Last chance to see: Dalston’s tropical forest

Despite a busy morning at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, with only one week left to view, we decided to take a short detour to Dalston and pop into Instant Touch. Billed as a leafy wonderland of tropical forest and 3D fruit, it sounded quite a grown up concept, and I was excited about the potential of finding a genuine piece of installation art that might be child-friendly.

The craft that had gone into transforming this space was inspirational. The walls had been covered from head to toe in palm leaves created from a range of materials, and although few and far between, the items of 3D fruit (such as Lydia Shirreff’s pineapple) were highly impressive. What felt like a Banksy-inspired gorilla lurked cheekily behind the main entrance, even a snake had been neatly tucked away above a door frame mustering a shriek from my youngest companion.

As a collaboration between artists, designers and positive keensters (answers on a postcard… it must be a Dalston thing) the potential to produce something truly original was great, especially with the Printhouse Gallery presenting such a blank canvas. Sadly, it all fell a bit short in our expectations of something really immersive, or interactive. It was nice that much of the ‘foliage’ was in easy reach to visitors of any height, but much more could have been made of this to ensure it lived up to its walk-through description. There were nowhere near enough ‘live art pieces’, and I failed to sniff anything from the faux fruit, let alone Belly Kids Scratch and Sniff book, however entertaining their pages were.

A major visual centerpiece could have perhaps brought the peripheral work together. Even some consideration around events or sessions that would bring the space to life outside of its day-to-day use, might have encouraged us to hang around a little longer. Instead, we left with some confusion as to who the exhibition was actually aimed at, and a sense of a real missed opportunity. If you’re in Dalston with the kids over the next week, perhaps pop in and have a look, but it doesn’t really warrant a detour.

Needless to say, I am very excited to have added an exciting new space to my gallery repertoire and look forward to seeing what it plays host to next.

Instant Touch is on at the Printhouse Gallery until 31st August. Admission free.

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Quentin Blake gives Hall Place the feel-good factor

After booking into Animal Magic, one of the many summer activities for kids hosted by the beautiful Hall Place & Gardens, I was extremely excited to see that in the gallery of the main house, they were exhibiting a very different collection of recent work by Quentin Blake. I found it very difficult to imagine my childhood without the instantly recognisable illustrations of Blake, bringing to life the mad-cap children stories of Roald Dahl. In fact, these days if it wasn’t for some of his designs being prevalent in various mass-market card shops, I could have been forgiven for assuming that he had hung up his apron and dried off his paint brushes!

After animal-petting and a picnic, I only had about an hour before my youngest would need a nap, and we had to be somewhere that afternoon, so I knew I was taking a risk trying to squeeze-in this sizeable exhibit with the kids. I was confident that they would love his colourful and comedic style, but I hadn’t counted on having to first bypass some extremely exciting (and unintentionally interactive) models of cats, and a hands-on Tudor room. ‘Just go with it’ I thought…and I’m glad I did.

How much fun was The Cat Circus? Beginning life as a book of pen and ink drawings by Jessica Jane Charleston, this illustrated story has been brought to life in the form of three incredible larger-than-life paper mâché cats, alongside a host of pen, ink and watercolour drawings from The Cat Circus books. The work tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped by cats and taken to their circus. The journey takes her across the sea and on the way she meets a host of other characters, reflected in the magical work that fills the gallery, making you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The story captured the imagination of my little moggy-lovers so much that in the time it took to capture this amazing work on camera, I had repeatedly uttered the words “Uh, no you can’t sit on them” and “That’s right, gentle patting please”. Definitely time to move on.

The Tudor Room is a must for families with children of all ages. Aside from its fascinating interior, it’s complete with draws to open, buttons to press, coins to rub and a dressing up box! And even though I was desperate to rush them on to the main event, I had to give the girls their dues. This place was well worth the £8 adult admission.

Finally, we climbed the stairs, and after a false-start in the form of a pre-schooler toilet call, we were surrounded by the magnificent As Large as Life, a collection of more recent work by Quentin Blake, this time serving a social purpose. All of the work in the exhibition had been commissioned by hospitals both in the UK and abroad, and were supported by The Nightingale Project, a project that champions the use of art and music to make healthcare sites more appealing for patients and visitors. Originally drawn in the artist’s studio, the various prints were then enlarged and reproduced as high-quality digital prints to be displayed on the walls as if drawn directly onto them, thus inspiring the title of the exhibition.

The first section of the exhibition, Planet Zog, captures Quentin Blake at his best. This work features a host of mischievous and eccentric characters, created with endless detail that really give the popular ‘eye-spy’ books a run for their money. The girls absolutely loved the funny looking aliens, and that in every part of the picture there was something new going on, and something else to spot.

My youngest was getting impatient by this time, but luckily the impressive hanging vinyls were big enough to catch our eye before moving on to some of the most touching work in the exhibition; Ordinary Life in Vincent Square. The Vincent Square Clinic in London is for people with eating disorders, and after meeting with patients, Blake decided that a celebration of normality and every day life would be the most appropriate theme. This work had such a calm, peaceful feel to it, a huge departure from the animated character scenes typical of Blake’s lively style. And of course they were popular with the girls. More cats, and dogs, all extending our pet-themed day!

This felt to me like a sensible time to leave. We’d had a very busy morning and were happy that we had managed to squeeze in something for everyone.

As Large as Life definitely lived up to my expectations, but with the fabulous unexpected The Cat Circus diversion, it was proof that even the biggest of headline acts, can occasionally be upstaged by the support.
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As Large as Life by Quentin Blake, and The Cat Circus are both on display at Hall Place House & Gardens, Bexley Heritage Trust until 31st August 2014

Admission to Hall Place is £8 Adults, £6 for under 16s, under 5s free.

If you Gift Aid your ticket, it will be valid for unlimited repeat visits within a 12-month period.

Would families give Edinburgh Fringe a rave review?

The Journey: Interactive installation on Grassmarket

The Journey: Interactive installation on Grassmarket

I’ve just returned from the opening weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe, but contrary to my Arts Aloud mission, I actually decided this year to go child-free. Aside from it being a fantastic opportunity for myself and my husband to spend some well-earned time alone, we did also have it in mind that it might be worth scoping it out for a possible return next year with the kids in tow.

As the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe promises an ‘open-access festival’, a festival that contains something for absolutely everyone, fuelled by the creativity of the many individuals who have poured their passion into their work, and brought it to the city to share with the millions of people who attend each year.

As we leapt from venue to venue, mixing up superb theatre with live music, unusual dance and movement with close-to-the-bone comedy, we realised that above all else, it certainly wouldn’t be possible to embrace the fringe with the same intensity that we had been doing. With two children under 5, it’s unlikely that we would want to fill the day with more than one or two ‘appointments to see’, but volume aside, I wondered, could we still ‘experience’ the Fringe in the same way, if the children had come along with us?

This year’s Fringe boasts well over 100 shows that are specifically for children, whether re-telling of family favourites or original work. In addition, the rest of the schedule is well sign-posted with icons comparable to film classifications, designed to indicate audience suitability, and providing parents with enough information for them to decide whether to expose their children to some of the more grown-up aspects of the Fringe. Although we thought that this was a great idea, we did have some reservations about how you can enforce the recommended ratings, particularly with regard to some of the more improvised aspects of comedy and theatre. It is also worth considering the very real lack of access to some of the venues involved; particularly in the Old Town with its narrow passageways and steep winding staircases, typical of the buildings that populate Edinburgh’s historic centre.

In spite of this, I was given several reminders that one of the most attractive things about the Fringe for families, is that it exists far beyond the pages of the directory listings and the seated shows. It’s live on the streets of Edinburgh, in every corner of the city that you visit, providing hundreds of alternative activities that bring the festival to life and create some welcome opportunities to take a break from the schedule and to kick-back and relax.

Courtesy of a range of brand sponsors, St. Andrew’s Square Gardens, is one of many of the city squares that have been transformed into a relaxed social space; awash with deck chairs and food stalls, live (but unimposing) music and even table football and ping-pong. For those who prefer to keep moving, the West End Fair was a really interesting space for a stroll, featuring hundreds of makers, artists and designers exhibiting their latest creations, and the Fringe Schools Poster Exhibition at the Museum of Childhood was a great way to inspire enthusiastic scribblers through the work of other young artists.

At Grassmarket, a historic marketplace just a stone’s throw from a whole host of Fringe venues, we chanced upon a really exciting piece of interactive installation by Diana Bell, with Daniel Balanescu and Helen Edwards. The Journey asks passers-by to share something about their life, where they come from or where they were going by picking up a small wooden house, and adding it to the installation, wherever they felt it should feature. Older children were really enjoying sharing stories of their home-towns, whilst the younger ones loved walking in and out of this imaginary village that was emerging from the pavement, moving houses around and making it their own.

In addition, even the Festival stalwart The Pleasance decided to get in on the family friendly act this year by adding a ‘kidzone’ to their already popular courtyard. And all of this before you even consider that Edinburgh is a world-class city, and like any world-class city, it is home to an abundance of year-round sights and activities suitable for families.

Where better to start than Edinburgh’s imposing Castle, which can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the city, and is a gift to the imagination of every young visitor. Leading down from the castle, at any time of year, it would be impossible to walk the cobbles of the Royal Mile without stopping to watch a busker, an acrobat or a magician, in the same way not a single visitor could pass the adorable and infamous Greyfriars Bobby, without stopping to rub his now gold and shiny nose! Add in Edinburgh Zoo, the Botanic Gardens and the hundreds of museums and galleries where kids can get hands on, and you should have exhausted children, happy parents and a good night sleep for all! And yes, it might be more difficult to do too much in the evening, but like us, it might be worth considering teaming up with friends and taking it in turns to continue the fun late into the night.

All things considered, I would say our plans to return to the Edinburgh Fringe with the children are firmly hatched, and I look forward to hearing from anybody who might have already put my plan for next year into action.

In the meantime, on the 16th August the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society and Starcatchers, are hosting ‘Breaking Down Barriers’, a conversation to explore why early years arts are important and consider how they can make the Fringe more accessible for babies, toddlers and their adults. Sadly, I will not be in Edinburgh for this event, but I urge anyone who might be in Edinburgh at this time, with or without their children to go along, join the debate and share some of the outcomes with me. I am in contact with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Society and hope to be able to publish the minutes from this meeting here on Arts Aloud.

Until then, my self-indulgent top 3 from the Fringe this year are as follows:
1) Shame – Highly original production of spoken word, contemporary dance and hip-hop theatre exploring some of the shameful aspects and experiences of the creator’s life.
2) #MeetandTweet – Heart-warming story of Twitter’s influence on people and friendship, and a social experiment that turned into a global phenomenon.
3) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – If like me you found the film a little too weird and intense, then you will love this fantastic re-telling of a journey to the heart of the American Dream.

The Edinburgh Fringe runs from the 1st – 25th August.