An Inspirational Story by Creative Arts Tutor Gary Dutton
When did you first become interested in art?
I can’t really point to time when I ‘got into’ art because I’ve always drawn pictures for as long as I can remember. As a small child, if I wasn’t outside playing, I’d usually be laid on my belly in front of the fire, legs bent at the knees, feet waving in the air, with a pen in my hand and a sheet of paper in front of me.
Being a kid in the 1960s, there wasn’t much else to do. I would draw things from my imagination and things that I’d seen on telly; footballers, cowboys, Tarzan, space monsters, gangsters and vampires – they all found their way from my head, through the pen and onto the paper. My art transported me to other lands and other planets and occupied me for hours on end. I can never recall a time when I didn’t draw, so I guess that’s the reason I became adept at it.
At the time I was simply entertaining myself, but I suppose what I was really doing was practising.
Going through school, I knew that when I grew up I wanted to do something arty and, sure enough, I ended up in art school at 16 years old. The difference from school couldn’t have been greater. It was really laid back and I was encouraged to look, observe, question and think creatively. I learned about the Impressionists, Henri Rousseau, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. A whole new world opened up.
How did you start your journey into art as an adult?
Graphic design was the discipline I pursued because I reckoned, I had more chance of making a living from that than I did from fine art. I might have been ‘arty’ but I was still practical enough to know that I needed to earn some money.
From art school it was off to polytechnic and from there it was out into the grown-up world of work. This was way before the days of Apple Macs and Adobe Photoshop, when a job in graphic design involved a drawing board, pencils, marker pens and Letraset.
In my first job the guy who ran the graphics studio was a keen and talented amateur watercolour painter and he was responsible for getting me started painting my own watercolours. He taught me the tricks and techniques used in producing a successful painting and I got bitten by the art bug again.
I found it extremely relaxing and satisfying and, rather than going home and watching telly, I’d go home and paint. My watercolours improved and I even sold a few, but that was never really why I did it. I just enjoyed the thrill of turning a blank piece of paper into a piece of art. I got a sketchbook and filled it full of anything and everything. I drew things from my imagination (I’d gone full circle back to my childhood!) and also the things around me. I drew our backyard, my kids asleep in the chair, the vase of flowers in the window – whatever was in front of me, I’d draw it.
Even when doing a full-blown painting became a rare occurrence – having kids is time consuming – I still kept a sketchbook and would scribble in it whenever I could. It was also a useful tool for amusing said kids, sitting down with them and drawing or painting whatever we felt like doing. We also did a lot of cutting and sticking and made comics and picture books.
This is one of the good things about art – it’s for everybody.
You can do it alone or you can do it with someone else. And that someone else can be 3 year old or 83 year old or anything in between. The art you create can be a technically brilliant portrait, a finger painting or some cut up photos stuck in a scrapbook. It really doesn’t matter, just as long as it stimulates your brain and makes you happy.
Gary's Art Work
I suppose I became an art teacher by necessity rather than choice. Due to funding cuts, after over 30 years as a designer, I was facing redundancy and needed to find another job. Barnsley ASCL were advertising for a Creative Skills Tutor so I applied. I’d taken a teaching qualification ten years previously but hadn’t done much teaching, so I wasn’t expecting to stand much of a chance. But after an interview where I got glue and glitter all over a shiny conference table in the process of my presentation, I was surprisingly offered the job and, after a little deliberation, accepted it.
During my first year in post I helped to coordinate a project that involved working with families in schools to create collaborative pieces of artwork based on the work of artists from Barnsley’s past. It was truly amazing. I worked with mums and dads and their kids, showing them what to do and letting them do it. I think this was when I truly realised that everyone can create if they want to, because they did some absolutely brilliant pieces of art. We did portraits, sculptures, collages, tapestries, murals and just about anything else you can think of. I worked in some of the most deprived areas of the borough with people who told me they were rubbish at art, and I then watched as they amazed themselves and turned out brilliant artworks. This gave me a massive confidence boost to go back in to the classroom and teach people who wanted to learn how to paint and draw.
Are you able to share some of your artwork to inspire others?
Here is a video created by Debbie to show Gary's art work.
How has creative art influenced your support for wellbeing?
For the last three years the focus on my teaching has been on wellbeing. My classes are made up of people who are struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. I believe that art and creativity can be a perfect remedy for this for the simple reason that you can’t do it wrong. My philosophy is to help my learners realise how enjoyable the process of creating art can be if you just don’t worry about what your end product will look like, or what anyone else will think of it, and simply enjoy the creation. Grasping this concept can be extremely liberating and be a great help towards promoting calmness and improving confidence.
I try to teach my learners that it doesn’t matter one bit if you paint the grass red instead of green, just as long as you have fun doing it and you’re happy with it. They come to understand that what you had in mind when you begin an artwork is probably not what you’ll end up with. Any number of ‘happy accidents’- points where the thing you try to do doesn’t quite happen but, nevertheless, ends up being more effective than your original intention – can happen along the way and make the process more enjoyable and more successful. If you have enjoyed creating art, then your creation is a success – and enjoyment and success are great for wellbeing.
Creative Art for Health & Wellbeing
It’s amazing for me to see someone who’s well being is in bad shape grow in confidence, become stronger mentally and enrich their life by using art as a calming and positive influence. Heather and Debbie have both done this. Their mental health was at a very low point and the act of just turning up to their first class was a massive achievement for them. It can’t be stressed enough how difficult it can be to go into a room with strangers and be asked to produce artwork, knowing that the other people in the room will all be looking at it. That first step is enormous. It needs a vast amount of bravery and I’m constantly in awe of the people who take it.
What styles of art did you teach in your classes?
Using Zen drawing, expressive painting and other forms of creative art Debbie and Heather gradually gained confidence in their ability to produce wonderful artwork. The informality of the classes and the friendliness and encouragement of other learners also helped them to improve their mental health. They were doing brilliantly.
Here are some examples of art work created in class by Debbie & Heather as students.
Then Covid-19 came along and all classes were suspended. This meant finding new ways to keep in touch with our vulnerable learners, support them, keep them active and keep them creating artwork to boost their resilience in the difficult months ahead.
Adapting to a new way of learning online
During the first lockdown art projects were emailed out and learners asked to send their completed pieces back to me. After a few months Barnsley ASCL launched online learning in the form of Webex (it’s like Zoom) meetings and instructional videos.
This allowed learners who hadn’t been able to see each other in the flesh, Debbie and Heather among them, to at least meet with others in a ‘live’ online situation. Of course, for many people this was another challenge, but it was one that they were willing to tackle in order to continue their creative activities and, crucially, support and enhance their mental health and wellbeing.
Some amazing artworks have been produced during the lockdown months. They were so impressive that some of them were put together to make a video which was displayed on the council’s website and social media pages.
Creative Wellness Journey
Knowing how much art and creativity had helped when she was struggling with her mental health, Debbie decided that she wanted to help other sufferers and she launched her own Creative Wellbeing Facebook site. This took off immediately and continues to attract members from far and wide, so much so that Debbie roped in her classmate Heather to help with the administration of the site.
So now there are literally thousands of people from all over the world coming together via Debbie’s creative pages, to support each other by sharing their artistic output. How fabulous is that and what bigger endorsement could you have of the power of art and creativity to enrich lives and improve or maintain wellbeing?
As you can imagine, as Debbie and Heather both attend my art for wellbeing classes, it doesn’t half give me immense job satisfaction to see how far they have come since first walking through my classroom door. And they are not the only ones.
I never cease to be amazed at how much art can help people in overcoming barriers and boosting their wellbeing. I’m proud of all my learners. They are all making a massive personal effort and, not least of all, they are all producing some fantastic works of art.
Two Learners Sharing Work Online
Here are some more examples of the creative art that Debbie & Heather have made during their classes over the last few years which to me demonstrates how anyone can learn to draw and paint.
Just give yourself permission to learn, have a go and make happy accidents along the way.
Gary Dutton – Creative Arts Tutor, Barnsley Adult Skills & Community Learning
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