The Artist’s Statement – Part Three

I will be hanging my exhibition in one month from today.

I freaked out a bit about a week ago.

I’m on track now, mostly after writing about my process, what’s important to me and why I’m actually doing this, in a clear and hopefully articulate way and sending it off to Ros at the Tig Gallery to add to the press release for the show.

This is the bit that’s always a mental and, let’s face it, emotional challenge – bringing it to a point of conclusion. For almost three years now, I’ve been working and making and sharing things online and (you have no idea how grateful I am for this) selling my work. It’s been ongoing and I’ve been loving it, but this…this is something a bit different. It’s exactly what I need and it’s come at exactly the right time but I can feel a real resistance to bringing it all to a head and saying “This is me. This. This is what I spend my time working on and it’s the best I can do, go look at it”. It feels easier to go, “Here’s something I made, I love it and I’m going to do some more of it soon”.
With an exhibition, I need to be able to say that this is it. For now. For this particular point in time, but I still need to stand in that space with everyone who comes along and say, “yep, this is what I’m about”. It feels like a very high stakes point in my work, and personally, it’s making me feel very vulnerable.

Shit, that’s the first time I actually realised there will be a whole load of people there and I’ll need to talk to them and tell them things about what I do and why I do it.

When I wrote my statement about my work and about my aims for the exhibition I had to really look at what I do and why I do it and one of the refreshing things was identifying that a very important aspect of my work is that it’s taken just to the point of completion and no further. It’s about transformation. Fabric into a face, cloth into character, stitches into soul. It’s also about my own desires, the ones that only really express themselves in my work.

It’s taken me nearly forty years to acknowledge that this is what I do. This is my thing. I don’t bring my work to a full, complete, polished conclusion, I leave aspects of it suspended and seemingly still in the process of transformation. I used to feel that this meant that my work wasn’t accomplished or completed and that I was somehow avoiding taking it to a conclusion. When I described my work in the past, I would sidestep this point because it didn’t seem like the right thing to say. I had to make excuses for it, or to promise that I’d get round to “finishing” it at some point down the line.

Even when I started making dolls, the reason I used calico cloth instead of lovely new fabric is because for me they were just tests. Toiles. Like when you make a pattern for a garment and test it out in simple, inexpensive fabric before cutting it in something luxurious. I thought I would make perfectly sculpted faces, and tested it out in pencil first. I thought I would make intricately detailed clothing for them, but the loose, layered collars worked better, and most of them looked complete when they were still naked. I kept intending to be a bit more “polished” with my pieces, but in the end it turned out that what made them mine was the balance between being caught right at the point where they were transformed from fabric into their own character.

The dolls for the Tig show are more raw than a lot of the pieces that you might know me for. The show is called The Book of Secrets, a reference to the grimoires and journals of herbalists and alchemists, the place where they keep their dreams and discoveries and desires and plans. Sometimes my dolls feel like little magical objects to me. Little votives or fetches that I can send out a little part of myself into the world through, or that I can see a part of myself in that’s hidden from me the rest of the time. A theme that runs through the show is desires and dreams, ones that are hidden and to an extent, pushed down into the subconscious.

I thought I would feel quite exposed showing that secret, hidden side of myself in this show, but instead, so far, it feels like a massive relief.

I couldn’t do it before. Not deliberately or consciously anyway.

In the last year there’s been a real shift for me in terms of how open I am with myself and a willingness to say what I really want. To acknowledge what I really need to say.

I didn’t think this blog post was going to go this way, but here it goes…

About the time I started to make this work, and for a few years before, I’d been going through a very difficult time personally. I don’t need to say what or how or where or why, because I am pretty sure that you know what it means to go through something painful. Something that changes you. Or maybe something that silences you.

So I started attending counselling about a year ago.

I started counselling because I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t not speak any longer. I was angry all the time. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk but I couldn’t stay quiet. I didn’t want to talk to anyone who cared about me because I didn’t want them to feel it too, or hear it or know it. It felt like all I’d be doing was spreading what I was feeling rather than easing it. And what’s more, I didn’t think anyone would believe me because I’d been seeming to function for so long without saying anything.

So without telling anyone, and for the first time in my life, I found a service that could provide counselling and I booked an appointment.

I spent my first session crying, but numb. I talked a lot about details and events and facts and things that had happened that had brought me to that point. My counsellor asked me about feelings. I said I didn’t have any. I looked for them. I really did try to find something that felt like an emotion but there was nothing I could touch. I knew where they were but not how to reach them.

The feelings came out eventually of course, over the next months. It took time. I resented my counsellor. Then I wasn’t so sure, then I switched to another one and eventually I felt like I could squeeze out something that mattered to me. Words dredged up from my throat and, bloody hell, it hurt. It actually physically hurt to speak, as if things had been buried down a well, and that every time I spoke something barbed and jagged was being dragged through narrow walls and up and out into the light.

It was exhausting.

The thing is though, that once I had found that safe place, and thank God I did, once I felt safe and once I felt heard, it wasn’t painful any more. Saying things and having a counsellor look at me and hear me, without any judgement, but simply acknowledging what I was saying, was the greatest relief I think I’ve ever felt.

I also realised in those sessions just how much I had said in my life that was really what I thought I was supposed to say.

In the past, if I had wanted to say something that wasn’t really expected or acceptable or typical, then I felt I would need some sort of defence or argument to back myself up, which meant bracing myself for a confrontation, or isolating myself to avoid one altogether.

And it went back through my whole life too. Every time a layer was revealed, there would be another one underneath it needing to be peeled away. I saw a pattern of not just self-capping, but self-smothering. All the things I agreed to or avoided or kept quiet about. When you don’t feel heard you either say what you think will be accepted, or you become silent.

I realised in those sessions that what I said and what I did was just the tip of the iceberg of what I felt and thought and most importantly, needed to say.

Over the next few months, it was as if a big blockage had been gradually dissolved and I felt clearer and happier and lighter. I felt that I could not only ask for what I wanted, but that I could also say no to what I didn’t want.

I felt like me without the bullshit. And by bullshit I mean the layers and layers of sticky crap and crud that builds up from years of painting countless glossy veneers over what I really needed to say.

Towards the end of the sessions, I told my counsellor that I was concerned about not being able to speak the same way once the course of sessions had finished. That I wouldn’t be able to be as open as I had been there. The world doesn’t work that way. Maybe it should, maybe it doesn’t need to, but in reality we need to edit ourselves to at least some extent to get along with the rest of humanity most of the time.

Her guidance was to seek out and to know and to acknowledge the people and places where I was heard. Even if they are few and far between. Not to expect it or need it all the time, but to understand that there are places and people who get it.

I want my work to be one of those places.

It’s hard to say that because, part of me still wants to make pretty things that people will like and want and find impressive, but fortunately (and again, you have no idea of the massive gratitude), I have people who support my work, either by buying it or sharing it online or telling me they like it, or whatever. And oddly enough, the pieces I make when I feel most vulnerable, whether that vulnerability comes from pain or joy, are the pieces that people write to me about. The ones that touch them in some way that they can’t quite understand.

Ruby, one of the first cloth dolls I made.

When I started to make the work that you maybe know me for, I had no idea that anyone would see it. I made it because I needed to have a voice and it was the only one I could find. The dolls could express what I couldn’t. I’m still not sure what they were saying, but making them was compulsive. They demanded to be made.

At the time, my first cloth dolls were forced to the surface and were guiding me more than I was directing them. It’s different now. I can look at where they come from and why. But I don’t want my work to be therapy for me. I want it to be relevant beyond my own head, but I think that it needs to come from an authentic place in me to do that. I hope that if my work comes from that place, it will reach the same place in someone else.

 

Like the other two Artist Statement blog posts, I really had no idea where this post was going when I started writing it let alone that it would be the end of a trilogy! The first one was me wondering what the hell I was doing, the second one was me wondering why the fuck I was apologising for it, and this one…. I’d like to round this off with some sort of clear lesson or message, but I don’t think there is one. Maybe that’s for you to decide.
True to form, a bit of this post was clear and real and focused, and now I’m letting it all unravel towards the end.

If you would like to read the other Artist’s Statement posts you can do so here and here.

For now, I’m off to do more work for the show.

 

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How I Make Hands

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I love my hands. I love hands in general, they are one of the first things I notice about people. I’m as fascinated by people’s hands as I am by their faces, because for me they can be just as expressive.

I spend a lot of time making the hands for my dolls. Sometimes a pair of hands can take as long to make as an entire torso or head for the same doll. I thought you might like to know how I make them. The best piece of advice I can give you when making these is to TAKE YOUR TIME. There’s often a tendency to rush through the smaller details, but for me it’s the time taken on the smaller details that counts.

Creating the pattern or template

I tend to draw most of my patterns free hand for each doll. I also usually make the hands of my dolls last, so their shape and size is determined by the rest of the doll.

Work out what size your hand pattern will be by placing the arm on a sheet of paper and drawing the width of the wrist opening. Draw a wrist, long enough to fit into the arm opening.

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Now look at the size of your doll’s face. Naturally, hands are about the same length as your face from the chin to the middle of your forehead. From the top of the wrist you’ve drawn, measure straight up to give you the length of your hand based on the length of the face from chin to the middle of the forehead.

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OK, so now we have the key measurements in place and you can draw the rest of the hand. The key here is to keep it simple, think of a mitten, rather than a slim elegant hand.

Make sure that there is a curve between the thumb and the rest of the hand. This will make it easier to turn the hand the right way around with the seams smoothly curving on the inside.

It may take a few tries before you get find a shape that works for you. I have a whole envelope full of random hand shapes that did or didn’t work at some point down the line. The point of learning to create your own patterns is that you get to alter and choose exactly the shape that suits your project, instead of being stuck with a pre-determined shape then having to try to adjust it to make it more your own. Drawing patterns yourself takes time to get right, but ultimately it means that you’re in control of making your own ideas come to life.

This is a pretty typical hand pattern for me.

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I have not added seam allowance because I’m now going to draw directly onto the fabric using this hand template. The drawn line will give me an exact guideline to sew along.

Choosing the fabric, and sewing the hand shape

I personally like to make my hands in two different fabrics, one firmer fabric for the outside of the hand and a softer, finer fabric for the palm. You’ll see why in a minute.

I always, always draw on the firmer fabric. This is because it’s far less likely to move around and become distorted, and when you’re working on small details like this, precision is really important. While we’re on that point, iron your fabric before you start. Seriously, it makes a difference, even if you’re planning on washing and dying and beating up the hand once it’s made. Make sure that you place your template on the straight grain of the fabric. The easiest way to tell where the grain is is to look at the edge of your fabric and place the template in line.

I use a regular, sharp pencil to lightly draw around my hand template leaving a narrow seam allowance around the drawn line. I then place this onto the softer fabric, making sure that the fabric grain is going in the same direction.

P1100238I start sewing around the hand at this point and work my way back to the wrist opening where I do a couple of stitches in the same place to secure the thread, then sew small, close stitches along the pencil edge. Make sure that the stitches are as small and neat as possible. The closer together the better and if you really want to be on the safe side, double back over the curve on the inside of the thumb. Personally, I find that if the stitches are small and neat, there are rarely any problems with the neatness of the hand once it’s turned the right way out. Once you get to the other side of the wrist opening, work a couple of stitches in the same place then double back and finish opposite the place where you started.

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Double backing like this avoids the need for knots and reduces the risk of the stitches coming undone when you turn the hand the right way out. Knots tend to show through and ruin the look of small, detailed pieces of work.

If you like you can paint some Fray Stop, or PVA glue along the outside edge of the seam to make it a bit more stable, then let it dry. I usually miss out this step, but find what works best for you.

Trimming and turning

Now carefully snip away the excess fabric on the outside edge of your seams. Now very, very carefully snip down to the edge of the inner curve of the thumb. If you go too close the fabric will fray when you turn the hand out the right way, so leave a couple of millimetres ( a sixteenth of an inch).

This is the bit that loads of people ask me about – turning your hand shape right side out. My best advice is be very patient, take your time and get yourself some of these very useful, and very inexpensive tools.

I use;
– tweezers (not too sharp or they’ll damage your fabric).

– orange sticks (easy to find in the hand and nail section of a pharmacy or supermarket),   today I’m using a small wooden knitting needle instead.

– and nail art tools. I use the ones designed for “dotting”. They have small rounded tips that are perfect for pushing through thumbs without splitting the fabric. I bought a large set of nail art tools for a few pounds online.

First of all, push your tweezers up through the wrist opening of the hand. With your tweezers open, gently push the tip of the hand with the nail tool (knitting needle or orange stick) until you’re able to grasp it with the tweezers on the inside. Gently, and I can’t stress this enough, GENTLY pull it through.

 

Find the tip of the thumb on the inside of the hand, and start to push it through with the tweezers. It probably won’t go all the way through, and that’s fine. This is where your nail art tools, knitting needles or orange stick come in.

Again, GENTLY push the thumb through to the right side. This can take a while. Be patient. A lot of people give up half way through and end up with stumpy thumbs. If you find that it gets stuck half way, take out your orange stick or nail art tool, and try pushing from a different angle. It will come through eventually, but if you push too hard you risk breaking the stitches or punching a hole in the fabric or seam. If the last bit is stuck, try using a needle from the outside of the thumb to guid the last bit out.

Once it’s through, again, use your orange stick to smooth out the seam on the inside. You should now have what looks like a little mitten. Take extra care to smooth out the curve between the thumb and the rest of the hand.

Stuffing

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Take a small amount of stuffing, less than you think and push it into the tips of the fingers using your tweezers. There should be just enough to give the hand some shape. In my experience less stuffing creates a more natural shape. To stuff the thumb, take a small amount and give it a bit of a twist before using your tweezers to push it into the base of the thumb. Use your orange stick or nail tool to then push the stuffing all the way to the tip of the thumb. Again, take your time. Too much stuffing and too much pushing can split the seams.

Sewing the finger details

I don’t draw the finger positions on the cloth, but if you want to I suggest using a vanishing pen, the ones you use for quilting, to mark the position of the fingers.
For the purposes of this tutorial, I’m using dark, contrasting thread so you can see the stitches, but matching your thread to the colour of your fabric can create a lovely subtle effect.

Push your needle in on the palm of the hand, close to the wrist and bring it up at the point where you want to begin your first line of stitching. Leave a “tail” ( a loose, dangly bit of thread that you can deal with later). Work a tiny stitch a couple of times in the same spot. Push the needle through to the other side, and very carefully work your way up to the top of the hand. Remember, we’re effectively sewing the gaps between the fingers, not the fingers themselves. Once you get to the top, work a stitch a couple of times in the same place, then move your needle along to the top of the next finger gap, and continue in exactly the same way.

At the beginning and end of each finger gap, work a tiny stitch a couple of times in the same place to secure the row before moving on to the next one. All together you’ll sew three lines per hand to create the shape of four fingers. Once you’ve finished the fingers,

Can you see why we didn’t put too much stuffing in now?

Sometimes I add hands to arms by inserting the wrist into the arm and sometimes I sew the wrist over the arm. It just depends on the doll.

To insert the wrist into the arm, add a little more stuffing, but not too much to the wrist – not the palm. Using the tweezers, fold this and push it into the arm opening. Secure it with a pin, the stitch it into place.

To add the wrist over the arm, don’t add any more stuffing, grasp the bottom edge of the arm with your tweezers, then push it into the wrist opening.

If you want to give the hand a bit of a curve, simply shape it with your hands before joining it to the arm. It really is that simple. Just manipulating it a little bit with your fingers can create a more realistic curve, the trick is to avoid to much stuffing or it’ll end up misshapen.

 

So that’s it! It takes time and practice and a lot of patience, but quite straight forward after a few tries.

I would love to hear how you get on with this, please send me photos or tag them on Instagram with #palerooktutorial .

If you have any questions, or if any of you have your own tricks and tips on making hands, please let us all know about them in the comments section.

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Time to Strap on a Pair

I usually work on two or three dolls at one time. They go into the same dye bath, share a place on the wall or shelf and generally share the same point of inspiration. Two or three is a manageable amount to work on at any one time and they still feel like a series rather than separate pieces. There’s a kind of flow through the different stages of the process and they all develop together.  I can focus completely on them, and when they are finished they look like sisters. 

Right now I am grabbing hold of too many ideas all at once and I have….ahem….twelve different pieces on the go at the same time. This is why it’s taking so long to get them ready to release on Etsy. Half of them were supposed to be ready at the start of this month, then before they were finished I started a whole load more. They’re almost all still in progress because I keep getting new ideas. I’ve had to hide some of them so that I can focus on one at a time and actually finish them.

One seeds the idea for another, then another and at the moment my studio is full of cloth and clay body parts and little mole hills of fabric offcuts that are too lovely to throw away. I also didn’t help matters by finding some very old books about traditional doll making, which have given me more ideas. I’ve been playing around with different techniques and each one leads my hands to another and round and round we go.

I really need to rein this shit in because I have a lot to get done this summer.

Those of you who are on my mailing list will know that I spent the first day of March travelling through the most stunning scenery on my way to a village in Argyll called Tighnabruaich. It’s pronounced Tee-nah-bru-ay-ch, with the ‘ch’ sounding a bit like a soft growl from the back of your throat.

I was first approached by Robbie Baird, one of the directors of the gallery at the end of 2015. It was a bit of a shock because shortly before hearing from him I’d been digging around the internet trying to work out how I could make connections in that particular part of the world because eventually I would like to move there. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to live. In fact, I can’t remember ever wanting to settle anywhere else. I wanted to live in other places, but I never saw myself living in any of them for the long term. Argyll was and has always been my long term plan.

The view from the beach at Tighnabruiach

At that time I was making plans, or rather trying to take the reins and work out where I wanted to go and be for the foreseeable future, and part of the plan was to start sending down roots in Argyll in the hope that I could take steps to follow through on my dream of moving there. I also wanted to aim for more gallery shows, but I wanted to be selective about which specific galleries I would approach. I had been following the Tighnabruiach gallery for a while and was hoping to connect with them when Robbie sent me an email out of the blue asking if I’d be interested in showing work at the gallery. His email was very professional, meanwhile I was bouncing around, all freaked out and excited that he had contacted me a few days after I’d decided to contact him.

We spoke on the phone, talked about the fable of the Red Shoes, and dance, and lots of other things we both loved, and he offered me a solo show.

It was that fast. It made sense.

The show was planned, we talked about it all coming together then it didn’t actually happen because (and here’s something I didn’t mention at all last year), I injured my shoulder and couldn’t sew.

So the whole thing was postponed ’til this year and on the 1st of March I went back to have another chat with Robbie and his new business partner Roslyn about it.

I took the train to the coast and then a ferry over to the Cowal peninsula where the village is. Just before the ferry set off I saw a massive, speckled Scottish seal who’d popped his head up right next to the boat. He was about ten feet away, and he sat there looking straight at us. When you see seals up close you appreciate just how much they’re like dogs and just how much character and cheekiness they have. He sat watching us for a while before eventually diving back in and disappearing under the surface of the Clyde. When the ticket collector came along, the woman behind me asked if he’d seen the seal, and then she added that it probably wasn’t that big a deal for him because he probably saw them all the time. “Not that close we don’t” he replied. “That one was a good sign”.

The gallery is really beautiful, and I’ll be exhibiting in the main gallery, as well as having a sort of exhibition/residency/studio bit in a smaller gallery just off of the main space. I’ll be running workshops throughout the month that the show is running, and staying in the area for some of that time.

I’ll be working with the local community of artists and local children, running public workshops, as well as producing new work while I’m there. In fact, I might even be basing a workshop on my last blog post about dealing with creative block. It’s all way bigger and better than I thought it would or could be and this is where I get freaked out.

I tend to plan for things to happen gradually. I imagined approaching the gallery, showing some work as part of a group show, or in their shop, then building a relationship and eventually teaching classes and having a solo show. I’d imagined this all happening over the course of one or maybe two years.  In reality it all went from a chat to a solo show over the course of a phone conversation.

I’m torn right now between what I should be writing as a capable and confident professional who knows what they are doing, and the rest of me which feels like it’s completely out of it’s comfort zone.

I felt really uptight and freaked out on the ferry home. Really shaken up. Not anxious, or sad, or happy or afraid. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I tend to think of my work as therapy, as something that’s healing for me and maybe other people and that’s perpetually not quite there yet. Always on it’s way to something else. Always working towards being something better at some point down the line. As if anyone who thinks it’s good should get a load of what it will be one day when I actually become who I’m going to be.  I imagine that I am setting things in motion so that when I finally get to a point where I can deal with it,  it will all be in place.  As if future me is just waiting for her time to appear and be all-knowing and capable and fabulous in a way that present me can’t quite fathom.

Is that feeling always going to be there? If I’m looking for reassurance from the outside then what the hell will it take for me to feel like I have actually arrived at the fantasy version of myself that I am forever thinking I’ll be in two to five years time.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this is self indulgent bollocks and that I need to start seeing myself as a fully formed person who is actually capable of doing this.  I’m out of my comfort zone, but I need to get the hell on with this.

I really want this. I have this. It’s happening. Now. I think my brain is so excited and a bit afraid of it that it’s hurling ideas at me at a rate that I can’t quite keep up with.

I don’t want to talk about the title of the show or the work I’m making for it just yet, but it will all be drip feeding out on Facebook and Instagram and in my newsletter over the next six months. For those of you who want to see the show but won’t be able to come all the way out to the wilds of Western Scotland, (which is probably most of you), I’m also hoping to exhibit the same show in Glasgow and I’ll be videoing the whole thing so you can see it online. We may even manage a live stream.

Today though, I will be getting back to finishing what I’ve started and completing at least some of the twelve pieces I have waiting for my attention.  Quite a few of the pieces I’m working on use some of the themes and techniques that will be in the larger exhibition pieces, so you’ll be getting a little bit of an introduction to where it’s all going.

Right, time to strap on a pair!

 

 

 

Untangling creative knots when shit is going down.


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This has been a really difficult post to write. Since my last one so much has changed and turned upside down that blog writing and doll making seems like such a small and lightweight contribution to make to the world. I never set out to make a massive contribution to the world but it’s hard to not want to when so much seems to be falling apart and changing and crumbling. That’s a bit heavy isn’t it!? It wasn’t mean to be. What I’m trying to say is that I, and just about everyone I know is struggling with fear, anxiety, sadness and frustration at what we are all witnessing around us.

I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality… to protect myself

– Alberto Giacometti

This quote sums up what I want to feel about creativity at a time like this. Notice how Giacometti’s not saying that his artwork “insulates” him from reality. It doesn’t block it out or wrap him up in a comfortable bubble where the world is fluffy and cosy – it helps him get a grip on reality while protecting himself, which is exactly what makes us useful people when shit is going down.

There’s a reason why art can be such a powerful tool in dealing with even the deepest trauma. Creating can be a small but important act of self preservation which instead of being about insulating yourself from the outside, is about warming yourself from the inside.

Many times when I’ve been going through difficult times, people have advised me to go make art and “use” what I’m feeling and to “express” my difficult emotions and whatever in my work. The issue with that is that when I feel scared or anxious or just plain bad – I can’t work. I can’t do anything and then I get frustrated and then the work gets worse and then on top of having a shitty time in life, my work looks awful, my sense of myself and my creativity goes downhill and then I feel worse. Which makes it harder to work. Which makes me feel worse again.

I decided to take January “off” and focus on completely new work and ideas that may or may not work out. I thought I could set aside time to indulge in work that was stuck in deeper places that hadn’t yet had a chance to come out and show it’s face. I made sure I had enough money saved to work on new things without worrying about selling them, and materials ready and deadlines cleared. The thought of a free flowing, creative January carried me through a lot of hard work at the end of last year.

That was the plan. A whole month. No worries. Just unbridled creativity. How many people get that sort of time and opportunity? How lucky am I?!

It’s now February.

I’m just, in the last few weeks starting to get going because I’ve had what is commonly referred to as “creative block”.

I tend to visualise things in terms of yarn and fabrics and textile structures. I see creative block as more of a knot. A tangle in a ball of yarn. Pulling tighter will make the knots harder to unravel. I find that creative block is like insomnia. Sleep is natural, normal, essential and healthy for all of us. Insomnia is a bitch. Insomnia gets worse the more you try to fight it, insomnia becomes debilitating the more you try to remedy it because what you really need to be able to sleep is a quiet, calm mind that can accept sleep. Sleep is not something you should naturally have to fight for. It makes no sense to have to fight for a natural response to darkness, to tiredness and the need to rest.

A lot of people see creativity as something that needs to be strived for. I tend to see creativity as something that’s natural for just about everyone in one way or another.  While skill is something that needs damn hard work and patience and drive and dedication and practice, and quality and aesthetic judgement are things that take experience and self awareness to develop;  I see creativity as a naturally occurring flow.

That’s not what it feels like when you’re feeling like shit though.  When you need it most it seems backed up and congested with too much pressure behind it and too many obstacles in front of it.

Picture a creative block. It’s a wall. It’s a barrier. It’s something solid and immovable and in order to deal with it you need to break it, hack your way through it or burrow under it. In one way or another that wall or blockage needs to be attacked or broken. These are pretty aggressive ways of dealing with the situation. They sap energy. They get you on the defensive, preparing yourself for a struggle. Also, the next time you come up against one, (and you will!) you’ll be bracing and tensing yourself for another battle.

If instead, you try thinking of it as a knot in a natural flow, things change. The way to deal with the issue is to loosen up, to tease it out.

Here are some of the things that help me smooth out the tangles and find my natural creative flow.

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Last year I decided to start my day with work that didn’t matter. A small piece of something that would take no more than one hour of my time and that would only exist for itself. No thoughts of where it would go, or how it would progress or of posting it on Facebook or Instagram. And it could be anything, but it had to take no more than one hour of my time.

When we are trying to create something new it’s all too easy to heap impossible importance onto our task. We think it must be fucking ground breaking!!! It must change the world, make up for any previous screw ups and/or disappointments, and ensure your future creative and possibly material happiness for ever. You need to do this, and you need to do this today, maybe in the next few hours because time is running out, there is stuff to do and you’re getting old. And you’ve wasted loads of time already. So take all this grinding weight, all of this necessity and pressure and strain, heave it up on to your shoulders and go make something that looks, you know, effortless and awesome. If you can’t do it you’re a failure and you’re wasting your talent and dare I say it, life.

No, you’re not that important, you’re tiny, one tiny voice, which makes you precious. Your voice is yours no one else’s. Use it to say whatever’s true at that moment.  When you focus on just one small act of creativity with only a short amount of time to complete it, it takes the pressure right off and you can make whatever comes to you in that moment without any fear or anxiety about how important it will be in the grand scheme of things.  The benefit is that it eases you into a creative frame of mind where you can then take on big important projects without the strain and stress.  img_3247

I collaged. I took scraps of paper and fabric and thread and made little compositions that were about the same size as a notebook page. When they started to get boring to work on, I moved on to layering coloured tissue paper in my sketchbook. Sometimes I stitch into scraps of fabric instead. p1090346

 

I don’t do this every day, because there isn’t always time, and sometimes I don’t feel the need to, but when I feel blocked or frustrated with what I’m working on I go back to this one hour exercise to loosen myself up.

I often feel creatively knotted when I have pressure to meet a deadline or produce something for someone and it’s at these times in particular where this one hour exercise works really well for me. The hour spent on a piece of work that means nothing makes the “important” work flow so much more easily that it actually saves time in the long run. It’s a big risk to take the first couple of times, but it works for me.

Meditation

I try to meditate for about ten or fifteen minutes every morning. I say try…. sometimes I end up kind of doing it on the train on the way to the studio or while I walk my dog.

I’ve been meditating for most of my life and studied various ways of approaching it. There’s a lot of mysticism and religious weight sometimes attached to meditation which can put people off and add all sorts of unnecessary attachment to the process.

Here’s how I do it.

  • Find somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, your back straight and breathe. Pay attention to any tension in your face, neck and shoulders. Keep breathing and try to gently relax anything that feels stressed and tight.
  • I imagine any weight that’s on my mind as a giant, heavy grey coat. Huge, wet, heavy, thick – and every single thing that is weighing on me is in that coat. Feel the heaviness of it, feel the itchiness, the discomfort, the burden of it. Then shrug it off your shoulders. Let it fall to the floor. It will still be there in ten minutes and you can pick it up and deal with it then, but for now it’s on the floor and there is nothing you can do about any of the things that need your attention or worry that can’t wait ten minutes while you enjoy the feeling of being out from under the grey coat.
  • Take your attention back to your face and neck and shoulders and ease out any tension you find there or anywhere else. It is very hard to hold on to difficult thoughts and emotions if your face is relaxed. I don’t know why but it is.
  • Any time a thought or worry or anxiety comes to mind, let it stick to the coat on the floor. You can deal with it later.
    Stay with the feeling of being out from under the weight of the “coat” for as long as you like, and get familiar with that feeling. Once you get used to that feeling you can tap into it when you need it.

For me, meditation shows me what my mind is like when it’s not occupied with external factors. The aim isn’t to get rid of any stress and burden and worry in life, but to connect with a part of you that can think and feel clearly, which in turn helps you to deal with what ever shit comes along much more effectively. The point is that the coat isn’t you. You may have to heave it around with you but there’s a clear thinking, fully functioning mind underneath it that needs air.

Finding something bigger and older than me

I like feeling small. I like feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of life and culture and history. I love museums and I’m lucky enough to work with one of the finest museums in the world. I like seeing something that existed before all the things I hold dear. All the things I think I can’t live without. I especially like to see things that were pretty mundane in their life times – a little glass bead or broken bit of pottery that has somehow survived the last five thousand years and is now here in a glass cabinet in Glasgow where thousands of people look at it and marvel at just how incredible it is. I love that once it was sitting on someone’s shelf being completely unremarkable.

My friend Matt makes incredibly beautiful arrowheads and recently he sent me one made from petrified wood. The fossil is a couple of hundred million years old. It used to be part of a tree that actually lived then died then became fossilised and I can now hold it in my hand. That gives me perspective.

Walk ( or just move)

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I am very lucky to have a beautiful dog who needs to be walked every day without exception. Before I adopted him I would never go out in rain and wind unless it was absolutely necessary. Now I need to, even if it’s just for ten or fifteen minutes. There’s something about walking that helps me process tangled thoughts and a lot of it comes from the fact that for the time I am walking my dog, or walking to work, all I need to do is walk. I can’t do anything else but walk, so the pressure’s off and ideas and solutions start flowing. I find this works really well when I can’t find a practical way to do something – a technique or stitch or structure that just isn’t working in the studio tends to make more sense when I’m walking somewhere else.

Get off Facebook

Or Instagram or Pinterest or whatever. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the one I struggle most with. It seems so bloody harmless to just go check on things just in case someone has sent me a message or reacted to something, anything that might have been posted or shared or whatever. Seriously, what the hell are we doing? Checking for some kind of connection every five minutes.

Leave it alone for a while. It will still be there when you check it again later. If anything really important happens you will catch up.

Stop looking at other people’s work

You will never, ever be able to do someone else’s work the way they do it. And that applies to all of us. There’s no point in overwhelming yourself with images of all the wonderful things that other people have made. It also gives you a false idea of other people’s creative output. You’re not seeing all the failed attempts or years or dodgy work that’s led up to the perfect, original and beautiful piece of work on their website. It’s hard to look at your own messed up attempts when other people seem to have easily nailed their own and put it out into the world for all to see.

By all means use the internet to help you learn, to see what is possible in terms of skill, craftsmanship and technique, but keep in mind that you might be just starting out and you’re judging yourself against someone who may have spent decades honing their craft. Be inspired by what’s possible, not intimidated. However, when it comes to aesthetics, to the voice of the individual artist, I cannot see a reason to try to imitate anyone. All it does is compound whatever insecurity you already have about your own work.

Another weird side effect of being constantly looped into other people’s work online is that you start preempting the Facebook and Instagram posting potential of your own work. You see someone else’s beautiful vintage cottage studio space and start decorating yours accordingly so you can look just as whimsical and eccentric on Pinterest. You start making work that will look fabulous while it’s still in progress. That is not the right frame of mind to be in when you’re feeling knotted.

In the end it all comes down to measuring yourself against strangers.

Do something completely differentp1090342

Go sing in the shower. Knit socks. Play the ukulele. Walk in a forest. Chat to a stranger. Take a bus to a strange place.   Do
something you’ve always fancied doing. Do something you usually go to great lengths to avoid doing. Engage your brain and mind in an unfamiliar activity for a while. Enjoy the feeling of not knowing what’s happening next.

Alternatively do something mundane that needs doing – clean the rabbit hutch, empty the rubbish, sort the recycling, do your tax return.  Even a short break doing something else can ease the pressure of having to create something awesome, important and earth shattering.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, more an idea of what works for me and what might work for you.   People are very tense and scared and angry right now, and this is by no means an overly simplistic solution to what’s going on in the world.  It’s not about making the world awesome by embracing creativity.  This isn’t my answer to everything.   It’s what I have to work with though.

In the time it’s taken me to write this post, two projects have come along that will help me contribute in a larger way to the changes I want to see in the world. And both of them rely on me using my voice and skill and experience as an artist. I wouldn’t be able to do either of them if I had chosen a different path in life. Both of them are small, both of them are local. Call it synchronicity, call it cosmic ordering; I call it paying attention and having the focus and clarity and confidence in your own mind to grab hold of a chance when it comes along – I am bloody well doing this and it’s my creative flow that’s going to sustain me.

 

 

Nesting in the East End

The Barras sign at the entrance to the market.
The Barras sign at the entrance to the market.

I moved into my new studio at the start of the summer. It’s part of an old warehouse building in the east end of Glasgow in an area called The Barras. The Barras is a market place that’s been there for almost 100 years; a collection of warehouses and giant sheds that used to be full of stalls and shops and at the centre sits an iconic music venue called the Barrowlands Ballroom where David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Amy Winehouse, The Smiths, Iggy Pop, The Clash and too many other amazing musicians to mention have played over the last six decades.

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The Barras translates into The Barrows, as in wheel barrows that traders would sell things from at the market in the 1920s. Glasgow has a habit of naming places after one single aspect of what happens there. For example, in Glasgow a night club is called The Dancing. Not a specific venue, just any place where people go to dance – The Dancing. In Glasgow people don’t go to a watch a football game they go to The Football. A park is The Swings. Bizarrely, grocery shopping is called Going for Messages, but that’s another conversation altogether.

The Barras has always been one of my favourite parts of Glasgow. My parents used to take me there when I was a little girl and it was like a live action, bustling, human version of what Amazon is now, but, you know, with a soul.  It sold everything, although not necessarily all on the same weekend, and market traders would put on a show before selling whatever they had on that particular day. You couldn’t just go up and buy whatever was on the stall, you had to gather in a crowd and watch the stall holder work everyone up into a frenzy before finally, after ten of fifteen minutes of banter and showmanship, you’d get to buy a set of dishtowels for a bargain price, but you couldn’t choose the colour, you just had to take what you were given.

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I remember the butcher had a microphone and a whole team of guys handing out bags of sausages to people in the crowd, which at the time seemed really well organised and professional. You could buy a bag of six freshly made donuts for £1. When I went with my parents we would buy shellfish to take to my grandfather who would eat them with a pin from a paper bag. The seafood cafes would have queues out of the door and around the corner as the deliveries of shellfish would arrive from Loch Fyne on the West coast.

I could go on and on about how great it used to be, but the sad truth is that in the 1990s the market began to decline, crime took over, then Ebay took over, then Amazon, then in the last decade the place ground almost to a halt. Most Saturdays there are just a handful of stall holders and men hanging around offering to sell cigarettes and viagra to whoever walks past. The donut stall is still there, and the seafood cafes seem busy but the bustling and the banter and the life of the place seems to have ebbed.

IMG_2531It’s not completely gone though, there are still a few pockets where some new things are brewing and some old things are finding new ways to reach new people. The antique market started having early morning “Pound Sales”, (that’s pound sterling £) where the stall holders fill tables with bits and bobs, the occasional bicycle or bit of vintage furniture, and a crowd gathers just before 9am on a Saturday morning to grab a bargain. The sales have brought in a whole new group of patrons to the place who didn’t even know that the market existed a year ago.

As well as this, like a lot of big cities, artists and designers and musicians have moved into the cheap unused spaces and there’s now a sense of something else waking up in the Barras. I’m not a fan of gentrification, lets just get that straight. I don’t like rent hikes and modernisation that drives out existing communities to make room for coffee shop chains and concept bars.  What I do like are communities that can build on top of the most positive remains of their past and their heritage.  I have hope for this area simply because despite being stripped to it’s bare bones, the Barras still has the cheeky, friendly, machine gun fire wit of it’s locals. Seriously, just try being pretentious in the Barras and I give you a maximum of two minutes before a local shuts you down with one line that will make your knees buckle.

Every day on my way to work people say hello to me. Just last week I was walking around taking photos and the guy who owns the antique market smiled and said hello, then invited me into the empty (they were officially closed for the day) antiques hall to take photos. IMG_2504He asked if I worked in the area and I told him I was a doll maker. “Me too!” he replied. Andy Randall, owner of Randalls Antique Market, and a Facebook hero in Glasgow, makes his own dolls, although he tells me they are his “Babies” and that he wouldn’t sell them for the world. He just displays them around the market. So it turns out that I am not the only doll artist in the east end!

The studio itself still feels a bit too clean and tidy and white. For the first month I was literally sitting at a desk in the corner, not sure of how to expand out into the rest of the room. I’m slowly bringing in furniture and plants and making a bit of mess and it’s starting to feel like mine. The strangest thing about being back in a studio environment is working alongside other people again. I haven’t done that, at least with my artwork, for about fifteen years. I’ve been on my own, working on my own for so long now that it feels strange to be able to chat while I work or to be able to invite friends over.

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It’s kind of made me kind of self conscious about my work now that it’s connected daily with the rest of the world. Before I would literally lock myself in a little room listening to David Bowie or the Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush and I would lose track of time and the world around me. Now I have cups of tea brought in by my neighbour over the wall and visitors popping in to say hello. It’s made me aware of how much I need solitude but also how much I’ve missed the human race.

I’m organising life drawing classes for the studio holders in the complex, I might even bring my dog along to model for at least one. He’s very lean and muscly and basically just sleeps for most of the day so he’s very good at being a life model.

The studio manager is organising group meditation sessions. There’s an open day in September where there will be music workshops, food stalls, art exhibitions, films.

I feel like I’m part of a community for the first time in a long time. I don’t even know how long. To be honest, even at art school I felt like a misfit. Art school was the place I thought I would go to and connect with people like me but the reality was pretty much like high school except that everyone was good at art. IMG_2405With the exception of a few very special people that I was close to, art school was a time when I felt very disconnected. In fact, I usually feel disconnected in most things.

That’s why where I am now feels so unusual. I don’t feel that way when I go into work now. As I write this, it’s Sunday night and I’m looking forward to going into work in the morning. I’m looking forward to picking up a coffee at the Polish deli on the way to the studio and seeing my neighbours and asking about their weekends.

I can feel that it’s starting to feed into my work. The ideas I have and the pieces I’m working on feel less insular and more …. I don’t know, expansive. Before my dolls were almost like little companions, little votives or poppets to help connect myself with the rest of the world. Now the new work I’m making feels more sure of itself, like it has a place and a voice.

Everything’s a self portrait after all.

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I’m no longer too old to Tango

Tova
Tova

A few weeks ago I received and email from a follower of this blog, a beautiful woman from New Zealand who took the time to write to me to say that my posts had helped her through a bit of a personal melting down.   She said something that a lot of people who write to me say; she mentioned her age and that she felt she was “a bit late” to be going through the changes that she felt were happening to her.   By changes I mean personal changes in behaviour or choices or lifestyle or whatever.   The sort of changes that can come at any time and that a lot of people try to avoid because they think they’re too old or too late to follow through on what they want to do.

Sometimes, and some of you will already know this, I accidentally write big long email replies to people without meaning to and that particular morning was one of those times because her email came exactly when I had just been thinking the same thing about myself.  Here’s the extended version of what I wrote to her.

I used to be a dancer.  Actually, I am a dancer.  I gave it up for more than twenty years then picked it up again a few months ago.  Dancing is my greatest love.  It’s in my bones and my blood and my chest and my gut,  and until recently, one of the greatest, deepest regrets of my life was giving it up in my teens.   At the ripe old age of fifteen I fell away from ballet because I was being bullied by other girls in my dance class and because I had become freakishly thin and because I didn’t know how to commit to a life of something that felt so big and terrifying to me.

I was really good too.

I had been fighting returning to dancing for over two decades.   Seeing dancers would move me to tears, leave me breathless, then furious.  It actually hurt, caused me real physical pain in my chest to see dancers on stage or on TV or even in photographs.  I’d come up with all sorts of reasons why I couldn’t go back and the one that seemed to cancel out every single reason to do the thing I loved doing most was my age.

Even when I was eighteen.

Twenty.

Thirty.

Because one of the easiest and most effective ways to stop yourself from doing something that scares you is to tell yourself you’re too old and that it’s too late, and you know what?  Most of the world will happily back you up because they’re all telling themselves the same thing.

I hear students who are eighteen telling me that they’re running out of time to do what they want to do with their lives. I thought the same thing at twenty five, then thirty five, and now at thirty eight I’m wondering if I’m too old to be a mother and a partner.  It’s easy to tell myself I’m a haggard old crone that no one wants to knock up or settle down with, but how much of that is actually coming from outside of me and how much of it is my own comfort blanket keeping me away from the things that scare me, insulating me from all responsibility for my own choices?

Just before my thirty-seventh birthday I commented on a post on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page and she actually replied with the most incredible comment. She wished me a happy birthday and told me that life expands as we get older.  She told me not to give in to bullshit ideas about which boxes I should fit in to.  She told me that she feels younger in her forties than she did in her twenties.   Elizabeth Fucking Gilbert wrote actual words to me.

At first that felt amazing and exciting and I thought about all the wonderful things that could happen as life gets bigger and bigger.  Then I shrunk.   I thought how the hell will I cope if life gets bigger?  I’m just me.  If life gets bigger it will crush me because sometimes I can’t even handle the small life I’ve crammed myself into.

Tango seemed too big for me, so much so that my first Tango class almost never happened.

Tango has always made my skin hot and my chest hurt.  Always.  I’ve been fighting taking up Tango for most of my adult life.  I saw a Facebook event page for a “Taster class” at an arts venue in Glasgow and I asked a friend to come along to be my partner, because I thought showing up for the class alone would make me feel like a colossal loser.  I booked the class for the two of us.  The prick never showed up.  He text me as I was waiting at the train station to say he wasn’t coming.  I handed my train ticket to another passenger.  The train pulled up. I started to walk home in the rain, a tiny part of me was relieved that I had a solid excuse for not going to the class.

Half way up the road, cold and wet and pissed off, I stopped right there and asked myself; if I was a character that I was watching in a movie, what would I want that character to do next?  Would I really want my character to accept her thirty-eight year old place in life and give up and go home and do something more age appropriate?

I turned around, walked back to the station and got on the next train.  I arrived at the class drenched and braced for rejection.  I sheepishly asked the teacher if I could participate on my own.  She said yes.  I hid in the toilets for twenty minutes until the class started.

As the rest of the class arrived, in pairs and happy couples, I stared out of the window on to the street, fighting back tears and forcing myself to not run out of the room because a horrible voice in my head was telling me that I was stupid to try to be a dancer at thirty eight when I’d clearly wasted my time and not achieved my dreams by the time I was twenty.

Like a kid who doesn’t have a partner to pair up with at school, I had to dance with the teacher.

Tango is all about connection.  You feel your partner’s movement, and a good Tango “leader” can feel what their “follower” is capable of and an excellent Tango leader can guide their partner into steps and sequences they didn’t know they were capable of.  My teacher is exceptional.  That first night though, I was uptight, twisted in knots and resisting running out of the door and back under my too-old-for-dancing comfort blanket.

When I danced with my teacher I twisted my head to the left, as far away from her as possible, and stared off into the distance while still holding on to her arms.  She told me to look at her heart.   I stood bolt upright like a soldier facing down an enemy.  She told me to lean into her.  Along with the other couples we walked around and around to the music. Basic, simple walking steps.  Ooonne, two.  Threeee, four.   Round and round and round until I closed my eyes, feeling where my partner was moving, following and mirroring her steps, gently, carefully, and then all of a sudden the world flipped upside down as she twirled me around, and as if they were possessed my feet began doing things that I hadn’t told them to do and I was moving as if I really knew what I was doing and it wasn’t stopping and my feet and legs and arms understood all of it.

My eyes shot open and I pulled away as if I’d been burned.  Then I stared at the floor and apologised.

I went back to the toilets and hid again trying to breath in what had just happened.  It was as if someone had sliced right through all the layers of excuses and fear and reasons, held a mirror up to me and said “THIS IS YOU.  You don’t have a choice in the matter any more.  You are not going to be able to ignore this or wrap this up in reasons to avoid it.”

A similar thing happened to me the first time someone described me as an “artist”.

After I plucked up the courage to leave the toilets, I went back upstairs to the Tango class which had now become a Milonga, a social dance event where people dress up in sparkly clothes and shining shoes and dance like they mean it.  Lots of people were showing up and they all knew way more about Tango than I did.   Most of them were older than me.

I sat there watching them and one woman in particular struck me.  She had beautiful silver hair, an elfin face, and she moved like…there is no other way to say this, like light over water.   She looked effortless but sparkling and always changing.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of her feet.  There was a line of beautiful men waiting to dance with her.   She wasn’t the only breathtaking silver haired dancer either.  The thing with Tango is that it can take decades to become good, and most often, at least in my experience, the best dancers are the ones who are older.   The beginners are the ones who look heavy and stiff and creaky and weighed down by the anxiety of getting it wrong and wondering what the hell they’re doing.  The most experienced dancers look the most effortless, light and dare I say it, young.

I used to look back at being a teenager with regret, seeing all the potential that I had and didn’t use. I wished I was younger again so I could take advantage of all of that youth and energy and time, because now I know just how precious and rare and fleeting all of that is. The reality was that when I was younger I was terrified all the time.   Seriously, ALL the time.   I was anxious and self critical and awkward.   I was afraid that I was too fat, too ugly, too intelligent, too outspoken, too weird, too normal.  Nothing I was or did passed without scrutiny, panic and self criticism.  I couldn’t even get dressed without melting down because I was so terrified of getting it wrong.  I never knew what I was doing.  I didn’t yet have enough experience of rebuilding after fucking things up to realise that even if it all went wrong I would get through it so I avoided confrontation by doing as I was told which often got me into more shit than I ever could have gotten into by myself.

Being young was shite.  There’s no way I could have done then what I do now.  There is no way in hell that I would have been able to do any of the things I think I should have done then and that I tell myself I’m too old to do now.

It’s not age that’s held me back; it’s fear of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, of being vulnerable, maybe getting it wrong and being a bit crap for a while until I work out how to be better.  What’s more at “my age”, I worry that I should appear to know what I’m doing so instead of stepping out of my comfort zone I just make excuses and avoid situations where I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m telling myself I’m too old so I can avoid reliving all of the anxiety of not knowing what the hell I was doing when I was younger.

But some things are powerful and important enough to cut through all of that.

I decided that I had learn to Tango after sobbing uncontrollably while watching two other people Tango dance on TV.  It was on Strictly Come Dancing, a show I don’t even watch.   After that first taster lesson, when my teacher sliced through whatever had been keeping my dancer self buried, I didn’t sleep for two nights.   I booked a course of lessons.  I bought shoes and a new leotard (no one wears leotards to Tango classes) and a bag to carry my stuff to and from class in.  I listened to Tango music on Youtube.

Three months in, I’m changing.  Or rather, I’m returning.  There are other things I had written off that are making their way back into my world.  Music, clothes, friends, things I thought I was too old for.  These things make sense to me again.

AND I have moved into my new studio.  Being back in a studio complex with other artists and designers has brought me back to the time twenty years ago when I started Art School, but this time without all of the anxiety and fear and panic.  I’m realising that this time in my life shouldn’t be about all the things I’ve left behind; it should be about all the things I am able to build without the fear of getting it wrong because I’m old enough now to work out how to get it right, and sort it out if I get it wrong.  I feel younger now than I ever have.

Saying that, I managed to bruise my toe and knacker my hip after overdoing it a bit dancing to Beyonce the other night, so there are some limitations, but still…

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What Facebook wanted to know

I have been wanting to write a new post for a while but I’ve been struggling to come up with what to actually write about, so instead of musing it over or thinking too deeply I caved in and asked my Facebook page followers what they wanted me to write about.

I really didn’t have a lot of expectations about asking others to ask the questions, but there were some that have triggered other things I want to write about so the next few blog posts will be a direct result of some of the questions asked.

This post is like a warm up for them. I’ve become so reluctant to get something out there in the last few months. Having a blog post go accidentally viral just ended up freaking me out but it’s been way too long since I last wrote, so here goes.

Here’s what Facebook wanted to know.

 

Talk to me about what inspires you or talk to me about your creative space.

My creative space is currently a little desk in a corner and a couple of old cardboard suitcases rammed full of threads and bits of fabric. I have a new studio opening in the new year. It’s part of an old market building in the East end of Glasgow that’s being renovated, so I’ve been waiting a few months to actually get in to it and get comfy. Because my current creative space is a cramped little corner I try to make sure that the music I listen to while I work and the things I pin to the wall behind my desk are all useful to me for whatever project I’m working on. It can be hard to focus while working in a tiny little space but as long as I keep my mind on what I’m doing it’s all good.

I don’t tend to pin images onto my studio wall; more often it’s things like twigs, leaves, sea shells, bits of fabric and quotes. I love quotes.

What inspires the most are trees and the changing seasons. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s true.

 
Is there anything that you’ve wanted to make but have been hesitant to do so because of a fear or an unknown technique?

No, I tend to be inspired by techniques rather than finding techniques that suit my ideas, so I don’t find that I’m limited by how to do things.

BUT there are more things in my mind that I want to make than things in the real world that I’ve actually made and that drives me mad. Your question has really made me think about why it is that what I actually get round to making is just the tip of the iceberg of what I want to do, so there’s a whole other blog post on the way about it.

I think the short answer is that the only thing that seems to stand in my way is lack of time, but I suspect that I have a habit of filling my time with distractions to avoid starting projects that are too far out of my comfort zone.

Rook drawing in progress
Rook drawing in progress

 

I am interested in your personal goals for your dolls or other art in the new year. Do you set goals for yourself or do you create as the muse visits?

I work with a mixture of both. I think if I just made things as and when it suits me then I’d be in a pretty dangerous position financially, so I try to balance work that feels steady and goal orientated with making time for work that’s more intuitive and experimental. I also find that working on things that are predictable and steady tends to bring up ideas for more creative work precisely because I don’t have the time to work on those ideas while I’m working to meet a deadline. I always have a little green note book in my bag so that if a random idea for a piece comes into my head at an inconvenient time I can write it down and come back to it later.

I have some pretty big goals for the new year and if I’m going to be completely honest I don’t want to share them yet because I kind of feel that I need to keep them under wraps to keep the momentum to follow through on them. I’ll definitely be telling you about them as and when they happen though.

 
What are your thoughts on being able to make space for reverie when life sometimes seems designed to squeeze it out? And do you remember childhood sources of reverie?

Reading your question triggered Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights in my head, and it’s still there while I’m writing this, so the first bit of my answer is music. For me music is a short cut to whatever state I want to be in mentally or creatively. In terms of reverie, my never fail musical direct lines are just about anything by Kate Bush, the soundtrack to Twin Peaks, the soundtrack to Labyrinth, and Avalon by Roxy Music. Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins is a pretty safe bet too.

My childhood sources of reverie are the same as my adult ones; trees, the sea, moss, lichen, always the natural world. When I was a child I could get immersed in movies in a way that I don’t tend to now. My favourites were Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story and Splash. I could get completely drawn into the other worlds in those movies.

There’s going to have to be a whole blog post dedicated to this question because my mind is wandering way too much to keep it all in this one little answer.

 
What is the story of your first “doll”?

I don’t remember. I’ve been making little dolls and creatures since I was really little so I’m not sure what the first one was like. There are two types that I remember making a lot though. The first type were little wrapped wool dolls. The second type was made from crab apples, leaves and twigs.

The story of the dolls that led me to becoming a doll maker is here .

 
Of all the materials you’ve incorporated into your art, what has been the most unexpectedly enjoyable?

Wood. Definitely wood. It was a material that I’ve always been drawn to but never had the courage to work with. I found a second hand hunting knife in a thrift store in Oslo that cost about £5, took it home and cleaned and sharpened it, then started whittling twigs and branches with it. There’s something amazing about working with a potentially dangerous tool, it really calms and steadies your mind. Wood is such a beautiful material too, it has it’s own life. I love to carve into a piece without knowing exactly where I want to take it, then the wood can make some of the decisions for me.

Carved Juniper wood doll
Carved Juniper wood doll

And there’s the scent of wood too. I didn’t know that freshly carved wood smells like the fruit of that tree. Apple wood smells like apples, Juniper wood (my favourite) smells like juniper berries, Elder wood smells of elder flowers. Lilac wood actually has gorgeous lilac colours in the grain. There’s a whole world in wood that’s only revealed when it’s carved. I love it.

 
Has there ever been anything that you’ve thought about making but you just can’t quite bring yourself to make it yet?

Bit of an odd answer, but the only thing I haven’t quite found a way to get my head around is how to make male dolls realistic without them being comical or obscene. I’ve made a couple of male dolls and I’ve always caved and given them trousers to cover their manly bits. No one seems to find the breasts or crotches on my female dolls obscene but there’s something different about peoples perceptions of male bodies. It’s the only thing that I’ve wanted to do but thought I maybe shouldn’t do.

 

What has been the biggest surprise in this journey?

The fact that it’s happening at all.

Ripples in the pond and finding solid ground…

Gilda
Gilda

It’s been really hard to decide what to write next, following the freakish, completely unplanned and totally unexpected success of my last post.

Honestly, I do not plan these posts. I just write. I’m not a writer, I’m more of a compulsive journal scribbler. I write every day in a journal and have done for most of my life, more as a way of ordering and settling my own thoughts and feelings than anything else, and when I write a blog post it’s usually just a journal entry that I’ve decided to make public and I write in exactly the same way; beginning, middle, end, post.

So when the last post went viral, twice, it was a complete shock and It’s taken me so long to post again simply because instead of just writing what’s on my mind, I’ve heaped all of this pressure on myself to write something important or meaningful.

It’s been nearly three months since the last post, so I’m just going to write this, tell you what’s been happening since my self value revelation, and see how it ends up.

I was going to write about what if feels like to have something you’ve put out into the world go viral, but let’s just say it’s overwhelming. It is also incredibly humbling to receive so many heartfelt messages saying “me too!!!”.

It’s safe to say that following my wake up call, there has been a knock on effect in almost every area of my life, most obviously in my work. As a freelance designer, I usually take on as much then a little bit more than I can handle at any given time. I rarely take days off and I almost never take holidays. I often work twelve hour days and sometimes over night. This has been down to an ingrained fear that if I don’t work harder than everyone else, I will lose out and not be hired again.

Not so any more.

Shortly after the train journey when the penny dropped, I had an email from a regular client to ask if I would be able to take on a large project and complete it in a few weeks starting immediately. I really love working with this client and it was a great job, but it would mean dropping all of my other plans and working exclusively for them for a few weeks and delaying everything else around me. So I told them the truth, said that I was fully booked and if they wanted me they’d have to wait two months. I also added that if the project was urgent I could take on half of it within the next month then complete the rest at a later date.

I was worried they’d turn me down and simply find another designer.

Instead they thanked me for taking the time to get back to them so quickly, told me that they’d be delighted to wait for me to fit them into my busy schedule, and then thanked me again for being so generous with my time.

Ok…….

Then it happened again. Another client got in touch to say that they would like to arrange a meeting about an upcoming project and could I begin work as soon as possible. Again, I could have managed it if I had given up my weekends for a month and a half, but instead I told them that I would love to meet them for a chat but that I wouldn’t be able to begin work until later in the year. Again, if it was urgent I could fit them in earlier. The same thing happened! They thanked me for fitting them into my schedule, we had a great meeting and now they’re delighted that we’re going to be working together.

I told my business mentor about this in our last meeting. She asked me how it felt, and I told her in all honesty that I felt like it should have been a bigger deal but in reality it just seemed like this is how it should be.

I always felt that having the opportunity to work is a privilege, and I still think it is, but I now see it as a give and take situation. I work better when I am well rested and well prepared, not pushed to my limit and under extreme stress. I used to think that I was only good enough to deserve my job if I worked at the very limit of my endurance.

And here’s the thing… now that I believe in the value of the work that I do, and I am giving myself realistic timescales to work within, and earning a realistic wage, my work has stepped way up a level.

Clients now feel lucky to have me, but if I don’t deliver and deliver well, then they’ll feel let down and not hire me again.  I feel more valued and I work better because I have more time, the client feels glad to work with me and they get a good result that’s had all the time it needs to be completed.

I used to think that being self employed meant that I wasn’t able to get a “real” job with a steady salary and a predictable income. I thought that I had to take whatever jobs were offered to me and be grateful for the opportunity. I kind of see why that was important early on when I was finding my feet and building my client base, but I think it’s about time I became a bit more selective about what I’m willing to stress out over.

It’s not hard to see where that idea comes from. When you’re self employed people have the most ridiculous ideas of what you do and who you are.

Here are just some of the things people regularly say to me when they find out I’m self employed.

  • How much do you actually earn?
  • Can you sew on this button/fix this zip/adjust this hem for me?
  • I’ll tell all of my friends about you so you can sew on their buttons/fix their zips/adjust their hems for them.
  • Will a tenner cover it?
  • Do you have to do all your own paper work then?
  • And can you manage that all by yourself?
  • Seriously, how much do you earn?
  • Are you sure you know what you’re doing with all your paperwork, it’s really quite complicated isn’t it?
  • That thing you made looks really professional!
  • Make some posters and I’ll put them up in the office.
  • Are you really earning enough to get by?
  • It must be nice having so much free time.
  • You earn HOW MUCH???
  • I suppose folk will pay for anything these days….

I’m not even joking.

The questions about how much I earn are the most common. Can you imagine asking that about someone else’s job? Can you imagine meeting someone at a party or in a bar, finding out they’re an engineer or a sales assistant or whatever, then asking them the highly personal question of what they earn? I guess it comes down to people not knowing what industry standards are, plus the whole mystery surrounding creative industries and just plain curiosity, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just rude.

I think the one that pisses me off the most is the “that looks really professional” comment. To be fair, my own parents have said this to me, and I don’t think people mean any harm in it, but it shows a real lack of understanding of what self employed people do. The fact is I am a professional, the problem is that I’ve only just realised it!

So far everything had been lining up in support of my new found self worth and respect for my work, then just a few days ago something else happened.

I’d applied for another “thing”. I’m applying for lots of “things” right now, and this one wasn’t a big one, and it wasn’t directly linked to my work but they’d asked me to take some of my work along to show them.

They didn’t get it.

They so didn’t get it. I took along my portfolio of photographs of my work and Gilda and her wooden doll, one of my favourite pieces, and they had a good old patronising smirk at every single thing I showed them. They “played” with Gilda chucking around her from person to person and talked about how “sexy” her stockings were and how “clever” I was.

It was like fucking Mean Girls.

I’d realised about twenty minutes before the dolls came out that I didn’t want to be involved in this “thing” I’d applied for, but seeing these people making fun of me made me feel weirdly calm. I knew for sure that I didn’t want anything more to do with them.

I was really keen to get a critical appraisal of my work but this was just plain old school kid mockery, so I packed up Gilda and zipped up my portfolio thanked them for their time and left, absolutely certain that I really was fine with it and for the first time in my life, someone not respecting my work didn’t bother me one bit.

Gilda and her wooden doll
Gilda and her wooden doll

Even a year ago, that sort of experience would have broken me. I would have kept my portfolio shut indefinitely, I would have hidden all of my work from my sight and brooded over how horrible those people were to me and how I didn’t deserve it, then wondered if maybe I did because maybe they were right, then I would have brooded some more. This time, for the very first time, it was shrugged off the minute I left that room.

It actually felt good! It’s easy to feel good about what you do when the people around you are praising you and backing you up but it feels amazing when you can still feel good about what you do when you’re being ridiculed.

So what I thought might be a little change in perspective has ended up being massive shift.

And, getting back to the blog post, it’s been amazing to know that so many other people have struggled with the same things. It’s also connected me to some really amazing new people, blogs, Facebook pages and general goings on. I’ve had literally hundreds of messages and it’s been very difficult to reply to everyone personally, so if I haven’t yet replied to you please know that your message has been read and that it means the world to me.

The full impact of the response to that last post is still too overwhelming to write about so maybe at some point later down the line. For now, I’m going to sign off and say thank you.

Artist’s Statement ….Part Two

The Pale Rook

So remember that thing I applied for?

My application was successful.  I was selected to take part in a project at Scotland’s Craft Town,  the wonderful West Kilbride.   I’ve been a massive fan of the Craft Town since I first found out about it a few years ago, so I’m massively chuffed to be a part of it.  The project I’m involved in takes selected craft makers based in Scotland, at various stages of their careers and gives them specialist business mentoring and studio space for six months.   For the first time in over a decade I am being mentored rather than mentoring others, which has been quite a shock to the system.

The first meeting of the participants, organisers and business mentors involved an exercise where we had to think of things that limited our business or things that we were worried about and then we had to decide whether these things were Financial, Operational, Creative, or Emotional. I do these kind of exercises with my students, so I wasn’t too surprised when most of the participants put a whole lot of their worries, fears and anxieties about their work in the Emotional category. I didn’t because as far as I was concerned I’m not caught up in my emotional issues, not me, nuh uh. I am wiser than that.

Or not.

Later that day I had a one to one meeting with my business mentor, a fabulously astute and direct woman who called me on my bullshit within about twenty minutes.

My mentor asked me to decide how much I hoped to earn in terms of my salary, and to price my work accordingly. I did it the other way around. I worked out how much I wanted to earn from each individual piece (and other stuff that I can’t tell you about yet), then I added up how much I would likely earn over the course of a year and then once I saw the total I decided that it was way too much, that I didn’t need that much and that I didn’t deserve that much, so I’d just have to earn less.

Seriously.

And the worst part was that I didn’t see anything wrong with this. In fact, I thought that earning a good salary for my work was somehow unfair to the rest of the world. So I reduced the price of the thing I can’t tell you about yet and went into my meeting with a nice clear idea of how to avoid earning more than I felt I deserved.

I’m not even joking.

So there we were in our meeting and my mentor patiently listened to my stream of ideas and plans and hopes and fears about where I want to take my work and how I want to develop the business side of things.

Once I’d stopped for breath, my mentor told me that she thought my pricing was too low. I explained that I didn’t think it was. She told me again, that it was indeed way to low, and I explained that pricing it higher wouldn’t be fair to people who wanted to buy it. Then she said something that made absolutely no sense to me. She asked if my feelings about pricing were somehow connected to something within me, or more specifically if my feelings towards the people who buy my work were fulfilling some need within me.

I had absolutely no idea what the hell she was on about. Remember, I teach this stuff. I am a master at pointing out the root of my students’ issues and creative barriers and I could sort of see what she might be getting at and why what she said might have meant something to someone else, but I really had no idea what relevance it had to me.

Until the train ride home.

Here’s what I realised about myself.

I feel bad about people paying for my work because I think that the people who buy and even those who appreciate my work are somehow being duped. I keep feeling that at some point I am going to be found out to be an imposter.  I feel bad when my work is considered valuable.

There.

Issue number one; I do not trust or value my talent.

And there’s more.

I worry that I am somehow going to get into trouble for showing off.  I feel that if I openly value my work then people might not like me.

I know.

Issue number two; please like me, please like me, please, please like me.

OK, so this is all deep down, little girl fear and anxiety stuff, it’s not up there on the day to day surface of things, but it’s still there, and in my experience the deep down stuff has a way of making itself heard in one insidious way or another.

I see it constantly in my female students. I’m sure men and boys experience it too, I know they do, but in my personal experience it’s women who consistently undervalue their work, their time and their talent and it’s women who desperately seek approval by making themselves small.

I have sat through literally hundreds of student presentations, from high school to post-graduate level and women consistently and persistently do one thing when they present their work, regardless of how good it is or how hard they have worked on it or how good they believe it to be – they apologise for it.

Over and over, throughout my career I have heard women and girls tell me all of the things they should have done differently and all of the ways they could have made their work better and all before they’ve even opened their portfolios or begun their presentation. Even when given positive feedback, they tell you how it should have been better and how it would have been better if only they had done something differently. They deliberately make it less than it is.

So about six years ago, I banned my students from saying the word sorry, and we did a little experiment. They had to present their work without saying a single negative word about it, and throughout the exercise they would have absolutely no encouragement or feedback from me whatsoever. So no negativity from them and no approval from me.

What happened shocked me. Some students weren’t even able to begin speaking. They looked at the floor, they took deep breaths, they took several minutes just to find words to begin with that wouldn’t include any sort of apology. Some were even brought to tears by the sheer frustration of not being able to criticise themselves.

Let me be as clear as possible; speaking about themselves without negativity reduced several women and girls to tears and silence.

And I hadn’t asked them to glow with self congratulation, false pride or confidence, all I had asked them to do was not criticise or apologise for their work.

I ask my students why they feel it’s so difficult to not devalue themselves. Their answers are always, always the same. They tell me that they don’t want other people to think they are arrogant. They worry that if they say their work is good, other people will point out that it’s not. They worry that if they appear to think they are better than others, then those others won’t like them.

Which brings us right back to me on the train.

Up until that point I had subconsciously believed that valuing myself meant devaluing others which would make them feel bad which would make them not like me. I had kept myself in a nice little box that would be no obvious threat to anyone and this deliberate devaluing of myself was making it’s way into my life in my reluctance to make a reasonable amount of money for my work.

The sad thing, the thing that made me furious on the train when all of this hit me, was that I knew, I KNOW that valuing yourself and your talent and your work, truly valuing your best qualities does not bring trouble, criticism and rejection; quite the opposite.

About half way through some of the student presentations something else would happen. After a few minutes of speaking hesitantly, through deep breaths and almost uttered “sorries”, something would shift.

There would come a moment when the student’s voice would even out.

Because I wasn’t giving them any feedback, encouragement or prompting, because they were getting absolutely nothing back from me, they would begin to say what they wanted to say. Not what they thought I wanted to hear, not what they thought was expected, not what they thought would make them likeable, but what they truly felt and thought.

There would be a change in tone and volume that was so moving, so utterly inspiring that I can’t even describe it to you. They would speak without apology, explanation or expectation, about what they loved about their own talent. Then they would realise that no one was laughing at them, no one was horrified, no one had stopped liking them, and that they weren’t in trouble, then their voice would get stronger and clearer and calmer.  And when they shone, something would happen to the other students in the room, and to me;  we’d feel just a little bit closer to our own value because we could see someone else connecting with theirs.

It’s worth pointing out that I have done this same exercise all over the place, with different age groups, different academic levels, different nationalities and the results are pretty consistent. About twenty percent break down in tears, around sixty per cent struggle to speak, about eighty per cent reach a moment when they begin to shine.

I would also like to point out that I would never and could never force anyone to do anything in my class. Everyone who participates does so openly and willingly and the ones who cry are the ones who hammer on through with the greatest determination because they are usually the ones who have the most buried within themselves. Just thought I’d point that out in case you had some sort of image in your head of me inflicting emotional and psychological torture on unsuspecting art students.

I could write forever about why we have all of these layers of apology within ourselves, why we feel we need to be small, to be liked, why we need to undercut our own value to feel comfortable. I won’t though because I’ve got way too much to be getting on with and I’m sure you have your own story to tell about all of the times you insisted on less than you deserved.

So go try this.

Talk to yourself about yourself, your work, your talent, your virtues, whatever you like but do it without apology and do it out loud.

It’s harder than you think.  I struggle with it.

I’ve always imagined that as an artist, I should devalue my work, that it’s up to others to see and judge it’s worth and that if I ask for just a little I won’t be disappointed when I get just a little.  After my meeting with my business mentor though, I realise that I have been seeing myself and my worth in exactly the same self depreciating way my students do.   My ideas about being a struggling artist are really just a reason to keep myself small, unthreatening and likeable.

I’m not going to suddenly increase my prices or change the way I sell my work, but I’m no longer going to limit myself in terms of what I achieve through my work.  I’m not going to prevent myself from earning more than I think I deserve.

From now on, I refuse to reduce my own value.

I’ve never been a materialistic person and I’ve never seen financial success as a goal in itself, but what I’ve realised is that until now I have seen financial success as something that I should avoid, something that I don’t deserve, something that might make people not like me, and that has limited me creatively.

So I’m not going to make myself small any more.  I’m not going to keep myself in a little box and whatever comes out of me next will come without any apology or fear of what it might achieve.

And there’s that thing that I’m planning that I can’t tell you about yet.  I’m not afraid of that thing being a success anymore.  I’ll tell you about it next time.

The Pale Rook