As a kid, most of my spare time was spent drawing. It was my earliest passion.
I was no savant. But I suppose, on reflection, I did have at least some innate “gift”. The people I colourfully produced aged just three, in bright felt tip, were anatomically correct (in as much as having, for example, five fingers on each hand and articulated limbs), and incredibly complex.
Relatives and family friends recall me feverishly creating drawing after drawing, eagerly quick-fire-switching between each colour (but always carefully, but with lightning action, replacing the lid of each pen after use).
When I entered primary school, I had an awareness that I was somewhat advanced compared to my peers, and sensed that this singled me out in a way I couldn’t quite place, but didn’t like. I intuited from early on that I was somehow different, and desperately wanted to fit in. So I copied my classmates’ clumsily executed, anatomically incorrect scrawls, in the hope of escaping attention. I was doing this at age five. But adults questioned me on this practice, and encouraged me to stay true to myself and embrace my abilities. I drew. And drew. And drew.
Never what was in front of me. Always scenes and characters conjured up in my own mind. But always produced with the intention of seeming “realistic”, however fantastical the subject.
I recall, at around six years old, having an argument with a classmate who refused to draw a nose on her depiction of the face of our teacher – we were making “Get well soon” cards as she was ill in hospital, and most of us had decided to draw her recovering in bed. When my friend got up to go to the toilet, I spitefully snatched up her card and drew that nose.
Around seven or eight years old. A documentary about the autistic savant architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire was showing on TV. I was captivated watching him draw and paint intricate architectural wonders from memory. A telling exchange from the time:
Me: “Mummy, what does ‘autistic’ mean?”
My mother: “Oh, it’s when someone is lost in their own world.”
Me: “Oh, I think I must be autistic, then.”
Ironic, huh? I think at the time, I was interpreting the word, and my mum’s explanation, as meaning “artistic”. After all, like Stephen Wiltshire, I loved to draw.
I drew and drew and drew. Never still life or landscapes. Always people – no scenery. Just groups interacting socially, or individuals, their outfits, hairstyles and accessories lovingly and meticulously detailed. And always from my imagination.
I attended the village youth club. As other kids shot pool, played board games, or ran round and round the building outside, I drew.
“Why do you do that here? You can just draw at home, can’t you?”
I wasn’t quite sure. I think I just liked the sense of being around others, but without actually having to interact. I did interact with the adult helpers. Mostly, I talked to them about the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. Not in any way autistic. Not in the slightest. Oh no.
At school, I was held spellbound by the elaborate creative projects dreamt up by my teachers in those years of freedom prior to the introduction of the English National Curriculum. Entire classrooms converted into rainforests. Imaginary monsters conjured out of paint spatters, with each child creating our own monster’s name, character and back story. Exercises in using grids to “enlarge” the designs of postage stamps or food packaging labels. Collage. Tissue paper. Clay. Papier-mâché.
And whilst other children would play games in their spare time, I would draw. And draw. And draw.
In secondary school, I had access to a wider range of materials. My imagination grew as I, my brain, and my body did. In one class during the early years, our tutor group was asked to make clay studies of people. Deliberately stylised and “cartoonish” – we were encouraged to think about how we might easily represent their essence in exaggerated, simplified form.
My clay man, sitting on the floor with legs outstretched and crossed, was listening to music through a Walkman and headphones. Eyes closed, singing along, with beatific facial expression, seeming to beat his hands on his legs in time to the music. Lost in enjoyment.
He was covered in clear glaze. The shape and form spoke for themselves and needed no further adornment or colour.
Later, when several of our pieces were on display in a case along the Art and Design (A&D) department corridor, someone asked one of my teachers if they could buy my piece. My teachers asked me, but I refused. I was too proud of it to let it go, and it sits on my parents’ living room bookshelf to this day.
As I continued through secondary school, I continued to find solace in drawing as life got more and more difficult. I’d graduated from bright, multicoloured felt tip to pure, grayscale pencil. But I still drew nothing but people. I drew. And drew. And drew.
Of course, when it came time to choose our GCSE options, there was no question that I’d be taking Art. At every parents’ evening, my teachers had told my mum and dad that they were certain I was destined for art school. No doubt about it. I was a polymath in everything but PE, but art was my one true passion.
And so came the beginning of the end.
The class I was put in was allocated to a wayward, alcoholic teacher who was approaching retirement. A man with his eyes off the road. Off the ball.
We drew. We created. But I had no idea where we were going. There was no inkling of what syllabus we were meant to be following. I knew from friends in the other classes that there were certain things – topics, tools, and techniques – that we were meant to be covering as part of the GCSE Art curriculum. Only our class wasn’t covering them. The uncertainty was alarming.
And then, strange things started to happen. At one point India, and Hindu mythology, were given to us as sources of inspiration. My teacher was starting to construct large sculptures of bamboo and tissue paper. One, in particular, with a likeness to the elephant god Ganesh, seemed to have a vague connection to some of the 2D work I was producing on paper.
And so it came to parents’ evening, towards the end of that first GCSE year.
When my parents arrived home, they were spellbound. In awe.
“Wow, sweetheart. We’ve seen your sculpture! It’s amazing! Wow, you’re so talented, we had no idea!”
(Or words to that effect.)
“But…I haven’t made any sculpture.”
And from there, it all unravelled.
In a state of panic, my incompetent, booze-addled but nonetheless artistically adept teacher had somehow recognised he was doing his star pupil a disservice; letting her down; putting her at risk of never achieving the dizzy artistic attainment levels she was so easily capable of reaching. And in some misplaced attempt to help me along, he’d constructed a work no 15-year-old would ever have been able to produce, and passed it off as mine.
Of course, I couldn’t accept the dishonesty. The deceit. How could he lie, on my behalf? How could me make me complicit, force me to lie? Regardless of how I progressed through GCSE Art, I wanted all the work to be my own.
I was devastated. Traumatised. And, if I’m honest, utterly weirded out by the whole thing. It was bewildering, and disturbing.
I sat in the headmaster’s office with my dad, tearfully recounting my side of the story, all the while wondering what the hell was going to happen to my class, my GCSE grade, and my future.
The following academic year, my teacher was no longer at the school. I have no idea whether he was dismissed entirely as a result of what occurred with me, or whether this was merely the tipping point. The other members of the A&D department mucked in, clubbed together, and worked to help our class get through our second and final year of GCSE Art.
I made my portfolio, documenting the supposed journey in the development of each piece of artwork. I made it after the fact.
Like someone with innate abilities in mathematics, I couldn’t show my workings. It all just “came out” when I put pen to paper. So, I just made it all up, fabricating the connections for the sake of meeting the requirements of a curriculum not set up for people who thought about, or enacted, the producing of art in the way I did. The portfolio made logical enough sense. I was good at being creative, in making up a decent story. The school kept the portfolio, with my permission, after our GCSEs were complete, to be shown to future students as an exemplar. I got an A.
By my love affair with art was over. A lifelong passion, sullied. I couldn’t bear to study it beyond that point.
My parents never forgave the school. Art had been, according to my dad, “the only time I was ever truly spontaneous”.
A few years passed, and I started to dabble in drawing cartoons, primarily of favourite bands. A few were published in fanzines. I’d moved from grey pencil to black pen-and-ink.
But I’d missed out on those years of formal training that I’d always anticipated being my natural, written-in-the-stars trajectory. It still pains me that I am far less “skilled” in formal drawing techniques than others who have studied art to a higher level than I.
And instead of following my childhood dream, my birthright, I spent another 15 years or so trying to find a new niche. There was so much I was good at, but very little that ever lit my inner fires quite like drawing.
I was the victim of theft, the stolen goods my earliest, most cherished passion.
And whilst I try so hard not to regret, it is something I will never truly get over.
[Featured image: plain black background imprinted, in stark grey upper case, sans serif letters, with the words “A PASSION, STOLEN”.]