Last week I posted about the restriction of creative subjects in our schools, with Education secretary Nicky Morgan in one corner suggesting that studying the arts will hold young people back, and Steven Spielberg in the other, fighting for the daydreamers and window gazers who spend their time imagining a whole world of possibilities. Needless to say there were bloody noses all round.
I also mentioned that the majority of creative people I know have a driven commitment that’s essential for them to continue doing what they do, particularly when there is little support from the school education system or the government.
One such person is my own daughter, Elly, who for many years has wanted to be a tattoo artist. She chose to study art at A Level so she could develop her skills, and began working on a portfolio of designs that would help her follow her dream. Almost immediately the problems began. While her teachers recognised her stylised designs were good, she was under constant pressure to broaden her range, use different materials and techniques so she would meet the criteria of the exam board.
Now, I understand this approach. Developing a broad base of ability is something I encourage in my own students, whether it’s reading new authors, experimenting with technique or trying out new working methods. This is how we as practitioners engage with the possibilities and push our own abilities, discovering along the way what kind of writers we want to be. It also creates versatile individuals that can use their skills across a range of potential markets.
However, Elly already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be, so being forced to engage in work she wasn’t interested in left her feeling frustrated and unhappy. Eventually, after only a few months, she dropped out of school. And this is when her drive and commitment really came into play. She worked in bars and restaurants to earn some money while still trying to practice her art in what little time she had left. There were months when she couldn’t do any, when she was too exhausted from working to even contemplate picking up a pen. These were the times I thought the reality of life was going to consume her more than her ambition.
But eventually her refusal to give in rewarded her with a lucky break, and she heard about a tattoo artist that was looking for an apprentice. Being the perfectionist she is, the portfolio she’d accumulated suddenly seemed inadequate, so she spent every spare moment working on designs that would show how serious she was. When she finally met up with the tattoo artist in his studio, she showed him her work and he gave her the apprenticeship on the spot, even showing her the room that will become her own studio.
Two days ago she began her training, and she called me in the evening to tell me she’d learned how to build the tattoo machinery, and she was going to put her designs up on the wall for the clients to see. Her voice was full of pride and excitement, the fulfilment of doing what she wanted to do and the knowledge that all the difficult choices she’d made were the right ones. And as a parent, I felt the hopeful relief of knowing she’s out in the world, living her life on her own terms.
It seems to me that in the current education system, those sixteen and seventeen year olds who want to be lawyers or doctors or scientists have a level of certainty that must be reassuring. They’ll study the relevant academic subjects and be set on the right path, and no-one will tell them they’re restricting their future. But if you want to do something creative, in whatever artistic field, you’re seen as a risky investment, an empty-headed dreamer and perhaps you should study some academic subjects too because let’s face it, you probably won’t actually succeed in being an actor or artist or writer. After all, what did staring out of windows and dreaming of making movies do for anyone anyway?
What I’d really like to see is an education system that is led by the passions of the individual children rather than the requirements of government policies. A system that doesn’t bind our children’s minds with notions of success that’s measured by how well paid their future jobs may be, but enables them to flourish and grow into whatever direction their passions take them.
My daughter took matters into her own hands, and she’s succeeded through a combination of talent, luck and sheer bloody-mindedness.
And as a result, it’s only a matter of time before I get my first tattoo.