Posted on 28 Comments

Back to school!

Brynmill School

I was invited to visit my local junior school as part of their St David’s Day week celebrations. I was representing Welsh Art, as I have lived and painted in Wales most of my adult life. Although I had been a Secondary school teacher for 17 years, I was surprised at how nervous I felt beforehand, although I clearly had absolutely nothing to fear from a bunch of 9 and 10 year-olds. I think it was my body getting ready for a “performance” after two years away from the classroom.

Painting of Brynmill Shool
Brynmill School – SOLD

I live opposite this large red-brick school. I hear and see the very little children playing the yard several times a day. Sometimes, they call out to us, asking us to fetch a stray ball for them. I had not been inside this school since 1998, when I had done a week’s observation before I did my Secondary school teacher training. I wasn’t sure how visitors got in these days. I eventually figured out that the school reception was on the opposite side to where I lived. I passed several gates with big padlocks and even the one that opened into the school-yard had a massive unlocked padlock on. Security is a big thing in schools these days and I spent a couple of minutes tapping my details into a screen, having my photo taken and being given a pass with my photo on and barcode to wear around my neck. 

I was taken upstairs to a lovely airy hall with a polished parquet floor. I passed tiny children wearing daffodils and wearing tops, one was dressed as a dragon (with a tail an everything). The school building was similar to the Edwardian Primary school I had been to as a child. I think Britain is dotted with variations of these school schools. They have high ceilings and long windows, that let in lots of light but they are so high up so you can’t actually see out the window.

Me and Year 5.

A group of 30-40 Year 5 pupils (9 and 10 year-olds) were brought in quietly and they all sat crossed-legged on the floor. They waited quietly, looking at me with great interest.  Their teacher introduced me, one class had been studying my work (I felt humbled by that information) and they had lots of questions.

Then the floor was mine. 

Ah, that second before you speak. It may only be time to draw breath, but it can feel like it goes on for ages. I had not prepared what I was going to say, as such.  I had some slides on a powerpoint but I only had some vague points that I thought I might make. So in time honored teacher-style I asked them a question.

“Does anyone know what a professional artist is?” A few hands go up, I ask the girl sitting to the side of the class. “It’s an artist who is very, very good and has been painting for a long time”. “That’s a good description, but it’s also someone who makes a living as an artist. They make money at it. It’s their job.”

I then showed them my series of slides with a small selection of my paintings.

Brynmill school Presentation
Slide Presentation Overview

I talked about how I liked to paint what I could see on my doorstep. So that meant places on the Gower Peninsula like Three Cliffs Bay and Swansea Bay.


Then I showed them a few of paintings I’d done of the streets surrounding their school in Brynmill. There was some excitement and laughter when one boy excitedly exclaimed, “That’s my house!” (forth one along)

Paintings of Welsh Streets
They are all somebody’s homes (except the school of course)
Emmma Cownie painting
Time on promotion

My final slide was meant to introduce the other side of an artist’s work. That of promotion. I explained that I spent a lot of my time on social media, online galleries and blogging so that people might see my work.

So this is where question time slot opened up. Lots of hands go up. I was very impressed with their excellent manners (absolutely no calling out) and very thoughtful questions they had. It was a bit like being one of those pop-stars being interviewed by children on Saturday morning telly in the 1980s & 1990s. I will list as many as I can remember. I will give a shortened version of my answers. I did go off on many tangents. 

“Do you ever get bored of painting?” – no. I run out of inspiration, however, at times. I don’t like that. I have to wait for my next idea to come along.

“What is your favourite place to paint?” – Gower and more recently, Donegal, Ireland.

“Do you ever make up what you paint?” – no. All my painting are real places.

“Why did you change from being a teacher to being an artist?” – I have them the super simplified version. Being a teacher made me ill so I became an artist.

“What is your favourite painting?” – I have two, one of a Gower pony, and another of the cat that used to live in the DIY shop in Brynmill. They are both in my bedroom.

“How much do your paintings sell for?” – It depends. Anything from £1700 to £20.

“What were the most ever paintings you have sold in a day?” – 8 (it might have been 6 actually).

“What is your favourite colour for painting?” – purple – I use it for shadows. There was quite a discussion on colour here. One of their teachers had pointed out to them that shadows were not black or brown. I talked about looking and seeing colours. I also pointed out that few things in real life are really black, if you really look at them. I used the example of a boy’s black trousers – I said the light makes it look, yellow and grey, maybe very dark brown and dark blue but very little black

“What advice would you give young artists?” – paint as much as you can, every day if possible. The more you practice the better you get. That’s true with any skill. Footballing or painting. One boy perked up here. He was clearly a keen footballer. “Footballers make a lot of money”. “Some footballers make a lot of money, lots don’t” I said. His teacher repeated the point (probably not for the first time). I went on to say, “Some artists make a lot of money, look at Damien  Hirst, but most don’t”.

“What did you want to be when you were younger?” – ballerina and then a famous writer! That puzzled them.

“How many days of the week do you paint?” – 6 sometimes 7.

“What was your favorite sport?” – rugby. The football fan’s friend punched the air at this point, this had clearly been a hotly debated point of discussion between them.

“What sort of dogs do you like painting?” – Jack Russells

“Have you I ever painted your own house?” – Yes.

“Have you painted the inside of your house?” – Yes.

Then suddenly the questions dried up and the pupils, whose attention had been faultless until now, started to fidget. I recognized this. “Is it break soon?” I asked one of the teachers. Yes. it was. I was then thanked by a teacher and presented with a box of chocolates! I wasn’t expecting that.

A small group of girls approached me and asked for more advice on painting. They were clearly keen practitioners. So I repeated, my point about painting frequently. I explained there will be many failures on the way (hide them under the bed) but they would need to find their own way of drawing and painting.

Two girls had been appointed to guide me back to reception (I needed their help as I shot off in the wrong direction at one point). I then had to return my ID badge and the computer said “good-bye” as I opened the door. “That’s a creepy portent of the future”, I remarked to the friendly human receptionist, and stepped out into the sunshine as the bell for midday break rang.

From a different angle

But there’s more to tell – click here for the footnote

28 thoughts on “Back to school!

  1. Ahh, great that you did it! I’m sure it will stay in the memory of the little fellows for quite a while. Such visits turn lives around. The visiting procedure is really tight. Sign of the times.

    1. I really hope so Manja, although possibly not so much with the two sporty kids, although I tried to make the point that lots of practice was important in any skill.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, and believe that your visit will stay with these young children for the rest of their lives no matter what they choose to do. Over the years I have worked with young children in the same way, and have always come away having learned a great deal myself.
    Thank you – Janet 🙂

    1. Well I really hope so, Janet. I certainly remember a poet coming to our secondary school and reading his poems (although I dont remember his name). I thought it was pretty cool you could be a poet and get your poems published.

      1. You see he left a lasting impression….

  3. what a wonderful opportunity and experience, i’m sure you made your mark on them –

    1. Thank you, Kbeth. Who know what impact we have on other around us. I hope so.

  4. That’s a wonderful age (9-10) for schoolchildren, I think. They must have been truly impressed to meet you as an artist who used to be a school teacher.

    1. Yes, that are very nice at that age. I am more used to the post-hormonal teenagers, so I thought these kids were a delight!

  5. Wonderful post Emma. I am amazed by the security to get into the school. It sounds like your group really enjoyed their time with you as seen by all those questions.

    1. I was pretty surprised. I am used to the idea that you have to “sign in” and wear a vistors badge – the hi-tec element made it a little more unnerving. Security is a big thing in school, these days. I remember when I was teaching in a secondary school in Gower (2016) that we had to have a “lockdown” pratcice, where they rang a siren and we all locked our classrooms and thought about what it would be like if a terrorist/lone-nutter was rampaging around the school. It was sobering stuff. That was just after the Manchester bomb and some of the pupils’ parents had gone to that pop concert. I suspect that the danger level might still be very high beacause IS have pretty much been driven out of Syria.

      1. I wonder what the security is I schools in the US. They have had so many home grown nutters that have wrought death and devastation. Back in the 60s when I was in school in California we had air raid drills as the school was near an air force base. Alarm went and we all went out onto the lawn . Seemed pretty crazy to me to expose all of us to those Vietnamese bombers who I decided were never coming anyway. But I was a Canadian foreigner so I just did as I was told. 😄

      2. At least you decided the threat was pretty unlikely. I grew up in the 1980s and TV programmes abou the threat of nuclear holocaust gave me nightmares! I also wrote a few grim short stories ablout life in a post-holocaust world. As you say, school shootings in the US are sadly a very real event.

      3. As we spend the winter in Florida we were here for the Parlkand shooting last year. It is just so tragic and even worse is the speed with which so many in the US rush to defend their “right to bear arms “.

      4. Oh that’s terrible. Its very sad and unnecessary. I dont think any one has the right to bear assault rifles (unless they are part of a proper army). Interestingly, Canada somehow manages to allow gun ownership without this level of violence., presumably they are more closely controlled?

      5. Canada has a different history with guns
        We do ot have a constitution that guarantees the right to bear arms and most Canadians do not carry handguns. We do have more control over guns and gun licenses but there are still criminals who get hold of illegal guns. But so far they are not assault weapons. The US is a very different country to Canada. Our laws and government are closer to Britain than the US.

  6. What a wonderful thing to do, Emma! I would have loved it if you came to MY school, back in the olden days!! You may never know who you inspired or touched in some way by your example, but, I bet you did! 🙂

  7. Great story. It will probably help me too as I have been asked to give a demonstration to kids at a museum in the not too distant future.

    1. Glad to hear that Pat. Kids are usually full of good questions. It helped that their teachers had prepared them so well too.

  8. Year 5, one of my favourite years! I agree with the others that your visit will stay with them. It strikes me that another powerful feature is that you are local, and showed them that what is right in front of them is worthy of capturing. We often think it is the exotic that is more interesting. I love the boy who was excited to see his own house!

    1. His amazement was amusing. Yes, what is right in front of you is worthy of consideration!

  9. What a lovely way to spend a morning 🙂 🙂 I imagine the promoting/social media side is tiresome, or do you make it fun?

    1. It depends…it can do but these things go in cycles. I like the comments/conversation part of social media but I sometimes find it hard to know what picture to post next, as I don’t always have a new painting to post every day.

      1. You have some beauties to choose from. 🙂 🙂 Have a good week!

  10. […] night I received a lovely present from one of the pupils of  Brynmill school who was inspired, after my talk with her class, to paint one of my paintings. I was absolutely […]

  11. It would be interesting to see if you planted any seeds Emma?

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