Where a wee bit of reindeer dust goes far

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Kilmarnock moves from jobless blackspot to tinsel town, thanks to some of its pupils

It may be the season to be jolly, but the people of Kilmarnock haven't had much to smile about this year.

The East Ayrshire town will bear the brunt when drinks giant Diageo closes its Johnnie Walker bottling plant in Kilmarnock and distillery in Glasgow. The move will end a link with the town that stretches back to 1820 and will put 700 people out of work. The council has warned it will become an unemployment blackspot.

The recession, mean-while, is visible on its main shopping street, where empty units, stripped of their fixtures and fittings, detract from the festive spirit that the bright, coloured lights and Christmas trees attempt to imbue.

But one shop is a hive of activity. The Wee Fir Tree, tucked away on a cobbled street among small designer-style boutiques, welcomes a steady flow of customers through its door. They move from winter gloom into a bright treasure trove, their appetites whetted by the eye-catching arts and crafts in the window.

Inside is a well laid out gallery and gift shop where the artists can be watched at work, all pupils from the Grange Campus, which includes Grange Academy, Annanhill Primary and Park Special School.

Most people don't realise that The Wee Fir Tree is anything other than a professionally-run gift shop, says principal teacher of art and design Kerry Leitch, who masterminded the venture. When they find out, they are surprised and in awe of the youngsters' work, she says.

The shop's main purpose was to give the pupils a showcase for their considerable talents, says Ms Leitch. The school runs a Christmas exhibition and craft fair where they display their work and sell handicrafts alongside professional artists; this was designed to be an extension of that. But whatever the original intention, the business - which will be open every day of the week for 21 days in the run-up to Christmas - has surpassed everyone's expectations.

Pupils, who run the shop under the supervision of school staff, have been close to tears seeing people buying their work, says Ms Leitch. And the shop has caused the local community to view the young people differently, she feels.

"The community is getting the chance to feel good about what the youngsters do, as opposed to only hearing bad things," she says.

Head of Grange Academy, Fred Wildridge, echoes this sentiment: "Even if the shop did not make a penny and people just went in and looked at the quality of artwork, it would be worth it, because they would walk away saying `gosh, these kids have talent'. A lot of people demonise children. Most youngsters go through school with no problems and are interested in learning, are genuinely creative and keen to interact with other people."

Business is booming. In its first week, the shop made more than enough to cover the costs of setting it up and, in just 13 days, it has made over 3,500, says Mr Wildridge.

It helps, of course, that the company which owns the shop, Mamp;K Property Development Limited, has given the unit to the Grange Campus rent-free and the authority is not charging them rates. But it seems the schools are reaping what they have sown. Pupils and staff have worked hard and invested huge amounts of time. The result is a shop, so well stocked, polished and preened, it is indistinguishable from other quality art and gift shops in the same street.

"Kerry lives in Balloch, so it's not like she's on the doorstep. I think she doesn't sleep; if she does, it must be in a lay-by near the Erskine Bridge," jokes Mr Wildridge.

Before the schools opened, The Wee Fir Tree on Bank Street was home to "I Do . Gifts. It moved to bigger premises, leaving behind fixtures and fittings which suited the schools' purpose. The owner, who has a daughter at the high school, also donated a till, bags and tissue and wrapping paper.

They had just a week to move in and started trading on the last Friday in November. The timescale was challenging, admits Ms Leitch, given they had to push through the health and safety paperwork, get insurance, carry out a risk assessment and sort out who would look after the keys.

Mr Wildridge says: "In October, we thought it wasn't going to happen, but then Kerry got the offer of the shop and Fiona Lees, the council's chief executive, didn't just cut through the red tape, she took a scythe to it. After that, everyone came together with vigour."

Pupils' photography and art, which have been expertly framed, hang on fresh cream walls, lit by spotlights running from ceiling to floor. For the more frugal shopper, pictures have been mounted and cellophane-wrapped by pupils.

Grange Academy started offering Higher photography for the first time last year. All 11 pupils, including Ms Leitch's father, who was studying for the qualification as an adult learner, got As.

However, much of the photography on sale is the work of S3 pupils who can elect to take the subject for two periods a week (other choices include Mandarin and forensic science). Testament to their talents is the fact that photographs, along with jewellery, are proving to be bestsellers. However, no original photography or artwork is on sale. These pieces are needed for pupils' portfolios - their tickets into art school or college - or as evidence for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Prints onto canvas have, therefore, been made.

Darren Cree (S6) is among the artists whose work is for sale. Several copies of an expressive piece he painted last year, for his Higher art and design, have sold for 70 each. "It feels good knowing your work is being sold and people are recognising it," he says, although before the first print flew off the shelf, he admits he was nervous he wouldn't sell.

Samantha Connor, who is also in S6 and has made jewellery and "other bits and bobs", agrees that the thrill of the project lies in people being prepared to pay for their creations. "It's really good seeing folk come in and buy stuff we've all made," she says.

And they have made a lot. The shop carries a wide variety of stock. Stylish mannequin heads with long black swan-like necks show off a range of hats and fascinators to best effect. A member of Grange Academy's office staff knitted about 100 scarves. Pupils have since embellished them with buttons and corsages, under the watchful eye of art supply teacher Nicola Wallace.

Many of these will be wrapped and sitting under trees, biding their time until December 25.

Art teacher Alison MacVicar has been making fused glass jewellery and Christmas tree decorations with pupils, also destined for the shop. And Ewa Kuniczak, a felt artist, helped them produce jewellery, tea cosies, garments and hats. "She donated some of her own work and gave her time freely," says Ms Leitch.

Dazed Dorothy, also known as textile designer Corinne Robinson, makes designer bags and accessories from leather. She ran workshops with S1 and S5 pupils who created brooches and bows, which are now also on sale.

Annanhill Primary pupils have also contributed, creating pouches of reindeer dust which guarantee Santa's arrival at your door, even on a dreich and dark winter's night. "Reindeer dust is magical," says Ms Leitch laughing. "It's glitter and oatmeal mixed with love and packaged in fabric, which you sprinkle in your garden so the reindeer know where to go."

Park School has made Christmas cards, gift boxes and bags. Under construction are tealight holders, which are being decorated. They have made picture frames from recycled CD covers. "We ran an enterprise week recently and had a Dragons' Den-type activity and that was the winning suggestion," explains Debbie Stickland, head of the school that caters for pupils aged five to 18 with learning difficulties.

At Grange Academy, the work continues. At lunchtime and after school, the art department turns into something of a Santa's workshop as dozens of pupils put in extra hours to keep up the supply of handicrafts.

"They are running away with it," Ms Leitch says. "They are enjoying it so much, it's hard to stop them."

This loyalty has come about because the pupils have ownership of the project, she says. It was pupils who named the shop and designed its logo. Samantha Young in S2, who is hearing-impaired, came up with The Wee Fir Tree and Emma Murray (S1) designed the sign, a simple Christmas tree, which was chosen because of the precision with which it was drawn.

According to Graham Short, director of educational and social services in East Ayrshire, the "superb" development brings together art and craft skills, enterprise education, financial awareness, teamwork and work- related experience. He says: "The shop surpassed my expectations and I will certainly be doing my Christmas shopping there!"

Already, Ms Leitch and Mr Wildridge are talking about repeating it. There might be scope for an Easter shop or one with a summer theme, they muse. And next time, pupils should be involved in the accounting and balancing of the books. Around 200 of them have asked to work in the shop, adds Ms Leitch. "In Kilmarnock, a lot of families work in the same areas and generations will work in the same factories," she says. "This was about letting the kids know they can do something other than that."

The dream is to run a shop all year round by getting other East Ayrshire schools on board. That's what Mr Wildridge wants for Christmas, he confides. Well, and a pair of handcrafted felt slippers, on sale in the swankiest shop in town - The Wee Fir Tree. "I'm so proud," he says.

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