The Power of Art Education: An Interview With Sir John Sorrell

by Cass Art

We all remember that art teacher that inspired us. The one that encouraged your talent, spent their lunch break teaching you how to use oil paints, or introduced you to your all-time favourite artist. Art couldn't exist without teachers.

And somebody who whole-heartedly believes in this is Sir John Sorrell, co-founder of the Sorrell Foundation, which is an arts education charity that inspires creativity in young people by offering Saturday morning art classes. He knew he wanted to pursue the arts when one day, when he was fourteen years old, his art teacher tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he wanted to join a Saturday morning art class.

Ever since, he has championed art education, something that is very close to Cass Art's heart. We have recently launched our own Artist Educator initiative to support art teachers, tutors and therapists across the UK, with an exclusive art discount - or  Viridian Card - which entitles these individuals to 10% off Cass Art materials for life, as well as opportunities to test new products and receive offers to support them and their students.

What's more, 5% of every purchase made with a Viridian Card will be donated to an arts education charity, which at the moment is - you guessed it - The Sorrell Foundation. Sir John Sorrell himself launched our new Artist Educator initiative at our Islington Flagship art store in December, but we wanted to hear more from him about why art education is so vital to society.
 John Sorrell

Can you tell us why you decided to set up the Sorrell Foundation? 

My art teacher at school, Mr Ramsay, asked me if I would be interested in Saturday morning art classes when I was about fourteen. I said I was and went along to Hornsey College of Art. I realised when I got there that art and design was what I wanted to do. A little later I became a student at Hornsey and after I left set up my first design business, when I was nineteen. I founded Newell and Sorrell with Frances, my wife, and we ran this business for about 25 years. For a long time we wanted to use our professional experience to help young people find opportunities to explore their own creativity and learn about art and design, so we setup the Sorrell Foundation in 1999. Over the last 15 years, the Foundation has created innovative new programmes and worked with many thousands of young people around the UK.

 Art students with Cass Art bags

What sort of activities might a young person get up to whilst at the National Art & Design Saturday club?

It's a very exciting mix; everything from architecture, ceramics, drawing, glassblowing, digital animation, millinery, photography, silversmithing, sculpture and woodcut. We have counted 70 different disciplines and it's going up all the time. The Saturday Club has been running since 2009. We started it as a pilot in four colleges and it is now in over 40! The idea is to give young people the opportunity to study art and design every Saturday morning at their local college or university for free. So as well as trying a huge range of media and techniques - far more than they can at school - young people can also find out how and where they could take their studies further. We also arrange Masterclasses with professional artists and designers, so they can find creative role models and, hopefully, some of them will find careers in the creative industries.

Art students with ceramics and pottery

Why do you think Artist Educators are so important to society?

Because they both teach and inspire. They are able to demonstrate a range of practical art and design skills - drawing, painting, ceramics, photography and so on - and also the qualities such as observation, experimentation, visual and spatial communication that are fundamental to creativity. Of course it's not just artists and designers that benefit from these skills, they are useful to all types of learning, and all types of work.

Sculpture and art students

You’ve mentioned that your father wanted you to choose the course that would earn you the most money – do you think there is still a widespread belief that art courses will leave you with little money and no job prospects? And if so, how do you think we can combat those ideas?

It's really important to engage more directly with schools and parents to grow a broader understanding of the range of opportunities available to those who study art courses. It is very difficult for schools' careers advisors to know about every course and every potential job in the creative industries, or even in design - everything from broadcast media to theatre, to games design, to museums, to architecture, fashion, communications, product design, vehicle design...It's a huge field, and the fastest growing sector in the UK. If teachers and parents knew more about these opportunities, and all the routes in through study and training, there would be less anxiety and more encouragement to follow creative courses at school and beyond. 

Virdian Card

Finally, what would you like to say to those who teach art?

Art educators play a hugely important role in inspiring young people, opening their minds, encouraging them to question and explore. The UK is renowned all over the world for the success of its creative industries - art, games, theatre, music, film, design - but in order for this success to continue, it's crucial to keep producing young people who enter the creative professions. So keep inspiring those young people as they are the UK's next creative generation!

Feeling inspired?

You can apply for your Artist Educator card here.  

Find out more about Cass Art's support for the Sorrell Foundation and its Art & Design Saturday Club here.  

If you are interested in taking your children along to one of the Saturday Art Clubs, they are held at select universities and colleges throughout the UK. (Below is a sample list of universities/colleges within regional areas that host the Saturday Art Clubs).

North East: University of Huddersfield

South West: Somerset College

Cornwall: University College Falmouth

South East: University of the Arts London

Wales: Bangor University

Midlands: Nottingham Trent University

For a full list of other venues for the Art & Design Club visit here.

Image Credits:

Club members welding at Coleg Sir Gar (photo: Saturday Club tutors)
Club members at Tate Modern during their London Visit (photo: Magnus Andersson) 
Banbury and Bicester Club members throwing pots (photo: Saturday Club tutors)
London Metropolitan University Saturday Club members at their puppetry Masterclass at the National Theatre (photo: Magnus Andersson)

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