Looking for inspiration for your art lessons? Or maybe you want to learn more about sustainable art projects? Then check out this interview with Darrell Wakelam.

Conducted in January 2023

Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your art background?

I’ve been an artist working with children for just over 30 years, through quite a strange route, really. I trained as an illustrator and was all for going down that route and then, within the first year of my degree course, I got a frantic call from an art centre I used to go to myself as a student. They explained that their art teacher had to leave through illness and they needed someone to come and cover for three weeks. Those three weeks turned into thirteen years! I didn’t intend to be a teacher at all. It wasn’t on the agenda; it was just something that happened.

Where does your passion for art come from and why in particular working as an artist with children and young people?

It’s a weird one because for my interest in art – I have no idea really, neither of my parents are artistic in the slightest. I had no family, no background, so it was almost a way of keeping me quiet. I was quite a hyperactive young child and my mum was a stay-athome mum so, to keep me out of the way and keep me quiet, she would say, “Make something out of that,” or “Draw that,” or “Go and stick things on this piece of paper.” She wasn’t artistic but she could see I loved it, so that became a real thing.

I was the kid that could draw in the class so, as soon as I was probably 6 or 7, if we were asked to draw anything, everyone would immediately go, “Go and look and Darrell’s, have a look at what Darrell’s done.” That became my power, that was the thing.

I wasn’t the best at football, I wasn’t the best at maths, but [drawing] was the thing that gave me my power as a child.

I think, with some kids, that just never goes away, that feeling of wanting to not only do the creative thing but share it with other people. I think that’s partly where the teaching thing comes from. I think, as a person, I quite like taking things apart and putting them back together and learning how things work, so when it came to the teaching aspect, that’s a really big part of what I do anyway. I was able to break things down for children and that became a skill that took me forward. I was lucky in that respect.

You have a book being published in February 2023, ‘Art Shaped: Sustainable 3D Art Projects To Kickstart Children’s Creativity.’ Can you give us a brief overview of the book and why you decided to write it?

It’s something that came about through chance (a lot of my things seem to have!). I have spent my last 30 years doing projects with children daily. I was happy doing that, work always came in, paid for the bills – sorted. But like everyone else when COVID and the first lockdown happened and everything ground to a halt, all the work I had planned disappeared and I had to find a way to stay connected.

It sounds quite strange but I put a lot of projects online for people for free, and I know a lot of people thought that was a really kind and generous thing to do. That was part of it, to try and help, but a bigger part was to get my name out there. It was the only thing I could think to do. You remember we had about three days to think about it, when the world was going to completely change as we knew it. All my skills were based on putting things together from things you had at home, so that seemed like a perfect storm to put things out there. Then I got quite a lot of interest, and the book came about because of that interest.

What I have tried to do is condense some of the basic skills I have learnt throughout my career and make them as accessible as possible – keeping things simple using simple materials and trying to break things down for people.

I love how your book is about ‘extraordinary art from ordinary things.’ Do you feel this is common in other art and craft books for children?

I think it is. As a child, I had books such as ‘junk sculpture books.’ That’s always been a popular thing. But my take on that (and I had to do a bit of research on this before even compiling the book) is that they tend to follow a very similar formula and sometimes that can be quite erratic. You get lots of books where there are a mountain of different materials, and on every single page they’re using different materials. They’re also combining things that, instead of being recycled, will end up going to landfill.

So, I’ve tried to look at it more mindfully. Throughout the entire book, I’ve tried to keep every single project to the simplest possible materials, the cheapest, the most available stuff you’ve already got. That was all a properly thought-out thing, a process I wanted to get across. I wanted it to be structured so it wasn’t just turn a page and let’s make a monkey, turn another page and let’s make a mobile. What I’ve tried to do is categorise. If you’re just keeping your kids busy on a rainy day, you can just dip in and choose a project and that’s fine. But if you’re a teacher, and let’s say you’re doing something like the Tudors as a theme, hopefully what you’ll be able to do is flick through the book and find portraits, faces, crowns, ships and buildings. All of those things are adaptable to the Tudors; you would use the same techniques but just adapt the visual reference you were using.

What is your favourite project in the book?

If I had to pick just one, there’s a project in there called ‘One piece masks,’ and it’s where one of the main ideas of the book came from years before I decided to write one.

I found when I asked children if they did any making at home, if they said no, it was usually for three reasons:

  • because they didn’t know how to do it, so weren’t very confident
  • they hadn’t got the materials or thought they hadn’t got them
  • or because they would get told off for making a mess.

So, I created this mask project, where I could show them very quickly what to do, they only needed one piece of cardboard and they don’t throw anything away – every single bit of the cardboard would be used. This is a process I call ‘pure making’ and the book has a lot of this in it – it’s one of my main themes.

This mask project was the first time I had struck upon that idea and that’s why it’s one of the first things in the book. It’s one of the most important projects, so if I was going to pick a favourite, I would go for that one

To hear about how Darrell makes his art projects eco-friendly, his experience of online work during COVID, his advice for schools making art more accessible and more, listen to the full interview here.

Author

  • Darrell Wakelam

    Darrell is an art practitioner, teacher and trainer based in Dorset. He has been working with children and young people for 30 years+ providing art workshops nationwide in schools, museums, theatres and at events. Darrell uses mainly cardboard and paper-based materials to create 3D models, masks and sculptures, from 'one-piece' making projects through to life-sized animals and people.
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