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Founder’s Story


My journey’s to highlight and bring understanding to what is meant by ‘hidden talent’.

Hidden talent is the talent people have buried inside themselves. But, these people do not realise they have talent. This talent has to be found, nurtured, and grown. And, working with children and adults, through art, helps them realise their unique hidden talent. When they realise their talent, it gives them the potential to grow in confidence and spirit. It helps them to understand themselves, and love the skin they are in now.

This journey began a long time ago, before the turn of the millennium. Then, I was a budding artist and young mother, living in a deprived inner-city area of London, England. I often witnessed children fall through the net of mainstream education.

I saw children around me; some with specific learning needs like dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism; some with emotional difficulties due to abuse, poverty, or loss: these were the children ‘falling through the net’. These children usually felt stupid, felt they were underachieving compared to other children.

This had a knock-on-effect. They were often in trouble at school for not paying attention, getting low grades, being distracted. They were usually labelled by teachers as ‘hard to reach’, ‘not trying hard enough’, or ‘could do better’. In turn, the labels the children put on themselves were ‘worthless, hopeless, not good enough… ‘.

I saw these labelled children bypassed, as other more capable, got the pats on the head. These unseen children hardly ever stood up in assemblies to show off some skill or talent. These children never got the chance to be heard. And, I felt for them. I knew the pain and shame of the bypassed, unseen, unheard child.

Sometimes, it seemed as if these children were effectively put in the rubbish bin! It was horrendous to witness. My heart bled from a thousand wounds to look at the sadness on their little faces, to see their shattered self-esteems scattered like broken glass. I really wanted to do something that could make a difference. I wanted to make their lives better. I wished that they could feel better about themselves.

And, the artist in me knew – Art can help. Art will help.

It was then, 1990ish, ‘Children’s Studio’ was created. It was an art workshop run in conjunction with various schools in London. My job was to bring my artistic training to the table and teach these children art. But, my mission was to support the children who I saw as ‘falling through the net’. My quest was to have these bypassed, unseen, unheard children stand up and shine. And, from the beginning, it was obvious how art can help children with difficulties.

For example, one early success story was when a 10 year old boy was found crying over his maths homework. He was crying because he couldn’t read ‘How many are there?’ His parents were confused and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t read! That’s what you send them to school for, right? He was bright, and all his reports said that he was doing well but could do with paying more attention and working harder. But, still, things didn’t seem right. When his mother asked his class teacher as to why he couldn’t read? The answer, ‘he’s better than most’ was not helpful.

This was followed by a school trip staying at a holiday camp. On returning, this young boy had a diary which they had given to the children to record their activities and tell their ‘stories’. The left hand side was blank paper so that a drawing might be created. On the right hand side, there were lines, ready for the story.

On the lined page, the young boy had written just a sentence, half of which was crossed out. However, on the blank page, he had an explosion of a wonderfully illustrated drawing. The remark from the teacher written on the lined side was, ‘can you draw more neatly’!

Lucky, I had taught him art in a group at The Children’s Studio, and at a later date, he had the prestige of been given a stand, as part of a group show, at the famous London store Harrods. He received recognition for his art work which was sold worldwide. This helped his confidence and self esteem enormously.

He was also given specialised teaching which helped bring his academic skills up to standard. So between the specialised teaching and the art workshops, this young boy was able to stand up and shine.

This young boy’s story highlights the link between art and specific learning needs like dyslexia. Dyslexics have a unique gift for spatial ability; they are visual thinkers. Usually, highly intuitive and creative, they do extremely well at hands-on activities. And, as they think in pictures, it is hard for them to understand letters or written words. Yet, give them a paintbrush, pencil, or clay, and freedom to express, and they shine. 70% of students at the RA school are Dyslexic.

But, as well as help individuals, the art workshops also helped groups of children. For example, another of Children’s Studio success stories came when we entered a group of our children into the Cadbury’s Art Competition. Cadbury’s held yearly exhibitions of the winning categories at prestigious venues in London.

After the competition, our children went into school with certificates. For the first time in their lives, those children could stand tall and say ‘I got this for my art’. They got to stand up in their school assembly and receive recognition. They were praised for their effort and received positive reinforcement for their unique talent. Wow, now that was something. It was a joy to behold, to see their proud, happy, smiling faces.

Many parents came to thank me and told me how Children’s Studio had helped their child. I received comments like; ‘now believe that there is something they are good at’, ‘given them something to be proud of’, ‘somewhere to belong to and make friends through’, ‘a better understanding of themselves’, ‘the children no longer feel stupid’, and ‘that they didn’t fill the waste paper basket up with wrong stuff’!

Basically, the comments showed the children had a shift in perspective and attitude. This was because, through art, the individual child had gained self esteem and confidence, which was empowerment for them. They also worked freely together in a group and built up friendships while at the same time developing their communication skills. So, by helping these children find their ‘hidden talent’, it also helped their family relationships, helped their schooling, and helped their social skills

And as Children’s Studio had been so successful and rewarding, I started another art workshop called Artteen. These workshops still run. The workshops are for children and young people passionate about art. Here, children have a passion. Their passion is equal to those who have a passion for horses, as an example. They turn up because they want to. They love being involved in the activity: they love being with similar minded people. They love the smell of the studio – its crayons, acrylic and oils. They love the feel of plaster-of-Paris as it slips through their fingers. They are stimulated by artefacts and drawings displayed.

At Artteen, the young artists are praised for balance, form, colour, differences and for them being courageous and expressive in art– not praised just because they drew a recognisable symbol or object, like they are in most mainstream schools. Here they are recognised for their unique talent. They learn to be confident as they develop not only their talent and artistic skills, but also their understanding of themselves as they grow and change. And we nurture them until they can do it alone. Then when they realise their own talent, they allow themselves the praise for not only their success in art but for being themselves.

Plus at Artteen, we strive to always exhibit the art work. We have exhibition at libraries, schools, galleries. We see it as important, as it is a tremendous boost for the young artists to have their art work displayed.

It’s funny! Talking of exhibitions reminds me of a young girl who use to come to Artteen. This young girl was labelled ‘lazy’ at school. Furthermore, she came from a school that prided themselves on their ‘good art’, and had artwork displayed not only on their website but all around the school. Yet, I was so very surprised to learn that this child had no work displayed anywhere or had never been credited with any talent. To me, this young girl was, and is, an amazing artist.

And recognition came at Artteen’s exhibition when her artwork in oils was singled out as ‘exceptional’ by the prestigious well known art critic, Dr. Richard Cork. How amazing is that!

This highlights what I was saying earlier. This child fell through the net at school. She was labelled ‘lazy’ and had no recognition for her unique talent. But she was an Artteen student. She also has very loving, supportive parents. And together, we got her recognition for her artwork in oils. And by 14 years old she had completed an illustrated book featuring her favourite subject ‘foxes’. This book was later animated. I mean, I think that is really amazing.

And again, art showed it can help. Art does help.

Another student from Artteen who shows how Art can help is a young man named Ricardo. He came to Artteen when he was 7 and stayed on at the workshops till he was 14. Ricardo has no specific learning difficulties but his grandmother was on dialysis. And, I always remember when I showed Ricardo’s school teacher his artwork, his school teacher had no idea he had such talent. And, when Ricardo came to the next workshop, his face was beaming with ‘Mr … came up to me in school and said how much he liked my artwork’. Wow! Ricardo was so happy and, now, so full of confidence.

But, to top off the story, last summer Ricardo approached a local art business to volunteer so that he could gain experience, yet, because of his good artwork he was offered a position where he could design logos and be paid.

So, it seems my mission, to support the children who ‘fall through the net of mainstream education’, and my quest, to get the bypassed child to stand up and shine, was well on its way.

But adults sometimes need help too, and they definitely need recreation. So for adults, I formed the ‘Secret Artist’. These were art workshops designed for adults, to provide a space for creative self expression. And the name turned out to be surreal because it was their art which was secret to them. Most adults do not know their own talent.

However, at the Secret Artists, it was always a condition that the students exhibited their work. One year we had no planed venue which to hold an exhibition, so we went to Camden Market, donned with sandwich boards on ourselves, back and front, to display our art. And to their dismay, some students were offered a fair price payment for their art work.

It was then, after working with children, teenagers, and adults, I formed Artalike.

Artalike is an umbrella for different types of artistic workshops. It is a Vehicle to help children and adults cross the bridge between the individual’s unique talent and society. It’s a vehicle to help communities create art that they can show to the world. Our motto is ‘Allow – Discover – Develop’.

Often, Artalike joins with other organisations for community projects. For example, Artalike joined up with Network Stadium Housing to help the residents of McDonald House in London create a wonderful sculptor that the residents have nicknamed ‘The Hug.’ This was a delightful project to work on as Art brought a community together.

And due to running workshops and working so closely with schools, as well as running independent workshops in inner-city areas, Artalike is at the forefront of meeting the most vulnerable children and young people at risk. Yet, Artalike has hard times, with the lack of grants or funding as the cuts abound in 2012, it has become increasing hard to run funded workshops.

This is so very sad, as it is the underprivileged that it affects mostly. The rich and affluent can always afford private art lessons. But, the poor can’t. That’s why the public donations mean so much to us, because if we can’t raise funds, we can’t give funded workshops. And, if we can’t raise funds, we can’t stay at the forefront of meeting the most vulnerable children and young people at risk.

But, even in these hard times, I will push on. I will push Artalike because the journey’s not finished. There are still children in the UK falling through the net in mainstream education. There are still children who are bypassed, unseen, unheard. And, around the world there are people who Art can help.

So, my hope for the future is to carry on providing art workshops for the children and adults in London and to expand throughout the UK and to hopefully bring the art workshops to Africa. And if we unite together, put our resources and knowledge together, this hope can become reality.

Wilda Woods    Founder of Artalike