“What I want to show children is that you can play. And that play can be something valuable. Something that leads you to understanding and imagination.”
And in a time when anxiety in children over their education and performance is rife, Riddell’s advice is finding a keen reception.
Bespectaled, self-deprecating, and humourously spoken, Riddell is a self-described “wooly headed lefty” who’s in Perth for the Scribblers Festival, a five day celebration and exploration of creativity for children and teenagers.
The festival aims to equip kids with “the skills and confidence to approach the challenges of a changing world,” and as the politcal cartoonist for the UK’s Observer newspaper, Riddell sees the changes first hand.
“There’s an etching by the artist Goya that I love, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which shows an artist dreaming of terrible things.
“I feel that the sleep of reason produces the absurd, and though the world has always been strange we live in quite extraordinary times, with the speed of technological change and the challenges we have in the world to how we create consensus.
“So when I speak to children at event’s like Scribblers I try to simply be an example of working with art in the world to understand it and perhaps shape it, to show it can be done rather than simply lecturing.”
“When I sketch I just do it – but remember, there are many years of training and experience, and that’s what allows me express myself freely.”
Play is something Riddell does well; with just a brush tip pen in his right hand I watched him create a beautiful illustration of a young girl holding a golden feather, the symbol of the festival, and then start a sketch of a ‘cockeye bob’, his interpretation of a WA slang word for a whirlwind.
“I don’t know what it means, and I don’t want to. This is my drawing,” he jokes.
“Most of us draw at a young age but then we stop, it gets educated out of us. But I refuse that. I’m someone who didn’t stop playing.”
Riddell has held a series of talks for WA schoolchildren where he draws an illustration live on a projector, and shows them how art can change the world and help them thrive in it.
“My best advice is keep a special sketchbook, one just for you where you can work out your obsession with unicorns or dream your dreams. Then if you dare, share it.â€ť
Riddell is certainly a big name for the festival, but there’s a rich depth of local and international talent as well, including James Foley, AJ Betts, Campbell White and Kelly Canby.
Part of Perth-based non-profit cultural organisation FORMâ€™s Creative Learning Program, Scribblers aims to encourage kids to embrace creativity, and Riddell humourously warns this mission can lead people to take the path less travelled.
“The funny thing for me is that I feel like I am the worst parent, because my children are following in my footsteps and going into the arts, where I’ve never had a proper job.
“But it’s a joy really, because you can make it work. You can make art and expression and creativity things that benefit the world and support you.
“So I just try to be, to be self-evident, and when a child sees that it can be done of course they realise they too can do it. And that’s incredibly valuable.”
David Allan-Petale is a Fairfax Media journalist and writer based in Western Australia, breaking news with a focus on arts and culture.