Somewhere Special:

Participatory Arts Residencies at Swallowcliffe Schools

Contributed by Nick Hughes

© copyright Nick Hughes 1995



Introducing Swallowcliffe Schools

As soon as you arrive in the grounds of the Swallowcliffe Schools (previously know as Elizabeth West Primary School) in Adelaide [South Australia]'s far northern suburbs, you know you are in a school which is unique.

You have already passed the outer chain-link fence, with its abstract and intriguing shapes, and your eye is drawn to a stylized bird mounted atop a rainwater head. Clearly, something original and distinct has been happening here.

The curious curve of the verandah roofs; the crazy angles of the windows in the kindy [Australian for kindergarten]; the flowing lines of the patterns in the paving; everything combines to break the mould of traditional school architecture and design. It all says to you: "This is somewhere special."

The Seeds of Success

This excellent outcome has been achieved as a result of the school running a community participatory arts program of the highest order. This program involved employing Margaret Worth as an Artist Co-ordinator, to work with a team of artists who all worked in a participatory way with the local community. The result is proof, says Margaret, "that given a lucky combination of artist/designer, community and structure -- because all those things have to come together -- it's possible to come up with really good quality outcomes."

This is especially important because for some people community art means poor art. And participation with a community is often wrongly identified as constraining, restrictive and problematic for the artist. The artists involved in the Swallowcliffe project were stimulated and inspired by the inclusion of local people in the design process of the artwork that they produced. Indeed, the extraordinary place that Swallowcliffe Schools have become would not have been possible without the participation of the local community.

The Roots of the Project

Margaret may well be right, that the final combination of artist/designer, community and structure needs to be "lucky"; but there was a history of innovative educational theory and practice, a lot of detailed planning, and much continuous community consultation that went into the design of the structure of the project that enabled that lucky combination to occur.

Kathy Cotter is the Principal of the Primary School at Swallowcliffe, and she is highly attuned to the effects that architecture and design have on people. "The first thing I did when I came here was to have the walls cut down," she says, referring to the turning of the small separate classrooms into larger teaching spaces by removing the internal walls. "I won't call them classrooms if they're little boxes," she continues. "I call them cells, because that's what they are, and that's how the kids feel... When you cut the walls down and open the spaces up, [the] hierarchy disappears and the kids start to own the spaces." The atmosphere of the prison, so familiar to many of us from our own school days, has been banished from the Swallowcliffe Schools.

When Kathy Cotter arrived to take up the post of Principal of the Junior Primary School, she didn't just knock down the interior walls. She and the then-Principal of the Primary School, Rob Ryan, decided that something had to be done about the external walls too. Much of the school was still housed in "temporary" asbestos buildings arranged in rows, which made supervision impossible and which gave perfect cover for vandalism. This meant that the buildings were patched and repatched and painted various shades of green, and that the struggle with the graffiti was an ongoing war. "I was just so horrified by the whole state of neglect here," says Kathy. "The parents and the kids felt that no one cared about them... the whole attitude was one of despair and anger, because they felt that they had been neglected."

The school was built in the '60s and modeled on the close integration between the school and its local community. It was placed between the houses and the local shops, with the access path running right through the school. This made the school a very unsafe environment for the kids: not only were people traipsing through the school grounds all day, but there had been some assaults on children in the outside toilets.

Kathy and Rob both understood the value of effective political lobbying and managed to get the then-Premier, John Bannon, to come out to the school and see the problems for himself. As a result, they were able to get a total redevelopment of the school. This involved knocking down the central rows of temporary buildings and erecting a new block at right angles to form a U-shape. The access path to the shops was also re-routed around the school grounds. The South Australian Government's Department for Building Management (then still known as SACON) were to provide the architectural design, and Dennis Harrison of the Department assigned architect Patricia Les to the project.

The success of the participatory arts project needs to be seen in the context of this already existing, close, and continuous relationship between the school and the community. The local community has significant areas of Housing Trust homes [i.e., public housing, provided by State governments in Australia], a high proportion of single-parent families; and there are many instances of third-generation unemployment. It is not a rich community, but it is a very close community.

The School and the Community

Kathy stressed repeatedly that it is very important that the school be the friendly face of government. "After the Community Nurse, we are the bureaucracy that really cares about them." The school runs a breakfast program to make sure the kids are fed and also assists people in their dealings with Social Security, the Housing Trust and other government agencies. Kathy links these activities back to the educational welfare of the students:

We've always believed it was really important that the school connected with the community. We needed to know the family background, so that if a child came in one day and was totally off the planet, then we would have some inkling of the things that might be happening in that child's life... The only way you can do that is to have lots of conversations with parents in the yard. That's something we have actively sought -- lots of informal daily contact as well as the formal parent-teacher contact.

Right from the start, it was important to Kathy and Rod to get the community involved in the total redevelopment project. There were School Council representatives at every formal meeting and as much informal contact as possible, so that

they became part of the voice that was listened to when Patricia, the architect, came and had initial meetings with us. So it wouldn't be just the bureaucrats making the decisions: it would be the total community.

Patricia was excited by the possibilities offered by the project. Apart from the advantages of opening up the space, which allowed an open play area and community observation of the school grounds, she saw the new block as offering a palette for artwork and possibilities for the inclusion of whimsical elements. Patricia feels that schools should become places and should reflect their community, and it was she who suggested that they should consider involving artists in the design of the new block.

Taking Risks

Kathy and Rod thought this was an excellent idea but were not sure how to pay for it. However, they were prepared to take a few risks to make it happen. They argued that the incorporation of artworks into the fabric of the new block would significantly decrease the vandalism problem and hence save maintenance costs in the long term. They had no data to back up this assertion, but they must have argued the point eloquently because they got permission to retain three years' worth of their Minor Works [i.e., small capital improvements] funding ($25,000) and spend it on employing an Artist Co-ordinator and the whole arts project. Part of the Artist Coordinator's role was to identify a further $75,000 worth of support from local businesses and organisations. "The [Education] department had never done anything like that before," says Kathy. "When you're in a bureaucracy like this, to step outside the norm is always a risk."

It was also a risk in terms of the idea of artists coming into this community being totally new. "It's not part of their culture," says Kathy. A lot of people in the community had never met an artist before and didn't know what to expect. Artists were people like Rubens or Gauguin. Art was something in a gallery. Margaret Worth was acutely aware of this and knew from the outset that every artwork in the project had to be something that was needed:

It wasn't a place for art for art"s sake... There were plenty of things the community needed before they needed thought provoking art for arts' sake.

It was, however, a place where the artists could play an extremely valuable role in liaising with the community. As Margaret puts it,

The artists were a way of talking about the kind of concepts that informed the building space -- why those designs were the way they were -- and then going further and saying, "Well, are there ways that we can make it more than just the practical needs?" The artists helped the community personalize their school.

Getting Started

The first part of Margaret's role was twofold: to identify $75,000 worth of local support (both in money donations and in kind) and to work with the architect and the community to identify which areas of the new block were to incorporate artworks. She found the first task the most onerous and time-consuming of the whole project. The second task allowed her to start working directly with community members.

We had some of the mothers come in one day. And we just walked around the school. Looking and talking in a very freewheeling, brainstorming kind of way. One thing that came up straight away was their consciousness of the colors of the soil and their pleasure in the idea of the natural environment. Such things as the wind and the birds and the idea of it all being a plain that was crisscrossed by creeks.

Margaret did some research and discovered that the name Munno Para (the name of the Council area where the school is located) means "Golden Wattle Creek." This appealed to people and inspired them, says Margaret: "waterways, and flow and movement were what people picked up on... The whole design is all flow patterns. It came up everywhere."

It also blended with the suggestion of the inclusion of the Rainbow Serpent, which came from one of the Aboriginal mothers. The serpent became a central design feature of the paved area.

The idea of the different colors of the earth also inspired the marketing people at Nubrik [a commercial company], because it chimed in with the thinking behind their launch of a new range of pavers [paving stones]. Nubrik ended up donating 85,000 pavers to the project.

The Artistic Team

Margaret, Patricia and the community identified a number of aspects of the design which could accommodate artistic input, and the following artists were employed by the Steering Committee to work on them:

Margaret says that

The artistic team was composed of people who were not only excellent designers working with the hardest of conditions, but they were terrific people at working with communities and other people. They were great communicators and had a generosity of spirit that you need to have and a low ego-level, which you also need to have if you're going to make this work. It's other peoples' space, it's not yours.

She describes her own role at this stage as "to make sure that the different groups [in the community] were connected and included and finding out how each artist felt comfortable with working with the community."

Participation and Pride

In practice, this entailed making sure the artists all felt OK about working in the room at the school that was made available to the project. The school made sure that this room was extremely accessible. People could and did drop in at any time to see how the work was going. Margaret stresses that this was a truly participatory project: "People actually came in and put pen to paper and thought about stuff. They actually did it."

For example, in designing the rainwater heads, Julie Blyfield used drawings done by some of the kids at the school. The acceptance and the incorporation of local community members' ideas at the design stage had the very important effect of validating those ideas and giving them credibility. Margaret describes the huge boost that this process can give to a community's sense of self esteem:

The community is taken beyond its own abilities, and it sees its ideas put into materials and forms that give it presence, quality, and credibility.

Has the project been successful in decreasing the vandalism problem? Yes, very much so. In eighteen months, there have been only three lots of graffiti, whereas before it was a weekly event. And each time the kids get very upset and they quickly get the buckets and sponges out to clean it off. Those members of the local community who live around the school keep a close eye on it and make regular reports. As Kathy Cotter puts it, "The community's proud of the school now."


Nick Hughes has worked in theatre all his life as a stage manager, an actor, a director, an artistic director, a dramaturg, and a writer, mainly in the area of political and professional community theatre. He moved from England to Australia in the mid-70s, and has been based there ever since. You can send e-mail to Nick at

This article was first published in Artwork, the magazine of the Community Arts Network of South Australia, Issue No. 28, September 1995.

Other articles by Nick Hughes in Webster's World:

¬…       Working Off the Back Foot:
The Importance of Consultation and Negotiation in Working with Communities

¬…       Somewhere Special:
Participatory Arts Residencies at Swallowcliffe Schools

Also see our introduction to Community Arts in Australia
incorporating useful background information about agencies and programs mentioned in this article

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