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