In the lead up to the release of our charity project with Rob Draper, we sat down with the founder of Heart Felt Tips Jeremy Houghton to discuss the impact of their work with less fortunate children, how the charity was founded, and why Progress Not Perfection is such an important message to spread amongst the younger generation.
AR: Can you tell us about how Heart Felt Tips came to be? Where did the idea to set it up come from?
Jeremy: It started when my kids kept being given lots of lovely stationery every Christmas and on birthdays. I'm an artist so I'm a big fan of all that, which probably is why we got given so much. I realised that we would use the stationery once or twice, and then put it back in the box and forget about it. There was so much stationery we could use elsewhere. So I thought of the idea that we could package it up and give it to kids who perhaps don't have as much stationery in their lives as we do. That was the initial idea.
I found out that food banks didn't just give food, they gave all sorts of things to the people who needed them. So that was quite a good, easy, direct way of getting the stationery to the right families. I did this a few times from home with our own stationery. And then I thought, well, I'm sure there are other families that have a similar situation to mine. That was how Heart Felt Tips started. From then on when we went to schools and distributed empty pencil cases, then the kids at schools took them home, had a rummage through their drawers, and found all sorts of lovely colours and pens and things that they don't use but are perfectly good. So, give them to kids in your community who could do with them. The idea snowballed from there.
AR: Can you talk us through the journey that art supplies go through? What is the process from start to finish?
Jeremy: Pencil cases are another thing that got given in abundance to kids. We also had masses of pencil cases at home which weren't actually being used. It starts with an empty pencil case at anyone's home. We asked the kids to do a bit of recycling and the important message is that, you know, recycling isn't an excuse just to throw things away, it's an excuse to work out what you've got. It's perfectly good supplies, and you don't actually need them yourselves. It's the same when it comes to recycling clothes.
People think “I'll just chuck everything in a black bag, and leave it on the doorstep of a charity shop”. You've got to teach kids that you should only give away what you'd like to be given. You can't give another child a pencil case full of old pens and pencils which don't work. It's about working out what you need, and then working out what you've got left over. And then any of that's good, hands on. It's quite a good lesson for the children about proper recycling. And we get them to do that with the help of their parents, then usually the kids bring the pencil case back to their school. From there, schools accumulate a box of lovely pencil cases. It’s important that there's someone at the school, whether it's done in forms or classes or tutor groups, that they actually go through the pencil cases which have been donated. You'll always get one or two faulty pencils or pens which do slip through the net. And it's vital that there's a final check if you like, before someone from that school or that community group takes the box to the local food bank. From there, they get distributed to children who might need a pencil case.
AR: On all levels it's a lesson in sustainability, regardless of whether you’re a child or the teacher sorting through the pencil cases.
Jeremy: The pencil case is the object of this process, but the lessons learned during the whole process are brilliant for the kids, brilliant for the parents, brilliant for the teachers. And it's all about recognising that within the community just down the road from you, there are children who aren't nearly as fortunate as you. There are so many great lessons within that little process. It's a really informative exercise.
AR: From your perspective, what do you think is the most fulfilling part of work?
Jeremy: Well, obviously, for me, pens and pencils are like a toolkit. Obviously, art is my business and it's what I do every day. When I was little and at school I loved my pencil case and its tools. I was very, very proud of my pencil case. It’s such a nice thing to give kids that little toolkit. The other thing we were giving children is that with these tools you can do amazing things. Also, on our website you can see all sorts of tips. And within each pencil case, we add a little postcard, which has an idea on it. This idea could be anything from “go to your local cafe and design them a new menu”, or “think up a local competition” or “design yourself a business card”, just to get kids to understand that with a bit of initiative, anything can happen. I like to think that with these little toolkits it gives the kids ideas and gets their imagination going. These are the sort of things that I hope the pencil cases do for kids who receive them.
AR: What do you hope that the children filling up the pencil cases can take away from this experience?
Jeremy: I just think it's really important to give children that opportunity to doodle and have fun, as so much these days is about mobile phones. I think a lot gets missed because we're looking at screens all the time, especially with the home-schooling they've all been doing lately. And I just think in many ways, it's good to go back to pens, pencils, and a piece of paper, even though it is a bit old fashioned nowadays. It's so powerful, it's so therapeutic, and great ideas can come from it. If those ideas lead on to other ideas, it can really open up the mind's eye for young children and help them help them with their day. I feel really strongly about these things.
AR: Have you ever been able to witness the positive effects of these pencil cases first-hand?
Jeremy: Yes, there'll be various times that people have got in touch through our social media platforms showing what they have done and thanking us for the opportunity. At a variety of schools, especially state schools, there will be kids who rock up at the start of term with nothing. We have had a lot of feedback from schools who've been so grateful that they've been able to give these kids a pencil case. And it sounds so simple but most people take it for granted, but that’s not always that's not always the case. The feedback has come from all sorts of different sources, and it's always really positive and really well received.
AR: Has being an artist yourself given you a unique perspective on understanding the importance of art supplies?
Jeremy: Well before I became a professional artist, I was an art teacher. I taught art for eight years. Working in schools, working with kids, working on creative projects, gave me the ability to see how powerful art can be. A lot of kids who find life tough, really respond to the more creative disciplines and don’t really respond to the normal academic roots. I noticed that there was a real sense of belonging in the art room for some kids. I think that the combination of me loving my pencil case when I was a little boy, then teaching art and then becoming an artist, all helped inform the decision to make this into a more formalised charity.
I’m still in touch with a lot of the kids I taught through social media. It’s so great to see how they have all thrived. Some of them are even professional artists themselves. My experience as a teacher has definitely helped the backbone of this charity.
AR: How did you deal with the challenges of the pandemic, especially considering the schools were closed? Did you adapt in any way?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think I think the way we had to adapt was very much going online. And our social media is brilliant. And we've got a lot of followers, and people very much look to our Instagram feed for ideas. We also started an initiative, which was a sort of buddies program. We encouraged young kids to write letters and send pictures and paintings to older people who live in the community. We tried to match younger kids with people within the community so they could be sort of buddies or pen pals.
Obviously, there was a lot of isolation during lockdown, so we had a lot of really positive feedback from encouraging people to make those introductions and form these new relationships. I hope a lot of families are still doing it now. I know that my kids are still in touch with the older man who they built a relationship with.
AR: Moving on to the charity release ‘Progress Not Perfection’ by Rob Draper, what made you want to participate in the print release? Is this something you've done before with artists and art galleries?
Jeremy: We've often worked with artists before and creative people. One thing I do want to emphasise is that you can be an artist from all sorts of different disciplines, it doesn't just have to be someone who paints or draws. I like to encourage the approach that there's a place for all sorts of people in the art world. We have given out print prizes before on social media platforms and charities. We try to keep people interested through these schemes.
AR: How do you think the phrase ‘Progress Not Perfection' relates to you and your charity?
Jeremy: It's a really good phase; when I used to teach I would always emphasise that your work doesn’t have to be perfect and life is never perfect either. In many ways, it's Plan B that works out better than Plan A. This just enhances the message that it's absolutely fine whether you're painting a picture or you're doing another job, if you make mistakes, you learn from them and you move on and you grow from it.
If you do a perfect job, nothing is learned. Progress Not Perfection is such a strong message for kids to learn. Kids especially want to do the perfect drawing where it's absolutely as photographic as possible, but in many ways, that's not the right way to do it. But no matter what you’re doing, the mistakes are normally the good bits, because you learn from those mistakes and next time you know how to do it better. It really helps progress if you make mistakes. So, I think that phrase is really, really important.
AR: How can people support Heart Felt Tips going forward, besides buying the print?
Jeremy: The best way to get in contact with us is through our website or social media. We encourage you to try and get friends to take part with you. If one family takes part that’s brilliant, but it's even more powerful if a school or their little community takes part. Because then what happens is that the school builds a relationship with their local food bank. And that's an ongoing relationship which can constantly be nurtured. That is a brilliant relationship forged with that food bank, which I hope will last for ages. Because food banks, as I said earlier, don't just need food, they accept all sorts of donations. We work with the Trussell Trust who feed over a million people a week. They give everything from saucepans to sleeping bags to toys to sports kits. Any and all help is invaluable to them.
You can support the Heart Felt Tips by purchasing ‘Progress Not Perfection’, a limited edition print by Rob Draper, in collaboration with Art Republic. All proceeds go to the charity, and you can get your own print here. To find out more about Heart Felt Tips and the work they do for food banks and less fortunate children, visit their website here, and follow their Instagram @heart_felt_tips to keep up to date with their new projects.