong Children Japan

At the time the triple disaster of 11th March 2011 struck I had been living in Fukushima prefecture with my then 8-year-old son for two years. Living in Fukushima and knowing many children and families well, it was natural for me to begin drawing with them. I hope we can create a lasting legacy of powerful testimonies from this important generation of Japanese children, who will be argued about for their whole lives.  The images have been exhibited all over Japan, in the US, the UK and Australia; and have been covered in national media and used as part of an event in the House of Commons, London.

To see all 100 drawings made with Fukushima’s children and find out more  visit the project website

Mexico City Strong Children

Being a homeless child in Mexico City is extremely tough. Some children sleep in sewers because they risk abuse and violence above ground. Substance abuse is common, usually glue. They come from difficult, very poor backgrounds, with most having either run away or been told to leave by their families, some as young as 10. Those I drew with on my two week visit were sleeping rough, the’ luckiest’ of them on the floor in a restaurant, but others in unsafe situations preventing enough sleep, which led them to be tired through the day.  The day centre I met them at provided food, much needed attention and affection; and informal learning designed to ease them towards feeling confident enough to attend school regularly and stay in accommodation. One of the older boys had succeeded in this and wanted to become a manga artist.

 

Strong Children UK

Method

The images are designed and made by the children as much as possible, with words too if they wish. First they make a small sketch of their idea, and once we have understood each other, they draw or paint their picture, then I put their portrait into it according to their instructions. Sometimes I do their portrait then they draw around it. They choose the pose, facial expression, colour and feeling. It is a collaborative process, but they are the boss. I try and help them realise their idea, then do what they tell me. Parents are sometimes invited to contribute words, and sometimes they join in the drawing with very young children.

Although it is in some senses therapeutic, the fact that it is a purposeful public project is centrally important – we are trying to make high quality communication and exchange with adults, policy-makers and other children, locally and around the world. The structure of the project means that each child’s individual contribution becomes part of, and influences, the whole – it is a ‘community of enquiry’. For example children sometimes extend and modify ideas they have seen in previous drawings and influence each other when working in groups. Seen together, the drawings seem to comment on and play with each other. Apparently simple images offer multiple meanings to the viewer. They interact both with our sense of ourselves as children, and with what we imagine that we know about the events the children are living through.

Principles and ethos

My artwork is based on the principle that children are strongest and most resilient when they are listened to, respected, and encouraged to think creatively and be active citizens. Developing their own ideas about their situation, noticing their own emotions, talking and making links with other people and the wider world also encourages them to take a proactive part in life. In my view children need an appropriate setting that gives them permission and safety to express a whole range of emotions and thoughts. That might include fear, sadness, grief, frustration and anger,  as well as happiness and the more socially acceptable cute and joyful aspects of childhood more often insisted upon by adults.

I also want to create a channel for them to reach the world and get feedback, and to affect the policies that shape and limit their living conditions, health and happiness. This completes a positive circle they can feel proud of and empowered by. Of course children are practically speaking almost completely powerless, but it is important they have an alternative to the passive reception of information and instructions.

Finally, no record of important historical events, or thinking about policy choices – or ethics for that matter – can be complete without including children….even if it is just seeing the marks they make, and looking into their eyes as they gaze from a portrait.