Site icon Johanna Flanagan

I see, I think, I wonder … when the kids met the crows.

I’ve just arrived back in Glasgow after the opening of my exhibition in the Tig Gallery.  My first solo exhibition.  My first exhibition where I felt like I had something to say and where I met actual people, face to face, who had never seen my work before and who had opinions about it that they wanted to share with me.

Right now I am exhausted.   I worked flat out for about three months on this show and up until about two hours before the doors opened I was still sewing.

Until last night, my work has been shared mostly online.  Some of you buy my work, some of you read about it, some of you send me messages about it, but until last night it felt, somewhat ironically, private.

The opening night was lovely.  Lots of people braved the rain and the cold of the first night of a Scottish west coast autumn to come out and drink champagne and see the show.  Many of them wanted to talk to me about the work and share their thoughts about it and it was helluva daunting.  If someone sends me an email, I can read it, reply, think about what they’ve said, then close my laptop and carry on with my day.   It’s different when someone is right in front of you and you can see their eyes and hear their voice.

They got it though.  Within twenty minutes, one woman had approached me to tell me that she’d been moved to tears by one of the pieces.  The one piece that had moved me to tears when I made it.  The one piece I needed to make because it was demanding to be brought to life, and she got it.  She understood and was kind enough to find me and tell me that she had been moved by it.

This morning Ros, the director of the gallery had arranged for the local primary school kids to visit the gallery and have a chat with me.  At first I was a little concerned that my work often includes boobs, bums and nipples, and that maybe this could be a bit of a bone of contention, but the head mistress thought this would be fine and it was.  Ros regularly invites the local kids to come to the gallery.  We both come from a similar background in art education in Glasgow’s museums, and Ros is committed to connecting kids and young people with art in engaging ways.  Before the kids arrived she told me about a ‘game’ that they play when they visit.

It’s called “I see, I think, I wonder”.  The kids have a look around the gallery, take photos if they like, then choose a piece of work that they are drawn to for whatever reason and then tell the rest of the group what they see – it could be a description of the piece, how it’s made, what it looks, whatever.  Then they talk about what they think about the piece, their reaction to it, whether it’s how it makes them feel or their opinion on how it’s been made, or what they think it might be about.  Finally they share what they wonder about the piece.  Again, this can be something practical like how some part of it has been created or anything at all that they want to question or investigate a little big further.

This was to be the first time that children, other than those in my own family, would engage with my work and, let’s face it, kids are WAY more honest than adults when it comes to things like this, so I was very interested in how they were going to respond.

When they first arrived I didn’t want to tell them anything at all about what I do or why I do it.  I wanted them to come to it with just their own open minds.

The first kid blew my head off.  He chose to talk about one of the large black crow dolls – a half crow, half man, perched on top of an antique suitcase. He told me that he saw a man turning into a crow, but who’d been frozen as if a magic spell had been caught and held still half way through.  He said it was definitely a man turning into a crow, and not a crow turning into a man.  This kid is ten years old.   This kid needs to start writing my artist’s statements for me.


A girl stepped up and chose to talk about the other crow doll, a female with large rounded hips and a ruffled black muslin collar.  She told us that this one had a different story.  The girl said that this one had been a circus performer, then something had happened, something that had frozen her in time,  but she is waiting and not giving up that time, she knows that’s still who she is.  This kid is also ten years old.  I want this kid to be my therapist.

This went on around the room as each of the children took the rest of the group to something they were interested in and talked without any apology or self consciousness about how they responded to it.  I would struggle to get a group of adults to do the same.

“This doll does yoga”

“A cat ate all the fish and left just the bones behind”.

“These look like they’ve come from the sea”.

“The crow man is wearing a diving suit that’s not orange”.

“How come it’s got nipples?”

It was bloody brilliant.

The teacher thanked me for talking to the kids, but I got at least as much out of it as they did.  I recommend it to anyone who creates anything – invite a group of kids to tell you what they see, what they think, and what they wonder, because they go right to the core in ways that I as an adult massively overcomplicate.

Next week I’ll be back in the gallery working in a studio just off of the exhibition space and hopefully meeting more visitors.  I’ll be teaching two kids workshops where we’ll be making animal masks and creating stories around their characters.  I’m looking forward to it even more now that I’ve met some of the kids and have some idea of how creative they are.



It’s now almost two weeks since I wrote the first half of this post.  The ten year old girl I mentioned above is called Catriona,  and she came back to the gallery last week to take part in the mask making workshop with me  After the class she asked me if she could come back the next day to show me some of her drawings.

Catriona has one of the most vivid imaginations I think I’ve ever known.  She doesn’t just draw and create beautiful, interesting things – she creates whole worlds.  She can tell you every single detail about a character – their history, their relatives, what bought them to the point of the story she’s telling.  She also has an incredible knack for actually telling the story, for narrating with tension and atmosphere and suspense.

There was a lot of talk about what she could do when she grew up.  As much as I believe she has an amazing future ahead of her, I couldn’t help but be astounded by just how much she is already achieving.  She has the mind of a movie director. Of the sort of writer who has enormous worlds, mythologies and dynasties in her mind, fully formed just waiting for their turn to be spoken out loud.

I asked her again about the story she’d told about the crow dolls, and if she would let me record her telling the story.   I carried one of the dolls over to the table where we were sitting,  and as the adults in the room closed our eyes, she told their story.  She has very kindly agreed to allow me to share that story here.

The Story Tellers – by Catriona, age 10

The story is about two brothers in a circus act called The Two Crows.

The brothers lived together in a cave because their parents died when they were very young.   One day the circus came to town, and they went to the Ring Master and asked “please sir, may we have an act in your show?”   The Ring Master said “Of course you may, but on one condition;  you must bring your own costumes”.

So the brothers went back to the beach and searched all over for hours, and had almost given up, until they found two dead crows and decided that they could use beaks and feathers to make their costumes.  They gathered up all the bits and pieces, then headed back to the cave to build a fire and get some sleep as they would need to have their act ready soon.

After making their costumes from the feathers, beaks and twigs, the brothers went back to the Ring Master who welcomed them into the show and quickly put them to work rehearsing for their debut.   The brothers practiced their act back stage as the audience began to fill the tent.   Among the audience was a strange man, who carried an unusual magical looking stick or wand.   He sat quietly among the crowd.

The Two Crows drawn by Catriona

By two o’clock, the bell rang and it was time for the brothers to perform their balancing and juggling act.  For ten minutes the brothers performed, then something peculiar happened.  The thing the strange man was carrying in his hand was different, something not right and suddenly he threw it at both of the brothers.  They froze.  The audience moved quickly out of the circus tent, everyone left, but the brothers were still frozen half way between crow and boys.











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