|Copyright Faith Butt-Lyons|
In 2001, we packed up the kids and went to England.
It was an adventure- a kind of geographical shake up for us, to try out those long unused British passports which were ours as birthright, and see what we could rustle up on the work and sightseeing front. We found ourselves after some weeks in Bristol; kids finally in school, husband with a job in Bath and me, in a basement flat keening for the light and freedom of New Zealand and to feel usefully employed.
I tried every avenue to find work in the arts; applying for gallery hosting jobs (nil response to my CV) volunteering ('sorry, our volunteer list is full, we can put you on the waiting list') and finally refusing to budge from places until they gave me the time of day or a lead to something I could do. Stroppy sorts, these Kiwis abroad.
My persistence paid off and I was given a titbit- The Bristol City Council were employing people in the arts on a casual basis to work in low decile primary schools. Taking music, painting, sculpture and dance to kids who didn't get to go to all of these things as after school activities, because there was no spare fat in the budget for families to provide these luxuries.
I applied and got the work, and so, as my husband went off to Jane Austin territory to work in an advertising agency surrounded by beautiful things and cobbled mews, I drove into the deepest parts of Bristol, to schools surrounded by barbed wire, keypad security on the gates. After the Dunblane Massacre of '96, no one was taking any chances.
I worked at four different schools delivering a curriculum of art which I devised, to groups of kids who were sometimes baffled as to why they were there. Three of the schools dumped the strays and mischief makers on me. I was a beleaguered babysitter with paint. I can't even remember what the schools names were; they stood out only for their lack of interest, grey walls and even greyer worn down teaching staff.
The fourth one was different; Cheddar Grove Primary School. It was led by a principal who cared and had vision. The school felt different walking in, the kids were happy, the parents smiled, the place was cheery, with lots of art on the walls. It didn't feel like a prison.
The head teacher had selected the students with care; kids who had a love of art. He also let me know that some of the students had experienced very difficult lives to date for various reasons. He didn't let me know who or what in particular- careful not to single anyone out for some kind of misplaced sympathy oozing from well meant intention. But he did want me to be aware that some might not turn up at some times for various reasons that had nothing to do with me or the programme. What he wanted was for the kids abilities to blossom and for all of us to have fun.
And we did. I looked forward to my lovely class of kids every week; it was my reward for having to deal with the grim ones. One little girl stood out for me. She was slight and shy with huge eyes. I struggled to hear what she had to say, and sometimes she bolted from the room minutes after arriving 'I can't be here today Miss.' I never asked why, and when she was there, she concentrated furiously and tried all the techniques I showed the class with studied intent.
One day when I was talking about art I'd seen in different places, a boy said 'Is that what you do Miss?' (they wouldn't call me Fifi, and you have to read this with a West Country accent) 'you go around the world like, and do art?' In that moment I realised how my life must look- glamorous and exciting; and relatively speaking to the barbed wire, it was. I felt ashamed of my moaning about the basement flat. It was in Clifton- the very poshest part of Bristol. That it was mouldy and dark and nothing like home was irrelevant.
Eventually the classes came to an end and said goodbye with sadness to my Cheddar Grove art babies. I loved them all and they had taught me that I could teach. Faith came up to me and gave me a card made up of some of her best work and whispered 'Thank you Miss for showing us art.' A year later we left Britain and I wondered for years how she was and what had happened to that shy little girl.
One day a message popped up in Facebook asking me if I was the same Fifi who taught art at Cheddar Grove. Faith! Not only is she all grown up, fully blossomed into a strong, confident, gorgeous gal, but she is studying art. 'I'm doing it, I'm at art school!'
Faith Butt-Lyons is finishing her BA Honours degree in Drawing and Applied Art, UWE, Bristol. She's sent me her website with her work; on the 'About' page, she explains her exploration through different media of her sadness and the family tragedy that underpins it. The images are strong and abstracted and, I found, very moving knowing the context.