Working wonders

13th July 2012 at 01:00
Helen Ward speaks to celebrated sculptor Gavin Turk and his wife Deborah Curtis about their children's charity, the House of Fairy Tales - which began as a `travelling art circus' - and its latest incarnation as an interactive exhibition in a Tudor house

The warehouse is on a drab, industrial street that winds around the back of Hackney with no purpose but to help people get elsewhere, quickly. It is built of black brick and has a red corrugated-metal front. It is, perhaps, the embodiment of anonymity.

And yet this is where renowned sculptor Gavin Turk works. It should, I suppose, come as no surprise; artists' studios can often be found in obscure areas because they are noisy, messy and take up vast amounts of space.

And space is exactly what Turk and his wife Deborah Curtis want for children's art. They don't want it kept out of sight but want it to be in adult places where children usually get shushed, such as museums, galleries and gardens. And they want it in schools.

Their charity the House of Fairy Tales has been making an impression in the art world. It began as a "travelling art circus", providing imaginative children's workshops for festivals. Events included creating what they called the Museum of Lost Stories inside a vintage horsebox, where children could explore an eclectic collection of objects such as half a Humpty-Dumpty and a tambour, create stories inspired by the objects with help from a storyteller, and make puppets.

Now the group is expanding its revolutionary work into schools, inviting them to visit its latest and longest residency at Hall Place, a Tudor house and gardens in Bexley, Kent.

Turk, 44, is what the art critic Tim Marlow describes as a "major player" in the British art world. For those who are unfamiliar with the art world, this means that he is the kind of man who can sign a 40p brick and then sell it for pound;750.

His own website says that he is interested in the way fame and celebrity affect art and the position of artists. It is ironic, therefore, that he has an unusual relationship with success.

There was a buzz around him in the late 1980s when he left Chelsea College of Art and Design with a first to go on to study for an MA at the Royal College of Art. For his final degree show he exhibited only a blue heritage-style plaque inscribed "Borough of Kensington, Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here 1989-1991". It did not amuse the examiners and they famously refused to award his degree - but his reputation was made and his career exploded. Indeed he was one of the Young British Artists included in the 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy alongside Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. His piece at Sensation was a waxwork of himself as Sid Vicious.

Invitation to schools

I meet Turk and Curtis at the black-brick warehouse. Turk is a genial man, chatty and thoughtful. He is wearing paint-spattered jeans and a V-neck sweater with vertical blue, pink, red and purple stripes. Curtis is welcoming and excited that schools are starting to get in touch, just a day after the first mailshot went out for their new House of Fairy Tales project.

We talk in the kitchen as people come and go. Some are at work painting objects, others sorting out travel arrangements and admin. At one point a dozen jacket potatoes are scrubbed and put in the oven, ready for a communal lunch later. There is a workmanlike practicality about the place, but the atmosphere is more friendly than factory. The decorations include a poster of John Wayne, a mirror that has spectacles and a beard drawn on it and, in reference to that coursework, a blue plaque on the side of the toilet declaring "Gavin Turk shat here 2010".

The former children's laureate, illustrator Anthony Browne, has spoken about how children lose confidence in drawing as they age. Turk had the opposite experience.

"I was different as a child," he says. "I remember even at the age of 6 my mum was never able to get my artwork from the art teacher at school because I had already torn it up."

His father is a jeweller and his mother worked as a journalist before having children. Turk was sent to boarding school in Sussex at 8 and moved on to City of London Freemen's School in Surrey, where he was a weekly boarder.

"I didn't think I'd end up doing art all the time, and I didn't really have an inspiration to do that," he says. "I was very critical of all the art I did at school. I didn't think it was very good." He remembers cringing as the headmaster dragged him up to the front in assembly and bought one of his artworks for pound;1.

Curtis, from East Acton in London, had a very different upbringing, growing up in a single-parent family, living in a tower block and attending the local state schools. Her mother, who now runs an old people's home, worked in various jobs, including teaching English. Curtis went to Camberwell College of Arts and then Kingston University. She was studying for a degree in fine art at Kingston when she met Turk, then on his art foundation course.

They had their children relatively young and Curtis had the idea of opening a creche in their home in Shoreditch, which led to a nanny-share group, and she became involved in providing children's arts activities in the area, experiences that led to the House of Fairy Tales.

Art in everything

"There's lots of art in what we do with the House of Fairy Tales," says Curtis. "We work with a lot of artists who are traditional visual artists, but I wouldn't necessarily describe what we do as art. There is art in it, but also maths, science, history and geography. I think subjects such as art shouldn't be distinct; all learning should take place through a filter that has visual elements to it."

Turk interrupts: "That's what happened at Prior Weston."

Prior Weston is their children's primary school in London's trendy Shoreditch, which their third child, Caesar, still attends. It is a 454- pupil state school, but it is one that, under its first headteacher Henry Pluckrose, won an international reputation for its arts-based curriculum - even attracting a Swedish television crew to make a celebrated documentary about teaching in England. Pluckrose had moved on by the time Turk and Curtis' children started, but the spirit remains.

The first House of Fairy Tales event was in 2006. Turk, Curtis and their friend Jago Eliot, owner of the Port Eliot estate in Cornwall, had spoken about plans for a children's tent at the Port Eliot multifaceted festival that year, which would be right in the centre of things. When Eliot died suddenly that year, aged 40, Turk named the tent as a tribute to Eliot's character: his life had included stints as a street performer, a champion surfer and a lorry driver in an aid convoy.

After Port Eliot, the House of Fairy Tales began touring art galleries and festivals, including Glastonbury. It was set up as a charity in 2008 and at that point tents started turning into exhibitions.

And they were spectacular. Given that the couple can call on the support of artists including Sir Peter Blake, Rachel Whiteread and Paula Rego, that can hardly be a surprise. This year the charity is running exhibitions and events for the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company's World Shakespeare Festival. It has also created an interactive exhibition called the Misplaced Museum and a trail called The Mystery of the Hidden League at Hall Place.

Children from St John Fisher Catholic School, a primary in Erith, Kent, are among the first to visit the exhibition at Hall Place. Let loose on a startlingly hot day and holding their maps outstretched, the gaggle of children start the quest. The Misplaced Museum is a series of rooms, each themed and with different challenges that can be filled in on the maps.

There is some science and history incorporated into the exhibition, such as a black-and-white Benham's disc, named after the 19th-century toymaker who discovered that when it was rotated many people see colours appear. But many of the objects are not designed to teach facts, they are there to inspire children's imaginations: a fridge opens to reveal a giant rubbery frog; an empty space inside an old-fashioned glass-fronted wooden cabinet is labelled "Zamenka - the invisible cat".

The rooms are dotted with lots of little extra jokes and wonders: on the walls, ankle-height doors open to reveal pictures of fairylands; on display is a glass bottle against which has been leant a tiny ladder "for pixies".

Celebrity lifestyle

Miranda Macauley, Year 4 teacher, is happy that her class seems engaged. "They have to read maps, read signs, write things. It widens their vocabulary. It is nice that the children can interact with things rather than always saying `Don't touch that glass', `Don't lean on that', `Don't go over the rope'. A lot of thought has gone into it."

And her pupils are delighted, too. "It was very exciting," says eight- year-old Adetayr, "because we had to look at the maps and find all of the clues."

"When we were spinning the wheel, that makes your mind go dizzy," says Queen, 8.

Curtis and Turk were married at Hall Place in April. Guests were encouraged to raid a dressing-up box for fairy tale-inspired outfits such as witches, wolves and toy soldiers. After the ceremony, there was a procession around the grounds involving musicians, art installations and puppetry, and the event was accessible to the public. Later, their friends singer Jarvis Cocker and poet John Hegley helped with the entertainment.

Indeed, while there is something of the celebrity lifestyle around Turk, for someone whose artwork often features himself, he has a far lower profile than some of the other Young British Artists. One art lecturer pointed out that while many artists will come up with ideas for schools in order to get funding, there is credit in the House of Fairy Tales project taking the opposite approach. They have won commissions and there are sponsors, notably Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife manufacturers, but the couple have had to pour their own money in to keep the project going.

For Turk and Curtis, part of the value of art in education is that you cannot be wrong in the same way that you can in maths or spelling.

"Art gives you something like the space between," says Turk. "It's like an externalised thought that can then be used to help you think."

Turk's studio is on a drab street in East London. But standing on that drab street, looking southeast, the view of wasteland and commercial rents is interrupted by a sculpture - the towering noodly scramble of bright red steel that has been created for the Olympic Games by Anish Kapoor, one of the most successful artists alive today.

While it may not be every critic's cup of tea, it is an undoubted example of art at centre stage. Kids will probably like it.

The Misplaced Museum and The Mystery of the Hidden League are on at Hall Place in Bexley, Kent, until 16 September. For more information visit bit.lyLUh5lB.

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