The fashion designer Helen Storey is building a lab for pupils to discover the potential of their own ideas. She explained why to Heather Neill
Helen Storey reckons her education really only began at 40. The daughter of playwright David Storey, she struggled in a then-unsuccessful London comprehensive and left school with one O-level before putting together enough qualifications to do an art foundation course. "School was for surviving," she says, "rather than flourishing."
This would come as a surprise to the admirers of her career as a fashion designer (Madonna and Michael Jackson were clients) and, more recently, her original thinking demonstrated in the innovative exhibitions Primitive Streak and Mental, which combine art and science. Not to mention her position as visiting professor at the London College of Fashion (a place she regards, in a cultural context, as "good at playing around with the future before it happens"), and the diverse challenges of the Helen Storey Foundation, which she heads.
But her unconventional beginnings have given her insights: "Nearly all the education work I do now stems from the knowledge of what it is to fall through the cracks. I realised I'd had to shut down any intelligence I had to try to pass the exams. It taught me an enormous amount about the core of people, that what they say and project is rarely the full story."
She says she still meets teachers desperate because there is a conflict between their desire to educate children and the need to deliver the curriculum and be accountable: "If education is a spine, I like to work between the vertebrae."
In her mid-forties, an elegant, ethereal figure, Ms Storey continues to explore, enjoying "mucking around in areas where I'm not expert". The first big change came in 1995 when her fashion business foundered and her then-husband was diagnosed with cancer (he has recovered). At this point, her sister Kate, a developmental biologist, suggested they pool their complementary talents. The result was Primitive Streak, an elucidation, though fashion textiles, of the first 1,000 hours of human life. (The title refers to a pivotal but transitory structure formed early in human development.) It has been seen by more than 2.5 million people since 1997 and continues to inspire workshops, lectures and creative work.
When Dr Gill Samuels, head of scientific policy at Pfizer, saw it at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, she sought out the Storey sisters, took the exhibition to company headquarters in Kent and invited 50 schools. Teachers saw it in different ways: an English teacher used it to explore poetry, art and science teachers "swapped jobs for a day".
"It was the first time I realised it might have some validity beyond me," Ms Storey says. "The work produced was rather wonderful, spontaneous. It reminded me there are many ways of learning, and maybe only two are required, and how much of the imagination is shut down."
Ms Storey is now working with Creative Partnerships London South to set up a Primitive Streak "lab". Students, teachers and others in education will be invited to workshops, but also "to come in and dream about how they would use six key pieces across the curriculum, what ammunition they might need to persuade the powers that be that having something like this would be of benefit. The idea is not to give them an art gallery, but a working, mucky lab.
"I'm also interested in getting at headteachers; inspiration starts at the top. We are running it over a year, evaluating as we go, and in the end we want to come up with a pack. I've no idea what medium that will be in - that's part of the process of having a lab - but in theory it should be possible for it to go out to any schools or parents who are interested."
Among early visitors to Primitive Streak, which still tours, was Professor Ken Robinson, who was about to chair the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, set up by David Blunkett when he was Secretary of State for Education. He invited Ms Storey to join. At first, she says, she felt nervous, but soon discovered that all the other important people - poets, comedians, Nobel Prize-winning scientists and businessmen - "were terrified as well". The report, All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (The Robinson Report), which resulted from the committee's deliberations and was published in July 1999, is widely credited with setting the seeds of Creative Partnerships.
There was a personal spin-off for Ms Storey. Professor Robinson asked her if she knew what was happening in her head when she was doing something creative. That set her thinking and looking for the source of creativity "and there isn't anywhere, but Amygdala is the closest". Amygdala - which she defines as "the part of the brain which mediates human emotion" - gave its name to one of the most successful exhibits in her next project, an exhibition entitled Mental, which was inspired by Ken Robinson's question and on which she collaborated with Dr John McLachlan, a biologist at St Andrews university. So impressed was he with the accuracy of the images from Primitive Streak, that he had originally contacted her for permission to use them in his teaching, .
Ms Storey identified seven creative states, the first two being "A place of refuge" and "An awareness of mortality". The second resulted in the spectacular Death Dresses in Mental, while the first imagined Amygdala as a giant book in which people were invited to express themselves. "All life is there. There are conversations between people who will never meet, a woman going through chemotherapy, for instance, and all sorts of other women offering their part of the story, a record of journeys, huge drawings, sad things and funny."
Amygdala inspired her second CP project. Working for a year with Morelands primary in Sale, Cheshire, she and the head, Jane Hillier (who has always loved making books) devised a "Me Kit" in which children, parents, mentors and friends can collect and express what is important to and about them.
The children visited Amygdala, "to see what is possible". Their versions will be taken to their secondary schools to help their teachers learn "the essence of who they are inheriting".
Storey has just finished Autobiography, another spin-off from Mental, at Bacon's College in Bermondsey, where she worked with A-level textile students, helping them to "self-knowledge, rather than knowledge of another subject". Revealing pieces of work included one by a student who had lost a grandfather and customised his jacket, showing his love of Liquorice Allsorts and Dennis the Menace and his fear of pigeons. Memory maps and associating an event with a colour helped get work started, but one day "between Baker St and Canada Water" she came up with PRISPER:
Process (accept there is one)
Remain open minded
Instinct (listen out for it, trust it, use it)
Suspend belief (you don't at first need to recognise what you are creating)
Play with the idea
Refine (reject, resolve)
"It's about taking risks really."
Helen Storey says she is thrilled to be working with Creative Partnerships:
"They are doers on a grand scale. I am weary of endless talk about the creative process and 'creativity'. For me it is now a time for action and they are perfect partners for this."
Information: Caroline Coates at cchstorey@lineone. net; www.helenstoreyfoundation.org