As a teenager in the freshly minted new millennium, I prepared to embark upon adult life with only two objectives in mind – to make art and travel. Lucky for me, a chance introduction as a teenager led me to Room 13: a pupil run art studio operating out of an empty classroom in a Highland Primary School.
After hearing about the Room 13 project via a family friend, I phoned up the Artist in Residence, Rob Fairley, to learn more. I was encouraged to write a letter to the eleven-year-old Managing Director to volunteer my services as a ‘studio assistant’ on a programme of summer workshops that were planned. I received an enthusiastic letter back. Before I knew it, I had arranged to travel a couple of hundred miles from my home and friends, to spend the summer volunteering in the Highlands. Living on a croft and travelling 60 miles every day in the back of a pickup, to work in a creative studio where artists of all ages worked alongside each other with shared a sense of purpose and enquiry – this was my introduction a whole new approach to life and art.
Looking back, that first summer was a microcosm of what the Room 13 experience can offer. I met and worked with artists, writers, musicians, poets and school children. I discovered artforms I didn’t know existed, and which my high school art education had not prepared me for. I entered the dizzying reality of working alongside artists, immersed in ideas and argument; a world of humour and kindness, hospitality and clashing egos. I encountered the transport logistics involved in delivering a commission. One day I travelled to Inverness along with one of the Artists in Residence to deliver a workshop in the city art gallery. It was a painting workshop for children, which we were expected to deliver on the gallery floor, in a pristine exhibition space hung with paintings, far from any sinks or even tables. Another day I was handed a bus timetable, and sent out on a photography assignment with a ten year old guide.
Freed from the tight representational drawing and painting techniques I had impressed upon me during my school art classes, I discovered ways of art making, and of thinking and seeing that were astonishing to me. I still have the painting I worked on that summer. I’m still proud of it.
I returned to my final year at school with my head reeling, in the best possible way. My school bound approach to art making had been turned upside down as I discovered in Room 13 an environment that was more creative and stimulating than anything I had encountered.
From the age of 13 I had travelled from my home in Ayr to attend a variety of holiday courses, weekend workshops, and evening classes at Glasgow School of Art, all of which I enjoyed enormously. However, with my introduction to Room 13 came the realisation that everything I was doing and learning in these classes was an extension of my high school art lessons. I thought I was in an adult environment, developing as an artist, when in fact I was completing a series of exercises, and the results were entirely safe and predictable. This studio run by Primary School pupils, and their relentlessly questioning approach, exposed for me that the real roots of creative practice stem from original thinking. Not just demonstrating your skills and learning to handle the materials in the ‘correct’ way, but the searching and probing that comes with developing a sense of self. Your artwork, these children told me, has to mean something. This was new.
The following summer, I took the decision to forgo my application to Art School and embark on what I anticipated would be an interesting gap year. A few weeks after leaving school, I took my bike and my backpack and boarded a train for Fort William. I took a part time job at the West Highland Museum, and devoted the rest of my time to Room 13.
By the end of the year, Room 13 had secured a large grant to expand the project and I was offered a paid position. Suddenly, I was involved in setting up and running Room 13 as a charitable organisation and creative business, working with young people, artists and educators from many backgrounds to establish student run and community based art studios in Scotland and overseas. At 22, I became CEO of Room 13 International, a brand new charitable organisation set up to support and develop a growing network of creative studios.
Over the following decade and more, my experiences with Room 13 led me to travel extensively, undertake residencies and present work at some of Europe’s most prestigious galleries, deliver training and lecturing at conferences and universities worldwide; and develop fertile partnerships with global and local business.
I set up and ran the charitable organisation, and stood up to make the case for its existence in board rooms and classrooms and community halls. I led groups of young people on expeditions overseas and residential summer schools for adults, worked with artists of all ages to help them set up their own Room 13 studios and projects, and delivered art projects and commissions myself in collaboration with young artists and whole communities. I never did make it to Art School. I still don’t know if my artwork means anything, but my work in the broader sense encompasses a greater sense of purpose than my teenage self could have imagined.
This post is an edited extract from a chapter written for The Golden Mean: Fostering young people’s resilience, confidence and well-being (2019). Book 15 in the Postcards from Scotland series, published by Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing