When the wells of creativity run deep

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Children who have no obvious gift should not be overlooked by the visual arts, says Michael Russell

don't have to close my eyes very tight to see an image of the art room at Troon's Marr College in the mid-1960s. The abiding presence of "Daney"

Wilson still pervades my memory of that place, and it is not a happy one.

Wilson was a small, aggressive man, who drove a large, aggressive car - a sleek Jaguar saloon which, when parked outside the imposing main building of the school, dwarfed the motors of lesser colleagues.

Wilson's wealth was legendary, and certainly not hidden. He owned a huge house in the South Woods area - Ayrshire's millionaire's row - from which he operated a thriving equestrian business. Every child of upwardly mobile parents in Troon - and Troon was (and still is) a place stuffed with the upwardly mobile - was sent there for weekend riding lessons. Why Wilson continued to teach art was, therefore, something of a mystery, particularly as he clearly hated the job and most of those he had to take charge of each day.

When the hatred boiled over, the belt was produced. But even in imposing punishment, Wilson had a certain style. He would sit on a stool in front of the victim, telling him (or her, for girls were still punished in that way by some teachers): "I'm no goin' to put my blood pressure up, just for the likes of you." Apparently his method of applying the tawse was uniquely painful.

I never got the belt from him, but I also never received any encouragement or assistance. Wilson himself had an exceptional talent (I still remember his vibrant portrait in oils of the college's first rector, which hung outside the main hall), and he would demonstrate it when assisting those who themselves showed natural ability. The best the rest of us could hope for was to be ignored, which was much preferable to being the butt of his sarcastic, and very public, attention, something that happened when his eye was offended by the poor use of colour, bad draughtsmanship or what he regarded as a waste of materials.

When, at the end of second year, art became an option, I quickly dropped it and, for the next 30-plus years, I did not so much as pick up a brush or a drawing pencil. Occasionally, I would regret the fact that I had no visual arts skills at all. Writing about culture, I came to know the theory and to appreciate techniques, but I regarded actual participation as beyond me. It was something I just couldn't do.

That, however, is not a statement most of those who both practise and teach the visual arts now accept about anyone, as I found out when I mouthed it again at the opening of last year's Cowalfest in October. Cowalfest started as a walking festival designed to round the season off in that part of Argyll but its energetic creators, Dorothy and Russell Bruce, have since expanded it to take in the arts as well. This coming year, the festival's major innovation will be a film programme. Last year's was a "Window Shoppers Gallery" which filled the display fronts of more than 50 shops in Dunoon with professional artwork.

The originators of the gallery, Cowal-based artists Don and Jean Bell, succeeded triumphantly in mounting a remarkable new type of exhibition and in hosting a number of community based events. Congratulating them, I happened to admit to my complete inability in their field. "Nonsense," said Jean. "We can teach you. We can teach anybody!"

And so it has proved. On most Monday evenings for the past five months, I have driven up the length of Glendaruel and down to the tiny village of Newton, where Don and Jean live and work. Slowly, and without realising that I was being taught, I have tried to reproduce landscapes from some of my own photographs. I have been shown the best way to hold a pencil, and have been encouraged to sketch quickly what I see rather then nervously confront it with timid lines haltingly applied to the paper.

I have enjoyed the relaxed company of a couple of other mature students, much more skilled than I am but generous with their support, and have watched autumn turn to winter and then to spring from the window of the studio, which has a breathtaking view across and up the beguiling expanse of Loch Fyne.

This experience is as far removed from Daney Wilson's tutelage as it is possible to imagine. Of course, my age, the surroundings and the changed times are huge factors. But so is the approach to creativity. Art, to Don and Jean, is a passion they wish to share. It is a means of expression, and helping the visually inarticulate to speak out is a task they relish.

To Daney Wilson, teaching was merely a job. Marr College two generations ago was not exactly a hotbed of indiscipline so that job was a much easier one than any teacher would have today, yet it was done with a brutally arrogant approach which stifled creativity, alienated interest and stunted whatever ability was there or could have been there - perhaps not in those who had an exceptional gift, but certainly for all those who could have and should have been encouraged such as the shy, conformist boy I was.

The art rooms of today, I am sure, are very different from that art room I can still see in my mind's eye. And Daney Wilson was probably, even then, an exception. But it does no harm for all of us to be reminded that every one, at every age, has a well of creativity within them, waiting to be tapped. The natural teachers do just that, even when the well is deep and the water hard to find.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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