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Mari Hughes – The Journey of an Art Teacher

As a child, Mari Hughes was obsessed with The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. Her mum remembers seeing her, age 5, sitting in the garden and reading the book to an actual caterpillar although the book was upside down. Mari’s beautifully creative mind and vivid imagination would always lead her to her chosen profession and the fact that she found reading difficult didn’t ever discourage her thanks to the support of her parents. When she was a really young child, she loved Art and DT. Making things with her hands and drawing were outlets because she struggled in school with Maths and English.

“My mum was a very visual person. She was a nurse, but an avid art collector and so encouraged me to draw. I think she recognised that it was something I engaged with in a positive way in contrast to my frustrations with reading and writing because of my dyslexia.”

Mari also recollects how living in a small Welsh village full to the brim with artistic activity inspired her from a young age:

“A textile artist called Dawn Bach used to sit and work on art with me in the village I grew up in. I remember the artist Lynette Parry, also from my village, doing a workshop when I was about seven and I was obsessed! I invited her to come and give a workshop in my last school and she remembered me because I was so keen!”

Mari explains that she was lucky that her parents did not try to change her:

“They have embraced me being different to my academic siblings and didn’t let me give up. They taught me to be resilient.”

After completing her A levels at Ysgol Y Creuddyn, Mari went to Coleg Menai. The college offers a very renowned Art foundation course. It’s very different and allows you to develop as an artist and forge your individuality. In school, she explains that she masked her difficulties by playing to the blonde bimbo stereotype:

“I think a lot of children do that. They mask their difficulties by acting in different distracting ways.”

Remembering why she did this herself, Mari can recognise it in some of her students and that allows her to help nurture them in the right way. Once she started the foundation course at Coleg Menai, she realised she was working with people who were a lot like her – creative, thinking in a variety of different ways, expressing themselves through their art – but also were different to her and to one another in so many dynamic and inspiring ways. This encouraged her to understand her own value and to develop confidence in her individuality.

Mari then went to Leeds Met University to complete her degree in Graphic Art.

“I really enjoyed my time at uni. I loved every moment of learning! That’s one thing that will never change for me – I love learning new things. Learning is something you should never stop doing.”

In her third year, her tutor was quite strict about her final project, insisting that she was only allowed one word for her theme because she always tended to overthink at the concept stage. Her final project was a series of books based on the word ‘Forgotten’. In one of the books, she focused on ‘forgotten’ through forgotten things – things that you don’t notice every day.

“I documented my journey from my house in Hedden in Leeds to the university which was in the city. It was a walk I took every day with my friends and I wouldn’t necessarily notice anything. One day, I took two hours to walk the 20-minute walk and focused on things that I had never noticed before – an old well in a wall that I would never have seen. These were little tit bits of time that once noticed stay with you vividly over the years. I think it’s kind of like that in the Lockdown we are currently in – moments captured and remembered.”

During her finals, when her work was exhibited, she won an award and it toured around Britain. She was offered an internship in London. However, it was unpaid and although her Dad offered to pay for her accommodation, she wanted very much to come home, to be close to her family again, and to stand on her own two feet. She was very close to her Grandmother who she describes as her best friend – “trendy, wonderful and completely unique with a love of Channel handbags.”

Mari’s journey into teaching started with a job in a PRU unit. After working with very vulnerable and damaged children, she recognised the need to support and nurture young people. She encouraged some of the students to use art as an outlet and this very much helped some of them to deal with their complex issues. She fondly remembers helping one girl to put together a portfolio that got her into art college with no other qualifications. Years later, she discovered that this girl was now a successful tattoo artist and delighted in the knowledge that her help at a very difficult point of the student’s life may have helped her in some way. Being exposed to children who didn’t have the nurturing family that she grew up in gave her the determination to nurture and encourage them as her parents and Art teachers had nurtured her.

“Both of my parents are creative souls. Although my father and grandfather were artistic – my grandfather a talented artist and my father a musician – they were made to become solicitors. So my father has always been adamant that his children follow their dreams and talents.”

When Mari arrived as the new Art teacher at St David’s, she quickly acknowledged that the entire school educates the pupils in the way that her parents encouraged and supported her. Nobody is made to feel that they are not relevant to the world in some way:

“St David’s is somewhere that is different from everywhere else. It’s hard to measure it, hard to articulate our essence. We help children to believe in themselves because we believe in them first. That’s what we do. Children often arrive from their previous schools feeling flat and invisible. Once they are here, they are not invisible anymore.”

Mari has such respect for her colleagues who she truly regards as mentors who have helped and supported her in her professional development. She describes how she observed Malcom Bray, the Head of Department when she first started who had spent his entire career teaching at St David’s:

“Malcom was good at picking out those children who had felt invisible. He would show them that they had a talent. He would encourage artistic ability through photography. Through the lens. It was a pleasure to see him teach. You can’t teach someone to teach like that. It’s about embracing your own strengths and giving it to the children – bringing it out of them.”

She also describes how Mr. Scarff, the current Head of Art who has also spent many years teaching at St David’s is both inspiring to observe and supportive to work with. She explains how brilliant he is with pupils who are unsettled in class:

“Like Malcom, he has a special skill of nurturing those who have tended to lose their way a little. I have been so fortunate to have been mentored by this ilk of teachers. To me, that turning point in your life when someone recognises your passion is more important than achieving good grades. It’s about developing that confidence in yourself because a teacher has acknowledged your talents.”

Some of Mari's latest pieces:


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