She was 45, female and frustrated. For almost a quarter of a century her time had been divided between teaching and raising a family. She wanted to do something with her life before it was too late; to tap those creative energies she always felt she had, but had always been too busy, or too timid, to develop. Now she was really going to go for it. She was going to become a writer.
It sounds like the opening of a novel about mid-life crisis, but it isn't. In fact, it is the profile of a typical student enrolling for a course with one of the country's least known adult education colleges. The Open College of the Arts (OCA), modelled on the Open University but with the accent on developing the creative talents of its 3,500 students, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
As anniversaries go, the celebrations are likely to be low key. The OCA has no public funding to speak of, and no publicity budget. It has to rely on public library notice boards and word of mouth to recruit its students. So it's not surprising that few people have heard of its courses.
Yet in its modest way it is a remarkable organisation: dedicated to the liberal arts in a utilitarian age; a believer in do-it-yourself art in the era of compact discs and surround-sound television; and an advocate of teaching by practice not theory.
The OCA was founded in 1986 by the Open University pioneer, Lord Young of Dartington, and launched the following year. Twelve hundred people signed up for its inaugural course in art and design, and in the years that followed popular courses were introduced in creative writing, painting, garden design, music (popular with primary teachers) and photography.
There are now 15 courses to choose from, each using distance-learning techniques based on a course handbook, under the supervision of a personal tutor. Whether a student gets to meet his or her tutor face-to-face depends on the course. Sculpture students meet their tutor regularly (try sending your work through the post), but those on the creative writing course do not.
The intention is to enable determined students to achieve a high standard, with the opportunity to progress through several levels. But while most courses are university-accredited, opening up the prospect of moving on to art college, most students are mainly interested in personal development.
According to a recent survey, three-quarters are female, and a similar proportion are aged between 36 and 65. More than half already have degrees. Motives range from the desire to learn something new, and creative, to wanting to start a new career. Many women students have spent much of their time bringing up children; other students - male and female - may have taken early retirement, been made redundant, or are simply looking for a new challenge.
What they have in common, according to David Davies, the OCA's director and former editor of the science magazine, Nature, is unfulfilled potential.
"We have a catch phrase, 'Something you have always wanted to do'. It's often what people say, when they come to us. 'Now I've retired', or 'Now I've left British Gas'. It does sum up for a lot of people the desire to be creative, to develop a latent talent," he says. "There is an awful lot of mission in this organisation to develop people's abilities."
Such commitment comes at a time when funding for the creative and liberal arts outside schools and full-time higher education has all but ceased, a victim of government policy which favours vocational courses. The OCA receives no government grants and relies on charity to supplement the modest course fees it charges. Requests for funding from the Higher Education Funding Council have been politely rejected. "It may be better for us to be outside the system. It gives us a curious sort of impecunious freedom," says David Davies.
Outsiders they may be, but the movers and shakers in the OCA come from a long and proud tradition, dating back to the days of John Ruskin and William Morris, promoting the virtues of the skilled craftsman, of do-it-yourself art and make-it-yourself music.
"One of the problems in the way the arts have gone this century is that they have tended to become things that people do to you or for you, rather that things that you do yourself," says David Davies. "More and more, being musical means listening to CDs with sophistication.
"Being musical used to mean sitting down at the piano and being able to play a tune for auntie. We try to say to people that, just because there are people who are stunningly good at playing the piano recording on CD, doesn't mean you should therefore back off the arts. They aren't the property of the professionals; they are the property of everybody."
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the OCA's mission to bring the creative arts back to the people is its tutorial system, which relies heavily on teaching by example rather than through theory alone. Each of its 300 tutors is also a practising artist, craftsman or writer, mostly based in colleges and universities.
They include the poet Graham Mort, the musician Stephen Daw, and the painters Jacqueline Watt and Pam Scott Wilkie. Not household names, perhaps, but well known in their own fields.
Brian Lewis, former-teacher-cum-artist- writer-publisher, who directs the college's tutorial services, stresses that, while lecturing or teaching experience is important, being a practitioner is essential.
"These are not, for example, people who think about gardens, but people who actually design gardens for a living," he says. "It's almost the notion of the apprentice and the journeyman. That concept is very different from the lecturer who stands in front of the class and says, 'This is what you do'. What our people say is, 'This is what I have done'. Many of our painters are people who are trained to make it as painters rather than being trained to make it as lecturers."
Most of the courses are run from centres based in universities, colleges or galleries, offering a mixture of learning by post, and individual and group tuition. This year, however, the college is introducing a new system, with tutors based in their own studios or workplaces, which Lewis hopes will increase face-to-face tuition - even in relatively inaccessible parts of the country - and allow students to start courses at any time of the year. He has already taken on 130 tutors who will work in this way, but is eager to recruit more. (See box.) In the process he is developing a national database of practising artists, designers, composers and writers who are willing to pass on their knowledge and skills. If it succeeds it will provide a network of creative talent that could help bring about a revival in the creative arts. Equally important, it will enable many more frustrated people to develop their latent talents.
u For more information about the OCA and its courses write to the Open College of the Arts, Houndhill, Worsborough, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 6TU u The college is currently seeking tutors in the following subjects: painting, textiles, garden design, interior design, sculpture and music. Anyone interested should be over 28 years old, an experienced practitioner and will usually have a relevant degree and a teaching qualification. Inquiries should be addressed to Brian Lewis, 17 Linden Terrace, Pontefract WF8 4AE