Do you remember ITV’s Art Attack? The migraine-inducingly bright set? The eternal model of cheerfulness that was Neil Buchanan, complete with mullet and red sweater? His love affair with PVA glue? Being slightly unsettled by the creepy talking head? Always trying but failing to guess what the ‘big Art Attack’ was before it was revealed? Attempting to make your own versions at home, but never quite getting them as good as Neil’s?
Getting stuck in was its theme, making things and having fun without using expensive materials or complicated techniques, and as children, we lapped it up.
At primary school, art was compulsory yet one of the most anticipated lessons, far more interesting than science or geography. It was in that small room that I learnt how to sew, plait, mix primary colours – all life lessons, but most importantly, how fun it was to peel dried PVA glue off your hands. Proudly carrying home my latest creation, whether it be a tissue paper hot air balloon or an Anglo-Saxon purse, my mother would smile wearily and place it on top of the mantelpiece, for guests to peer at and puzzle over. It was one of these creations, a clay Roman style lamp, that I was looking at the other day and wondering when the passion for making things faded.
Perhaps it is the gradual realisation as you get older that it is not really a hot air balloon in your school bag. It is a collection of cardboard and tissue paper and string, stuck together with peeling glue and extremely vulnerable to puncture, as you try and protect it on the school bus.
If I were to attempt to make something now, for instance a bracelet, having no idea of any proper technique or style, it would look juvenile and unprofessional. As a student, lack of materials is a problem as well. This year I carried on the tradition of making a handmade card for my friend’s birthday, yet I was saddened and slightly embarrassed that it was made from two old notebook covers, stapled together. It looked like a card that a tramp had made.
As a self-confessed phobic of any kind of practical activity, I can’t imagine ever being able to make something beautiful and impressive, like many of my arty friends who put me to shame with personalised cutlery and award-winning photography. The disparity between the enthusiasm of a child for arts and crafts and the apathy of an adult left me pondering for a while, but then I realised that it is not us that changes, but the nature of our art. I may not remember how to make an origami swan, but I can construct a sentence that leaves me smiling in satisfaction.
Adults use art all the time, and not just in the obvious profession of artist. Designing a car, decorating a cake, all these things use art and we don’t realise.
So mourn not, supposedly ‘non-arty’ people, for no-one fits that description. We can’t all be Neil Buchanan with his deft hands and cheesy smile, but whatever your talent, art is there somewhere.
Originally published on The Yorker 7th July 2010