If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, you’ll know that the author Elizabeth Gilbert decides to leave her life in New York behind to spend a year travelling the world, a plan that has been built around a meeting she had some time earlier with a Balinese Medicine Man who tells her that one day she will come back to Bali to study under him. Gilbert secures an advance from her publisher to write a memoir of her trip, and travels to Italy, then India before ending up in Bali to reconnect with the man who she feels has set the whole plan in motion. When she finally returns to him, he greets her warmly, reads her palm, …. and that’s it. Despite his words kick starting a chain of events that takes her life literally around the world and changes everything for her, when she finally sees him again, he has no idea that they’ve already met or that she’s there all because of something he’d said in passing, years before.
That’s kind of what’s just happened here.
Five years ago, I had decided to make dolls deliberately rather than secretly, my deep down heartfelt, life long dream. I didn’t even know that doll makers were a thing, or that there were people in this world who actually wanted to own strange, hand made little creatures. I was living in Norway, deeply unhappy and with no way of getting home, and I’d set up a Facebook page to share my work, more to get over my fear of people seeing what I was making than anything else. One night, while living in a cabin in the woods, and after a considerable amount of Swedish cider, I checked my Facebook page and for some reason my “followers” were increasing by about a hundred every minute, and I had no idea why until a friend sent me a message telling me that Mister Finch had shared my work with his then 50,000 followers. Suddenly I was an exciting new doll maker with a following of supporters, a fresh push to dedicate myself to doll making, and more importantly, a way to get home.
Last month, Mister Finch contacted me on Instagram and we spent a few days chatting about everything from work to films to our home cities, and eventually I sheepishly thanked him for sharing my work and for single handedly triggering a pivotal moment in my life. He said “my pleasure”.
We decided to do an “in conversation” type interview for this blog, and I thought I would begin it from the perspective of how lock down has connected far flung people, and in particular connected me with the artist who’d generously shared my work and help me gain the attention I needed to build my doll making career and get the hell home when I desperately needed to. For me, this conversation would be a wonderful moment where I got to go full circle and take my connection with Finch to a more personal level.
About three hours into the conversation, he told me that he didn’t even remember sharing my work.
Mister Finch shares up and coming artists so often that he doesn’t even remember doing it! It’s hard to put a number on the artists who’ve had a leg up from this guy, but he shrugs it off saying “yeah, but people did the same for me”.
Along with his obvious warmth, my first impressions are that this is a man that you do not fuck with. Despite his Beatrix Potter, whimsical story teller image (one that, let’s face it, we’ve all kind projected onto him ourselves), this is a man who has worked really hard to be where he is now, speaks his mind, holds his ground, and is a far cry from what many people assume about doll makers – that we’re all sweetness and whimsy, surrounded by lace and buttons in a fairy tale cottage, making pretty things whenever the mood takes us.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a fairy tale cottage, but his work-room is bloody amazing. What I first think is that sort of “book shelf” wall paper you see in coffee shops, is actually hundreds, literally hundreds of books stacked up everywhere. Finch tells me that many of them are rescued from skips because he doesn’t want their lives to end there and because he always wanted to live in a bookshop. There are stained glass lamps dotted about like boiled sweets in an antique tin, and every so often he reaches over and grabs something to show me, like pieces from his new collection, which I’m keeping schtum about. In contrast, I’m squeezed into a corner of my spare bedroom, with a pile of dolls in progress and my two dogs are having a growly wrestle behind me. I’m wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my time.
Even if it’s not the fantastical image a lot of people have about the work we do, we’re both well aware of just how lucky we are to have the jobs we have, especially given the world picture right now. We talk about how we both want to bring you a chance to pause and catch your breath and even for a short time, feel a little bit of joy among all that’s frightening and unpredictable in the world right now.
What follows is our conversation. Go make a cup of tea, have a seat and join us for a bit.
Finch; I’ve just put wax in my hair but some of it got on my screen and it’s made me look like one of the aliens in Cocoon with the glowing halos.
Rook; It’s the lockdown equivalent of the vaseline-on-the-lens, old-school Hollywood glamour.
Other than your hair, what have you been up to?
Finch; I’m making seed bombs! I’ve been seed bombing an abandoned piece of ground near here for the last few years.
Rook; I’m growing tomatoes and propagating succulents! Gardening is at the top of my self-care list these days to stop me losing it.
How has lockdown been for you so far?
Finch; I found it really hard at the beginning as I used to go to yoga a lot and walk everywhere. Now I’ve just stopped with everything going on like most people and just trying to not panic and work.
Rook; Has it affected your work?
Finch; It took me ages to get back in a sewing flow and I was fine for a while but lately, I’m struggling again. Work-wise I’ve changed course and so I’m just going to make and sell myself in my shop for a good while now, and so I’m making smaller pieces which I can ship out easier. I have to be realistic with work right now and not make big stuff.
Rook; I had to switch pretty quickly to teaching online, which has been a real shift for me but it’s been brilliant, so I’m actually working on much larger pieces because I feel the pressure’s off to make smaller work.
Finch; Would you create a piece life size?
Rook; Well my birds are pretty much life size! The human ones…. well, in my world, the dolls are life size, they’re not miniature humans, they’re creatures in their own right who are that particular size. I also think that being able to hold them is a really important part of their character for me.
I also hand sew literally every bit of fabric on them, so a life size one would take a crazy amount of time and patience to make. Never say never though! I have been making much bigger dolls recently.
Finch; Do it! However long it takes just do it. Even if you were to make a life-size doll of say a five year old child, the feeling of it standing there in your studio is just amazing.
At this point Finch, reaches over and grabs a huge pink bumble bee, which nestles in the nook of his neck like a giant furry pet. I’m half expecting it to start buzzing contentedly. Oddly enough, even though it’s gigantic compared to a real bee, it looks exactly the size it’s supposed to be.
Rook; Did you always want to be a textile artist or was it something that evolved as you went along?
Finch; It evolved definitely…I had things I wanted to make I just didn’t know how to make them. Making dolls for me is a very potent thing, I really love what I do and I feel the luckiest person in the world to be able to do it as my job.
Rook; It was the job I always wanted, but I honestly didn’t think it was possible. I studied fashion and textiles and worked in that industry for a long time before finally giving in and accepting that I’d wanted to be a doll maker all along. I remember reading somewhere that your background was in jewellery rather than textiles. At what point did it move from one to the other?
Finch; I stopped dead doing Jewellery as I just got tired of having to rely on so many others to get work shot and seen. My stuff was assemblage style and used just everything I could find.
I got a commission for an amazing magazine to create a piece for a shoot lots of back and to and I made it sent it off it got sent back…but it never even got opened..the tissue paper was still intact. I was so upset at the time. This isn’t anyone fault when you do these shoots they have often a huge amounts of things to pull and use… it’s just how it is.
So yeah that was the final straw I just had enough gave all my stuff away and was like right what now?
I’ve always been able to sew and thought let’s give this a go.
I worked really hard at it for 2 years trying to get my work out there and then things started to move.
Rook; I had similar things happen when I worked in fashion. There are so many designers desperate to have their work featured in magazines, that you’ll get all the way to something almost happening, and at the last minute it gets cut. I always felt like it was just out of reach. I’ve worked on doll making projects for fashion brands recently, and weirdly I feel like I’ve got more power as a doll maker than I ever did as a fashion designer.
Have you ever experienced snobbery or people not taking you seriously because you’re self-taught?
Finch; This is a great question and yes I feel it all the time.
I’ve had people literally stop talking to me mid-sentence when they hear I have no qualifications.
The snobbery is almost unbearable in many ways and I can smell it a mile off now. Some of the harshest treatment has come from those who are trained and have no issue with telling me I have no place on the scene. In the beginning, I had some terrible terrible messages and emails which stung badly. I’m tougher now but I could have done without it when I was just setting off. I am self-taught and so that what I will champion. I would never say to anyone not to get an education though. Textile art doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and it’s so incredibly diverse. I find it bizarre.
My work is becoming more and more storybook-like and so maybe this is where I belong. Creating books with my characters is an incredible thing and one that’s a constant and utter joy… it’s so thrilling I hope it never wears off.
How do you see your work changing, can you predict what direction you are moving in?
Rook; My work tends to be really responsive so I think about where I want to take it in terms of galleries or publications, but I tend to let the actual work evolve naturally. I’m finding this way of working a bit nebulous though so I’m trying to find a balance between responding and actually focusing and making clear decisions in advance. My work is definitely getting bolder. The dolls are standing up more and more, and the pieces I’m working on are much more about strength than vulnerability.
What sort of relationship do you have with the creatures you create?
Finch; It varies usually the more time I spend with them. I have made creatures and things purely for fun and for images for work which I couldn’t sell as my heart is wrapped around them. ..and other things I’ve got attached to that I couldn’t part with either.
The more time with them gives me more time to work out backstories and habits and what the voice would sound like.
Rook; I’m glad to see he’s back safe and sound now.
I realised recently that my “human” dolls tend to be self portraits, while the animal dolls almost always have some connection to people in my life. I think there’s also a real desire in me to be closer to birds. I talk to crows a lot, but there’s still this drive to have them near me and I think that’s why I make them.
Finch; Making spiders and moths was always the dream for me so when I had them under my belt it was great. Is there anything you’ve tried to make again and again that hasn’t turned out…?
Rook; I tend to keep at it until I find a way, and often even if it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would it becomes something else that I do want to work with. I rarely set out with a fixed idea of exactly what I want to make, so things tend to evolve and shift depending on what works and what doesn’t. I think the only thing I’ve really wanted to make and never quite got right were toads. I bloody love toads.
Finch; Me too! I love toads and frogs, but I can’t get the eyes to look right. The creatures in my world all tend to have closed eyes and they just don’t work on toads and frogs. Their heads are a difficult shape too.
Rook; And they’ve got this lovely “plopped down” feeling that I just can’t seem to get. I met the most beautiful toad on the wooden bridge that led to my wee house in Norway one night. She was sitting right in the middle of the bridge, and I swear she was glittering. I just can’t recreate that sort of magic when I make them.
Your work has a really strong sense of the natural world, have you been able to get out and connect with nature during lockdown?
Finch; No, not loads..there is a cemetery near me which is overgrown and spooky which I go to which is a bit of a haven.
Rook; I’m really lucky, I have parks all around me. There’s a beautiful heron that I keep seeing fishing on the river bank, maybe I’ll make him in life size.
Finch; Are there any new skills you would like to learn to incorporate within your work that you don’t have right now. I want to learn to weld!
Rook; I would love to be able to work with wood. I’ve carved wood and made little dolls and animals from wood, but I really don’t know anything more about it than whittling. I’d love to go on a woodworking course and learn to make wooden dolls properly. I can just imagine how beautiful wood would be with fabric.
Fairy tales and storytelling, in general, seem to be really important parts of your work. Which fairy tale characters ( or archetypes) did you identify with when you were growing up?
Finch; You know for me there is a clear winner and its James and the giant peach. We did it primary school and based activities around it whilst reading it. We all made a paper seagull which we took in turns to string to the huge tissue paper peach…and I remember just pure joy. Its struck such a chord with me about going on adventures and having huge insects and spiders as friends.
As much as it was an amazing book my utter excitement was down to a great teacher. When I got older I made all the characters from wire and fabric (now lost to time) and again just lived within this book so much.
Elves and the shoemaker stands out as well…
Rook; Well that makes perfect sense! The giant insects, the magical world, you’re basically creating that whole world around you.
Again, Finch reaches over and brings back a giant embroidered spider, and like the bee it perches on his chest like a giant pet.
For me, and I loved stories and fairy tales growing up, I really, really wanted to be the princess, but I always identified with the witches and monsters. They were the characters who would stay with me. I always found myself wondering how they got where they were and what had happened to them.
The three films that stand out from my childhood were Labyrinth, Return to Oz…
Finch; And the Never Ending Story!
Rook; Yes! There’s something about films and TV from your childhood that just hits you in the heart and never leaves you.
Finch; I’ve been watching Lovejoy while I’ve been working……
At this point the conversation veers off and we talk about the new Labyrinth film (which Finch didn’t even know about!), Enya’s castle (which I’d never heard of!), the 80s band Clannad, how to make movie props, how amazing Jan Horrox’s doll making books are, the pros and cons of using Fray-stop, how much my dog looks like Falkor the Luck Dragon, fabric hoarding, car boots versus charity shops, the Never Ending Story books and which editions to look out for on Ebay, how we’d make a textile jellyfish, goats in movies, the benefits of joining an Artist’s Union, why neither of us use turning tools…
Rook; How the hell do you get anything done?!
Finch; I’m really tough on myself work wise and need to be regimented otherwise I’m like “Oooh, youtube cat videos…”. I make lists, I work on one thing at a time and see it through, then set daily goals and give myself rewards.
Rook; I’m nebulous as hell…..
Finch; I really don’t get that impression.
Rook; Honestly, I’m wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my time!
We natter on for a bit longer, talk about getting together in person on the other side of Lock Down, and after three and a half hours we finally say good bye.
I have to admit that there have been times when I’ve looked at Finch’s work and thought “are you fucking kidding me?!” because of the sheer scale and ambition of it, not to mention the bloody massive amount of art work he’s produced in the last ten years, as well as his books (two of which have been self-published, so even more work! ).
I personally, have heard a fair amount of (rather unpleasant) speculation as to how he manages to do it all.
I can tell you right now that Mister Finch’s success isn’t down to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or influential connections, or an army of assistants, or sponsorship, or social media, or a trust fund, or a team of pattern designers, a giant studio, a rich partner – this is an artist who has worked bloody hard for a bloody long time, taken a lot of risks and refused to compromise his creative or personal integrity (despite offers to pack it in and go work with some rather high profile projects). Finch has built his own world stitch by stitch and he’s earned every bit of praise that comes his way, and let’s not even get into the amount of flak he gets.
I wonder if the reason so many people speculate about all this shit is because they can’t personally imagine being able to create what he has without all of these magic ingredients. What I’m seeing is that it really is all down to hard work, vision and determination.
I’m coming away from this conversation wondering just what I could do if I pulled out all the stops the way Finch does. What would happen if I did work life-size, or wrote a book, or set my mind to making work that matches the full scale of my imagination?
Thank you from me and Mister Finch for joining us. We hope we’ve brought a bit of joy and a few laughs to your lockdown.
Mister Finch is currently taking a break from Facebook, you can keep up with his most recent work through his Instagram feed.