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Art in Action Late July every year
Waterperry House, by Wheatley, Oxon

they look like they're watching tv!
IF you want to get to the heart of Art in Action, go see Ed Iglehart.

(Photos: Alastair Cowe; Montage: Ed)

Ed is in his usual spot, an open tent pitched right alongside his VW microbus in the dense shade of an oak tree. As he manipulates glass bubbles in the flame of a gas burner, he delivers another instalment of the non-stop monologue that has made him an institution here. The topics range from the role gravity plays in the creation of his glass lamps to the Zen of Sunday driving. But inevitably, his spiel turns to the nature of the immediate surroundings "It's a special place protected by magic; an elvish place. And there's music. The people are singing." As if on cue, a choir strikes up, their harmonies sifting through the oak leaves from a clearing on the other side.

A unique British arts and crafts fair,
which teaches visitors to nurture their creative instincts,
brought this Canadian family back for a second go-round.
(from the Treehouse Canadian Family Owl, May/June 1999)

Andrew Borkowski recalls the good vibrations.

No, you're not dreaming and this is not Middle-Earth. This is Art in Action, Britain's unique annual arts and crafts fair, staged by the London-based School of Economic Science. It's been happening for four days every July since 1977 on the school's residential estate at Waterperry House near Oxford.

This is no ordinary craft mart. The 250 participating artists, craftspeople and performers have been invited here to give the public a window into the creative process by demonstrating and teaching their skills. Throughout the grounds, sculptors sculpt, painters paint and potters pot.

But it's the classes that make Art in Action a hit with families. Three hour-long teaching sessions are held each day for students of all ages, divided into groups. Classes include pottery throwing, clay hand-building, metalwork, water-colour painting and sculpting.

The appeal is obvious: Parents can park their budding geniuses in classes while they take in the demonstrations, displays, concerts, lectures, do a little shopping and soak up the atmosphere. Last summer, my family and I attended Art in Action for the second time. During our 1995 visit, the classes had been such a huge hit with our then 5-year-old daughter, Alexandra, that we were determined to make it back a second time so that our son, Peter, now 6, could toss around a little clay and some paint too. As for my wife, Martha, and I, we wanted some time to completely give ourselves over to the Bloomsbury-meets-Woodstock ambience.

Ticket sellers for the classes take up their positions an hour before the tickets go on sale, as if to show solidarity with the patrons in the queue. The use of army cadets from St. James Independent School for Boys as volunteer maintenance workers makes a statement much subtler but just as eloquent as a flower stuck in a gun barrel. Then there's the unobtrusive, gentle humour of the public service announcer as he entices visitors to one of Ruth White's yoga demonstrations: "Most people think yoga is about strange positions and leanness. In fact it is a physical discipline, capable of uniting body and mind in a gathered, meditative stillness. Now if Ruth can demonstrate that in 20 minutes, it's well worth a look."

What's most significant is the complete absence of commercialism. There are no corporate sponsors blaring their logos and slogans. The exhibitors are paid to make selling a secondary concern so you can approach them without fear of a sales pitch.

"It's communication all the time," says oil painter Thomas J. Coates, "amongst ourselves as well as with the public." And you never know what gems your explorations will uncover. In the Russian Arts tent, jeweller Alexander Panin holds of his brooches to the light, revealing complete translucency. He calls over a translator to explain that the stone agate and the design, which looks lid hand-painted landscape, is a natural v of pigment he has isolated in the raw stone. Panin is one of only three craft people in the world who do this work.

The good vibrations may have a lot to do with the fact that the exhibitors are such a happy bunch. Art in Action has become a coveted Opportunity for craft people to come together, talk shop and generally celebrate their life in art. One bookbinder contrasts the atmosphere here to the hothouse, sales-oriented mood at London's prestigious Chelsea Craft Fair. "The talk at Chelsea is always 'Have you sold this or that piece?' whereas here people are more apt to ask 'Have you seen this or that piece?"'

By Day 3, Alexandra and Peter are laid back enough to sit at my feet for 45 minutes, quietly sketching on pages torn from my notebook as we queue for class tickets. I'm relaxed enough to linger and watch as potter Gilly Whittington sets my son and a group of 3- to 7-year-olds to work on session of clay hand-building. As the kids pat out slabs of clay, they discover the material's percussive properties. An impromptu jam session breaks out. "Rain, Whittington cries. "It sounds like rain!"

A couple of tents over, potter Andrew Mason is at his wheel, taking a mother and son through the steps of throwing a vase. He offers encouragement and slips in a hand to make sure everyone comes away with a perfect pot. It's part of what Mason's partner and fellow instructor, May Ling Beadsmoore, describes as the "can-do" atmosphere that pervades Art in Action. "There's a really positive feeling, the attitude that you can do it, that everybody can."

I consider it no faint praise when Alexandra proclaims Art in Action to be every bit as much fun as an amusement park. "It's because you get to do things and not just look at them," she says. And if there's one major dividend for parents interested in fostering their children's creativity, it's the reinforcement the kids get from being immersed in such a creative atmosphere.

"Exposure is the most important thing," says glass-blower Anthony Wassel, a demonstrator who brings his own teenage and pre-teen kids to Art in Action every year. "Even if it doesn't interest them straight away, later on it might come back to them and they might think "I'll have a go."

There's a payoff for grown-ups too above and beyond the instruction. "If you look around the class, what you see is simple peace," says Yvonne Fletcher, who teaches water-colour classes. "This is what people experience, being very much at one with themselves and very focused on something, and very happy."

We make our way back through the apple orchards laden with our children's treasures (clay pots, copper ornaments, collages, water-colours—all of their own making).

My souvenir is a sensation of well-being that gets its first test at a road-side service centre an hour down the motorway. Against the din of synthesized mashings and crashings that surges out of the joint's video arcade, I conjure the memory of Ed Iglehart's spot under the oak tree. I listen for that choir and do you know what? I hear it. I really do.

The aims of Art in Action are:

to present the artists and craftsmen actively creating their work so that people gain a real insight into the skills and procedures necessary for fine work;
to encourage high standards of skill and creative design;
to show the way the artist works;
to present what each demonstrator feels is the essential element of their work including the content, meaning and message.
to show as widely as possible the tremendous possibilities that exist in each area, demonstrated by the high standards and excellence, and to encourage purchases and commissions;
to bring together at one place and time all possible acknowledged and accepted masters in each field of activity and to promote the really talented and especially brilliant young beginners;
to create a concentrated display of brilliance to serve as an inspiration for all;
to broaden the experience and knowledge of the traditional arts and skills of other countries

Orqanisers: This demonstration is run by the Art Department of the School of Economic Science. The School of Economic Science is a registered educational charity holding courses in Economics and Philosophy in London and elsewhere. They have generously backed this event with financial support and by making available the house and beautiful grounds and gardens at Waterperry . The major part of the expertise and labour comes from the organisation's members given freely in the hope that any profit arising from this event will go into the Treasury of the School to contribute to the restoration of the Waterperry estate.

Organiser: Jeremy Sinclair
96 Sedlescombe Road
London SW6 2RB
Telephone: 0207 381 3192 Fax: 0207 381 0605
or ...send an Email to

art in action 1998, waterperry - click for next

At Art in Action ,
Waterperry 1998

chandelier under the oak; art in action 1998, waterperry - selling lamps in broad daylight!

under the Oak
at Art in Action 1998

How to sell lamps
in broad daylight?
Answer: Cone!

Art in Action 1997, Waterperry - back to Tom

At Art in Action

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