As parents of a year 6 child at Mylor Bridge school in Cornwall we were approached by the head teacher to see if we would agree to run a 'Painting with John Dyer' art workshop at their Porlofest event.
The event was all based around health and wellbeing so we gladly welcomed the suggestion and set about planning a project for the event.
Fittingly on the day this event ran the Guardian newspaper ran an article by Mark Brown, their arts correspondent, on how arts can help recovery from illness and keep people well. The report that was published included hundreds of interviews and many case studies showing the power of the arts connected to health and wellbeing.
One of the case studies included an artist on prescription project where patients with conditions such as depression, chronic pain or stroke were referred to an eight week course involving painting, drawing, poetry or mosaics. A cost-benefit analysis showed a 37% drop in GP consultation rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions.
So back to the Porloe Farm event at Mylor that we helped at. We welcomed small groups of key stage 2 children to our arty part of their special day and divided them into two groups.
Our daughter Martha-Lilly Dyer, who is now nearly eighteen, ran a oil pastel and watercolour resist workshop drawing the wild flowers to be found. Campion, foxgloves, daisies and more all featured in this work. All of the children readily took to this and for many it was the very first time they had actually drawn anything from life. The 'difficult' children were not at all difficult but happily engaged, relaxed and full of a sense of achievement.
Martha-Lilly explained their delight when she showed them how to add washes of colour over their oil pastel drawings rather than painting up to the edges. The faces of the children were really magical as they saw the oil pastel resist the paint and the white clouds and daisies suddenly coming alive against the colour washes.
Joanne and myself set about with a large 24 x 36 inch canvas for the children. I always use my professional materials when working with children, it is a particular bug bear of mine that in schools the children are so often given poor quality paint that doesn't mix to create vibrant colour and brushes that are at best not fit to hold paint and at worst solid with glue.
I roughly paint on a composition, remove the white of the canvas with sky and areas of light and dark and then let the children work on it together - two or three children at a time for around 15 minutes each. It is gently art directed but all of the brush work is done by the children. I am fortunate that my work is so well known, so that the children are inspired to be working alongside me and understand the direction the painting should be taking. Each child is asked to add something to the painting, light and dark in the trees, flowers in the foreground, sparkle in the sea, yachts, seagulls etc. By allowing them to own the painting, by trusting them, by not fussing them, by explaining brush technique and use of colour and then stepping back to enjoy the spectacle of three children painting en plain air a huge canvas in the Cornish landscape is inspiring to me. It revitalises my creative spirit, nourishes my soul and reminds me of the health and life benefits of being with nature, observing and responding.
This is all very new to the children, but they thrive doing it. ALL of the children love it, without exception. Even the more complicated children soon relax into the experience and start to achieve on their own terms.
Life has become so hectic, quick, transient, throw way that often the landscape is visited by walking through it, canoeing, biking, hiking, instagraming it, etc. But there is a great power and wonder to simply existing in the landscape, sitting, watching, observing. Painting allows this to happen quite naturally and the benefits are enormous.
The children notice the light changing, boats come and go and one magical moment was a weasel darting across the valley in front of the young artists.
They would have never seen the weasel if they were walking around, the noise should have scared it or they simply wouldnt have noticed. One of the children added the weasel to her watercolour and oil pastel piece. Wonderful.
Wilamena, my youngest daughter, was also on the health and wellbeing day but wasn't in the groups painting with us. However she will add her elements to the painting soon and benefitted from a wonderful session of folk singing in the apple orchard with fellow parent and well known singer Martha Tilston. http://www.marthatilston.co.uk Wilamena spent the evening signing Martha's songs to us over supper and I can imagine that all the children went home full of stories from their art, music and well being day.
This experience of being in the landscape working with professional artists will have been a profound experience for these young people. As one of the teachers said to me during the day 'if only every day could be like this -it would be so good for the children. To be able to learn from experienced and professional people is so good for them.' Why can't we alter the education system a bit so that a day such as the Porlofest day of art and wellbeing can become the core to education rather than a bolt on day once in every few years? What are we frightened of? We owe it to the children to fix this and I know we would have a happier, healthier and more prosperous society if we did.