Interview with Paul Majek
The Big Draw Team first met Paul at Trinity Buoy Wharf where the charity’s headquarters reside and the school that Paul is currently attending, Royal Drawing School sits. We knew the moment that we met with Paul that something clicked. He is an incredible human being as well as artist that is a living embodiment of the power of drawing.
From growing up in a creative household to using drawing to understand other subjects like geography, Paul has a unique and powerful story to tell and we’re excited to share it with our audience….
We know that you come from a very creative family which has helped inspire you and fuel your passion for drawing. Can you speak to how that family support has influenced your career and artistic choices?
My whole family is very creative, especially my three older sisters. That’s really influenced me and given me the motivation to be creative. When you grow up with an immigrant parent, there is often this pressure to be within fields that are more financially secure like medicine, finance… “The safe route”. Having siblings before me that decided to veer away from that path and go down their own creative route, that inspired me to do the same.
The youngest of my three sisters studied art and then moved onto architecture at University. My other sister studied fine art and went on to study embroidery at UAL. Now, she is doing a Masters in Fine Art and Research. My oldest sister, her journey was a little different. Being the first child is a bit hard, you have a lack of experience within that. She decided to do law - and did really well - but she now works in a gallery in Nigeria called “H-Factor”. She is working with different artists and basically trying to regain that creativity in her life… I am hoping to go and visit next year when things are hopefully back to normal. I want to see my sister, see the gallery and how that is all going; in particular because it’s a gallery that supports local artists and the community, especially low-income families. The wealth disparity in Nigeria is really bad. The gallery makes money from inviting artists and then giving back to the community that they live in. I want to see how it works. I think that would be a great opportunity later-on in my art career.
I have to mention my mom inspiring me to go into art and to see the joy in drawing as well. I would always see her drawing and doodling while at home and felt that this was amazing, and something I wanted to do. As I got older, I realised just how much my mum loved to draw. She told me that when she was much younger, in Nigeria, she really enjoyed textiles and working with fabrics. That stopped when she came here, and maybe that’s down to the pressure of having a family, but she really had to leave that creativity behind. Now, it comes back to her when she isn’t thinking, on the phone. I do sometimes feel bad that she didn’t get to explore that more.
Your love of art and drawing was recognized early-on during childhood school years. Sadly, art isn’t focussed on as a key subject in many schools, as much as maths, geography and other subjects are. Can you tell us a bit about your school experience and if there was anyone who noticed your talent and supported you?
While I was in primary school, I was more drawn to drawing and art because I did struggle a bit with Maths, English, Science. My coping mechanism was being really good at art and enjoying that part of education. With being dyslexic, but not knowing at the time, I look back and can see why I struggled with the more ‘academic’ subjects that were taught in such a rigorous way. They thought I needed extra support, jumping to the conclusion that I had a learning disability; I always have flashbacks of having to do things that were very different to other students because they thought I wasn’t learning properly.
In secondary school art was more embedded in the curriculum. A teacher there named madam Basra noticed that I was good at art and that I enjoyed it. Throughout the years, she pushed me to do the subject more and more until Year 10 when she suggested that I do it as a GCSE subject. She was a huge supporter in helping me to get into art and mix it with other creative subjects like graphics. My school didn’t have a huge amount of funding and they had to really make do with what they were given. I know it was hard for her and all of the other teachers – I really appreciate all of their work and guidance.
I went on to study at Sacred Heart Sixth Form. When I started, I was doing Geography, Graphics and Government and Politics. In the beginning, I was completely lost and really didn’t enjoy the subjects I was doing. I felt really stressed, to the point that I had to drop Government and Politics. This was when my Graphics teacher, madam Jones, really entered my life and helped me out a lot with the subjects that I chose. She suggested that I do A level art instead. So, in Year 13, I was studying Graphics, Art and Geography – that was such a better mix for me.
How has drawing helped you to understand other subjects?
I decided to take on a creative approach to learning at A Levels and found that bringing art into my other subject and merging the two together really helped me to find my place within Geography. The topics that I would explore within Art and Graphics, I would also research within my coursework for Geography, visually exploring and drawing to understand. We are taught to revise by writing, writing, writing and to do that continuously until it’s in your head - I had an idea that colours and images actually helped me much more than writing, but I didn’t know the extent until I got started.
When we covered gentrification, I was drawing buildings and exploring my area, Peckham through a visual lens which helped me to understand it more. I was able to see it in a new academic, visual, artistic way.
I would remember the images that I drew in art, and it would help me remember the information for Geography. The process of actually drawing, and those images taking you back to so much information that is in your head was a really useful connection. I also realised I was able to use certain colours to remember certain topics. For example, if I was studying erosion and rivers, I would use the colour green and highlight that text in the book in green. Then, when taking the test, I would think of the colour green and all of that highlighted text would slowly come back to me.
My approach was very different to everyone else's. Because I would often take time to do that instead of going to lessons, the teachers thought that I was going downhill and really struggling, to the point where my teacher suggested that I re-do Year 12 and basically start again. She thought that I wasn’t going to do well because I wasn’t processing the subject in the same way as everyone else. I could see where she was coming from but, in my head, I knew what I was doing. I knew that it was working for me. I just had faith in myself, and it worked in the end. I’m grateful that I found that visual way of learning.
John Ruskin, Guild of St George Founder and namesake of the Ruskin School of Art at University of Oxford that you will be attending this October (congratulations again!) was known for championing the universal power of the pen and that you draw to learn, not learn to draw. Do you think this is true?
Definitely. It can go both ways, but especially if you learn in a visual way, and you don’t want to be an artist/graphic designer, it would be amazing if you were given the tools to draw to learn – if that was offered as a part of your education.
There are lots of people who are visual learners, but that doesn’t mean they want to learn how to paint a beautiful portrait. It’s very different for everyone. There are some people who want to be a doctor, Lawyer, engineer, and absorb that information in a way that works for them. I would love for drawing to be more focussed on as a way of learning.
Visual learning is very important to you, especially growing up with dyslexia and dyspraxia. In what ways do you think ways of teaching, learning and curriculums might be altered to better accommodate visual learners?
My experience in primary school affected me in a negative way. I didn’t see myself as intelligent or able to learn the same way everyone else did. I feel like this comes from not knowing that everyone learns and grows differently. The neurodiversity within students is really important to explore, especially from an early age. If they had noticed that when I was younger, maybe they would have found better ways of teaching and introducing subjects. If I had been introduced to the way of studying that I learned during GCSEs (colour association), I feel like that would have changed my academic career dramatically. I am happy I found that route by myself, but that should be given to people who might not know that is a possibility. There needs to be more of a collaboration between subjects, especially creative subjects and maths, science etc.
If schools invested more time and energy into seeing how those subjects could blend together, and how they could be seen as one, that would help a lot of students like me that are dyspraxia or dyslexic, who learn best through videos, images and drawings.
Moving from your childhood years to now, you’re finishing off a year of studying at the Royal Drawing School on their Foundation Year. How have you found this experience particularly in relation to your own practice and future aspirations?
My Graphics teacher at Sacred Heart Sixth Form, madam Jones, was the one who encouraged me to apply. I thought I would never get a place. Lots of people know of it and I just thought, I didn’t have a chance. Thank God for madam Jones who really motivated me and pushed me to apply. Thank God that I had an interview and got a place.
The Foundation Year at the Royal Drawing School was really good for me and really good for my practice. I learnt a lot about the importance of drawing. Because it is the Royal Drawing School, I feel like their aim and their intentions were to encourage everyone to draw to the best of their ability. We had lots of classes like life-drawing classes that were focussed on drawing. Drawing was the centre for everything. Before we began sculpting, we would draw the figure; from that, we would have an understanding of the textures and the volumes and it could be translated into other mediums.
It was beautiful to see how drawing is a way of being able to manifest and create everything you want. That’s the most important thing, to know that with drawing, you can create anything. That’s how the Foundation Course worked. Especially for me, my ability to draw was good, but not where it could be. The Foundation Year really opened up possibilities that I never knew were there and with other mediums like painting especially.
Within the arts sector, there are issues with diversity and equal representation especially concerning Black artists. With the momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement, do you have certain hopes for the future or changes that you would like to see?
Definitely. I am just at the beginning, I am just about to enter this world. There is a lack of diversity in art schools amongst students and staff. This is a reoccurring issue within all sectors of the art world. Institutions need to see where they are not pulling their weight. They need to make an effort to show people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds that these schools are available to them as well as everyone else. That needs to start from the beginning, from the educational institutions.
When it comes to art schools, they are often more directed to white middle-class students rather than black and ethnic minority art students. That’s really bad, especially if you have one black or ethnic minority student there that feels out of place. The staff also need to be as diverse as the cohort. It doesn’t really make sense, if an educational institution wants to teach a lecture on Black art, or from the different diasporas, for that to come from someone who isn’t intimately familiar with those particular experiences. It’s so important to have a cohort and staff that are diverse and represent the UK that we live in right now.
When it comes to galleries and the work that they show, they need to make sure that they are representing artists of all backgrounds and communities such as LGBTQ and diverse upbringings, people need to be able to go in there and see themselves mirrored within the work. That shows them that they can reach this point, shows them they can be that person. It’s not okay to have one token minority artist in your exhibition and think the job is done. It needs to be coming from a genuine place, coming from talent. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of finding it.
Similarly, with students, there is an unlimited number of people out there, who want to do art, but just can’t see themselves within certain institutions. Which apply to Oxford and Cambridge as well. That’s why I feel the numbers of black and ethnic minority groups within those institutions are really low; they don’t seek out those people. There is a continuation of this perception that these schools are only meant for white, middle-class people. Anyone should be able to go to the best institutions in the world. There is no excuse for having a scarily-low percentage of minorities in schools. It just shows ignorance and unwillingness to deal with the issue. It starts from education-level all the way through to the art world itself that is massively lacking representation. It needs to start from the core and seep into all aspects of the art world.
A passion of yours is talking about practice and inspiring others. What advice would you give to young creatives who aspire to take their practice to the next level as you have with Royal Drawing School and upcoming admission to the Ruskin School of Art at University of Oxford?
Never limit yourself and understand that whatever you dream and whatever you aim for is possible and open to you. Some people might think negatively towards you, but if you think positively and keep your mind at rest, then you will know within yourself that you are fine, you are enough, then you will succeed. If you find some institutions uncomfortable to be in, know that it’s not a problem with you, it’s a problem with them. Being a minority in an institution means that you may feel out of place. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s overt… You have to make sure that you are keeping your mental health in check. Let people at these institutions know what’s going on, how it’s making you feel and that you are doing your bit to keep yourself at peace.
When pursuing a creative route, people may want to make you feel that doing art isn’t important, that it’s not contributing, that it’s not going to change anything in the world. You need to block this out and know that what you are doing is one of the most important things in the world; image-making. If young creatives didn’t exist, how would people understand the world? From graphics, logos, companies; the world needs people to visualise and manifest these ideas. Being a young creative, you are important, and you are needed. If you aspire to go to the best universities that seem out of reach, take a chance, don’t doubt yourself. The most important thing to do is to try. Nothing is out of reach.
Always continue creating, always continue finding ways of expressing yourself. Being able to express yourself and express who YOU are is one of the most important things. Art isn’t about the select few, the elite. It’s about manifesting yourself onto paper… There will always be someone who wants to receive your work and who will relate to it, support it and promote it. There will always be a place for you in the art world. That’s what I’m trying to do now; there will always be a space, a gallery that loves your work and gives you the position and platform to express yourself. There is always a space for you.
On both an individual and organisational level, how can we promote the fine arts as a viable career option?
Sometimes you don’t see the importance or the value of having an image in your head and being able to put it into the physical world. It’s a power that people don’t see within themselves. It’s undervalued. All of the major brands in the world started with a drawing, with someone who had the power to manifest that idea onto paper. Without that initial person, without that step, those brands would never exist. Lots of industries need you as a young creative to step in, because none of it would be possible without you.
As Paul is headed off to University of Oxford this autumn, Anthony Garner, Head of Ruskin School of Art stated the following:
"The Ruskin School of Art began in 1871 when John Ruskin opened his School of Drawing in the Ashmolean Museum and, since that time, we have welcomed hundreds of amazingly talented students into the studios. Today, our students, alumni and teachers include some of the world's leading creative figures, including Turner and Jarman Prize winners, celebrated authors and curators, and, most recently, two of the Turner Bursary recipients for 2020: Shawanda Corbett and Oreet Ashery. We are delighted that Paul will be joining the Ruskin community for his undergraduate degree at this exciting time, when the School celebrates its 150th year, and we look forward to seeing him thrive at Oxford!"
- Anthony Gardner, Head of the Ruskin School of Art
We wish you the absolute best Paul! Watch this space for more Paul Majek/Big Draw content. If you want to follow Paul's work, check out this Instagram account.