“I’ve been an artist all my life” said the ten year old girl when I complimented her on the painting she’s just finished during the “Face to Face” portraits programme at The Ark, a cultural centre for children in the heart of Dublin.

Over three weeks in March a few hundred children from primary school and the public had been engaged in painting and drawing. Portraiture is not easy and both children and adults alike approach it with some apprehension and all sorts of responses concerned with creative expression. To have the opportunity to observe a wide range of behaviours was a real treat!

With regards to the children’s attitude it was often the behaviour of the adults who could either make or break a session. Though armed with the best intentions we adults often don’t allow young artists enough space, freedom or time for the process to unfold. Tactfully asking the teachers or parents to step back or, better still inviting them to join in, sit across each other and paint each other’s portrait proved to be the winning formula.

Gradually, in the light-filled art room of the Ark silence and peace would descend and the necessary conditions would be in place to enable creativity to do its best: create.

In that context the “I’ve been an artist all my life” sentence made perfect sense. In fact one of  the children’s most asked questions when I would introduce myself and my work would be “What age did you start being an artist?”. My answer would invariably be “Age two perhaps, as soon as I could hold a colour stick! Same as you no?” Most children did and were therefore reassured that they were indeed artists.

But the ten year old girl needed no reassurance. She just knew, and her words have played in my mind since. It was something about the confidence she had uttered the words with, a deep knowing and ease that stayed with me.

What a wonderful bold statement!

When we think back at our own childhood, at playtime, at pretend we could be anybody we wished to be – artist, dancer, train driver, inventor or explorer – the fact is WE WHERE in that moment in time. Later on if the environment we grew up in had nurtured that wish, it’s more than likely that’s who we would be today. On the other hand if life’s events had strayed us onto other paths we may still be hankering after that wish while toying with the idea of giving it all up to follow our dreams.

When I was a child, following your dreams wasn’t a given, at least in my family. My wish to grow up to be an artist or an explorer would not have been in my parents wish list but I was fortunate enough that they didn’t actively oppose me either.

In the end it was the world at large, school and work, that provided me with all the challenges and experiences I needed to become what I am today. Art school was a beautiful dream and work a series of tests that at times threatened to kill the creative spark I was working so hard to keep alive.

At a crucial time starting to work with children provided the saving life-buoy I was waiting for. It reminded me that creativity is most active during play and that the ‘pretend game’ can in fact become your every day reality.

Keep playing!