Written by Joanna Neary

Arts

The Unsolved Pencil Case: The art-in-education throwdown

The latest instalment of Joanna Neary’s adventures with people in the arts and their associated materials sees her talking to Pop Up Pottery popper-upper Finola Maynard.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

After reading awful newspaper articles recently, about how art is being undervalued by this government, sidelined in schools and underfunded, I wanted to find out more about the benefits of practising artists taking their skills to schools and community groups.

This week I spoke to Finola Maynard, a young artist who graduated from art school in East Sussex and set up Pop Up Pottery, which takes ceramics to community groups and schools.

When you were at school or a student, did you work with practising artists?

We didn’t have any artists visiting at school but at university all our tutors were artists. They had the ideal life that we were aiming for, and it was good to see that it was a possibility – living and working as artists.

Which community groups are you working with?

I’m working with children in mainstream schools with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) issues. When I first started working in their school, a lot of the children were too scared to come into the room; they were too scared to try something new.

Pottering about: ceramics artist Finola Maynard.

Over a year, I’d turn up every Wednesday and they would slowly touch a bit of clay. They started by wearing gloves to touch the clay, but by the end of the year, the gloves came off and they were sitting and making things.

There was one girl who had an obsession with food and couldn’t concentrate fully. She’d come into the workshop and stay for about two minutes, if that. She can now sit in the classroom for the full workshop and concentrate on making things.

Other children have difficulty with social interaction, and the children I have been working with are now working with the younger children, teaching them how to do pottery.

They’ve seen you teaching, and now they’re doing that themselves?

Yeah, it’s all about confidence building. As an art workshop, we’re obviously trying to make beautiful things, but if they don’t achieve what they want to make, we teach them that’s OK and to try again.

If I’m in the studio and I make something that doesn’t work, I keep going at it. If you’re going to continue making, part of that is finding solutions to problems.

Also, in a mainstream school, children with behavioural problems get sent to me. They come and do a bit of pottery if they’re not concentrating in the class, or if they’re getting into trouble.

They calm down and go back into class. It’s a social intervention, getting those children back into school. Within two years of bringing ceramics to the school, attendance improved and their grades went up.

One of Finola’s workshops in action.

How does art being sidelined in education make you feel?

I feel very upset because from having dyslexia, and going through school, if I hadn’t had art or any facilities, I wouldn’t have pursued anything, because I would have felt I wasn’t good enough at reading and writing. For me, art was my kind of thing that I pushed and channelled.

I think we are all creative. Teaching all different workshops I’ve seen people who’ve been told they’re not creative; something is going on in schools. I remember making something at school – it was probably hideous, but to me it was beautiful – and the teacher saying I should never touch a bag of clay again.

What made you try again?

The facilities at college. I did art and design BTEC; you try everything. When you start, you don’t know what ceramics is, you don’t know what a kiln is.

You’re not born with that knowledge, are you?

No, and I think even if you are more academic, you can still be creative. It’s important to everyone.

“It’s all about confidence building. As an art workshop, we’re obviously trying to make beautiful things, but if the children don’t achieve what they want to make, we teach them that’s OK and to try again.”

Yes, art isn’t just about being able to draw hands. People see maths being important for every walk of life it seems, but art is in maths too.

I was looking at the artist and teacher Peggy Angus who made ceramic tiles using simple shapes and put them together to make murals of cityscapes. That’s geometry, pattern; it’s the first maths that children learn. And it’s there in art. You must use maths in pottery?

Of course. There’s lot of science as well. When you’re making glazes you’re mixing up compounds; there’s percentages, temperatures, timings, pricing up of work, budgeting things. I think maths and English are a huge part of it.

When you first started working in schools, how did you know what to do?

I learned as I worked, and it wasn’t that long since I’d left the education system myself, so I knew about the structures. My sister and cousin are both teachers too, so I talked to them.

Working with children with ASD issues kind of just happened. I didn’t think, “I’m going to work with children with ASD issues because it could really help them,” I just thought I was going to do pottery, because pottery is a fun thing to do.


It’d be daunting to go in with the plan to change people’s lives. But if you just go in thinking, “We’re going to do colour mixing,” and see what happens…

It makes it less complicated. For me the ‘creative healing’ thing turns it into therapy. If I came into a workshop and said this is a therapy session…

…Gosh, I’d be daunted by that. You’d think, “What’s going to happen? I’m going to end up crying under a bench.”

Exactly. People start throwing and we start talking, like mates but only if you feel they want to talk, and everything comes out.

What advice can you give to schools and groups who’d like to work with artists more?

Just approach people, be enthusiastic and see what they can offer. A lot of artists work on their own and would love to work with other people.

Finola is currently taking part in The People’s Project, in which three UK creative organisations are chosen to run a roadshow offering free workshops. If you’d like to vote for Pop Up Pottery Creative Healing to win funding to run a Pottery Road Show please visit the website.

Joanna is currently working on a new children’s show, to be premiered in the Brighton Festival, all about storytelling, art and the seaside. One of Joanna’s new characters is the artist and teacher Peggy Angus. The 13 May performance is sold out, but there are some tickets for other dates. Book here.

Catch up on Joanna’s previous pencil case investigations here.

@MsJoNeary

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Written by Joanna Neary

One of Standard Issue’s super-talented bunch of illustrators. www.joneary.com @MsJoNeary