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Photo above: Steve Downey's art workshop in Beckers Green School


As part of the Essex Artists in Architecture Scheme, I was employed to work with 3 classes at Beckers Green School in Braintree, leading to the creation of a large artwork in the new building extension to the school.  Pupils in each class were encouraged to create mandala artworks based on one of 3 cultures: Australia, Asia and North America.  These works were incorporated by me in the final work.

Mandala art workshop at Beckers Green School


Small mandala based on Australian Aboriginal symbols created by a pupil

Final panels of the artwork at Beckers Green School

Pupils admiring their artworks at Beckers Green School



Section of the large artwork in the main corridor of Southview School

My first Essex Artists in Architecture Scheme was in 1995-6 at Southview Special School in Witham. I worked there over a period of two years with every child in the school, aged 3 -18.  Many were severely physically disabled as well has having learning and behavioural difficulties.  Several pupils died during my time at the school.  The idea was to integrate art into the new school building and the grounds.  I created a sundial and circular pavement in mosaic, reflecting the logo image of the school.

Section of the large pavement mosaic at Southview School

I integrated artworks created by pupils and staff into a huge 28 ft artwork in the main corridor of the school, and the whole thing was celebrated by a party with invited parents and other guests, during which a specially composed song for me was performed and signed by a group of the children. 

Steve Downey installing his artwork in sections, assisted by the Schoolkeeper

Detail of final artwork

Every pupil created a 6 inch square artwork about their favourite things on wood to be integrated into the final work.  Then some teachers asked if they could have a go, then the office staff, school keeper, parents and even the secondary school next door.  Here a young pupil proudly points to his artwork.



Steve Downey with young pupils from Sheering School, creating patterns on Photoshop, based on Egyptian patterns for use in their collaged artworks

My artist residency at Sheering Primary School, near Harlow Essex, involved around 40 days' work spread over a period of 2 years.  I was one of a team of artists, each working in different schools within the area, encouraging pupils to learn about maths and numeracy though working on arts projects.  Sheering is a small village school with around 100 pupils, and I worked with every child on topics related to Egypt and Water. 

Initially I asked to be an observer on each class for half a day each, but this straight away led to me becoming totally involved with teaching them.  This helped gain their respect and willingness to learn from me as a strange artist coming into the school.  I asked them to call me "Steve" to differentiate me from the normal teacher and quickly they all started to say "Hi Steve" when passing me in the corridor.

Reception year pupils making pyramids out of sugar cubes - an exercise in three-dimensional geometry

I asked the teachers not to tell me the abilities of the pupils, or any behavioural difficulties, because I wanted to accept them as I found them, expecting the highest possible standard of work from every child.  To the surprise of some staff. this led to several 'under achieving' pupils producing the very best work and on some occasions they were asked to present what they had done in the whole school assemblies, much to their delight and pride. 

As with most of my school projects, I established and updated a noticeboard  near the main entrance to inform everyone about the art project

The school had an excellent computer suite so I persuaded them to invest in the programme Photoshop, so that they could manipulate images related to these 2 topics to form a basis for their artworks. I was advised by the Essex Maths Inspectors that Primary aged children could not handle Photoshop. In fact children as young as 4 years soon got the hang of it, even though they had never used a computer before.

The school wanted me to experiment with children working across age groups, so we formed small teams on this basis, the older pupils helping the younger ones out, and sometimes the other way round.  The pupils soon adjusted to this method of teaching and the staff recognised its benefits and decided to use this as one of their teaching methods on a permanent basis.

The school decided to experiment with an arts based curriculum, and to this effect we set up an "Arts Week", whereby the pupils did some form of arts activities all day for one week.  Every teacher and I became involved with every class during this week.  The results were evaluated by the school and an independent expert, and it was evident that not only did the children enjoy this experience and produce excellent work, they also learnt a lot of new skills and gained knowledge of maths and numeracy, and how to collaborate with each other.  One pupil said that working with me was "the best day of his life!"

I was fortunate to have Sam, a sixth former, assigned to me for 2 weeks and she came with me to the school for one day and helped the children to create pyramids using just canes and elastic bands. They found out that if you stacked the pyramids on top of each other, you created a giant pyramid.

Sam helping pupils make pyramids out of canes and elastic bands - a 3-dimensional geometric art project

The completed giant pyramid the children made. Every child had a chance to stand within it!

I worked individually with one boy with physical and severe learning difficulties, and he was able to achieve good results in his art, and insisted in holding my hand during school assemblies.  His parents went out of their way to seek me out and thank me for what I had done with him, though it didn't seem much to me!

I was keen to leave the school with two permanent artworks, that would enhance the schools environment and also form a legacy of the project.

"Water World" artwork installed in the school hall

The first artwork "Water World" was a large panel made up of collaged imaginary sea creatures, created by the senior class using artworks made by all the other classes, with the top wave-like section using the artwork by the boy with disabilities.

"Sheering Pyramid" installed at the front of the school

The second artwork was a large wooden pyramid, installed at the front of the school, decorated with geometric patterns created by pupils from every class.

The Sheering Art Project was celebrated by a presentation to the whole school, invited parents and governors, given by myself and the Deputy Headteacher.  We repeated this presentation at 2 arts conferences for headteachers and primary teachers.



In 2007 I worked with one Year 4 class of 9 year-old pupils over a period of 3 months as part of the ArC project organised by Firstsite. The aim was for them to develop skills, knowledge and attitudes relating to the theme of “Intelligent Citizenship” through working with me, leading to the creation of an artwork in the school.  The theme was “A good citizen looks after our world”, and covered:

  • Global warming – what is it; why does it happen; what will happen if it continues; what can we do to stop it.
  • Saving energy – your carbon footprint; recycling; saving electricity, gas and water; transport; your home.
  • The “Green Man” – yourself and nature.

I worked with this one class for a whole day, one day a week over a period of 3 months.  The pupils had not done any art for a year, but quickly got to work enthusiastically and produced some stunning artworks. They learnt a lot about the climate crisis and their responsibility in improving it. 

The final artwork "Save Our World" incorporating artworks from every child

The project culminated with the production of a large artwork incorporating images from all the pupils, which was exhibited at the Minories Gallery and finally installed in the school hall. We held an evaluation session at the end of the Project, and a presentation to parents, governors and visitors.

Save Our World" artwork installed in the School Hall



Pupil making mosaic mandala out of cut-up coloured paper squares.  These mandalas were later transformed into glass mosaics mounted on wood and installed in the school entrance.

This Essex Artist in Architecture project aimed at creating 3 original artworks integrated into the structure of the new building and grounds:

  • A large metal "Abacus" sign outside the main entrance, made up of self portraits by every pupil.

  • An 8-ft tall "Abacus Sculpture" made out of stainless steel, concrete and mosaic, installed in the Sensory Garden.

  • A series of 63 "Abacus Mandalas', created in mosaic glass based on pupils' designs.


I worked with every pupil in the school over several months, in addition to cross-age workshops with children with specific artistic gifts.  



Following a talk to the Heads of Art in Essex Secondary Schools, I was contacted by the Head of Art at West Hatch School to celebrate their 50th anniversary by creating a work.  We chose a location above the entrance to the Assembly Hall right in the centre of the school.  I worked with some sixth form students in the production process which included incorporating photos of school activities over the last 50 years.


The artwork was completed and installed ready for the Anniversary Celebration, attended by hundreds of past pupils. There was an official ceremony with the guest speaker, artist Mark Wallinger, who sat next to me on the stage.  Mark is an ex pupil and gave a brilliant and very funny speech, recalling his exploits at the school and his memories of the teachers.

The Head was so pleased with the artwork that she invited me to conduct a community art project involving the local primary school. Unfortunately this did not materialise due to lack of funds.