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A key to a different life

30 November, 1999

In the tenth of this series Aideen Gough tells us how art can change people’s lives. She tells us how she uses art to help students in their growth.

My parents nurtured the emerging abilities and interests in each of their six children. My father would bring home recycled architectural drawings for us to draw on the back. I received a special treat – professional colour markers – which he bought in a graphic design shop.

Early encouragement
My other brothers and sisters were given markers, crayons and colour pencils. But my father understood my interest in art and knew that I would take care of my special markers. I often say to parents of the students I teach that something bought out of the blue can really lift a person.

My artistic potential was also encouraged at St. Dominic’s School, Falls Road, which was run by the Dominican Sisters. The art teachers had access to a mini-bus and would bring us to exhibitions that were taking place around my native Belfast during some very tense political times.

During my time in St. Dominic’s, I learned many art forms, from silk painting to Batiks. I had compiled a portfolio of work by the time I followed my teacher’s advice and applied for a place – and was later accepted to study – in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin.

Education and work
The emphasis in teaching art at the time was in getting people to fully understand themselves by looking at their environment. This enabled the person to shape their own world with discernment. I was determined to bring art into everyone’s life.

The summer before I went to art college, I got involved with Voluntary Services Belfast and was part of the Travelling Arts and Crafts Scheme which visited various cross-community centres and camps for travellers. We were the arts squad on a mission to introduce art to all.

After my graduation from the NCAD with a degree in Visual Communications, I set up my own business and worked as a graphic artist and in private and commercial silk painting for a number of years.

I returned to education to complete a diploma in Art History at Trinity College Dublin, and ten years after my first graduation from art college, I returned to NCAD to complete a Teaching Diploma in Art Education. I decided to change direction and become a full-time art teacher. Over the past sixteen years, I have worked in a number of schools, and for the past seven years, I have been in the Art Department at St. Paul’s School in Greenhills in Dublin.

I like to think of myself as a facilitator: I facilitate learning. I love to see how art can enhance people’s image of themselves. It was wonderful to see the transformation in people who attended a night class for parents that I organized in one school where I taught. It was new to them. But in acquiring a new skill, they regained some self-belief and started to notice everything around them.

I once taught a short night course in a school based on calligraphy. By the end of the ten weeks, some people had acquired enough confidence that they could do their own wedding stationery. They now had a new skill they could apply to their everyday life.

I think it’s always important to acknowledge that there is someone in your class who is more skilled than you are. One of the attendees at my night course was a seventy-year-old who turned out to be incredibly skilled.
Like my natural-born calligrapher, I have met people who turned to art late in life and found it brought a new dimension to their lives. It just proves you can start at any age. The art world was excited by the discovery in the 1950s of the work of an elderly fisherman, Alfred Wallis, in St. Ives in Cornwall who painted on cardboard. He might not have had access to art as a child but wanted to express himself.

Personal growth
Art becomes relevant to people at different times in their lives. I taught art classes for a time with people who were undergoing cancer treatment. After some initial nervous giggles when faced with a still life class for the first time, they soon became engrossed in the task at hand, deflecting from their pain.

At one point in my career, I worked with visually impaired children. It was a learning experience for me to see how a student will learn to accept and overcome. They learned calligraphy, clay work and how to keep between the lines when painting. The young students also had a different interpretation of life. They drew faces with small eyes and very big ears and developed a tactile intelligence.

Children with special needs can derive personal calm from art. Learning to direct paint around a page can also equip children with life skills such as developing eye-to-hand coordination and with the ability to express ideas and feelings.

Happy students
One of the best sounds and sights in the world to me is the happy hum in my classroom and the bright eyes of students who are bonding with art, including those students from different cultures.

The students at St. Paul’s have received a lot of acclaim. In conjunction with the Creative Engagement Scheme, they mounted an exhibition at the Visitors’ Centre in Newgrange. It was lovely for them to see themselves in a larger historical context. They also felt ownership for a short time of a public building. This was a unique and enriching experience.

My colleague’s student won a prize in the Unilever international competition and exhibited in the Tate Gallery, London where the student from St. Paul’s represented Ireland. St. Paul’s students also travelled to Germany in July after winning a prize in a competition on the theme, Europe at School, which was organized by the Department of Education and Science.

As a teacher, I feel I am in a privileged position because art can be the key to a different life. Some students may make their career in the visual arts by going to art college or to art-related courses. If nothing else, art will be a part of their lives and they will have gained some self-belief and education of the whole person. They will be able to make their ‘human footprint’, which may carry them through challenging moments in their lives. The benefits of art go beyond a competence in the subject itself.

Art belongs to all of us and should be treasured. It is like a faith. I feel that art is not just mine to treasure. I want to pass it on, as I am so grateful that it was passed to me. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.