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PN interviews the chair of an empowering arts organisation.

Room 13

Mark Faulkner, coming to the end of two years chairing Room 13 Lochyside, described how the organisation had opened up “a whole new world” to him, making him realise that art was not about painting landscapes, but about “painting a brain on a piece of paper”.

Mark, 12, went on: “My own pieces are quite cryptic. I quite like it when instead of just walking past a piece, you have to look at it for about 30 minutes. And there’d be no piece of writing next to it, because that would be the world, really. It’s kind of cryptic.”

Room 13 Lochyside is large, airy and orderly (for an artists’ studio). It takes up much of the top floor of Lochyside RC Primary School in Fort William, a town on the banks of Loch Linnhe, a hundred miles north of Glasgow. Ben Nevis looms over Fort William from the east.

When I visited in May, the staircase and corridor leading up to the room were filled with artworks ranging from Paperman (2006) a delicate paper body constructed by Kyle Price, to Defiantly knowledge digital proverb by Sarah Corrigan, which says (in red letters): “Do Not Read This – the question is: do you read this or not?”

Mark is one of six members of the Room 13 Lochyside committee, all aged between 9 and 11. The committee orders the paints, paper, pencils and other art materials, organises the taking of the school photographs as a fundraising venture, signs the cheques and manages the company bank account. Room 13 is run by children for children, the old committee selecting the new. This is the system in Lochyside, in Caol (the original Room 13, just down the road), in Bristol, Eastbourne, Kathmandu, London, Soweto, Tamil Nadu, and Turkey. Committees of children, working without adult supervision. There are 23 Room 13 studios around the world, mostly in South Africa, due largely to the financial support of a major advertising agency. Mark says: “Our main hope is that we get one Room 13 in every school in Britain, and one in each country in the world.”

Artists as peers
Each Room 13 has an artist-in-residence, in a long-term (usually part-time) somewhat unusual arrangement. Instead of being instructors pursuing a particular project, Room 13 adult artists are employed by their committees more as facilitators, working alongside the young artists as peers, operating in the same spirit as in any other shared studio.

The first artist-in-residence, Rob Fairley, now the coordinator of the global Room 13 network, tends not to collaborate with young artists, but says: “I’m intrigued by their critical response” to his work. If there isn’t a visceral response to it from a 12-year-old, “then there’s something wrong”. Discipline

Order is kept by the committee. Kerry, 9, another member of the committee, explained how age restrictions had been introduced at Lochyside: “Some people were wasting paint, so other people [“The committee”, interjects her friend Sammy, also on the committee] made a rule that P1, 2s or 3s aren’t allowed into Room 13 [during free time] unless a teacher asks them to.”

If someone doesn’t tidy up, Mark says: “They get a punishment – it’s not harsh, but they have to do something, like tidy up everyone’s things. It’s only if it’s serious. We’ve only handed out a punishment once this year.”

Independence
Mark observes: “When new people come in, they go: ‘Where’s the teacher? Where’s the adult?’ And then people come in and say: ‘Where’s the health and safety on this?’ We know we have forms for health and safety. They say: ‘How come you have to do it yourselves?’ And we say: ‘It’s just all about being independent.’ ”

“It really helps with life skills after school because most people will leave school and they will expect people to do things for them, when we will probably leave school and be independent and creative and get on with our lives.”

Confidence

I’ve been told by other adults before meeting him that Mark used to be very shy. He confirmed this: “At first I was one of the shy ‘I-could-be-pushed-around’ people, but now I can argue with people and put up my ideas and say things that I want to say.”

Things have changed: “You can actually make jokes with teachers now. You can talk to them without any fear of what’s going to happen.”

Not only to individual teachers. Mark told a conference of teachers in Canterbury, in the course of explaining how it all worked: “Room 13 means a lot to me because I have got a lot of opportunities from it. I used to be very quiet and I didn’t really think that much of the world. At my old school, I didn’t think I mattered very much.” Now things are different.

Freedom

Mark makes his own observation of the change that comes over people who come to Room 13: “Some people come up, people who have to follow orders like zombies, and afterwards they’re thinking their own way, and they come down [to the rest of the school] very clever and very independent.” “We have a democratic system, but downstairs [in the rest of the school], they have a system run by teachers, and the system run by teachers seems to work well for pupils, but for us it works very well in the freedom sort of thing.”

Milan Rai is writing a book about Room 13, and plans to visit each and every Room 13.

Topics: Culture | Education