William Brown in Devon

I first met William Brown through Tony Foster, the visual arts officer for South West Arts.  He had the daunting task of monitoring and supporting the work of artists working across the five counties of south west England.  Whereas I had the daunting task of supporting the work of teachers in Art and Design in the 450 schools in the county.  We shared the responsibility for the organisation of the ‘Artists in Schools’ programme in the country of Devon which was financed by South West Arts.

Our main problem was selecting the artists to undertake the residencies form the large number of artists and schools who wanted to be involved in the scheme within a comparatively modest budget!

Tony Foster was a very good colleague having taught art and run departments in schools for many years before joining South West Arts, he had a good understanding of the subject and how visiting artists could contribute to the quality of experience in art that children experience in schools.

He would telephone me when he thought he had found an interesting artist who was suitable for a residency and we would arrange to visit the artist’s studio or exhibition together, talk to the artist and debate his or her suitability for a residency and to what kind of school. 

One day he telephoned to say that  he had found an interesting Canadian artist who could be very suitable for a residency and who had a studio in the abandoned woollen mill on the outskirts of Wellington on the Devon / Somerset border and invited me to join him for a viewing.

I met him there on a crisp and sunny morning and we wandered together throu8gh the empty and derelict spaces of the old mill, littered with bits and bobs of old machinery, spools and bobbins.  Tony explained that William brown the artis was Canadian and was working part-time at Siomnerset college of Art and that he thought his work and its subject matter would enthuse and excite children.  We finally turned a corner and found ourselves in a floor to ceiling paradise of drawings, paintings and woodcuts depicting the flora, fauna of the wildlife of Canada.

There were polar bears raiding rubbish dumps, moose in transit and wolves cogitating, all in bleak and frozen landscapes or deep and dark forests. 

We were greeted enthusiastically by William who instantly produced a bottle of sherry and three glasses so that we could have a ‘proper’ private view of his work.

It was immediately obvious that William, ebullient and articulate, amusing and outgoing would be a knock-out artist for a residency, and that the nature and free-wheeling quality of his work would be of great appeal to children because of its distinctive nature and unusual subject matter for an English audience.

Tony and I, in discussion, agreed that William’s work could be a significant stimulus within a well-established and successful art department but one working within conventional and traditional subject matter of the ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level examination courses.   We chose a grammar school in south Devon with a very experienced and able Head of Department who welcomed the possibility of working with an artist who could bring a new kind of stimulus to the Department’s work.

William settle in happily for a ten day residency, providing a wide range of work for display in the school, including paintings, prints and some small, inventive sculptures of animals constructed from a variety of materials.

It was a good residency. William and the Head of Department bounced ideas and arguments off each other and the students warmed to William’s informality and enthusiasm for his subject matter which they found very intriguing.   They were impressed by the rigour of his work and his ability to make big woodcuts by carving into plywood with chisels with great freedom.  This encouraged them to approach their own work with greater freedom.

The residency ended with an embarrassed phonecall from the school with the news that one of William’s small sculptures had been stolen – presumably by a student overcome with lust for it.

William’s response was classically amusing.  He cheerfully endorsed the cuklprit’s motives, saying  “If imitation is admiration, just think what theft is!”

His residency was a great success, not just because the students responded so well to his work but also because they warmed to him and the idea that art can be amusing and down to earth as well as inventive and highly skilled.

The school staff were impressed with his magnanimity about the potentially embarrassing theft of one of his works!

The country were further able to support William’s work through  a period of temporary funding for communal arts projects which enabled un to initiate the delivery of small exhibitions of artist’s work to rural areas of Devon which had little by way of exhibition facilities.

These exhibitions were managed by the County Schools Museums Service (now sadly disbanded because of recent cuts in Local Government Services).

Over a period of twenty years the country had built up a good collection of arts and crafts and which were housed in small exhibitions and made available to schools and administered by the schools Museums Service..

We purchased a set of twelve of William’s woodcuts which were mounted and equipped with a set of display screens and made available to schools for display for a period of one term at a time.

The exhibition was a popular choice with schools, some of which would then invite William to talk about his work both to pupils and to community groups.

Another facet of William’s work in Devon was driven by his natural abilities as a teacher and by a desire to teach children how to make their own prints as well as listening to him talking about print-making and showing them his own work. 

Watching William, working alongside the art teacher or class teacher in a primary school and teaching and encouraging the children to make their own prints using a variety of media and techniques was a rewarding experience. 

However, William’s most important residency, towards the end of his stay in Devon, took place at  a large primary school in Plymouth where the Deputy Head teacher was also the driving force behind the school’s art and design programme.

It was a very good residency resulting in commendable degrees of enthusiasm and energy on the part of the children – both for William’s work and as an inspiration for the children to make their own paintings, drawings and prints.  William and the Deputy Head Teacher, Carys Griffiths established such a good working relationship during this residency that it became a permanent relationship and they finished up getting married!

A good example of the power of the arts to unite, enthuse and entrance its practitioners.

Sadly for Devon, and joyfully for Wales, Carys was appointed to a headship in wales where they both went on from strength to strength in their work.

William is still remembered affectionately in Devon for the impact of his personality and for the impact he had upon our work in Arts and Design in schools.

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