Art at the Heart of Prem
“I’m convinced arts and creativity will be part of the complex components that will help solve the pollution problem,” suggests Alex Soulsby, Creative Director of Prem Tinsulanonda International School and founder of their Artist Residency Thailand programme. “It’s abundantly clear that arts-integration into subjects and disciplines such as science, technology, engineering and maths will be key to solving many of the huge challenges we face and will continue to face this century.”
“It is hugely important to have a creative, flexible mind,” agreed Rachel Keys, Head of Prem. “It is all about engaging, enhancing and enlivening our students, and here at Prem we find that creativity and the arts are crucial for the development of those elements. Alex was initially asked to consult on how Prem could embed creativity across our school. Part of that initial work included forming our Artist Residency Thailand programme. He has been developing the approach over the last seven years, and has a structure and philosophy, which we are happy to say is now so successful it has caught the interest of many international individuals and organisations including educational reformist Sir Ken Robinson’s agency, ARTSWORK.”
Founder of Prem, Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul is himself a lifelong artist and is now the patron of this innovative programme, which each year sees an impressive number of inspiring, deeply knowledgeable and experienced practitioners come and spend a period of time at Prem. Participants engage not just with the students, but also their teachers, parents and even the wider Chiang Mai community.
In the past there have been some extraordinary participants in the programme; from philosopher, writer and broadcaster Nigel Warburton – with his thirteen books and forty million podcast downloads – to Game of Thrones star Miltos Yerolemou, White House environmental policy advisor Paula di Perna and celebrated photographer and filmmaker, Phil Borges.
“It is pretty common for most schools to have outside visitors,” explained Keys, “but not of the volume, quality and diversity that we welcome here at Prem”. “Students benefit from new faces, new voices and new perspectives and artists are integrated across subjects and age groups throughout the school. Having both a residency programme and a Creative Director helps us make opportunities for creative engagement available to every student across the board and with great regularity.”
“There’s a brilliant symbiotic relationship between Prem’s educators and a unique synergy generated when we bring professional practitioners from the outside to collaborate with our expert educators on the inside” added Soulsby. “It immediately creates opportunities for students to make personal connections and helps them join the dots together in their own learning. It diversifies the learning outcomes in our classrooms and enriches the inquiry-based focus of the IB curriculum that is delivered across the school. I believe that regular exposure to excellence breeds excellence. If you expose students to the Warburtons and Yerolemous’ of this world it helps to plant seeds of ‘thought’ which can often blossom in different students in different ways and at different times of their educational careers.”
Soulsby, who interestingly enough began his career here in Chiang Mai over two decades ago at another international school, returned fifteen years later with an arsenal of experience from Britain’s arts-education and cultural sector. As Creative Projects and Education Manager for one of the UK’s largest regional arts centres he worked with and managed projects in multiple art-forms with various artists and ‘creatives’, often collaborating with other dynamic organisations, as well as local education authorities and national government. Producing for the Royal National Theatre, leading national arts campaigns and sitting on national steering groups for organisations such as ENYAN (English National Youth Arts Network) Soulsby was exposed to many of the philosophies and ideas that are now integrated into Prem’s philosophy of integrating artistic collaboration into the lives of students and staff.
Since founding the programme he has been working towards maximising choice and exposure for the types of creative engagements that help to prepare young people for a future which will come with very unexpected challenges.
Over 360 artists and practitioners applied for eight residencies last year at Prem. Once selected, they are guided through the process of embedding themselves into the school, often working with students at all levels. Soulsby also harnesses all the contacts available to invite in some of the bigger name residents, many of whom derive so much from their experiences, that they have returned again and again.
“When we are engaging with visiting artists and practitioners,” explained Soulsby, It is amazing what can occur. Sometimes a student is struggling with a particular subject or concept, and the lens of an artist in their classroom can help to increase, or cement their understanding of a particular concept. “In classrooms at Prem, you are as likely to find a mural artist working in a science department as you are to find an award winning philosopher sitting in a room with ten year olds.”
“This utopia of this campus is a gift from Mom Tri,” he continued. “When you start animating the campus with music, installation, promenade theatre, whatever it may be, those things together and create a very special environment. It cultivates and incubates and ecosystem whereby the arts feed creativity into our classrooms and the classrooms bring joyful learning back to the philosophical heart of the school. The legacy is that it’s not just the students, but the teachers, parents and members of the community who also get inspired…as often do the practitioners themselves who get to see their skills and crafts being applied and absorbed by students and staff members.”
With a parade of such inspiring people coming to stay at Prem, Keys is keen to expand the reach of the residency programme by working with other schools in Chiang Mai in hopes of sharing resources and exposing visiting artists and practitioners to a greater number of students and people in the community.
“Chiang Mai schools come together all the time for sports competitions,” added Keys. “I would like to expand more connections so that more students can benefit from inspiring people around the world. You always learn from a new perspective and it would be great to extend the reach of our visiting artists.”
“I firmly believe that moving into the future, the more creative thinkers the world has, the greater chance humanity has for not just surviving, but blossoming” added Soulsby.