Jak Forrester explains why he loves seeing his artwork in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire
Come fly with me
Jak Forester could have been knocked off course by dyslexia before he was out of short trousers. Instead his creative brilliance is writ large across North Staffordshire. John Woodhouse meets a young man with a steely determination
"THIS is how bad it is," says Jak Forester, "and bear in mind this isn't that long ago – at primary school I was told I should leave and go to a special school."
It's a tale you might imagine hearing from someone in their later years, misunderstood by an inflexible, impersonal, and uncaring education system in an ancient childhood. But Jak Forester is 22 – and his problem was nothing more uncommon than dyslexia.
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Thankfully, back in his scabby-kneed days, he had a few people on side to fight his cause. "My mum," he recalls, "was like 'what do you mean he needs to go to a special school?'."
Mum's ire paid dividends. "Another teacher stepped in," explains Jak, "they looked into it a bit more, and lo and behold it turned out I was dyslexic."
Dyslexic he may be, but the condition hasn't presented any barriers in life. This is a young man who can barely travel five miles in any direction from his Northwood home without being bombarded by the works of public art he's helped to fashion.
And how's this for one in the eye to those who doubted his infant self? One of them – a £20,000 replica of a piece of the Staffordshire Hoard – outside McDonald's in Longton – is even inscribed in Latin.
However, it's Jak's other link with the Staffordshire Hoard that's better known. Along with artist Andy Edwards and fellow metalworker Dan Cutter, he created the 9ft tall Mercian Warrior statue which towers over visitors to the Potteries Museum.
Smattered across North Staffordshire – in parks, in schools, on street corners, roundabouts, and in foyers – are dozens more creations. Giant metal flowers for memorial gardens, an immense sculpted mayfly for Burslem Park, a potter's wheel at the entrance to Hanley Forest Park, swans in flight at Trentham – all have become part of the landscape. Artists' designs made real.
Not bad for a lad who, by his own admission, spent much of his teenage years as part of that great band of street corner-hugging disaffected youths. "It's not that I didn't like school," he says. "It's just that it always seemed that they concentrated on the brighter ones – the ones who actually wanted to go to university or college. Not the ones who were more practically based."
Dyslexia aside, Jack was never one for the well trodden route of GCSEs, A-Levels, university. He preferred, as he puts it, "manual not mental". He liked doing things with his hands – creating, designing, manufacturing. Sadly, though, he claims, it was an ambition which received little backing.
"In school," he reflects, "I got the feeling, and a lot of other people got the feeling, that you're always pushed to go on to college..
"You're never told about apprenticeships, you can guarantee that. That's why I think people need to be informed – that there's a lot more out there, practical-wise.
"Because everyone's good at different things.
"In my time at school it was always days out to colleges – but there was never any mention of 'let's go to JCB' or places like that. And I think a lot of people would benefit from that. Think about it. How many people who chose college or university haven't got a job now? Whereas I have.
"I'm not slating the school, I'm just saying there's a lot more out there. And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, but going to university, and then ending up getting a basic job, it's a waste of time."
Jak left school at 16 to go to Burslem College where he studied electrical installation. Again, though, it didn't suit. "It was just boring," he says. "There was no enthusiasm. You felt like the teachers didn't like being there, so you didn't like being there. It was teaching by textbook, and I don't like doing things like that. I left after a year."
His big break came when a painter and decorator cousin told him about Hanley-based PM Training, which takes young and practical-based youngsters, trains them, and finds them placements and apprenticeships. Jak, not the most confident of teenagers back then, found the will to go along and ask how they might help.
"If I'm honest," he looks back, "I wasn't too sure about it. I was a bit scared." Any fears, however, were misplaced.
"It was like a family," he says. "The way you get treated by the tutors, well, it's like they're your mates. They care about you, not just in work, but outside work – 'how are you doing? How's your weekend gone?'. At other places, like at college, you were separate – someone taught you and that was it. Unapproachable. But here you can talk to anyone. I felt more involved, more motivated."
Jak started off doing basic jobs at housing association gardens. He enjoyed the feeling of being able to help. "The truth is," he laughs, "the only reason I came into the workshop was to get out of the cold! I've took to it ever since."
It was during his traineeship that Jak, alongside Dan, created most of the artworks. "You don't really notice when you're doing it," he says, "but when you think about it, I have done a load! When you look back at it, there's all sorts of stuff around the city. It seems every time I go somewhere I see something on the way! I'm really proud. I really am. It's really nice to see it."
Such public artwork will, of course, have its detractors. But Jak is never going to be among their throng. "I like it," he says, "especially since I do it! My view is it's better than seeing a car parked there.
"And I think most people do appreciate it – it's not been graffiti-ed or anything."
Jak doesn't see himself in the mould of a Henry Moore. "I wouldn't describe myself as an artist," he says, "but you've got to use your imagination."
And certainly he doesn't share many an artist's famed *****ly temperament. "When I go to McDonald's – and I go there quite a lot by the way! – I always ask the person who serves me what they think of the public artwork outside. Sometimes they're like 'well, er . . .". It always makes me laugh. "Brilliant piece, that is," he adds.
Jak has made such leaps and bounds since he came to PM Training, that, instead of seeing his skills go elsewhere, the organisation offered him a teaching role.
"It's strange," he says. "It's a challenge in itself. I'm still getting to grips with it. I'm used to getting orders and saying 'I'll do that'.
"It's a lot different from manual, it's more mental. But I'm really enjoying it.
"I never thought after leaving school that I'd be able to teach a class," he adds. "I never thought I'd be able to go very far. It's because of the environment I've been taught in here. It's rubbed off subconsciously on me. I teach how I'd want to be taught."
But doesn't the dyslexia cause problems in such a role? "I have to do paperwork," he says, "and I do it fine. No trouble at all. In fact most people don't know I'm dyslexic.
"It was the same when I was at school. I went through it not wearing my glasses (like many dyslexic youngsters, Jak was given tinted glasses to help deal with his condition). I didn't like wearing them in school. I looked like John Lennon or Elton John, so I lived with it and I managed to get by. I didn't want the attention."
But just because he's negotiated the minefield presented by the condition, doesn't mean it's not still being tiptoed through by others. "What happened to me at primary school is not a great message to be sending out to someone at a young age," he says, "but by the sound of it that's still what's happening to dyslexics even now.
"People at work have asked me for help with their kids," he adds. "There's tests you can do online to see whether a child's dyslexic, and so I'll tell people about that."
He also sees the value of himself as a role model. Often he tutors youngsters with learning disabilities, or low qualifications. "That age is a crossroads in people's lives," he says. "You can easily slip down the wrong road – down and out.
"I use myself as an example to them. I can point to the awards and say I got those because of this place. And if the attitude's right, it'll do loads for you as well. It's great to see people change, to grow in confidence.
"The thing is, young people think there aren't opportunities in engineering, but actually there still are. We aren't struggling getting people on placements, which only says good things really. There are jobs out there."
Jak puts much of what he's achieved down to colleagues and fellow trainers Phil Brown and Peter Csorba. "The bottom line," says Peter, "is we give people a chance to make a go of it, rather than not to make a go of it. If it works, great. If it doesn't then no-one can say we haven't tried."
The only downside to the teaching is that Jak's involvement in the creative side has been somewhat stymied. "I do miss it," he says, but I do get to work on the projects the lads are doing in the workshop. If someone says they need some help, I jump at the chance!"
He now indulges himself by making sculptures at home. "I'm making a Transformer," he says, referring to the famed robot toy and TV franchise. "Optimus Prime out of scrap. I've been thinking for a while of doing something like that, but then where do you put it afterwards?"
Good question. Unlike the newly-installed steel hand at the top of Hanley's Botteslow Street, created by more than 100 youngsters from the training provider, a Transformer is always going to look a little strange in the middle of a roundabout.
Maybe something like Jak's model Spitfire, which hangs above the foyer of PM Training's College Road HQ would be more fitting.
Jak's original dream was, appropriately enough for a young man who's experienced the ups and downs of early life, rollercoaster engineering. That, however, wasn't to be – "I looked at it and it was a one in a million chance – like trying to be an astronaut."
Instead he's forged a career as a young man who, quite literally, has left his mark on the city he loves. "There's been some incredible people from this city," he says. "We need to shout about it a bit more."
"I hate to think what I'd be doing if I hadn't have done this," he reflects. "And my family are proud of what I've done. It just shows what hard work does. It does pay off."
It hasn't always been accolades and glamour, though. The first thing Jak made was a toolbox – "great piece of equipment". Then he made a smoking shelter – "still there – a bit wobbly".
Whether one day it becomes the first smoking shelter with a blue plaque screwed to the side, we'll have to wait and see.