Published 05.05.2016
by Kids’ Own

Another Planet: further adventures in the virtual world

Virtually There Curator Ann Donnelly continues her exploration of the project with a visit to artist Sharon Kelly’s studio in Belfast during a vibrant online session with St Patrick’s Primary School, Crossmaglen.

I have visited schools before during Virtually There sessions but outside my own work I have never seen the project in action from the perspective of another artist in the studio. It has been an intriguing prospect and the reality didn’t disappoint.

Where am I?

Explaining my location is not simple. During the course of the morning I will have visited a classroom in Crossmaglen, two very different dens, a portal, a rocket, various planets and all of this without physically leaving Sharon Kelly’s studio in Belfast.

The morning started in Sharon’s studio. The artist had set up everything she needed for the session and I was struck by the sheaf of planning notes on her desk. Teacher Fionnuala Hughes and the P4 class contacted Sharon to begin the online session and it was clear immediately that the morning had been planned very thoughtfully. The teacher gathered the children and focussed them with a story about a penguin, who wanted to find a place to have some time out from the huddle of other penguins. The story resonated with previous work – earlier sessions have involved exploration of nests. It engaged the children’s imagination, introducing the idea of special places.

After the story, a conversation developed between Sharon, the P4s and the teacher and some great stories emerged about places where the children felt safe: from old cots, baths, sheds, attics to lorry cabs and cars. Sharon told the children about a spaceship called Icarus that her daughter Emma and her friend had created when they were small with control panels made from scavenged computer monitors. Sharon set a challenge for the children: to build a den in the classroom. This caused cheers and surprise in the classroom. A blonde ponytail bobbed up and down with excitement. Children and teacher were extremely excited by the idea. The children looked at materials that the teacher had gathered and discussed ideas for putting them together.  What might be used? Some cardboard: paint it, make a frame, put the tin foil over the cardboard. Some carpet or something. Mrs Hughes had sourced a surprising object: a large cardboard rocket! She had borrowed it from another class to add into the den along with a polythene tunnel just the right size for crawling through. The children got comfortable and drew designs for the den on tracing paper. Keighan called them blueprints. While this was happening two stockinged feet paddled softly in the corner of the screen as their unseen owner dreamed up a plan for an ideal den.

Child: Sharon, are you under the stairs?

Artist: No, I’m in my den, Gareth.

Child: Wow, that’s really cool!

Sharon had blankets and sheets and weights ready and during break time she created her own den under her desk. The rest of the session was conducted from here. She folded herself like Alice in Wonderland under the desk into her den. As the session continued she relaxed to the floor, mirroring the children’s body language.


There was a lot of dramatic billowing and huffing and puffing as Mrs Hughes, the classroom assistants and the children created an enormous den using a parachute. At one point the principal, Mr Madine, popped in for an impromptu inspection. From the outside, it was clear that the den filled the entire classroom. Inside, it seemed as if there was infinite space. The session switched to iPads and iPhone so that children could bring a very eager Sharon inside for a look around. The huge den had been divided into various spaces including an area with soft cushions where several of the children were lolling languidly.

Teacher: Anyone else like to talk to Sharon about what it feels like?

Child 2: Over in this corner it feels nice and cosy.

Artist: What makes it cosy?

Child 2: We have a quilt on so it feels nice and cosy.

Child 3: In the corner over there it feels like relaxing in the sun.

Artist: Ohhhh.

Child 4: It feels like over in the corner like you’re lying on fluffy lambs.

Child 3: Soft and warm.


Children took turns to go inside the portal/ tunnel into the rocket – a private space within the den that connected through windows to the outside world. It was amazing to follow the progress into this inner space: the physical excitement in the tunnel, the chaotic images then the slowing down and surveying of the space. Breath quietened, and as it settled, imaginative spaces unfolded.

Artist: Where are you going to fly to?

Child 5: I like Mars. There’s some other planets. If you wouldn’t die on the sun I’d like to go there.

Child 6: It feels like I am in outer space.

Artist: Where are you?

Child 7: It’s a bit squishy. It’s dark and blue.

Artist: What planet are you on?

Child 7: It’s sort of like Mercury. It’s sort of like all blue. When you’re on the planet it’s changing colours a bit. It’s sort of – when you look at the blue paper it’s turning green.

Artist: What’s on the ground?

Child 8: Tiles.

Artist: How did they get on Mars?

Child 8: Actually it’s rock.

Artist: Is it safe to go out?

[A head peeks through the porthole.]

Child 8: Dylan’s after peeking in. It must be safe out there. It’s feeling safe but noisy.

Child after child experienced the journey into the portal and back to the den again. This was a magical interlude. Time went by very quickly and soon the session was almost over.

With 29 children and 1 teacher in a small room, logistics plays a big part in planning sessions. It was really clear that both teacher and artist were well prepared and it’s obvious that Sharon has been able to engage both Mrs Hughes and children. Ideas were introduced coherently and yet the whole session was underpinned with an exploration of the children’s feelings and experience. This is all the more impressive considering the fact that although Sharon’s online residency in St Patrick’s stretches back over seven years, essentially this is a new partnership between artist and teacher.

It was a privilege to watch the session move through layers of real, virtual and imaginary space. What struck me was the freedom that the session had engendered within the classroom. The children experienced a different physical state and this helped to create a vivid experience in the imagination.

Artist: Do you think that the children enjoyed that?

Classroom assistant: Oh, you must be joking. One of them said it was the best day ever.

It sounds like a cliché but that’s what was reported. For more perspectives on this memorable day, visit the St Patrick’s PS project page on the Virtually There Journals.