Ludwell Primary School will be more colourful when kids return for the winter term. Des Alner has helped pupils create a fish mosaic. Alfred spoke with the artist at his Higher Green Farm studios in Twyford.
Des Alner has taught generations of Shaftesbury schoolchildren. Aged 72, he’s now busier than during his twenty years as Head of Art in the former King Alfred’s Middle School. He works seven days a week.
“If you’re doing something where you are getting energy, it is like being on the crest of a wave. I get a real buzz from the whole thing,” he said. “Since my school closed, I have worked with over twenty-five primary schools in this area, doing objects, murals and commissions.”
Des finds working with children gratifying. “It’s a privilege to work with these young people. Their energy is lovely and it keeps me alive,” he said. And he’s pleased to retain a connection with his former pupils when their kids, some of whom attend Abbey Primary, go on his workshops. “Working with children of parents that I taught, is nice,” he said.
Des’ main studio at Twyford was a hive of activity, with artists at work and meetings underway when I stopped by in early December. He led me across the yard to one of the three formerly agricultural buildings converted into studios. It was a bright space with white-painted walls, a high wooden ceiling with exposed beams, and a wood-burning stove.
The Dorset Community Foundation gave a £2,000 grant, as part of the former Toby’s Young People’s Project Fund, to refurbish the space. “We are converting this into a safe haven, a quiet place where people can come and be comfortable,” said Des.
Colourful ceramic fish were laid out on top of a white table in the centre of the room, all facing in the same direction. Des’ latest project is destined for Ludwell. “It came from a request from the Headteacher Jennie White to come into school and make a mural. The theme is fish. I worked with all the children and some staff. I brought it all back here and decorated it with glazes, melted glass into some of the fish and ‘fried’ them in our kilns.”
I could make out a salmon, a flatter plaice and some uglier species that I assumed were monkfish. “I don’t necessarily give them names,” Des laughed. “You’re talking about children aged from four up to year six, which is a ten-year-old. There’s a variety of ability. They all managed to produce a fish though.”
Before term ended, while the pupils attended a panto, Des sneaked into the school and fixed their artwork to the lobby wall as a surprise. He has overseen many projects which have allowed pupils passing through local schools to make their mark. In 2012, year six kids at Shaftesbury Primary created an Olympics mural. Abbey Primary pupils crafted a ceramic ‘tree of life’ mural. And five years ago, Des made a ceramic mural celebrating 175 years of Motcombe Primary.
“I have a massive job to do after Christmas in Wimborne, in their brand-new £11million school. They want fish as well,” he said. “They have 400 pupils, which is going to take a bit more planning. There are only 60 children at Ludwell.” We joked that Des had made a fishing rod for his own back.
As well as visiting schools, Des provides pop-up classes, such as the snowdrop lantern workshops at the Trinity Centre. And over 100 children can descend on this cluster of ex-agricultural buildings in the holidays. Higher Green Farm is an inspiring and creative space. The secluded setting, in four acres of Dorset Countryside three miles south of Shaftesbury, is stunning.
“We bought this as a derelict farm,” said Des, who then explained that two families came together to purchase the property when it went under the hammer 18 years ago for £230,000. “We sold our houses, ending up with no mortgage and no money.”
Des manages Higher Green Farm with experienced artist and tutor Julie Turner, his partner. Their courses include pottery, art, illustration and sculpture in stone, wood, metal and paper. Des’ daughter Rachel Brewer also works with the team.
“It’s definitely in the genes,” Rachel laughed. “I work here on a Friday, helping the students and working towards Arts Award, which is a recognised qualification that they can gain in the arts and they can work their way through different levels.”
Des and I entered another former farm building filled with artwork and materials collected from scrapyards. “It used to be a milking parlour. We’ve turned it into a sculpture workshop,” he said.
As the property purchase used up Des’ resources, all of the decoration has been creatively sourced from scrap or donated goods. “Everything has been recycled from the skip or tips. It’s all a bargain,” Des said. “These patio doors were from Julie’s brother’s house. All of the doors and windows were out of Wessex Electrical’s skip. The flooring is Portland stone out of another skip.”
Des revealed that the wood-burning stove cost £50. “I used to have a slate at the tip at one time,” he smiled. Des could be in demand, guiding people around jumble sales. “I’ve always had an eye for bargains. Poverty teaches you how to do things.”
Des’ most precious skill is helping people with extra needs realise their abilities. The process is as important as the art they produce. “The art is just a medium. The farm here is the same. It’s a place where people can come and they feel they can do things,” he said. “I have this whole space at the moment and it’s of value to people and that’s important. It’s a bit like the oak tree over there. It’s been looking down on this land for 400 years. Everybody who comes here thinks they own it, but the oak tree is just thinking, ‘Next!’”
While Des remains custodian, he is determined to help more young people, often those left behind, tap into their talent. “We are now an extended provision of facilities that Wiltshire can rely on to send people to,” he said.
As we walked the grounds, I saw an unexpected sight – a boat. “That’s my escape route,” he laughed. “I go off to Poole Harbour. I used to live out there, working on one of the islands. My life began working with Guy Sydenham, the Head Designer at Poole Pottery. I went there as part of my course to work as a pottery thrower.”
Des learned boating skills when on the island and recently took the boat from Poole to Wareham for lunch. “There wasn’t anyone else out. It was really beautiful.”
I can understand why busy Des appreciates the calm quiet on the water. In some ways, Twyford’s isolation gives the hamlet a similar quality. “It’s five minutes from town, but in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
The insight into Des’ early island career explained his fondness for fish. And with a full diary, expect more shoals for more schools in 2020.