Image Courtesy of Darrell Wakelam
The Kid Who Can Draw
Tell us about your background, of working with art, in education.
It was a classic case of falling into it. I got a degree in illustration, so I did all the training up to that point and then I had a bit of a crisis because I realised that life as an illustrator was incredibly solitary. It meant that you were on your own working from a screen most of the day, you were on the phone, you weren’t with any other people - and yet in the training you’d been surrounded by all these fantastic friends, you’d got a studio full of creative people and it seemed like suddenly, I’d just jumped into something that I’d never really thought through.
Very soon after that, when I was looking for work, I heard that they needed someone to work at Ingestre Hall, the Residential Arts Centre that I’d volunteered at and had been to myself as a child. I worked there for three weeks initially, and three weeks became fourteen years!
The strange thing is that if that were now, I don’t think I would have gotten the job because I’d have had to have an official interview and I had no formal training, I just had a degree in my subject. However, we were surrounded by other more experienced teachers who were bringing the children there and what I tried to do was watch and learn from them, and try not to take on the stuff that I didn’t think worked.
What three words would you use to capture your artistic self?
Imaginative, organised and Innovative.
Firstly, Imaginative, because that’s probably the thing that made me stand out in school from a very young age. I did a lot of creative writing as well as artwork as a kid, which got a lot of praise from my teachers. I wrote songs and poems too, even before I was in a band, and in my teenage years I wrote lyrics and music constantly. In art I didn’t just copy stuff - even as a very young child I tried to make up my own things and I think that’s just carried on through.
Secondly, organised. I am never late and I never need any help. When you go into a school and they don’t know you, they will sometimes rebook you based on your work, but not if you’re a complete idiot! I get a lot of rebooking and I know that a lot of it is to do with the fact that I can deliver the required work, but also, I arrive on time, I’m DBS cleared, I’ve got insurance, I take an invoice with me, I bring all my own materials, I make my own way there and all these really obvious things add up. I try to make it easy. And if somebody’s highly skilled and easy to work with, that’s the ticket.
Many artists-in-residence who quote the same costs as me will then add, “When I arrive, here’s the list of materials I’ll need”. So, the poor teacher then has to go online and order the long list of materials. Out of the choice of those two options, forget about it! I just add the materials in with my price and if the kids use more, I lose out, tough luck! Anything to make things easier for the client.
Thirdly, I’m innovative, which is a classic thing with any creative person. It is really easy to just do what other people have already done. If I do something, I try to make it my own, which I think is why the style of my work is recognisable as ‘me’. I’m not copying anyone else, I’m copying myself.
What were your early experiences with art as a child?
I went to a marvellous primary school where, because it was the mid-70s and there were not the sort of shackles there are now. My memories are filled with dancing, choir, instruments, painting scenery, making masks and putting on performances. I remember that my best friend and I went to see our Head Teacher and said we wanted to put on a ‘variety show’. She said yes and for an hour and half one Friday afternoon, all the kids came in to watch us and we just did impressions!
Making models was a big thing for me too, so this is where the 3D stuff came in, which is why I went back to it when I started working with young children. It was something I had wanted to do so much as a child. My mum tells me that I’d say, “I’m bored, it’s raining” and she’d say, “here’s a box, do something with it”. I would turn it into something, and all the junk modelling really came from there. I wasn’t very good at it because I had no-one to show me how to do it, so I had a lot of failures, but I’m quite a determined person. Boredom is important in childhood because you have to find a way to get over it, and that often leads to creativity.
Neither of my parents knew I was good at drawing early on, so I never got taken to art galleries and no-one ever said “wow, this is brilliant”. Then at infant’s school, we went on a trip to a place called Boscobel House, where Charles the First had apparently hidden from the Roundheads up an oak tree. When we got back from the day trip they asked us to draw something from the day. I drew the tree with the King hiding in it and the Headmistress asked to see me. She said “I just want you to know Darrell that I absolutely love your picture and we’re going to put it on the cover of the folder of all the work that everyone does”. We used to do a lot of these scrap books, but now my piece of art was to go on the front cover. Ever since that single moment, I then wanted to replicate the feeling that she gave me, which is a classic thing with creative people.
After this, every time we did art I tried doubly hard to make that happen again and that’s how the progression began. I became the king in the classroom when we did art, all the other children would be nudging each other and saying, “go and look at Darrell’s”, so I became that kid. There’s one like that in every class and that became the story of my future. That one moment, that twenty second conversation by my Head Teacher altered the course of my life.
My parents alone would not have recognised this ability as they had nothing to compare it to, but in school it just went from strength to strength and that need to be noticed for it became my ‘thing’. Darrell was ‘the kid who could draw’, you know? That was it. Darrell’s drawings – that was me.
What made you decide to work in the medium that you do, using recycled materials and cardboard?
Like the famous quote says, ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. When I was first at Ingestre Hall, after I managed to get my foot in the door as I described earlier, I realised that the budget at the time (this is thirty years ago) was about £630 a year, and that was for all the materials for an Arts Centre that’s running 24/7!
Initially I did lots of illustrative work and painting because that’s what I’d trained to do; but we started to get younger and younger children and those children were not going to sit and paint for four days. So I started to think about what I had enjoyed as a young child, which was the model-making and 3D junk sculpture and I realised that if I collected loads of cardboard myself and went to local businesses and got lots of free recycled stuff, I could then spend the remaining budget on quality materials, better brushes and paints. The majority of the materials that we used would then cost me nothing and that’s where the sculptural work grew from.
This meant that with each subsequent annual budget I’d have a chunk left over at the end of the year, so I’d buy something really nice, like some quality paints. When kids came out to work with me, if they were used to struggling with brushes that were all stuck together and paints that were all dried up, suddenly they had quality stuff. So, over the years that worked really well.
Describe your route into art.
I didn’t do any ‘A’ Levels at school, I went straight to Bournville Art College for two years at 16. I did my ‘A’ Level Art in one year and then studied History of Art as well and in the second year I passed my BTEC Diploma which enabled me to move on to a degree course.
At Uni I did a three-year Graphics course which eventually became a degree in illustration. In the first year I came top in the year but that’s because initially we studied everything, we did print-making, design, typography, graphics and I’ve always been a jack of all trades. By the time I got to the degree stage, they wanted us to narrow our skills down and develop our own ‘style’, but I wasn’t very good at that because it’s not my bag. I passed and when I got the results of my degree, I was somewhere lost in the 40% mark but when I became a teacher, suddenly I needed to be a jack of all trades again.
Do you have a favourite teacher from school and what was it about that person that impacted you?
At High School Mr Graham was our History teacher. At the start of each of our lessons he would say to us pretty much the same thing, “you know what the deal is, I’ve got to get this much information into you in the next hour and ten minutes. If you knuckle down and you do it in the first half an hour, you can ask me anything you like afterwards.” So all of us would be telling each other to “shut up and get on with it, I’ve got a question!” He’d rattle through the work, look at the clock and he’d say, “Right then, what do you want to know?”
We might ask questions about why there was a wall between one part of Berlin and another etc. and he would tell us the reason why. We were absolutely transfixed because they were our questions and he put us in charge of it. It was beautiful because we did the work, he got the results and he got a different lesson that was unpredictable. For us it was exciting and at the same time we felt closer to him.
What are the most important skills that you’ve found important when working creatively with children?
Firstly, the ability to put people at ease. From my point of view, I’m not with the same class for a year and might only be with them for a day or two, so smiling at them, learning their names, looking directly at them, giving them attention, all of those things that make someone feel like they’re going to be okay are really important.
I put down ground rules at the start and reassure them that it isn’t about feeling stressed, it’s about us enjoying ourselves. You’ve got to be patient too. With little kids, I think they want to know that you’re skilled as well, so quite often I make things to show them what to do very quickly so that they see I’m skilled at doing it.
You’re disarming all the things that they might be stressing about. Is he going to be horrible, is he going to shout at me, is he going to ask me to do something that I’m embarrassed about? You’re taking all of that away. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve learnt over all the years I’ve been teaching - you’ve got to remember what it feels like to be a child again.
In your educational work, how do you go about devising your projects and coming up with new ideas?
I cram my life full of all of the stuff I want to soak up. Not just artistic things, I’m a real big nature lover, I’ll watch anything on TV about animals. I love natural history, which is why I ended up living down here on the Jurassic Coast – I love Dinosaurs, fossils and anything about ancient cultures. With art, I will watch, read or look at anything that grabs me, because you’re not an endless fountain of ideas. You have to be renewed and need to be filled back up occasionally.
I’ve found the best way of explaining my innovation to anybody, even if they’re not artistic, is by relating it to cookery. Everyone understands what a chef does. If you give a chef five basic ingredients: eggs, flour, milk, cheese etc. they will make you 200 dishes, whereas you and I might only make an omelette, or cheese on toast! The reason they can do this is because they’ve had experience, but also, it’s because they understand the properties of each of those ingredients and know what you can do with them.
If you give me cardboard, tape, paper, glue and a pair of scissors, I can make you 500 different things, because I understand the properties of those materials. A chef will make you lots of recipes and none of them will fail. Every single one they make will be perfect and you’ll love it. They won’t burn any, they won’t leave any on too long - and that’s the same thing with an artist. The more you do stuff, the more you understand the properties of the materials and so, everything doesn’t just fall apart. With the ‘Art Jumpstart’ projects that I put together last year I kept calling them ‘recipes’ because that’s what they were. You had a picture of what the final thing looked like, and you’d been given a set of instructions.
In what capacity do you work with people as a trainer?
I’ve worked for years with PGCE students, teaching skills but also setting them practical tasks in schools. Quite a lot of the schools I go into book training days, sometimes because the head teacher just wants the staff to gel a little bit more rather than simply covering art skills. I also deliver shorter twilight sessions.
When I go into a primary school, the class teacher and the TA are often in the room. My advice to them is always to relax and to look at the reactions of those children while they are with me. Is this one cheeky with me? Is the quiet one quiet with me? So, making an assessment of them while another person is in control of the situation. You’re joining in, but you’re also watching how they react too. Is the kid who’s always staring out of the window, staring out of the window today? I always ask staff to join in, but to try to watch how the children react too and if it’s different, to learn from it. Can you be slightly different to accommodate that child?
You’re living and working now in picturesque Dorset, by the Jurassic Coast. Tell us about your business, Jekyll and Hyde and what took you to Dorset.
As a teenager, I’d realised that the people I’d found really interesting hadn’t just stayed where they were born. They’d worked abroad, travelled and worked in different parts of the country. When I left Ingestre Hall I decided I wanted to go somewhere completely different and set up my own business. I was a fossil nerd as a kid and was into geology, so as a result I had come down to Lyme Regis regularly and had fallen in love with the place. It’s on the border of three counties and I can be in the Midlands or London in about two and a half hours so it’s quite a decent place to base yourself. I just thought, I’m going to make a go of this and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. However, leaving a secure job of your own accord and leaving your flat in a stately home, to then waking up in a little rented house by the sea, with no work - you can imagine. I remember waking up those first few days and reflecting on exactly what I’d done. But, in retrospect it was the best decision of my life really.
In the last 15 years I’ve worked in schools, museums, theatres, on the Beach here in Dorset and in the middle of a field where there’s an archaeological dig going on. I’ve sat in classrooms with kids from all over the country. I’ve worked in a lot of Special Schools with kids with additional needs, with visual impairment, or with challenging behaviour. I’ve worked with kids where English is an additional language and on the other hand I’ve worked at places like Wells Cathedral School, where they have topiary and tennis courts. I love the fact that my life pitches me from place to place. I can go back up to a school in Midlands, where there is the most diverse mix of kids you can imagine and then I can find myself in a rural little village school in the middle of Somerset, where the kids are all farming kids - you get a different kind of audience and you have to adapt. Primary schools and especially KS1 can be mostly female teachers, so I like the fact that the children see me, as a man, working closely with them but not doing something ‘macho’, I’m not a boxer or a Karate Coach, what I do requires a different kind of control and patience. I offer them a different kind of role model.
As an entrepreneur, are there any top tips that you can give the people who are going to read this article, about how you’ve built up your organisational contacts with Museums and Universities.
Find out people’s names. When you start your own business, if you send off a load of emails or flyers, or you put something online but it’s directed to a department or an institution, they’ll just ignore it, delete it or throw it away. When I first moved down here, I just sat on the phone and online for ages and asked for names. I’d call up places and ask for the name of the art co-ordinator. If that person couldn’t help I’d ask them to give me a ‘name’ that could.
Can you explain what inspired you to shift your focus, in the first UK national lockdown last year back in March?
The week that we had the realisation that schools were going to stop working as they had been I was in a hotel up in Leamington Spa and every email I got was from people telling me they were going to have to cancel bookings. I lost four months’ worth of work and that was before we knew about any help for the self-employed. Thousands of pounds worth of hard earned work lost in one week. I knew I couldn’t do the work I had been doing, but I also quickly realised that everyone in the world was at home. They had to stay in and use what they already had at home to keep their children occupied.
That’s exactly what I’d been doing in my job for years. I’d been using everyday materials, working with children and I knew they loved that kind of craft aspect. I came up with the idea first of using just five household things - cardboard, milk cartons, egg boxes, cardboard tubes & tin foil. The things you’d have in your kitchen or recycling box. I wanted to kick start something creative and decided I’d call the project ‘Art Jumpstart’. Initially I planned to do twenty projects but before I’d even done ten it started to go crazy. People from all over the world, kids from Canada, America, India and Australia were sending me photos of what they’d been doing and people would be asking what the next project was going to be.
It inspired me too, which was great because I was locked in at home, the same as everyone else was and so I continued until I’d completed 50 different projects.
I also ran two big challenges during Lockdown. In one I asked the schools to send me an idea for a sculpture that they wanted me to make for free. I then chose the three that I thought were the best and ran a twitter poll so the public could choose which they wanted me to make. In the other project, I made a full-size cardboard statue of Nelson Mandela. Around 550 schools put their names forward for it and I picked one out of a hat. So, I ended up driving up to Cheshire with Nelson Mandela in the back of my car and dropping him off! The school have done a load of work about the Black Lives Matter campaign, and they’ve used it as the stimulus for a lot of further work last term.
During that project I got a message on Twitter from the Nelson Mandela Foundation in South Africa telling me “We love what you’re doing, keep it up!” I was so proud of that. ‘The Boy Who Can Draw’, had now become ‘The Man Who Makes Things’.
The thing that’s amazed me most this last year is the connection with people and how kind people are. I’ve been on Twitter for a while but it was only really in lockdown that I started to seriously use it as a way to generate work.
What do you know now that you didn’t know three years ago?
I know a little more about technology and social media and I know a lot more about education. I’d been a sole trader working on my own for so long going into schools, doing my projects and then going home but now I’m connected with a lot of people, many of them are Deputies or Head Teachers. I've become a part of their conversations about a bigger education agenda and I’m interested in the way people work and the creative strategies they have in schools. It’s opened a different kind of doorway for me. I’ve learnt about being flexible too - how to connect with people in a different way.
Who’s your favourite artist?
Always Picasso. Partly to do with character and charisma, but also his work relates more to mine. I always think you’ve got two types of artist. You’ve got the Picasso type of artist, someone who constantly changes what they’re doing. Picasso could draw like a Renaissance artist when he was about 10, he was a child prodigy so he never drew like a child. As he got older he became excited by the freedom of children’s drawings and by the artwork of tribal people - people who hadn’t been schooled in the Western art forms. Picasso also did ceramics, print making, sculpture, woodwork and was the first person to exhibit work made out of junk!
Then you get the other type of artist, like Paul Cezanne who painted in the same style for the whole of his life, becoming more refined and stylized. I’m more Picasso, than I am Cezanne! Picasso famously visited a ceramics factory in Spain, he stood at the end of the production line and every single plate and jug that came off, he turned into something else. That story really resonates with me and that innovative character inspires me.
How does living on the coast impact on your art and on your lifestyle?
Well, having always been into fossils, when I first moved here I pitched that idea to a lot of people. I contacted the museums in the area, recently renamed ‘The Jurassic Coast’ and said I could make big sculptures of Dinosaurs and fossils, knowing that kids would be into that. As a result I’ve done hundreds of different events linked to the geology here and have had work on display in the museums myself. I’ve even been involved with projects where I’ve met David Attenborough! So, it’s almost like it’s come full circle.
The Natural History Museum had their ‘Dippy, the Diplodocus’ skeleton on tour a couple of years ago. I was asked, along with three other artists, to display some of my work alongside it when it was here at Dorset County Museum. So, I ended up standing in Dorchester Museum in front of the same skeleton that I had stood in front of at the Natural History Museum when I was about eight and had visited London.
If you’d have interviewed me back then standing in that museum and asked me what I wanted to be when I was older, I would have said an artist or a palaeontologist. My life turned into what I wanted to do when I was eight.
If you had to name only three Desert Island Discs, what would they be?
I could have named 103! I’m a big music fan and also a diverse music fan. Going from earlier to later, David Bowie, ‘Life on Mars’, which basically makes me feel like I’m six and in the back of the car singing along with a man who’s got make up on and glittery hair! I loved that. The flamboyance! Then, later, Talk Talk ‘It’s Getting Late in the Evening’ which is Guy Garvey’s favourite song. And finally, Radiohead ‘Let Down’. I’m a massive Radiohead Fan. Thom Yorke is the same age as me so I think we share a similar musical heritage.
In the future, what would you like to be remembered for?
What I’m doing creatively isn’t really going to be remembered, it’s not really meant to be. What I’m doing is going to be thrown away. It’s transient. I’d like to be remembered more for being kind and helpful, for being authentic, for being myself. I know a fair bit about art but I wouldn’t like to tell people what to think about it. I’d just like to think I’ve made it a little more accessible.
Is it still viable to become a working artist in the 21st Century? What advice would you give to a young artist of secondary school age, aspiring to design and create for a living?
I think it’s viable but it’s tough, and that’s always been the case. Art has no career path. Keep up with what’s happening around you – technology, trends. Be individual and different. Find out what excites you and immerse yourself in that.
What opportunities are there for young aspiring artists, schools or arts organisations to work with you?
Schools and other educational establishments can see my work online and can book me or make enquiries through the website. I am also listed on the databases of quite a few arts organisations. I think we have three local to Dorset although cuts to funding do often have an impact on these kinds of services.
My name is a unique spelling so if you search for me, you’ll find me. I’ll be listed under ‘The Man who makes things’.
If you would like to get in touch with Darrell, you can contact him via his website or via his social media.