Just 24 hours before I was due to run a workshop I had to put out an emergency call to neighbours and friends. “Please save all your bottle lids for the sake of the children of Haslingfield!”.
I was preparing for the “Big Draw” at a Primary School in Cambridgeshire and realised at the eleventh hour that they didn’t have any suitable containers for the salt and paint we would be using. Thanks to the local milk and juice guzzlers we managed to get 50 lids needed in record time!
Guiding a class of year five students through my creative process was an exciting opportunity and an excellent personal exercise, to clarify what my creative process actually is, and consider how best to explain it to others!
The aim was for each child to make a final-piece in just one day, to be exhibited locally over the Jubilee weekend. The focus of the big draw was the beautiful Cambridgeshire village where the school is set. I decided to use my Everyday Magic series as a starting point.
I set the children homework: a mindfulness exercise of sitting outside for two minutes and tuning into their senses. They noted what they saw, heard, smelt, could feel physically and how they felt emotionally before and afterwards.
It was touching to hear their feedback. Many described trying to fit the exercise into an overcrowded schedule and starting off rushed. Two boys did the homework together and saw two muntjac just a few metres away. Gratifyingly although some children described feeling twitchy and bored at the beginning of their two minutes they all said they wanted to stay longer than two minutes and many did. They also all described feeling calmer more relaxed and peaceful after the exercise.
There’s something powerful and meaningful about working from direct observation, that gives the final outcome authenticity and honesty. The children had looked at botanical artist Maria Sybilla Merian, but it was very important to me that they started this work from their own experience of BEING in nature and how it made them feel.
It’s so important that, what you are trying to get students to achieve is actually possible with the materials they have. With this in mind I borrowed a kit of paints, papers, brushes and other materials from the school to have a go at creating a Mini-Magic Spell. Thank goodness I did! Because unfortunately the cheap paint masquerading as a watercolour set was such poor quality that the pigment split even in a straightforward wash.
Time for Plan B! Luckily I was able to source a few tubes of high quality watercolours which, with the help of my lovely neighbours collecting the bottle lids I was able to give each child a small portion of!
In an educational climate where the arts has been consistently squeezed out of the timetable it was really heartening to see the effort that this small primary school went to. Their brilliant arts coordinator Katherine Woodard had gathered a team of artists and parents to ensure that every child in the school was able to dedicate the whole of the day to creating art. It was a real pleasure to work with such supportive, committed and passionate staff and unsurprisingly this meant that the pupils were also committed and interested.
I had also asked the children, when on their mindfulness experience, to look out for unusual, precious or interesting natural items that they could bring in, to draw from observation. Seeing their spoils was really exciting and I must say I was more than a little envious of the incredible pike jaw that one boy had found along the river! An impressive bone with razor sharp teeth! Others had found beautiful pheasant feathers, bark, teasels, stones, chalk and more.
It’s no coincidence that the process of drawing from observation can create a similar effect to meditation or time spent soaking up nature. There is much brain science to show that the deep focus required for observational drawing uses part of the brain which is fully present, free of judgement and internal monologue. You may have had a similar experience where you immersed yourself in an activity and lost track of time (that’s the tell-tale sign that you have been fully present!).
What real influence on these 9 and 10 year olds I could have in just one day is probably negligible, but my main aim was to equip them with two ways of finding peace at any point in their lives. They will face stresses and challenges perhaps greater than generations before them, and with a little self-awareness and emotional intelligence they can give themselves a micro-mental holiday. A reset, by tuning into their senses in nature and by really using their powers of observation to draw.
We all agreed that we we felt better after both the mindful exercise AND the drawing, they were brilliant at making connections between the two activities and they all have wonderful paintings as a testament to their efforts, which I hope, like my own Everyday Magic Series, can act as a portal to a mindful moment whenever they need it.
Click the pictures below to read more about each painting.