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3 young artists on getting into the Young Artists’ Summer Show

Published 18 September 2020

Imogen West-Knights catches up with three young creatives as they prepare to exhibit in this year’s Young Artists’ Summer Show.

  • From the Autumn 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    During lockdown, good news felt thin on the ground. In July, however, almost 400 young people around the country were given reason to celebrate. These children and young adults, aged between five and nineteen, were selected to exhibit their work in the second annual Royal Academy Young Artists’ Summer Show. Chosen from over 17,000 applicants, each successful entrant has an artwork exhibited in the show online, with 200 also gracing the walls of the Academy itself, in an autumn show curated by Cathie Pilkington RA in the Clore Learning Centre. As the digital exhibition launched on the RA’s website, I spoke over Zoom to three of the chosen artists – Omotayo (17), Lois (18) and Sam (16) – to discover how they see their futures as makers of art.

    Together, their three pieces demonstrate the breadth of this year’s show. Lois’s Dappled Light (below) is an oil painting of a building near where she lives in rural Worcestershire, which one of this year’s judges, Bob & Roberta Smith RA, describes as “worthy of William Blake”. Sam’s piece is a Claes Oldenburg-inspired large-scale wooden reproduction of a Swan Vestas matchbox (below), complete with burnt match, and is one of the pieces to win an exhibition prize. Omotayo, meanwhile, used a variety of media, including oil paint, collage and fabric from one of his mum’s traditional Nigerian dresses to create a striking self-portrait inspired by artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. “I ended up using a lot more of the dress than I said I was going to”, he admitted, with a conspiratorial glint in his eye.

  • Each of these young people traced their love of art back to when they were very little. “I used to pause the TV and draw my favourite characters for hours”, said Omotayo, while Sam found his fascination for wood through his carpenter grandfather: “I would build loads of little things with him, like trains and cars, and it just grew from there.” They were also all stunned to be selected, with Sam seeming particularly surprised: “When I found out I was like, ‘I’m from West Drayton, how can I be one of the people getting put in this show?’” he exclaimed, with a look of shock.

    As with most students, Sam, Lois and Omotayo have been unable to attend school for much of the year, but this has had its unexpected upsides. “It’s a bit bad to say, but I’ve kind of enjoyed it,” Sam told me, explaining that he has used the time to make woodwork in the workshop he built in his garden when he was 13. Lois agreed that lockdown offered some creative freedom: “There’s less pressure than you have at college, where they like you to do drawing or painting. I’ve been doing things like making clothes and collage.” Indeed, the fact that more young people have been at home with time to spend on creative projects is probably why the show had almost triple the number of entries this year, according to Mary Ealden, a project manager at the Academy. “I also think that it is testament to the fact that art is a fantastic way for people to relax, and to make sense of the crazy time we are living in”, she added. Although lockdown means they had more time to make their art, all three agreed how much their art teachers at school had nurtured their abilities.

  • All schools should be art schools, because if you don’t teach children that their individual voices and viewpoints matter, you won’t hear from them as adults.

    Bob and Roberta Smith RA

  • Much has been written about how arts education has suffered under austerity in Britain. Over the past decade, there has in fact been a small upturn of six per cent in the number of GCSE entries for Art and Design, according to the Department of Education, but state school art department budgets have been decimated, meaning the extensive encouragement and teaching that Omotayo, Sam and Lois received might not be available to young people in the future. As Bob & Roberta Smith points out, “All schools should be art schools, because if you don’t teach children that their individual voices and viewpoints matter, you won’t hear from them as adults.”

    The young people I spoke to agreed. “I’m not very good at the academic stuff”, Sam told me matter-of-factly, “so I think it is important for kids like me, who are creative, to be able to express themselves in other ways, like through art.” Lois also spoke about how art makes room for young people to work through feelings, at a time when many are emotionally vulnerable: “If you don’t want to talk to someone, art’s a very good way to show visually how you’re feeling”, she observed. “I think it’s a tragedy really”, said Omotayo of the cuts to art education. “My art scholarship allows me to go to my school, for example, and art has become a place of reconciliation where I can get lost in my own world. It’s opened a lot of doors for me.”

    There’s reason to be hopeful for the next generation of artists, though. “There are loads of useful sources of art knowledge online, like YouTube and Instagram”, said Omotayo, who has started his own art Instagram account (@artbytayo), raising money for charity by selling his artwork. Part of the point of an exhibition such as the RA’s taking place online as well as on site is to help inspire more young people with art made by people their own age.

  • So what does the immediate future hold for these three? Sam is starting an apprenticeship as a carpenter in September. I ask him if he sees himself continuing to make art alongside his new line of work, and he says he doesn’t see art and craft as being so far apart: “Some people might not class it as art, but I think anything you can make counts as art.” Lois is going on to do an Art Foundation at Hereford Arts College. “I love art, but I don’t think I could be an artist”, she said modestly. “Maybe next year will change my mind, though.” Omotayo wants to apply for architecture degree courses. “I have a maths side to me as well as being creative and I wanted to merge the two”, he said. “But I’m never going to stop painting.”

    This autumn, their work will be exhibited on the RA’s campus. “We are all artists when we start out”, says Bob & Roberta Smith, “but inhibition and other interests take people down different paths. A show of children and young people’s art at the RA is a reminder of humanity’s incredible capacity for invention, looking and fun.” In a strange and difficult year, it’s a reminder we could all benefit from.

    Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist.

    The Young Artists’ Summer Show will run 18 Oct – 22 Nov 2020. All visitors, including Friends, must book a timed ticket to the RA in advance. A timed ticket to a paid exhibition also gives access to this show and other displays; or book a free ticket just for this show

    Made possible by Robin Hambro.

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