Felt Trips: “The Elf” by Molly James

No 1980s classroom was complete without a frieze, stretched across the top of phlegm-hued walls and covering the pockmarks of a term’s worth of Blu-tack and jagged, half-cocked staples. With the Christmas holidays of 1981 tantalisingly close, and the festive season tainted only by the prospect of Daddy’s Home by Cliff Richard being Christmas No 1, our class was charged with the task of producing a “Twelve Days of Christmas” frieze. My friend Christopher Herbert got off lightly, dashing off “two fresh hens” before morning break, but my Herculean attempt to produce “ten lords a-leaping” before afternoon assembly was less successful. The first handful of lords might have stood an outside chance of reaching the Los Angeles Olympics, but the rest would barely have cleared the three-foot fence at the bottom of “Dogshit Alley”.

In 1980s Birmingham, Molly James was similarly occupied with artwork inspired by a perennial school library favourite:

Over to you, Molly…

“I was in 3rd year juniors, aged 9 or 10, and Mr Cowing was reading us The Hobbit. I loved Mr Cowing, and in fact he looked a little bit like a hobbit himself. Anyway, remember how in primary school you’d make a frieze on the wall related to the topic you were covering in class? On those big rolls of ‘frieze paper’ that only exist in schools, and that teachers would regularly be seen sticking to the wall with staple guns, perched precariously on a tiny chair? Well, Mr Cowing wanted a Hobbit frieze.

The rules were that we could draw any character we liked, but they had to be doing something. In retrospect, I can see that he was trying to get us to move on from drawing smiling, front-facing people to a more advanced kind of drawing, involving perhaps a bit of perspective or something. But I was terrible at art. Really terrible. I never felt happy with anything I produced. I could never seem to translate my vision to the page in the way that I could with, for example, words. I felt stressed out by the whole idea.

I decided to paint an elf, and thought about what the elves are described as doing in The Hobbit. I thought of dancing. I haven’t read The Hobbit in a long time, but the nine-year-old me – that may or may not have been listening in class – definitely thought that what elves do is dance.

I painted my dancing elf. I was delighted with it. To this day it’s probably the only piece of visual art I’ve ever produced that I’ve been happy with. I was proud as anything.

Mr Cowing’s response? ‘It’s very good Molly, but you’ve done exactly what I said not to and drawn him facing the front, smiling and not doing anything!'”

Thanks Molly! And Mr Cowing… if you’re reading this, please get in touch with a full, formal apology. Molly needs closure.

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

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