Megan Dowsett is a creative consultant working in museums, galleries and the arts, an illustrator who is finding her voice through personal and local projects, and a parent to two young beings who can't help but influence her creative journey.

Through the name Norris and the Flamingo, she shares the sense of adventure that runs through all of life, wherever we are on our journey. A sense of imagination, of possibility and discovery, for children and adults alike.

11 October 2020

Begin with a Story: The Dot

Looking back on another week of home-schooling in lockdown ...
Abstract Art Week emerged from three coinciding feelings:
  • This magical book: The Dot, by Peter H.Reynolds, which we borrowed from a friend early in lockdown and immediately fell in love with.
  • The realisation that in all these weeks of home schooling, we had never stopped to look at art for its own sake, and to begin to explore the wonder of art history.
  • Bean's distinctive drawing technique, and her habit of drawing first, before looking at her creation and deriving meaning from it.  I couldn't help feeling she'd find magic in all sorts of abstract paintings.
And so, in the week before half term, we took a break from narrative themes and looked at Abstract Art.  This week, maths also fell to me, so we looked at 2d and 3d shapes and their properties, with mixed success!

20200521_152323 The connections between the artist and our own art were laid back to say the least, but beginning each creative session with a short look at one artist was intensely rewarding -  they found a natural affinity with abstract paintings and rapidly developed the confidence and vocabulary to express preferences, decide how abstract a painting was and describe what it might be about.

As for The Dot - well, it became our reference manual, helping us accept the different outcomes of our own work, and when it came to exhibition time, the children were immediately comfortable with what to do, Feets better able to draw connections with her memory of past exhibitions than Bean.

Over the week, we looked at:
20200518_122925 Kandinsky offers a great place to start, as his earliest works are hardly abstract at all, and it was wonderful to flick through the book, trying to decide which painting was his first abstract work, and then again to see how his style evolved continuously across years and decades.  We finally stopped at 'Circles', and took very loose inspiration from this work to use bottle tops, buttons, lids and junk to create our own abstract work.

I could happily have spent the whole week with Kandinsky, but we moved on to ...

20200519_115443 I was curious about how maths could genuinely be taught through art.  There are numerous activities, but it's easy to slip into art that uses a bit of maths, so I was quite excited when my research revealed this activity, which clearly and directly referenced Paul Klee, but was very mathematical in its focus.  The children were given a selection of squares, rectangles and triangles, all directly proportional to each other, and invited to build their own picture, inspired by Klee's 'Castle and Sun'.  There was a small, clear set of rules, which enabled them to learn about the relationships between the different shapes and how they fit together, but also to consider how some artists work by creating very specific constraints for themselves.

This project was very different to how I would teach art, and was one of the few times I drew on somebody else's activity plan, and the week was all the better for including a different activity style!

20200521_135602 The big day.  We watched a video of Pollock at work, impressed by the scale, freedom and daring of his paintings.  Then we set ourselves up in a discreet corner of the communal gardens and let loose with paint - dripping, flicking, spraying, rolling, rocking, tipping, with syringes, pipettes, toothbrushes, paintbrushes, hands and feet, marbles, paint bottles...  I really, really REALLY wanted this to be the time when I didn't say no to anything - when I didn't worry about mess, or the quantity of paint we got through, what people would think or whether the stains were permanent.

20200521_140032 I was surprised by how long it took to warm up - we never really reached the point where they could manage without help from me over something, the biggest battle being with the wind.  But nevertheless, it was a top day and an exhilarating session - I usually feel that an activity is worth it if it absorbs children for more time than it took to set it up, and this kept them both experimenting for several hours!

20200522_125015 A quiet time to look at Mondrian was a surprisingly suitable follow up to Jackson Pollock.  We had, by now, looked at the nets of various 3d shapes in maths, so after a peaceful time using black tape to create straight lines, squares and rectangles, and shading them with pastels, it was natural to develop one of them into a cube shape.  Another day that suited both Feets and Bean very well, each in their different ways.

Exhibition day
20200522_122755 20200522_123447 
We had such a stack of work by now that we decided to put on an exhibition.  So, we commandeered the landing outside our flat, and Feets took on the role of curator with staggering confidence and vision.  We designated areas for our different bodies of work and then hung them, each artist selecting the appropriate height for their work, and only minor rows along the way.  We had written labels for some work, and Bean took naturally to inventing titles for all her creations.  Finally, Mr Liam dropped by for snacks and a guided tour - himself a natural at filling all required roles, he was an enthusiastic and inspired customer.

I suggested inviting grandparents for a video tour, but my camera-shy children weren't keen.  I was reluctant to draw the attention of our neighbours to it for fear of rubbing our energy in their faces, but this was unravelled by a lovely message from our next-door neighbour to the entire block, encouraging them to check out the top floor.  20201107_123421 Our activity had inadvertently become a way to connect with others, and once again, the magic of this connection in the midst of the lockdown was probably the most memorable moment of all.

As I write this, I realise that all our artists were male.  I feel another art week coming on ... Mary CassattGeorgia O'Keeffe, Kathe KollwitzFrida Kahlo, Bridget Riley, Louise Bourgeois, Lubaina Himid, Yayoi Kusama ... okay, an Art Month!

7 September 2020

Baby Welcome

Some time ago, I began to develop an alphabet from my collection of hubcap patterns.  I've held on tight to it all this time, hoping eventually to complete the alphabet and work with it to celebrate special people and relationships.

Nathaniel Edit Well, this summer, I brought it out again, developed a few more letters and celebrated the arrival of Nathaniel, a gorgeous young man born just before lockdown and already beginning to enjoy solid foods!

9 August 2020

Mythicous Creasts

20200609_150259 20200803_122855
Last week, Mythical Creasts, a creation that connected eight local families, returned from it's journey around the neighourhood.  It was lovely to have it back ... but best of all was the sharing of photos, videos and messages that flowed alongside it's tour through family homes.
20200803_123100 The project grew from the joy that we all felt in the invisible interactions of the Dragon Trail.  The trail's success set my mind to pondering what else we could do that would enable engagement with our friends and neighbours, without the mediation of a digital device.

I have long held a dream of creating a collaborative mix 'n' match book, but I wasn't sure that it was the right project - whether it would demand too much of my stamina and too little from the children, relative to the time we respectively had available, and whether it would be too constrained for children to do at this point in time.
20200803_123220 (2) Then, as is so often the case lately, one day I found myself blurting it out - 'Guys, would you like to make a mix 'n' match book of mythical creatures, with your friends?'  And that was it - I was committed.

20200803_123142 Mythical creatures was the continuing theme from school, so offered a natural theme through which to connect with school friends, and so we created a very long list of people who might be interested, and invited them all to take part.  I hoped that not everyone would say yes - I suspected that for many families, as I have been finding, they wouldn't want to commit themselves to an outcome - and in the end our participants self selected, with eight families taking part.

20200511_125055 My initial task was to create a page marked up with dividing lines and markers for the neck and hips, which I delivered on a series of evening runs, along with an electronic instruction sheet, challenged as always by our lack of printer.

Meanwhile, the children built a magical box which we left outside the downstairs front door to await deliveries of mysterious and magical creatures.  Checking the box and recovering the goods was a daily delight (okay, partly a trauma as they fought to get there first ...)

20200518_225200 (2) The trouble is, that once all the pictures had arrived and were laid out in front of me, I was so inspired by the detail, care and imagination that each child had put into their work, that I couldn't help but go the whole hog - to make their artwork sing, it needed to be on colourful backgrounds.  So I cut out each creature and laid it onto coloured paper, prepared with watercolour.  Then I took the names and descriptions the children had given their creatures and passed a number of evenings adding them onto the pages.  I had thought about asking the children to write the titles themselves, but I wanted them to be able to read the book and at this stage, handwriting and spelling skills are highly variable!

Next step, to make a mock-up, trying to understand how to bind a book with three separate spines and ideally, a single front and back cover.  This is the kind of puzzle that absorbs me - and the second attempt proved the better one.  Thankfully I tried out the first on Feets, else I would never have realised its fragility.

Finally to bind it, and to work on the cover.  I realised I needed reproductions for the cover so put in my order with a neighbour.
20200803_123018 It was a long, slow process, squeezed in twenty-minute bursts of energy after a frenzied day of home-school.  It was a satisfying process, because it helped me find my happy place and escape from the continuous mind-buzz of planning the next day's learning.  It was a rewarding process, because from the moment I handed it to Feets to look through, the warm fuzzy feeling of pride (mine - yes, but hers too) enveloped me ... 

When I build a handmade book, the vision that sustains me is the excitement and connection that a child will feel when they handle it, and see themselves, their story or their work emerging from beautiful pages.  This is the first time one of my books has centred primarily on artwork created by children - indeed, of many children - and I hope they each felt the same thrill of ownership that I saw in Feets as she read the book.
When I thought the job was done, I found myself returning to it, to find a simple way to create a small run of copies that could be shared permanently with the families.  I realised that a spiral bound book would allow me to cut the pages without the spine falling apart, so I built it on myphotobook - surely not the cheapest way, but almost certainly the simplest!

2 August 2020

Begin with a Story: The Gruffalo's Child

Namgoona 4
As much as this post is about The Gruffalo's Child, it's about a loveable, two-headed creature called Namgoona ...

School sent us a daunting poem about Perseus and Medusa to read and digest, and the challenge to invent a mythical creature of our own and write a rhyming poem about it.

Surprisingly, literacy has been our biggest academic bugbear of lockdown.  Maths presents an endless array of puzzles and magic, with only correct and incorrect answers.  Creative time has infinite possibilities.  But no matter how we put it, literacy involves reading and writing, and the word-count for each of these was less each day.

20200505_161004 So I rejected Perseus and Medusa and took out the Gruffalo's Child, which had been waiting in a cupboard for a rainy day and is the cunning sequel to The Gruffalo, itself a longstanding family favourite.  Thankfully, with the Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson has invented a mythical creature and developed stories around it in her ever distinctive, ever inventive rhyming couplets.  I can't help it, I'm a massive fan of Julia Donaldson.

We read the story.  We re-told it with instruments for different voices.  We found the rhyming words; I had them guessing the end of each line.  We read it until we were chanting it in our sleep. And when we went out, we found ourselves making mythical creatures with our shadows.

20200505_124308 We built our week's maths around it - to measure length in mm, cm and m, we looked at a character from the Gruffalo's Child each day and measured the space between footprints, the length of snakes, with Bean drawing 'snakes' for Feets to measure, and the distance an 'owl' plane could fly.  We enjoyed length so much that we found ourselves translating huge numbers from metres into millimetres and vice versa!

Meanwhile, in literacy we discussed what made a mythical creature mythical, deciding to 'become' Julia Donaldson and invent our own.  Full gratitude to school for breaking down the process into daily bitesize chunks:  We began by enacting our invented creatures - Feets, grabbing a teddy, found herself to have two heads, and eight arms and legs.  Bean, grateful for an excuse to roar, became a dinosaur.  Naturally the two creatures clashed, and the ensuing battle suited the children but not poor Mr Liam, working in the room next door.

So we 'froze' the scene and I gathered a description of their respective characters.  This was a breakthrough for me - to ask Feets to do the thinking on one day, and the writing on another, and not to combine the two.  The range of adjectives, similes and the rest was fresh and imaginative, and I dug it out the next day for us to build together into phrases.

20200617_125715 A little aside about the relationship between Feets and I:  It can be fiery!  In lockdown, I would say at times it's volcanic.  As far as creative projects go, we are peas in a pod (as my mother-in-law would say) - we are an infinite fountain of ideas, with a vision that can be perfectionist (even while we love to experiment) and strong, clear opinions about the way things should be done.  I have a few more years' experience than Feets, and many of them have been spent learning to see the value in other people's ideas, listening to others, letting go of perfectionism and becoming more flexible.  Then lockdown came along: despite my 'child-led' values, many of my worst habits came knocking on the door, along with the task of being her teacher.

20200507_191854 (2) So I was pretty apprehensive about getting Feets to write a rhyming poem about her creature, named Namgoona after a democratic family vote.  More so, because I concluded that the best way to get beyond the first line was to write it collaboratively - take her ideas, make suggestions, combine the two and move on...

Over three days, a rather magical poem was born.  On the first day, we wrote a draft, while I scribed.  The next day we edited it, cutting it up and rearranging, both of us scribbling bits out and adding others.  On the third day, tasked with no further thinking, Feets wrote it up 'in neat'.  

20200507_192020 (2) And felt so pleased with the result that when I asked both children if they wanted to extend the descriptive poem into a full story the following week, the answer was a resounding 'yes!'

So, having 'nailed' our collaborative technique, the next week we mapped out our story, wrote it into rhyming couplets with interjections from both children (by now, Bean had a firm grip on rhyming words!), chopped it up and edited it to address narrative flow and fill any holes.

20200801_214801 Meanwhile, this second week, Creative Time fell to me too.  We watched the utterly inspiring 'I Want My Hat Back' by Little Angel Theatre, and agreed to create our own puppet show of Namgoona and the Dinosaur.  Grateful for the simplicity of the puppets in 'I Want My Hat Back', we created our own puppets and a theatre for the show.

20200515_121711 The balance between tension and excitement this week was a fine art.  I continually had to let go of my perfectionism and ambition and allow Feets to lead.  And yes, I did manage to step back, which also meant that Feets trusted me to listen to her and in turn, was ready to listen to me when she got stuck.  She was also willing to let Bean decorate the front of the theatre, quite an impressive concession by many standards!

Aware that Bean had little idea how the show would pull together or appear to an audience, and little attention span for practising, I performed the rehearsal for the children, who were delighted to role play their own trip to the theatre, before they came 'back stage' and we performed it together for the most important (and forgiving!) audience of all:  Mr Liam and an array of teddies.
Our children really revealed their contrasting temperaments in the performance - Bean beaming through the stage at Daddy, while Feets directed efficiently from behind the scenes, reluctant to show her face.

While I regularly counselled myself to take a break from such high-energy, intensive home-schooling, I could never manage it for long because of this - because tying all our learning together towards some kind of coherent outcome gave it purpose and meaning.  It created a narrative flow to each week and kept my own momentum going as well as that of the kids'.  I remember the same from every moment of professional teaching - the most successful projects had a clear vision and a tangible audience.  Thanks Mr Liam for so often being our audience!

9 July 2020

The Mud Kitchen

"The thing is, I was born in nature."  Thus spake our six year old, three weeks into lockdown, as she tried to articulate her melancholy at how small her world had become.
So ... time for 'Nature Week'. I hope that in years to come, when the children look back on these strange times, amidst the yelling, the tension and the tears, they will remember some golden days.  And among them, the Mud Kitchen.

20200531_152319Whenever I asked Feets how she spent her playtime at school, she would tell me she was in the mud kitchen.  So it was an obvious choice to create our own - something that would work for both children, allow them to play and imagine, and could be shared by other families passing struggling in tight confines across the estate.

As with everything in lockdown, I had no plan.  The first meltdown happened before we left the flat, when Feets discovered I wasn't providing full-size pans and we would have to make do with spare dessert spoons, a few bits of tupperware and some pans from the toy cooker.

You can imagination the trepidation I had about my vague idea to create a mud cooker by somehow binding some sticks together.  Or something.

And my delight when, by the bins, there were some 'kitchen' (bathroom) surfaces, freshly stripped from someone else's house and waiting to be used in a mud kitchen.  Even Feets was satisfied.
We lay our surface-top in the bushes, painted some hobs on it and (very excitingly), made a tap from a plastic bottle by piercing holes in the bottom and hanging it from a tree.  When the children lifted the lid, it released the pressure and water flowed.

20200531_152351 I sat back while they made soup, birthday cakes and goodness knows what else.  Surely, every parent's measure of success is being able to leave the children to it.

Over the coming days, we began some serious scavenging from across the neighbourhood.  Crates from the corner shop to create an oven and a fridge.  A piece of mdf which we painted with blackboard paint so the children could write menus and recipes.  A basket which we filled with tiny pinecones from the road outside.

When their energy waned a bit, I sacrificed a bucket from the flat, brought down a bunch of old (and very clean!) nappy liners and some pegs, and set up a sink and washing line.  This released a whole new lease of life - of washing up, laundry and water play.
Over the course of three months, the space evolved continuously, and became a 'happy place' for all of us.  People we knew and anonymous 'others' began to contribute resources - from a frying pan, kettle and spoons to handbags and a large crate which we turned into a table.  Later the table acquired a footstool, chair (which someone found on the way home from work) and tablecloth, and we began to see families from the estate on their way to or from playing in the mud kitchen.  Initially a source of anxiety for Feets and Bean, they became proud to share and excited to see what new discoveries had appeared down there each time we visited.

The area we had chosen was in front of the terraces next to our block, and we were reassured to hear that the residents were enjoying the sound of children again since their own children had grown up.  A couple of people were shielding and sometimes we worried that we were rubbing salt into the wound by playing outside their windows, but chats over the fence confirmed that we were a welcome interlude into long and solitary days.  One couple gave us unfettered access to their water tap and another appeared with a box of trinkets.  Without doubt, the warmth of the neighbours was a highlight of the entire experience, and broke down some of the 'shy barriers' that our children struggle with.
20200531_154543 20200628_140441 As time passed, we decorated the area with our artwork, and last week, Feets finally achieved a goal that has been a longstanding priority - to build a swing.  Pretty fragile looking but I was impressed by her resilience, as she tried again each time it broke, and ultimately created something that took her weight.

Finally, Mr Liam joined us to build a make-shift planter using some blue fencing we had found in a skip.  We'd been growing sunflowers and an array of mystery seedlings on the windowsill and they desperately needed a new home.  Then, with the unerring generosity of our community in lockdown, we found ourselves receiving offers of tomato plants and seedlings from people on the road passing by, and from our downstairs neighbours.
20200621_152133 20200628_131022

Sadly, this week, our mud kitchen and planter were removed, completely and without warning.  All that remains is Feets' swing, with the strings cut, left under a tree.  The heartlessness of our estate management is in stark contrast to the warmth of its community.  We knew it wouldn't last forever, but it was a shock to lose it now, and so suddenly.

Time for us all to learn some new lessons - to pick up and try again - the joy of memories and of transience - and a little hint of an unfair world.  And the neighbour who we worried might have least liked our presence there has told us to fight back and build it again.  Perhaps we will!

In the meantime, it's time to make some granola in thanks to the neighbours ...

30 April 2020

Begin with a Story: Tell Me a Dragon

20200424_105712 Things got a little tricky at the beginning of last week. A little burnt out and at the same time bursting with ideas and exuberance, all of us frustrated at how little space there is, physically and spiritually, I suddenly realised my thinking had gone a bit haywire: home-schooling was such an opportunity for ME to be creative, for ME to enable learning the way I believe it should be, for ME to build a portfolio of experience and ideas. I have to be honest, it was becoming a bit too much ME and not quite enough of the KIDS.

20200424_121240 I've shared my thoughts with a couple of people - a few others who are simmering with ideas, pressure, juggling and a serious lack of headspace, and I realise I'm far from alone. Parenting is such a creative thing - we had found a balance, long ago when the kids were at home and we provided social time, free play, and independent time too. Then we found balance in a different way when kids started school or nursery. And now ... now there is a whole new equilibrium to find, in very narrow confines.

So, I took a big step back. I took a few days off Instagram, and abandoned my blogging plans. (Yes, I'm here, but I'm not sure how often I'll post!). It was mighty hard - this EGO is a powerful thing!
20200424_111606 20200424_110626

Added to the mix was a bit more direction from school; I find it very difficult use the more prescriptive approaches to learning with Feets - especially while Bean is in the same room, demanding attention and distracting Feets the moment she tries to sit down. Still, I decided to try a combination - the theme from school was mythical creatures, and so the week evolved from Tell Me a Dragon, a poetic, magical vision by Jackie Morris.

20200424_104256 The week had a serious dip in it: recently, we've hit a serious wall of perfectionism in our previously carefree, experimental 6 year old. We make so much mess together, but all of a sudden, everything we do - all the things that used to make us happy - go terribly 'wrong' in the first 30 seconds and deteriorate fast into tears, shouting, and gloriously stamping feet. And that's just me!  (And as is so often the case, we burst through the other side of dip when I was least expecting it...)

So, here is how we responded to Tell Me a Dragon, by Jackie Morris, which you can see her reading here.

- We read the book, and picked out the words that described each dragon. Wrote them into little dragon eggs.

20200423_105332 - We fell out. Feets took on the planning of her own literacy for the rest of the week. Not much literacy happened as a result, if I'm honest, but she did write an incredibly poetic description of her own dragon (when I find it, I'll share it :-). Perhaps there's nothing left to teach her.

- (Also, as the week began to improve, they wrote invitations to their two closest friends and delivered them, inviting them to hunt for dragons in the woods on Friday afternoon...)

IMG-20200425-WA0002 - With Mr Liam, Feets got to grips with fifths and thirds, through the tricky task of dividing birthday cakes for Shrek and his friends.  Our shed door was littered with pictures of fairytale characters! (One day, perhaps I too will manage a completely spontaneous shed-door lesson complete with full chalk illustrations, but for the time being this is definitely Liam's forte)

Creative Time
20200423_233515 - We used a technique suggested by my Mum's fabulous art teacher, Debbie Chisholm, to create our own dragon eggs: paint your egg with water; grate some watercolour pencil into dust using sandpaper and sprinkle it onto the wet paper - beautiful results, thank you Debbie! (I thought it was a fail-safe experimental technique for a perfectionist Feets. It wasn't. But Bean loved it.)

- Inspired by the willowy shapes of Jackie Morris' dragons and the variety of forms they take, we took a sack of watery art materials outside and experimented with creating dragon forms. Again, Bean immediately filled her page with joy, while Feets burst into tears and stormed off with the snappy instruction to 'find 10 positives'. The sensible part of my mind took enough control to suggest we stop for lunch, before she got to 10 positives. And the magic happened after lunch, when I turned around to discover Feets on the table, churning out one flamboyant, experimental, magical dragon after another. I left her to it and took Bean for a walk.
20200422_115621 20200422_132746 - The next day we made glitter glue and gave our dragons a shimmer, along with eyes, mouths and other details.

20200424_112116 - Everything came together with a buzz of energy and a glow of magic on Friday morning, as Feets awoke early, cut out numerous eggs and dragons, and helped me write a sign for the fence. We set off with chalk, dragons, eggs and wire. We hid the eggs in an abandoned bird's nest, in our den in the woods, and strapped the dragons to trees leading back to the entrance gate. We hung our sign, and passed another happy half hour creating dragon footprints in chalk up the first part of the path. Then we hid to watch our friends doing the hunt.

20200425_104401 With a clear message in my head to remove the pressure on myself and the kids, I had begin the week with the idea of a dragon trail as a possibility, depending how it all went. By Wednesday, it was looking highly unlikely. But the joy of watching our friends follow the dragon trail erased (almost) every memory of our tricky start to the week! 20200425_132044 What's more, we sent the message to a number of their school and nursery friends, and the families in our block, and were rewarded with numerous photos of children doing the trail. Dinosaur stampers appeared in the nest; video messages of thanks; a chalk message on the pavement by the gate to the woods; and every time I went to re-stock the eggs, the sound of voices hunting for dragons.

We floated like kites into the weekend! 20200425_161302