‘Beyond the Frame’: Sensory Stories at York Art Gallery

Sensory Stories took art ‘Beyond the Frame’ at York Art Gallery on 28 May putting on a variety of interactive activities and performances for all ages in a day that was a resounding success. The 24 strong team of arts and humanities postgraduates from the Universities of York, Sheffield and Liverpool worked on the project from February, with Sensory Stories’ Matt and Jasmine helping to bring their ideas to life, overseeing the press and publicity and budget. Matt and Jasmine report on the highlights of the day and reflect on areas that could have been improved.


Performances ranged from short storytellings and dramatic monologues, to bite-size lectures on the history of York, a sing-along with an animated close harmony group, interactive character-led object handling, and a specially choreographed contemporary dance inspired by a World War I painting. These performances ran one after the other and attracted up to 45 people at peak times, which was found to be just after lunch. Due to poor weather the performances started inside the Art Gallery where the majority of visitors in the main upstairs gallery were captivated by the opening songs and story of a duel. Once these moved downstairs the performers found it easier to maintain the crowd’s attention, and when most performances were outside the event came together as a whole.

Matt Jenkins brings art to life

Participants included Matt Jenkins recounting the tale of an eighteenth-century duel fought on New Walk Terrace with both skill and gusto, pulling in consistently large crowds. Simon Webb informed the audience of the stories behind the stones – life in, on and around the city walls. His mini-lectures seemed to particularly appeal to adults and local crowds. Emily Rayner told us all about her Johnny who was at the train station waiting to Return to the Front, and what the women were up to back at home during World War I. We were very grateful to Sean Tong and James Jarvis for stepping into the role of Captain John Foote, Captain of the East India Company. Both their performances were delivered seamlessly, attracting the attention of the crowd and drawing attention to the costume worn by Joshua Reynold’s sitter.

Singers The Phenomenotes

It was fantastic to have two external groups on board with this project – namely Holly Clarkson leading her three dancers Amy Green, Ellie Cartwright and Nicola Vallack, and The Phenomenotes. These performances added much to the programme and many visitors to the Gallery commented on how nice it was to see new interpretations of artworks through dance (attended by up to 30 people at a time), and several were found singing along with The Phenomenotes (whose audience ranged from 10 inside to 40 outside).

Dance performance

The Tiger Puppet Storytelling ran three times during the day, although we moved this outside as it was evident that it would be difficult to draw enough people in to the children’s room in the Art Gallery. Although the story entertained a handful of children throughout the day, the more hands-on art and craft activities seemed more popular with them. In hindsight perhaps the puppet storytelling should have been more interactive, involving percussion or participant responses.


Spray painting

There was a good range of activities throughout the day, from painting, colouring to spray painting, fabric printing and listening to music in front of an artwork. The arts and crafts activities seemed to bring families together making the event more family-friendly. The spray paint activity only ran in the morning and approximately 15 people actively participated, with another 20-30 directing from the sidelines. It was clear that those running this activity were also enjoying themselves, and the collaborative end product produced is a great testament to some of the objectives achieved throughout the day.  In place of the spray painting, the fabric printing ran in the afternoon. This was not as popular as one might have expected (around 25 people participated) and the collaborative colouring in of the sash was not completed. This was perhaps due to the placing and size of the table. In hindsight, this activity should have been given more prominence and perhaps ran all day.

Art in the square

Leading the arts and crafts activities was the ‘Have a Go at Making a Hockney’, which was enthusiastically led by Catherine Spencer throughout the day, with occasional help. This activity attracted around 65-70 people, mostly families with young children. Alex O’Donnell also led a successful landscape postcard activity on this table in the afternoon. Finally, the one activity which remained inside throughout the day was Mariana Lopez’s Hockney soundscape, which invited people to listen to three short soundscapes whilst looking at David Hockney’s ‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’ and reflect on which was their favourite and how this had enhanced or changed their visual experience. This activity was constantly busy and very well ran by Mariana and stewards Megan Leyland.


Jasmine: ‘It has been a pleasure working with Matt on this project, overseeing our group’s ideas from start to fruition and helping realise their visions, whilst bearing in mind our own vision to create a number of performances and activities which brought to life some of York Art Gallery’s works in new and unusual ways using the senses and storytelling. Matt should be immensely proud, not only for leading the project, but also for being a shining example to all of the group demonstrating the possibilities of converting one’s research into a captivating story and raising the performance bar, so to speak!’

Matt: ‘I can only reiterate Jasmine’s words and say just how much I enjoyed working with her. Her constant enthusiasm was a real inspiration and she was always pushing to make the event more lively and accessible. There was a point in the planning where I think some of the performances had retreated back into mini lectures and Jasmine really helped to refocus the day and remind us all what we were there to do. Her practicality and hard work was also so very much appreciated. Jasmine should be really proud of her leadership throughout the project.

Scarf printing

‘If this project was to run again then I think there are a few lessons that can be taken from the day. Lunch time was the most popular time of day, when the largest crowds were gathered. Therefore concentrating the performances between 13.00-15.00pm would be beneficial. In contrast, the activities were busy throughout the day, and really helped to cement our presence in the square. It was certainly beneficial to have a masterplan of timings, but we certainly had to be flexible in reorganising as we went along, particular taking into account the weather and the fatigue of the performers.

‘The other major change would be in emphasising the press and publicity aspect. Increasing the interest of the local press, as well as local websites, would have been beneficial. Also targeting local schools with flyers/info would also be a potential avenue to explore. Hopefully if this event runs next year then the organising team will be larger (4 people would be ideal) and these aspects could be incorporated.’

Thanks to Clare Mardell for posting this blog:



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