Thursday, 12 May 2011

My Hero

In response to a very interesting request from Folksy (here) about people who have inspired and encouraged.

When I was at college, back in 1995 I had the good fortune to be friends with one of the world's most amazing art teachers. I've mentioned him before, but his praises cannot be sung often enough. A humble man, at that time in his mid 40s, John was my hero. He had such a wonderful manner about him and a wickedly mischievous sense of humour. He was warm, friendly and aside from my husband and sister, the singularly most supportive and encouraging person in my life. I often wished he'd been my dad, or at the very least that he'd been in my life for longer than the time he was. I could tell a thousand stories of our adventures together, but I don't have time today. I should write a book sometime.

Aged about 25 I decided to go back to college and study art and design. John was there in his capacity as head of art and to say he took me under his wing was an understatement. I was a bolshy, confused and cantankerous individual back then, some of which I've managed to tame over the years, I'm happy to report. John saw through this and coaxed the humour out of me in most situations.

Having a person take on the role of rock in your life is a stroke of good fortune that can hardly be described in mere words. A person who chooses to have utter belief in you both as a person and an artist is nothing short of miraculous, especially when you've strived all your life to please but never quite managed it.

John loved everything I created. He was genuinely interested in my thought processes and resulting work. I was a very committed student, usually staying late in my studio and always skulking around looking for new ideas, projects and access to the various equipment on offer at college. It was frequently by John's sneaky aid that I bagged the kiln for the night or talked another tutor into allowing me an illicit "sit in" on their classes. Later on when I was at university he would allow me to attend his college evening life drawing classes for free, as money was tight. I would bus back from my day's lessons in Liverpool, call in to the supermarket and grab us some chicken and salad for dinner, arrive at college to have a chat and our food, then do the class. I would mostly listen to what the others were doing that particular night, but get on in my own way that suited whatever I was doing in university at the time.

In the days since this, I have often appreciated that John spent so much time with me in one to one teaching sessions. Having gone on to instruct students myself I now have an understanding of how it feels to have someone really want to learn, and the desire to take them under my wing as they progress.

The interview for University in 1996 was possibly one of the scariest times of my whole life. There were very limited places and a huge amount of applicants, so I had little confidence in getting anywhere with it. As I had children it was impossible for me to travel very far, which was one of the factors in choosing Liverpool, but I also really loved the Constructed Textiles course on offer, as it was a very free subject allowing huge scope. I always liked to diversify, it's both my greatest strength and greatest failure, as I am constantly changing methods and projects with my brain rattling along at breakneck speed.

John was massively supportive of my university choice. He spent an age with me, going over my portfolio and giving me very sound advice on how to collate it. The interview was during our easter break so he gave me his mum's phone number (he always stayed with her in Cumbria when not teaching) and told me to call day or night if I wanted to talk. I was given strict instructions to ring him as soon as the interview was over, which I did, in a state of extreme upset and stress after being grilled for almost two hours. He calmed me down and assured me that they had only been so hard on me because they were interested in what I had to say. I wasn't so sure, but he turned out to be absolutely right and within the week I'd been offered an unconditional place on the course of my dreams.

I shared every little success and strife with John over the years of my studying. He remained my support and inspiration, offering advice and teaching at every stage. It was he who taught me to bind my own books, suggested artists to study, critiqued my progress, but most of all pushed me to do things that I would never otherwise have had the confidence to do. He would whisper like the devil on my shoulder, with a little chuckle.

The end of year exhibition? Why didn't I take charge of it and get a splendid external gallery venue, make it something the college had never seen the like of before. So I did it.

I loved glass sculpture, why didn't I speak to the ceramics technician and talk him into allowing me to stay overnight at college and use the kilns? So I did it (it is now offered as an option to students, after my success with it).

I longed to go to the National Gallery in London but couldn't afford it. Why didn't I ask the bursar to make it a student trip? So I did it.

I was studying architecture and wanted to draw in cathedrals across the country. Why didn't I ask for a week off and some coach tickets to the cities in question? So I did it.

I had a great interest in working with latex fabrics, but nobody had any experience i it to teach me. Why didn't I just ring the biggest latex designer in the UK and ask for advice? I did that too and spoke to the man himself who gave me loads of advice on his techniques.

While I was at university, John was made redundant in staff cuts at Halton. We had just lost one of our tutors so I talked him into applying for the job. What a change in me, advising him what to do! He got the position and became my tutor for 3rd year. I couldn't have asked for a better final year with him on board, having lunch with me every day and sharing the trials of my nerves, failures and successes.

John died suddenly in 2003 of a massive heart attack. He was only 54 and it was the first time I had ever lost anyone important in my life. I think of him often, especially when I'm working. Sometimes I find myself going over a particular lesson with him step by step, trying to remember exactly how to do a process. I always have a smile on my face when I remember his irreverent sense of humour and mischief. One of his favourite tricks was to tell an anecdote and wait until you had a mouthful of tea before delivering the punchline. He would cry with laughter at the choking people around him and refuse to give first aid unless we actually died (he was the first aider on duty every day).

Mostly though, I remember John as the first person in my life ever to have faith in me. Even now I find it hard to understand his belief in my work or me as a person. I grew so much under his guidance and changed into someone completely different from that shy, constantly vexed human being that I had been. He did it all with humility and grace, never once acknowledging his own artistic talent, always insisting, "I'm a teacher, not an artist". The world has lost a great man.


  1. What a beautiful story. John sounds like he was really a true inspiration and friend. Thanks for sharing, Vic

  2. Thank you, Vic.

    He'd be so embarrassed if he could read this, which makes me chuckle. Reminds me of the time I secretly made him a Valentine card and put it in his studio (he was a single chap, devoted his life to his teaching and his dog). He was blushing all over the place and did his best to flush out the culprit, but I didn't flinch. I reckon he was secretly very pleased though.

  3. Beautiful, amusing, informative, moving and motivational.
    What a lovely and personal insight.

    Thank you.

  4. What a fantastic post, you're lucky to have had such a supportive and talented person in your life and it sounds like he was lucky to have you too!



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