Otter Lodge Blog: young artists on Skye

Have you heard about ‘Room 13’?

No? When we arrived on Skye in 2012 we hadn’t either. A friendly neighbour mentioned it to us and, to be honest, we hadn’t a clue what it was about. It deserves to be more well-known though. It’s essentially an art club for kids, but the remarkable part is that that there are more than eighty Room 13 art studios all around the globe. Not only that, but it all started in the Highlands. 

Rooms 13 is a charity with interesting beginnings. Way back in 1994, Caol Primary School near Fort William had a visit from the Highland Council artist in residence, Rob Fairley, who set up a photography project for the kids. They loved it, and were so disappointed when the project finished that they decided to raise some funds to bring Rob back. However, rather than organise coffee mornings and jumble sales, the kids thought they should use their new photography skills; so they took pictures of everyone in the school, mounted them, and sold the portraits to the parents. Rob was so impressed with this bit of entrepreneurship, he came back to work at the school regularly. A new art club soon followed in the school’s ‘room 13’, hence the name of the charity.

The art studio in Caol went from strength-to-strength, and the kids were encouraged to use their projects to fund equipment and supplies. Lots of people became interested in what they were doing and a network of new studios run in the same way began to develop. Each studio had a committee of young artists who made the decisions about how the studio would work. They undertook commissions and entered their work in national exhibitions. Their work was taken seriously.

By 2007, the network of studios had gone way beyond the Scottish Highlands and the decision was made to form a charity. In the organisation’s own words:

Room 13 International is run by a dedicated team of artists, educators and creative thinkers some of whom are – gasp – adults! At first, this caused concern. Putting adults in charge went against everything Room 13 stands for. Soon though, it became perfectly obvious – the adults are there to do the boring bits like measuring, reporting and filling in forms, while the students continue to run the studios and make art, untroubled by such petty demands.

A quick look at the Room 13 International website gives you an idea of the wealth of studios that are now involved. They are popping up all over the place: South Africa, Nepal, Turkey, China and the USA. Each one is unique. Quite a few are based in schools, but there are also a good number that are independent. This brings us to the one on Skye.

Room 13 Torrin

Room 13 Torrin

Room 13 Torrin was set up by Becky Smith in 2009. As with many good ideas, it started in a shed. This shed was on her croft, and was used by local children for drawing, painting, print and collage. Within a few months it was clear that more space was needed and with the help of the community (not forgetting her husband, Paul), a new venue was created in a renovated byre. The new studio was officially opened 3 May 2010.

It’s a fantastic place. I know this because our son, Ewan, has been going regularly for a few years now. As I mentioned before, each studio is run by management team of young artists; and who could be better than them to tell you why Room 13 is so special?

Room 13 Torrin is a bit different to some of the other studios in Scotland as it was the first one set up as a community space. This means that there are times when adult artists can get involved. There are even special days when families can come and work on art projects together. Each studio in the Room 13 network is responsible for raising their own funds and Torrin is no different in this respect; the kids are as excited about presenting and selling their work as they are creating it. Some words from Becky; the official, grown up, Artist in Residence (every Room 13 needs one).

I first visited Room 13 Lochyside in 2008. From the very moment I met the management team there, heard about what they were doing and saw the artists creating their own large scale pieces of artwork using professional materials and equipment I was totally fascinated by their enthusiasm. 

The principles behind Room 13 are great. To provide a studio space where children are able to express themselves creatively while running their own business at such a young age really inspired me to be involved in something like it here on Skye.

The Highlands are, indeed, an inspiring place to be an artist. Every Wednesday and Friday after school, kids from the age of seven jump onto a bus and head down to the studio in Torrin. For some, it’s their first taste of independent travel. It might also be their first experience of a place outside school where they can get together with other kids and be involved in something a bit different. Some dip their toe in and try a few things out. Others get totally immersed. For some kids, the studio becomes more than just a club; it’s a home from home, where they can do fun stuff, feed biscuits to the Room 13 dogs (Corrie and Hedda) and start to get to know themselves better. It’s a place where everybody matters.