Close to the clean white spaces and framed images, there’s a wall scattered with scraps of paper. The range of textures and colours are an instant impact on the senses, with faces and patterns made from every material imaginable.
Colour-coded felt tip pens, pencils and strips of fabric are all held together on a small table – it seems more like a children’s classroom than a traditional art gallery. But it’s actually both.
Aspex gallery in Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth is reaching out to children and families with a range of activities, including summer art clubs. The gallery is trying to be more than just a place to view art, but a place to create and interact with it.
Jo Bushnell, 42, is the director of the gallery. She says: ‘We organise summer clubs to give kids interesting activities to do in the holidays. They are taught by practising artists so children can interact with them and the exhibition we have going on at the moment.
‘It’s to make contemporary art more accessible for them in general.’
Vicky Chiswell, 25, lives in North End and is the participation and learning manager. She says: ‘They are three days long and the idea is that children will work on a particular theme.
‘They might be doing a series of activities around them or one activity. Right now it’s all about how to be a wild thing and activities around creating creatures from their alter ego.
‘I think it’s very important that children can be given that chance to be creative.’
For Jo, the activities for families are at the heart of the organisation.
She explains: ‘From my perspective, it’s the lifeblood. We want to make art available for everyone. It’s so important to engage children in art at the earliest opportunity. Whether they are creative or not, you can accept art and culture as a really important aspect of your life.’
The gallery also runs workshops for children every Saturday, whether in the school holidays or not.
Vicky explains: ‘We do lots of different activities, which engage toddlers right through to adults. We have our many workshops every Saturday for toddlers, so they are for families really. Led by artists, it’s about getting a real taste of the exhibitions and making them accessible to our younger audience.
‘There’s another project on Saturday afternoons for children with special educational needs - we have sessions for children with autism.’
Children can create their own works of art, as well as learning about other people’s.
Vicky says: ‘It’s important they are working with practising artists and they get to engage with contemporary art and explore the exhibitions. They can create their own work and be inspired by them.
‘It’s about that as much as it’s about the children engaging with the gallery as a whole. They can come and use the crafts available at any time so they can be part of art whenever they want.’
The main exhibition at aspex is Background by David Blandy, which runs until August 25 and uses a combination of images and personalised video games.
Jo says: ‘It’s a show influenced by the artist’s passion for video games and reading his grandfather’s memories about his experience as a Japanese prisoner of war.’
Also running throughout the summer is Wrong Pong - a game based on ping pong, in the way that crazy golf is related to golf. With three tables set up in the cafe, there are different angles, obstacles and textured surfaces.
‘Hopefully there’s something for kids and adults to get connected with,’ explains Jo.
‘We also have a craft exhibition called MAKE//SHIFT, which includes work that twists a classic silhouette.
‘All of the work is part of our season question, which is ‘‘What is the role of play?’’ Each season we make a question and programme around it, in part to give people different ways into activities and art.’
But as the gallery heads towards the autumn months, the season question will change. And so will the exhibitions and theme of the children’s workshops.
Jo says: ‘We will be looking at the question ‘‘Who is fit to judge?’’ We will also be launching EMERGENCY6, which we’ve been running for about 12 years.’
EMERGENCY6 is when aspex seeks emerging artists for an open submission exhibition. A maximum of 12 are chosen for the show, which opens in October.
‘David Blandy was part of our first EMERGENCY back in 2002, so it was exciting to be able to invite him back for a solo show. We’re also launching the Futurators, which is looking for young people who maybe want to become curators when they are older.’
Vicky says: ‘It will be relaunched this September for 15 to 22-year-olds, who can be part of a group which feeds directly into the programme. They will be completely in charge of a whole season and the question will come from their ideas. We want them to be involved with the outcome.’
The future of the gallery is about engaging with the visitors who walk through the door, and Jo believes it’s more important than ever to involve the people of Portsmouth.
She says: ‘We are here for the people of Portsmouth and to give them access to contemporary art. It’s important we can connect with them and that what they see here is fresh. They won’t know the artists’ names but they might see something new that makes them react.’
For some children, galleries can seen quite intimidating, but aspex hopes to dispel any myths.
Vicky says: ‘I think they can sometimes be quite scary, but we are doing as much as we can to engage with our visitors It’s not just exhibitions and workshops, we also go out into the community for events to do with art.
‘We believe art feeds into everyday life. We are launching a summer community garden, which we want the community to become involved in. We want to find as many different ways of reaching out to people as possible.’
And that means getting people talking.
‘I think we need to try and keep everything conversational. We want people to be talking about art. Not everything we do people will like, but it’s about keeping that conversation going.
‘When people visit they come in, we want to find out what they like about it and their daily life. It’s about keeping that conversation up with the public.’
For more information go to aspex.org.uk.
As part of the summer holidays, aspex gallery runs summer art clubs for eight to 13-year-olds. This week, the children discovered all about animals and becoming their favourite animal.
Izzy Whitmore, 10, lives in Southsea and has been to other workshops in the past. She says: ‘My favourite subject is art and I’ve been here a couple of times now. I like making up stuff and I hope I can carry on doing it when I go up to senior school. I really enjoy creating things.’
Hermione McCue, 13, also lives in Southsea and attended with her sister, Jemima.
She says: ‘I like that there’s lots of different things to do. I’ve drawn a panda because we have to think about our favourite animals, and I think we’re going to make them into masks. I really love art and I hope I get to carry on doing things like this.’
Background, by David Blandy
July 19 - August 25
The artist deconstructs who we are through images, narratives and video games.
July 18 - August 25
Angled tables with obstacles, oddly shaped tables and textured surfaces. Go to wrongpong.com.
June 26 until August 6
Artists who work changes your traditional perspective such as twisting a classic silhouette.
Summer Art Club for eight to 13-year-olds
August 13-15 and August 27-29
Workshops cost £40 for three days or £15 for an individual day.
Call (023) 9277 8080 or go to aspex.org.uk for more information.