Art is no longer taught in most primary schools but Virginija Knowles has made it her life’s ambition to fill that gap. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
As soon as they are old enough to pick up a crayon, our children become artists. Give them paints and a brush and they’ll churn our works of art faster than Picasso in his neo-expressionist period. They are prolific and then, at about the age of five, the supply of joyous, funny, sometimes brilliant drawings, paintings and plasticine sculptures dries up. There is little or no time for art in most primary schools, which are judged on literacy and numeracy, rather than nurturing creativity. Many of us, including hard-pressed teachers, feel sad and angry about this situation but after haranguing the education authority and getting nowhere, Dr Virginija Knowles did something about it.
Fuelled by the experiences of her own two children, Thomas, now 13, and Ruby, 10, the former cancer research scientist set up Young Masters visual art classes for five to 12 year-olds. It’s a non-profit making organisation that she runs single-handedly and unpaid. There are seven sessions a week in Bradford, Bingley, Guiseley and Saltaire, teaching 110 children about drawing, painting and sculpture, along with a liberal smattering of art history. It’s been a huge success but there’s a dire need for more.
“Every day there’s an enquiry from someone who wants to come to a class or who wants me to open one in their area. I get calls from all over the place, including Doncaster and Sheffield, and I am forced to say that I can’t help – even though I would really like to. There is a real hunger for art education that the school system is not satisfying,” says Virginija, whose husband has a job in banking and supports the Knowles household while she works full time and more for nothing but the pleasure of making a difference.
She is paid in smiles. Children who lack confidence blossom and the truly gifted see their talent flourish. “It’s the reason I do it. The difference it makes is incredible. I love to see the children so happy,” she says.
Numerous studies bear this out. Most recently, the Government’s mental health champion, Natasha Devon, reported that children are suffering because of an academic curriculum that squeezes out art, drama, music and sport. She added that these activities, now largely off the syllabus at most primary schools, give a creative outlet for children’s emotions, help them to express themselves and see themselves positively.
“My son was under immense pressure to do spelling, times tables, reading and writing. He struggled to cope, he was unhappy and there was no respite. Yet he could sit down at home and create these amazing drawings but there was no outlet for that at school, no chance to shine,” says Virginija. “It was the same for my daughter. There is not enough time for art and teachers couldn’t deliver it if they wanted to because they are no longer trained in how to do it.
“I tried to find an art club outside school but there was nothing. That’s why I decided to set up the classes.”
Her attempt to fill the gap with Young Masters has not been easy but she based the idea on her own experience. She is a Doctor of Biomedical Science but also attended visual art schools for adults in London and her native Lithuania. The administration is laborious and finding the right premises is difficult but they are stocked with the best art materials and professionals are employed to teach children about everything from colour and perspective to Hockney and Van Gogh. Lessons are £10 for an hour-and-a-half but there are generous subsidies for gifted children and those with autism, who have benefited greatly.
“It’s not gluing and sticking. There is a teaching programme,” adds Virginia. “We have some children who feel like failures at school and they come here at first clinging to their parents but they love the classes, they get more confident, they get happier and we have very few who drop out.”
For anyone in doubt, the exhibition that she stages once a year in Bradford is perhaps the best proof of what art can do. Every child has their best work framed and there are prizes and recognition for all.
“When the children see their work on the wall in a frame and beautifully lit, they are thrilled. They cry, parents cry, I cry. The impact is amazing. I also put their work on our Facebook page and our website. It’s a form of recognition and it’s one of the reasons I would like permanent premises for the classes because then we can display work all the time,” says Virginija.
Rebecca Deighton, whose son William, eight, is a Young Masters student, says: “He has been going to classes for two years and he loves it. He was very shy when he first went to the class but his confidence has grown.
“He’s even taken his pictures to ‘Show and Tell’ at school and talked about it, which we were surprised about but it shows how confident he has become. Unfortunately, they don’t have time to teach it at school because the curriculum is so full-on.”
Virginia’s scientific background has helped her do detailed analysis on Young Masters, which proves that it is a viable not-for profit business. Her ambition is to roll it out across Yorkshire and, perhaps, beyond, but she needs help.
“I sometimes feel I might explode with exhaustion but my life’s ambition is to provide all children with easy access to visual art classes. The groundwork is done. What I really need now is someone to help me with the administration and with applying for Arts Council funding,” she says.
To anyone who would like to volunteer, she adds: “It is hard work and you don’t get paid but it is the most wonderful job. Art is vitally important to children’s lives. It’s also important for society because we need that pool of creativity.”
Young Masters, idleartstudio.com