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What a year it’s been so far! And we’re only a little over half way through it. Since my exhibition went up, and came down, I’ve organised two fairs, and I’ve set up a new businesses, The Green Yard, selling plants. Which is a bit of a departure, but certainly satisfies the plant obsessive in me and is a lot of fun. Oh yeah, and I’ve been selling my house, and… I broke my leg. It hasn’t left a lot of room for ‘doing art’, which is making me a little sad.

It’s been a complicated journey to the point where I call myself an artist. When art is your second, or third, or umpteenth career, and you haven’t even been to art school, there’s an awful lot of “is this real” , “can I really call myself an artist”, “does this count as art” and “is it a real job” that goes on in your head, perhaps more than those who’ve come through a more traditional route to art. And since April I’ve been consumed by plant buying and stock rotation, and horticultural advice. I’ve lost track a bit of where I was. And I’m exhausted.

So I’ve been concentrating on some little pieces. They do provide me with a little peace in my very busy and crowded brain, but I’m not sure where I’m going with them. Perhaps it will all become clearer in time.


Exhibition Prep

It’s been nearly 2 years since my exhibition was supposed to go up, but then you-know-what happened. But it’s finally here! And in a way I’m glad its taken this long because that’s been a lot more time to get a collection together that I’m really happy with, to complete the story.

It’s getting hung tomorrow morning. It’s weird putting your work out there to the public. There’s a bit of it that stops being yours. You have to let go of it in some ways and let other people decide what each piece means for them. A fellow artist recently said to she’s not so interested in what a piece means as in what it does. And I think while something might mean something for me, it’s ok for it to do something completely different for someone else. But it takes a lot of holding back to let that happen.

And of course I’m nervous. Look, I know it’s worthy. I am not full of self doubt. But there’s still a fear that no one will like it. Is it too this, is it not enough that, all that stuff.

In the meantime, I’ve done a layout plan, I’ve prepared all the labels, I’ve priced everything up. And today I’ve taken one last photograph for publicity. It’s been such a bind, because it had to be done when it was framed, and yet, well, have you ever tried taking a picture of a glazed framed picture?

It’s quite a nice image of the view from my studio window, but it’s not exactly what I was after! So, down went the blind, out came the photographic lighting, and I got something resembling what I was aiming for. Just don’t look too closely inside the frame ….

I’d better get off and work out what I’m going to say at the preview. How much I’m going to say. How much I’m going to leave out. So much to think about. It’ll be fine….

It’ll be fine.

Ten Years

Happy anniversary to me. It’s been 10 years since I embarked on the self employed artist/designer-maker/crafter journey, and I’m still here!

When I started out, there was no grand plan, no big ambition, no lead-in time, no long dreamt of thing. The year before, I had been made redundant. I had spent 12 months applying for jobs, going to interviews, being told I was “second choice” for a job I could have done in my sleep for a salary that was half that I had been earning. Added to which I was getting worse, not better, at interviews: each knock-back made me more nervous. I was coming to the conclusion that I was over qualified, too old, too skilled, that I was never going to get another job. Things were not looking great. Then one week, the woman who’d been signing me on at the dole every fortnight for a year said, “look if you’re still coming here next month, the rules are that I’m going to have to sign you up to a “back to work” programme, and you really don’t need that in your life. If you are going to go self employed, right now is the time to do it.”

So I did what I’ve always done when the going gets tough, I got out my sewing box. I’d already made a few handbags out of some scrap fabric I had lying around, for myself and my friends. I had started developing a bit of a style. I produced a small range, and took myself off to a craft fair. (Saltaire, run by Dave, who soon became a friend as well as a fair organiser). I came home with money in my pocket. It felt like a huge endorsement, a massive step up, though actually looking back at it, taking out the stall fee, the train fair, the snacks for my teenage ‘helper’, I probably made a tenner in profit. But it spurred me on.

Establishing a style and a brand

I had no idea what I was doing. I did a load of reading about the legalities, found someone to build me a website and take some photos, and that was it. I didn’t know anyone else who was doing this. I didn’t know the craft world at all. I wasn’t even a frequenter of craft fairs. I vaguely knew how to keep financial records, and I knew I probably ought to have insurance. That was it. People often ask, what do you wish you’d known at the beginning? of self employed people. To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t know anything. If I had, I’d never have started. It would all have just seemed too scary, too daunting. I’m glad I didn’t know that I was going to be living on the bread line for years. I didn’t know that I would spend 70% of my time on admin and marketing. I didn’t know how hard it would be. I didn’t know that it was virtually impossible to make a living by hand-making handbags!

Being self employed is hard. Being a self employed artist is really hard. No-one needs your work in the same way that people need a plumber or a solicitor. It’s the first thing that people stop spending on when the going gets tough. You don’t get holiday pay. You don’t get sick pay. Everying is on you. You have to REALLY love what you do, especially on those days when it’s cold and you’d rather stay in bed, or it’s sunny and you’d rather be in the garden. It’s difficult to stay motivated when the tasks that need doing aren’t lovely arty things, but inventories, or book-keeping or social media marketing, or applying for grants or residencies, or exhibitions.

Branching out into surface pattern and illustration

But then there’s those days when you think it’s time to jack it all in and get a conventional job, and your heart sinks and tears well up in your throat just thinking about it.

The good things are the freedom to create. The space in your head to work to your own rules. I love that. After decades of working to a funder’s agenda, or a boss’s rules, or an organisation’s aims and objectives, I had no idea how free it would feel, sometimes confusingly so, to just do what I wanted to do. And the freedom to chose my own working hours. I’m not much of a morning person – trying to fit me into that never really works well. And having chronic debilitating illnesses that can floor me for days, its great to be able to say, ah well, Monday was a write-off, never mind, because I’ll just work through the weekend, is perfect. And actually, you know what, sometimes I choose to work, not because I’m a workaholic, and certainly not because of some work ethic, because believe me I really don’t have any of that. It’s because the work excites me, and it’s more fun and more rewarding than the other things I could be doing with my time. When have I ever said that about any other job!

Establshing another brand

I didn’t know how many friends I would make, how skilled and knowledgeable I would become, how happy I would be, either. The good things are the skills and knowledge I’ve gained. Who knew I’d learn to use a proper camera, that I’d take a deep interest in art history, that I’d get to grips with using all sorts of software, that I’d become knowledgeable about copyright and insurance and how to export and import, or how to run social media accounts or build websites? Who knew that I would hang out with artists and designers and craftspeople, that I’d rub shoulders with actual proper real life artists, and I’d be one of them? I didn’t set out to do any of that, I just wanted to pay the bills, put food on the table. Most of it held no interest for me at all, but here I am enjoying it. (OK, I don’t like dealing with insurance companies).

And then there’s the people. The first couple of fairs I did, I think I was a bit stand-off-ish. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be friends with other stall holders. I wasn’t sure if they would like me or if I’d fit in. But here I am 10 years later, and I have discovered I have a tribe, a gang! Today, one of the first people I became friends with in the craft world came and helped me with my garden (I say ‘helped’, she did the work, I pointed a bit). And another phoned for a chat. If all the last 10 years has amounted to has been some solid, lasting, beautiful friendships, then that’s enough. It really is. I don’t think I can say that about any other job I’ve ever done.

Where I am now, no product design, no noticable branding, no agendas, just art, that’s where I’m happy. I don’t have to ‘be’ anything. I don’t have to be an extension to a brand. I’m just me, authentic, no face to it, just me. I can be the friendly helpful fair organising me, or the creative people loving workshop facilitating me, or I can be the sitting in my room creating stuff me, but it’s all really me. That in the end, is what I value most about where I am now. Just being me. That doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, and it certainly doesn’t take away the anxiety and the uncertainty or the imposter syndrome or any of those artisty things, but it’s where I want to be.

I’d just like to thank …..

Steve Trattles who I’m sure thinks I’m completely bonkers but hardly ever says so, and despite which, went to the bother of marrying me. He puts up with a hell of a lot and I really do appreciate it. And him.

Elizabeth Mackey, my beloved aunt, who had enough faith in me and enough love for me to pay off my debts so that I could get going. I miss you Auntie Liz.

Liz Samways for introducing me to the Yorkshire based Craft Soup network of artists and craftspeople, and for continuing to be my friend and indulge in serious and deep garden chat with me, for being so unselfish and generous with her friendship and support.

Naomi Southon who had a stall next to mine in 2012 and who I’ve not been able to shake off since. Within weeks of meeting she figuratively held my hand, and literally heaved things to the charity shop, while I cleared my beloved Aunt’s flat, and I will never be able to thank her enough for that. She grounds me when I’m taking myself too seriously, makes me laugh, takes me seriously when that’s appropriate, and provides me with all the Christmas presents for all the jewellery lovers in my life.

Bec Gilray who made me laugh a lot, and helped me make sense of a camera, and who gave me encouragement and opportunities when I needed them.

Tighearnan Casey-Moore who was just 14 when we set out on that first foray into craft fairs, and who has unwaveringly helped, encouraged and supported me throughout, even when he has had no idea whatsoever what I’m on about.

Ian and Pip, my cousins who turn up to my fairs, share my social media posts, buy my stuff, feed me, love and support me always.

Dave Glenister, who organised that first fair I did in Saltaire, for being supportive then and becoming a friend.

Craft Soup – oh boy, did you all keep me going. Especially Chrissie and Paula and Tracy and Liz. Oh how I long to give you all a big hug. Maybe by the end of this year?

Headingley HEART, who’ve been supportive and lets face it, a huge part of my life. As businesses we’re almost the same age. It’s been a blast, and I hope, will continue to be so.

Nora, my dear dear friend, who keeps me going when the personal stuff gets really dark. And Judith, always, for having my back. For our pasts and our futures, and our love and friendship.

And finally, my dad, for coming through.

You know what, you can’t run a business on your own. Being ‘self employed’ is a technical term, not a blueprint for going it alone. You need allies and teachers. You need critical friends. You need people to give you opportunities, to be in the right place at the right time. You need non-judgemental friends and family, people who love you and support you. People who’ll do the washing up and bring you a glass of wine when you’ve forgotten to look after yourself. Thankyou to all those people who’ve done that for me for the past 10 years.

Small worlds, big rush

For 12 months I had no deadlines, no sales, no events, no demands on my time. Emotionally, 2020 was draining, frightening, and very isolating. Work-wise though, I just plodded through, calmly, at my own pace. In a way it was nice to have some breathing space to experiment. But then about 2 months ago, everything went a bit crazy. Suddenly there were deadlines, and projects and planning to do, to-do lists, jobs piling up on my desk.

So, the logical thing to do at that point was to give myself more work, yes?

As well as working on my own art, I also run art and craft fairs. So what was more logical than to give myself a stall at the next fair. Did I have any appropriate work to sell? A bit, not much, most of it is waiting to go into an exhibition. Better get working then.

It’s actually been nice to sit down and work solidly on some pieces for a while. I have added to my Small World collection, started right at the beginning of my sewing journey. You can read more about them here. They just need framing now, and I just need to remember how to set up a stall at a fair! It’s been a while.

I will upload all available work into my store soon.

An autopsy of grief

There’s a reason I’ve not written on my blog for a while. I mean as well as having to navigate a global pandemic and all that has meant for me, and as well as been a bit absorbed by actual art making. The thing is I’ve not been clear about what I’m doing. I’ve just had to put my head down and do it, and see what happens.

I’d been thinking a lot about how traumatic grief affects someone, and specifically how it has affected me. Everyone experiences grief in their own way, but when it throws your whole life up in the air, when you are utterly traumatised by it, it doesn’t just go away. Grief, anyway, isn’t something where you feel sad, and then you feel a little bit less sad, and then eventually you feel ok. It doesn’t work like that. It’s not linear. And when it’s traumatic, it changes the way you think about everything. It actually affects your brain structure.

This is what I wanted to explore and illustrate. And I’ve got myself in so many knots trying to put it into words. And in the end I decided that perhaps it didn’t matter that it isn’t coherent, because, well, grief isn’t coherent either. So I just started making

I actually did quite a bit of prep for this piece. I made maquettes and did drawings and tested dyes.

I gathered vintage threads – they weren’t the easiest threads to use, but most of them belonged to family members I have lost, and I wanted to incorporate them. It seemed apt.

I dug really deep for some of the things I wanted to say. Some days it was quite hard. Some days I felt pretty wretched thinking about those things.

And then I started sewing.

There’s an awful lot of seed stitch. Whatever I do next probably won’t include seed stitch!

I chose cotton calico. It’s lovely to sew, and it took the dye really well, although the kitchen scales aren’t very accurate, leading to a much darker shade of pinky-fleshy than I was hoping for. A bit mucky. Ah well.

I just used back stitch for the lettering. Sometimes I drew it out first, sometimes I just freestyled it! I didn’t especially want a perfect sampler-style lettering, more a scribbling, more a slightly unsightly home-made tattoo look. You know, when you took a pair of compasses or a needle and some ink, and just stabbed at yourself. Lots of kids did that in my school. Urgh. But that’s kind of what all these feelings feel like anyway: self-stabbed messages at a moment of craziness, ones that you have to live with forever.

It’s almost finished. The sculpture is sitting by me know. It’s about the size of a small child. It’s a bit weird, like a self portrait from the inside out. I’m not entirely comfortable with it.

And of course I’m also not entirely happy with it. I wish I could start it all again. Think about it a bit more. Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ve done that now, and can move on.

I will post proper photos when I’ve done the full studio photography set up next week, but for now, here’s a bit of a glimpse.

Falling off the edge

I’ve been thinking a lot about the journeys we go on with our lovers, friends, family. How they are rarely life long. Or one life ends before the other, yet the other must carry on, ploughing a new path, a new journey. The time we have with others can be fleeting, or it can be sustained, or it can stop and start and stop again. If we are not islands, we do sometimes island hop. The bridges to other islands, the paths we travel alone, are just as interesting I think, as the journeys we go on together.

My thoughts for my future are sometimes bleak and empty, but mostly it’s the fear of the unknown, a fear of loneliness, of swinging in the wind, of falling off the edge.

Now’s The Time To Stop

“I’ve been struggling today with knowing when to stop. No, I knew EXACTLY when to stop, and then I worried that it wasn’t enough. So I kept going. One day I’ll have the confidence to place one stitch, and one stitch only and to hell with anyone who says that’s not embroidery.”

That was something I posted on Instagram a couple of weeks back. This is the problem with an artform that’s largely considered a “decorative craft”. It’s supposed to be pretty, and pleasing, and probably intricate, and maybe even dainty. But the embroidery that I use isn’t any of those things. Or if it is, thats a secondary concern. The work I produce is about expressing something. It might not be a pretty something. Or an intricate something. Maybe sometimes one stitch will do the job.

I’ve been working on it: just adding as many stitches as I need, and not getting anxious that it’s not enough. The influencial textile designer Constance Howard once said “You don’t need to know hundreds of stitches. But you need to use the ones you do know well.” She advised her students to experiment through limitation. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing for a while now. But still I’m anxious that I’ll be judged on skill, or, somehow, lack of proof of skill. Or something like that.

Anyway, I’m working on it. I’m working on being as minimal as I want and not giving a damn.

New Work

2020 has been a terrible year so far. There’s meme’s all over the internet keep telling me so, and out in the big wide world it certainly has been. The Covid 19 Pandemic has changed everything. At times, I’ve felt scared for my life. It’s left me very vulnerable and dependent. And frustrated. And now, while everyone else’s lives get back to some semblance of normality, I, along with all the other tens of thousands of extremely vulnerable people are left in a state of limbo. We are ‘allowed’ to go out, to get on buses, go to the pub, visit friends, but to do so would be risky. The virus is still out there, and it still might kill me. So still the fear, the dependence, the frustration. But there’s a lot worse things happening in the world to other people, and I have to remember that. I am not starving, I have a roof over my head, I will not be shot by a police officer. I’m priviledged in that, and it’s important to remember that many people live in much much greater fear with far few opportunities.

Then there’s this other thing, an anniversary of sorts. It’s two years since my husband was given 4 months to live. We live on a knife edge, not able to plan for a future, not able to put things on hold, it’s far from easy. But we have had all this extra time and we’re determined to use it. Travel plans put on hold, we’ve put our energy into decorating the house, surrounding ourselves with things we like, rather than things that ‘will do for now’, creating a garden. I think it’s made me more appreciative of what living for today actually means.

And amongst all this, I thought I’d got nothing done since March, but when I came to frame up some of my work, I discovered there was actually quite a lot of that I was happy with. I’ve somehow found space to be creative, to stretch myself just a little. My work is sometimes very insular, it doesn’t just reflect my experience, it somehow is my experience. I look at some of it and think, hell, that was painful. Digging deep into my mind seems to be where I find inspiration, but it’s also a little depressing at times! So it’s been a relief to produce some work without too much meaning behind it, just an enjoyment of colour and texture and form. After a summer of sewing my Pandemic fears into cloth, I’ll do some more joyful stuff soon. I’m slowly putting some of it up in the shop , so you can view it and even own it if you like it!

The Pandemic Panels

I got a letter from the government.  It said I was “extremely vulnerable”.  I got one from the NHS and my lung consultant too, saying the same.  They said it would be very dangerous for me to catch the Covid19 virus and that I should quarantine for at least twelve weeks.  It turned out to be twenty weeks.  Then they said it was okay for me to leave the house, see friends and family, so long as they didn’t come in my home, or come anywhere near me.  And that I could go shopping and to places with other people so long as I was extremely careful.  But the virus was still out there and I still felt very vulnerable. 

I have never felt so afraid for my life as I did in those first few weeks that COVID19 hit our shores.  I was terrified.  I cried a lot, and shook a lot.  I had this big horrible lump in my throat, fearful that something terrible was going to happen.  Well, it still might.  The virus is still out there and I still feel very vulnerable.  Fear seems like a reasonable response to a dangerous environment.

I found I could control my terror by cleaning.  Cleaning with bleach. Cleaning everything: surfaces, apples, door handles, potatoes, letters, keys, handbags, gate latches.  My hands were sore from all the bleach.   My hairdresser brought me latex gloves.  I bullied my household into washing their hands a million times a day.  Like the government advisors told me.  I got a bit obsessed with Professor Chris Whitty.  When everything was disinfected, and redisinfected, and we’d banned people from crossing our threshold, and we stopped going out, I felt safe.  The world outside might be going to hell, but here in my quarantine, the virus couldn’t get me.  That was the whole idea of the so-called shielding policy for “the extremely vulnerable”.

But after a while, shielding started to feel like eugenics.  It started to feel like imprisonment.  Those of us not deemed strong enough to resist the virus had to be locked away so as not to be an inconvenience.  It was ok to go to the pub, or to work or get on buses, or hang out with mates, or go back to school, or shop for non-essentials now, because the extremely vulnerable have been locked away in their homes.  It’s ok to be as risky as you like, you don’t have to watch out for the extremely vulnerable because they’re all conveniently isolated from the rest of society.  Beyond the pale.  Exiled.  Then when we were told to stop ‘sheilding’, everyone else was told they had to watch out because the extremely vulnerable were now out and about.  Like lepers.  Perhaps they should have given us bells to ring.  I wished it was the extremely risky and dangerous that were being kept locked up so that I could go out and about safely.  Why were we the ones that had to be denied a life?

The Panels

Panel One People asked me “how are you?”  I didn’t know how to reply.  I said “mostly OK”.  I meant “I hate this, I’m stressed, I’m frightened, I’m miserable, I’m bored, I’m anxious, but my life isn’t actually endangered right at this moment and I have food and shelter.” 

Panel Two People asked me why I was staying at home.  I said “I’m extremely vulnerable, I have three letters to prove it”.  At first I didn’t mind being extremely vulnerable because it gave me carte blanche with the bleach.  But then I hated the label.

Panel Three The government talked about shielding the elderly.  They often forgot to mention the not-elderly ‘extremely vulnerable’.   Even though by now I’d received 4 letters and 3 emails and two phone calls telling me I’m one of ‘the extremely vulnerable’.  I started to feel resentful about being labelled by adjectives and adverbs.  I started to resent being shielded.  It felt more like being imprisoned.

Panel Four I was accused of being overly cautious.  They talked about “risk tolerance”, about how much you were prepared to risk, regardless of the facts.  But I was regarding the facts.  I was reading the science.  Not the government ‘science’, the proper science, by independent scientists.  I would endure this exile if it saved me from dying.  I’d rather live than go to Asda.  That’s my risk tolerance.

Dyeing day

I was supposed to be doing some work in the garden but it was cold and windy so I gave up and came inside. I took the opportunity instead to dye some fabric. I’ve been meaning to try more natural dyeing but getting hold of supplies has been tricky during lockdown. But I had some orange and some black hand dye. The orange was promising to be zingy and bright, which I wasn’t really after, so I mixed in some of the left over black. I’m glad I did: the resulting colours are fabulous. The hession has taken the orange particularly well, coming out a deep burnt umber. I am going to find it difficult to work with these because they are beautiful as they are, just bundled together .

Dyeing drying