Creative Destruction for Unsettling Times.

One of the barriers I hear about a lot from students is that they struggle with a need to make things “perfect” in their work.  

I’ve got first hand experience of this, and I’ve often found myself feeling that my work isn’t valuable or “correct” unless it is perfect.  It usually happens when I’m learning a new technique – I want to learn the correct ways of making something then practice over and over again until I even out any sense of it being rough or strange or idiosyncratic.  I refine anything that stands out.  While I will always argue that learning solid fundamentals is an important way to give yourself a strong foundation to work from, a drive to be perfect will always lead to disappointment.  Perfection isn’t possible, and when it comes to creativity, trying to be perfect robs us of the chance to explore the full potential of what is possible in the work we’re doing and within ourselves.

In recent months I’ve felt the urge to do perfect, predictable, beautiful work that has an outcome I can plan, because the world around me has felt so unfamiliar and threatening.  Although many of us are living in relative safety, the world feels unstable and chaotic, and the idea of creating something predictable and perfect feels like it should be soothing . When I try to do this though, what I end up with is disappointment.  The work feels stale, which makes me feel frustrated, which leads to more striving for perfection. 

What I have found is that when the world feels chaotic, the most fulfilling work I can do comes from leaning into that chaos and using techniques and methods that allow me to connect with those feelings in a creative way. When you deliberately work in destructive ways, you start out knowing that whatever you do, it will never be perfect!  It can’t be.  It’ll be messy and difficult and unpredictable.  In short, you are free to fuck up.  

One of my first year art school tutors used to say “you are the most anonymous person you know”.  As an eighteen year old, I had no idea what he meant by this, but I look back now and see my own students largely unaware of what unique strengths and challenges they bring to their work.  To them their strengths are anonymous, and the things they struggle with are problems and obstacles that need to be ironed out and perfected.   When we are anonymous to ourselves, we sometimes seek our identity in control and perfection, and this inevitably leads to less of the sense of self we need.  

Seeking perfection also puts us under immense pressure before we’ve even begun. 

How many times have you wanted to start something but felt that you needed to wait until the perfect time, have the perfect materials, the perfect work space and the perfect idea?  How often have you put off working because the circumstances weren’t exactly as perfect as they could be?  How often have you given up because the expectations that have built up have been so overwhelming that you knew you’d never be able to live up to the way it looks in your head?  

The way I overcame this, (and still need to overcome from time to time) is to engage with what I will loosely describe as creative destruction.  When I feel my work becoming uptight, self conscious, controlled and striving towards perfection, I have learned to let go and throw it into some sort of chaotic process that loosens my grip on the work and lets it breathe a little on it’s own.  This usually takes the form of some sort of creative destruction – deconstructing the fabric or stitches, taking the work apart, burning, dying, sanding, tearing. From there I get to see unexpected possibilities that can take the work in a direction I could never have predicted or planned.  From here my intuition can kick in. 

I had to put this into practice recently when I decided to reconnect with Life Drawing after a year and a bit of not bothering to make time for it in my regular art practice.  I’m good at life drawing.  I’ve always been good at it, and it was by far my favourite class at art school.  I’ve even taught life drawing in several colleges and art schools.  In my head, because I can do it well, I feel that every time I begin a life drawing it has to demonstrate my technical ability to its fullest. I need to draw a perfectly proportioned, anatomically correct figure with a strong sense of line and form, and clear, realistic tone.  This is not always a good thing…..I become so uptight that I can lose the sense of who the figure is, their subtle gestures and the dynamism of the pose rather than just its proportions.  The drawing might be correct, but it has little sense of character or expression.  This is when I need to throw some chaos into the mix, something that will not allow me to keep control and instead allow something a little freer to emerge.  I use my left hand, which is less precise than my right.  I use pen and ink and then run the drawing under water.  I tape my pen to the end of my finger.  Sometimes (and I only do this with statues or close friends) I close my eyes and draw by touch rather than sight.  I put myself and sometimes the drawing through some sort of process where control and precision isn’t an option.  It frees me up, it allows me to make intuitive decisions rather than purely technical ones.  

Left handed drawing from a session with @atynudes, featuring life model @ivorylovelust

So I’ve written a new email course with all of this in mind. What I want to offer is the chance to safely explore your work in a chaotic, intuitive, unpredictable way.  I want you to see what you can achieve and bring out of yourself through letting go of perfection and safe, dependable methods, how to roll with destruction and recreate from ashes.  

In this course we will work through a series of projects that will allow you, gently at first, to step out of your comfort zone and work in ways that feel unfamiliar and unpredictable.  The lessons will help you let go of a need for perfection, help you to tap into then harness your intuition as a creative tool.  We will focus on exploring processes rather than making one “thing”.  

You’ll receive ten lessons, two a week for five weeks.  I keep class numbers small enough to allow for one to one email tuition with every student.  

We’ll be working with;

  • Free form doll making
  • Fabric manipulation and deconstruction
  • Collage
  • Photography
  • Embroidery
  • Drawing
  • Character development
  • Journalling and reflection exercises
  • Basic sewing pattern design and construction for simple dolls.
  • Tools to break through creative block and tap into creative intuition.

Think of this course as a creative bootcamp, something intense that might just throw you out of your comfort zone in a way that gives you a boost, a creative clear out, and a chance to see what happens when you do not care about perfection.  See this as a chance to flex those wild impulses and see where they take you, even for a short time.   You won’t need any fancy or expensive materials or equipment, and you can work at your own pace.

Given the unstable financial situation for many in the world right now, the course is offered on a sliding fee scale, from £50 – £120.   You will never be asked to justify or explain what you choose to pay,  and everyone will receive the same lessons and tuition.  

Registration will open at 8pm (UK time) on Sunday the 1st of November. To register for a place, please go to the course page here, at that time to find the registration form (the form will not be there until 8pm, and you may need to refresh the page to find it). Unfortunately I cannot take bookings before this, and class numbers will be limited, but I will take requests for waiting list places once the course is full.

I’m seriously looking forward to working on this course. I’ll be sharing methods that work for me, and methods I’ve found help my students out of their own creative ruts, and I can’t think of a better time to bring some creative liberation to those who need it.

Please keep in mind that this course will focus on basic doll making, and the emphasis will be on exploring creative processes –  not complex doll making processes. This is a course where you will learn to develop your own way of working and designing.  There will be no instructions on how to make a Pale Rook style doll.  I cannot offer tuition for any projects that are not covered within the course material. I can however, offer  individual, heart felt tuition for the projects and lessons within the course.  Please respect that I will not be teaching how to make specific dolls from my collection.  

When Rook met Finch

If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, you’ll know that the author Elizabeth Gilbert decides to leave her life in New York behind to spend a year travelling the world, a plan that has been built around a meeting she had some time earlier with a Balinese Medicine Man who tells her that one day she will come back to Bali to study under him. Gilbert secures an advance from her publisher to write a memoir of her trip, and travels to Italy, then India before ending up in Bali to reconnect with the man who she feels has set the whole plan in motion. When she finally returns to him, he greets her warmly, reads her palm, …. and that’s it. Despite his words kick starting a chain of events that takes her life literally around the world and changes everything for her, when she finally sees him again, he has no idea that they’ve already met or that she’s there all because of something he’d said in passing, years before.

That’s kind of what’s just happened here.

Five years ago, I had decided to make dolls deliberately rather than secretly, my deep down heartfelt, life long dream. I didn’t even know that doll makers were a thing, or that there were people in this world who actually wanted to own strange, hand made little creatures. I was living in Norway, deeply unhappy and with no way of getting home, and I’d set up a Facebook page to share my work, more to get over my fear of people seeing what I was making than anything else. One night, while living in a cabin in the woods, and after a considerable amount of Swedish cider, I checked my Facebook page and for some reason my “followers” were increasing by about a hundred every minute, and I had no idea why until a friend sent me a message telling me that Mister Finch had shared my work with his then 50,000 followers. Suddenly I was an exciting new doll maker with a following of supporters, a fresh push to dedicate myself to doll making, and more importantly, a way to get home.

Last month, Mister Finch contacted me on Instagram and we spent a few days chatting about everything from work to films to our home cities, and eventually I sheepishly thanked him for sharing my work and for single handedly triggering a pivotal moment in my life. He said “my pleasure”.

Today we chatted on Facetime.

We decided to do an “in conversation” type interview for this blog, and I thought I would begin it from the perspective of how lock down has connected far flung people, and in particular connected me with the artist who’d generously shared my work and help me gain the attention I needed to build my doll making career and get the hell home when I desperately needed to. For me, this conversation would be a wonderful moment where I got to go full circle and take my connection with Finch to a more personal level.

About three hours into the conversation, he told me that he didn’t even remember sharing my work.

Mister Finch shares up and coming artists so often that he doesn’t even remember doing it! It’s hard to put a number on the artists who’ve had a leg up from this guy, but he shrugs it off saying “yeah, but people did the same for me”.

Along with his obvious warmth, my first impressions are that this is a man that you do not fuck with.  Despite his Beatrix Potter, whimsical story teller image (one that, let’s face it, we’ve all kind projected onto him ourselves), this is a man who has worked really hard to be where he is now, speaks his mind, holds his ground, and is a far cry from what many people assume about doll makers – that we’re all sweetness and whimsy, surrounded by lace and buttons in a fairy tale cottage, making pretty things whenever the mood takes us.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a fairy tale cottage, but his work-room is bloody amazing. What I first think is that sort of “book shelf” wall paper you see in coffee shops, is actually hundreds, literally hundreds of books stacked up everywhere. Finch tells me that many of them are rescued from skips because he doesn’t want their lives to end there and because he always wanted to live in a bookshop. There are stained glass lamps dotted about like boiled sweets in an antique tin, and every so often he reaches over and grabs something to show me, like pieces from his new collection, which I’m keeping schtum about. In contrast, I’m squeezed into a corner of my spare bedroom, with a pile of dolls in progress and my two dogs are having a growly wrestle behind me. I’m wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my time.  

Even if it’s not the fantastical image a lot of people have about the work we do, we’re both well aware of just how lucky we are to have the jobs we have, especially given the world picture right now. We talk about how we both want to bring you a chance to pause and catch your breath and even for a short time, feel a little bit of joy among all that’s frightening and unpredictable in the world right now.

What follows is our conversation. Go make a cup of tea, have a seat and join us for a bit.

Finch; I’ve just put wax in my hair but some of it got on my screen and it’s made me look like one of the aliens in Cocoon with the glowing halos.

Rook; It’s the lockdown equivalent of the vaseline-on-the-lens, old-school Hollywood glamour.

Other than your hair, what have you been up to?

Finch; I’m making seed bombs! I’ve been seed bombing an abandoned piece of ground near here for the last few years.

Rook; I’m growing tomatoes and propagating succulents! Gardening is at the top of my self-care list these days to stop me losing it.

How has lockdown been for you so far?

Finch; I found it really hard at the beginning as I used to go to yoga a lot and walk everywhere. Now I’ve just stopped with everything going on like most people and just trying to not panic and work.

Rook; Has it affected your work?

Finch; It took me ages to get back in a sewing flow and I was fine for a while but lately, I’m struggling again. Work-wise I’ve changed course and so I’m just going to make and sell myself in my shop for a good while now, and so I’m making smaller pieces which I can ship out easier. I have to be realistic with work right now and not make big stuff.

Rook; I had to switch pretty quickly to teaching online, which has been a real shift for me but it’s been brilliant, so I’m actually working on much larger pieces because I feel the pressure’s off to make smaller work.

Finch; Would you create a piece life size?

Rook; Well my birds are pretty much life size! The human ones…. well, in my world, the dolls are life size, they’re not miniature humans, they’re creatures in their own right who are that particular size. I also think that being able to hold them is a really important part of their character for me.

I also hand sew literally every bit of fabric on them, so a life size one would take a crazy amount of time and patience to make. Never say never though! I have been making much bigger dolls recently.

Finch; Do it! However long it takes just do it. Even if you were to make a life-size doll of say a five year old child, the feeling of it standing there in your studio is just amazing.

At this point Finch, reaches over and grabs a huge pink bumble bee, which nestles in the nook of his neck like a giant furry pet. I’m half expecting it to start buzzing contentedly. Oddly enough, even though it’s gigantic compared to a real bee, it looks exactly the size it’s supposed to be.

Rook; Did you always want to be a textile artist or was it something that evolved as you went along?

Finch; It evolved definitely…I had things I wanted to make I just didn’t know how to make them. Making dolls for me is a very potent thing, I really love what I do and I feel the luckiest person in the world to be able to do it as my job.

Rook; It was the job I always wanted, but I honestly didn’t think it was possible. I studied fashion and textiles and worked in that industry for a long time before finally giving in and accepting that I’d wanted to be a doll maker all along. I remember reading somewhere that your background was in jewellery rather than textiles. At what point did it move from one to the other?

Finch; I stopped dead doing Jewellery as I just got tired of having to rely on so many others to get work shot and seen. My stuff was assemblage style and used just everything I could find.
I got a commission for an amazing magazine to create a piece for a shoot lots of back and to and I made it sent it off it got sent back…but it never even got opened..the tissue paper was still intact. I was so upset at the time. This isn’t anyone fault when you do these shoots they have often a huge amounts of things to pull and use… it’s just how it is.
So yeah that was the final straw I just had enough gave all my stuff away and was like right what now?
I’ve always been able to sew and thought let’s give this a go.
I worked really hard at it for 2 years trying to get my work out there and then things started to move.

Rook; I had similar things happen when I worked in fashion. There are so many designers desperate to have their work featured in magazines, that you’ll get all the way to something almost happening, and at the last minute it gets cut. I always felt like it was just out of reach. I’ve worked on doll making projects for fashion brands recently, and weirdly I feel like I’ve got more power as a doll maker than I ever did as a fashion designer.

Have you ever experienced snobbery or people not taking you seriously because you’re self-taught?

Finch; This is a great question and yes I feel it all the time.
I’ve had people literally stop talking to me mid-sentence when they hear I have no qualifications.
The snobbery is almost unbearable in many ways and I can smell it a mile off now. Some of the harshest treatment has come from those who are trained and have no issue with telling me I have no place on the scene. In the beginning, I had some terrible terrible messages and emails which stung badly. I’m tougher now but I could have done without it when I was just setting off. I am self-taught and so that what I will champion. I would never say to anyone not to get an education though. Textile art doesn’t get the recognition it deserves and it’s so incredibly diverse. I find it bizarre.

My work is becoming more and more storybook-like and so maybe this is where I belong. Creating books with my characters is an incredible thing and one that’s a constant and utter joy… it’s so thrilling I hope it never wears off.

How do you see your work changing, can you predict what direction you are moving in?

Rook; My work tends to be really responsive so I think about where I want to take it in terms of galleries or publications, but I tend to let the actual work evolve naturally. I’m finding this way of working a bit nebulous though so I’m trying to find a balance between responding and actually focusing and making clear decisions in advance. My work is definitely getting bolder. The dolls are standing up more and more, and the pieces I’m working on are much more about strength than vulnerability.

What sort of relationship do you have with the creatures you create?

Finch; It varies usually the more time I spend with them. I have made creatures and things purely for fun and for images for work which I couldn’t sell as my heart is wrapped around them. ..and other things I’ve got attached to that I couldn’t part with either.
The more time with them gives me more time to work out backstories and habits and what the voice would sound like.

Perilune the latest biggest project was unbelievably sentimental…I even felt bad having him in a case on show as I thought about him at night on his own.

Rook; I’m glad to see he’s back safe and sound now.

I realised recently that my “human” dolls tend to be self portraits, while the animal dolls almost always have some connection to people in my life. I think there’s also a real desire in me to be closer to birds. I talk to crows a lot, but there’s still this drive to have them near me and I think that’s why I make them.

Finch; Making spiders and moths was always the dream for me so when I had them under my belt it was great. Is there anything you’ve tried to make again and again that hasn’t turned out…?

Rook; I tend to keep at it until I find a way, and often even if it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would it becomes something else that I do want to work with. I rarely set out with a fixed idea of exactly what I want to make, so things tend to evolve and shift depending on what works and what doesn’t. I think the only thing I’ve really wanted to make and never quite got right were toads. I bloody love toads.

Finch; Me too! I love toads and frogs, but I can’t get the eyes to look right. The creatures in my world all tend to have closed eyes and they just don’t work on toads and frogs. Their heads are a difficult shape too.

Rook; And they’ve got this lovely “plopped down” feeling that I just can’t seem to get. I met the most beautiful toad on the wooden bridge that led to my wee house in Norway one night. She was sitting right in the middle of the bridge, and I swear she was glittering. I just can’t recreate that sort of magic when I make them.

Your work has a really strong sense of the natural world, have you been able to get out and connect with nature during lockdown?

Finch; No, not loads..there is a cemetery near me which is overgrown and spooky which I go to which is a bit of a haven.

Rook; I’m really lucky, I have parks all around me. There’s a beautiful heron that I keep seeing fishing on the river bank, maybe I’ll make him in life size.

Finch; Are there any new skills you would like to learn to incorporate within your work that you don’t have right now. I want to learn to weld!

Rook; I would love to be able to work with wood. I’ve carved wood and made little dolls and animals from wood, but I really don’t know anything more about it than whittling. I’d love to go on a woodworking course and learn to make wooden dolls properly. I can just imagine how beautiful wood would be with fabric.

I also want to find the story I’d like to tell. Something about the actual process of bringing a doll to life – there’s a magic to that process that I’d love to build a story around.

Fairy tales and storytelling, in general, seem to be really important parts of your work. Which fairy tale characters ( or archetypes) did you identify with when you were growing up?

 

Finch; You know for me there is a clear winner and its James and the giant peach. We did it primary school and based activities around it whilst reading it. We all made a paper seagull which we took in turns to string to the huge tissue paper peach…and I remember just pure joy. Its struck such a chord with me about going on adventures and having huge insects and spiders as friends.
As much as it was an amazing book my utter excitement was down to a great teacher. When I got older I made all the characters from wire and fabric (now lost to time) and again just lived within this book so much.
Elves and the shoemaker stands out as well…

Rook; Well that makes perfect sense! The giant insects, the magical world, you’re basically creating that whole world around you.

Again, Finch reaches over and brings back a giant embroidered spider, and like the bee it perches on his chest like a giant pet.

For me, and I loved stories and fairy tales growing up, I really, really wanted to be the princess, but I always identified with the witches and monsters. They were the characters who would stay with me. I always found myself wondering how they got where they were and what had happened to them.

The three films that stand out from my childhood were Labyrinth, Return to Oz…

Finch; And the Never Ending Story!

Rook; Yes! There’s something about films and TV from your childhood that just hits you in the heart and never leaves you.

Finch; I’ve been watching Lovejoy while I’ve been working……

At this point the conversation veers off and we talk about the new Labyrinth film (which Finch didn’t even know about!), Enya’s castle (which I’d never heard of!), the 80s band Clannad, how to make movie props, how amazing Jan Horrox’s doll making books are, the pros and cons of using Fray-stop, how much my dog looks like Falkor the Luck Dragon, fabric hoarding, car boots versus charity shops, the Never Ending Story books and which editions to look out for on Ebay, how we’d make a textile jellyfish, goats in movies, the benefits of joining an Artist’s Union, why neither of us use turning tools…

I ask,

Rook; How the hell do you get anything done?!

Finch; I’m really tough on myself work wise and need to be regimented otherwise I’m like “Oooh, youtube cat videos…”. I make lists, I work on one thing at a time and see it through, then set daily goals and give myself rewards.

Rook; I’m nebulous as hell…..

Finch; I really don’t get that impression.

Rook; Honestly, I’m wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my time!

We natter on for a bit longer, talk about getting together in person on the other side of Lock Down, and after three and a half hours we finally say good bye.

I have to admit that there have been times when I’ve looked at Finch’s work and thought “are you fucking kidding me?!” because of the sheer scale and ambition of it, not to mention the bloody massive amount of art work he’s produced in the last ten years, as well as his books (two of which have been self-published, so even more work! ).

I personally, have heard a fair amount of (rather unpleasant) speculation as to how he manages to do it all.

I can tell you right now that Mister Finch’s success isn’t down to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or influential connections, or an army of assistants, or sponsorship, or social media, or a trust fund, or a team of pattern designers, a giant studio, a rich partner – this is an artist who has worked bloody hard for a bloody long time, taken a lot of risks and refused to compromise his creative or personal integrity (despite offers to pack it in and go work with some rather high profile projects). Finch has built his own world stitch by stitch and he’s earned every bit of praise that comes his way, and let’s not even get into the amount of flak he gets.

I wonder if the reason so many people speculate about all this shit is because they can’t personally imagine being able to create what he has without all of these magic ingredients.  What I’m seeing is that it really is all down to hard work, vision and determination.

I’m coming away from this conversation wondering just what I could do if I pulled out all the stops the way Finch does. What would happen if I did work life-size, or wrote a book, or set my mind to making work that matches the full scale of my imagination?

We’ll see….

Thank you from me and Mister Finch for joining us. We hope we’ve brought a bit of joy and a few laughs to your lockdown.

Mister Finch is currently taking a break from Facebook, you can keep up with his most recent work through his Instagram feed.

Finding a way when things gang aft agley

It was my birthday two weeks ago and looking back at it now, I could never have predicted how I’d be living and feeling and thinking now. The world, or at least the world I know, has gone into lock down and although the birds are still singing and the trees are budding and things look largely the same, it’s all suddenly different and feels very, very still.

Still in some ways and accelerated in others. No more pubs and gigs and wandering around shops for the hell of it to kill time. Also, no more financial stability and confidence in my understanding of how I make a living and how reliable that feels. And of course, all this “inconvenience” and uncertainty pales into insignificance as three members of my immediate family go into complete isolation for their own safety and I deliver donuts to their front porches hoping that they can somehow feel the hug I want to reach out and give them but can’t.

And while some parts of life are shutting down, others are speeding up as we need to shift and adapt to somehow make this new reality work. I didn’t think I would run online workshops. It wasn’t that I was completely against the idea, more that I had the luxury of not having to think about how I would teach these types of classes in a way that worked for me. As unpredictable as my income is, until about a week ago I was comfortable in my ability to make and sell my artwork and in the demand for my in-person teaching worldwide.

I am now unsure of just about everything.

If necessity is the Mother of invention, then pandemic, self-isolation, and possible impending poverty is the Mother that kicks you up the arse and forces you to make tough choices about what is right for you.

So I asked myself what I wanted and how I can make this work.

Do I want to do online video lessons?

NO.

I don’t have the confidence in my tech skills yet, and right now I’m working from a spare room piled up with boxes. Also, I have two young dogs who like to gate crash video chats.

Do I want to do live, interactive demos with real time Q&A?

NO FUCKING WAY.

First of all, see above, and on top of this, all our lives are so unpredictable at the moment that I can’t offer up any particular time slot that would include everyone, and quite frankly I’d rather talk to you all one at a time by email.

What the hell do I want?

TO WRITE.

To write the sort of lessons I wrote for my workshops here in Glasgow. I bloody loved preparing the “homework” lessons I sent out to all the students who came up here to learn. The idea behind the emailed lessons was to prepare the students to hit the ground running at the workshop rather than have to creatively “warm up” once they arrived. For a month before each workshop I sent out weekly lessons. Each one offered up the methods I use in my own work, in particular working through creative blocks, and finding out what my creative triggers and impulses are. I alternated these lessons with projects that were more practical and hands on so that the students had a balance of creative exploration and structured techniques.

Some students arrived in Glasgow with a sketchbook full of images, a collection of stitched fabric samples, and a box of “treasures” to work with. Once their doll making began in the classroom, I could see when we laid out all of their homework, a complete project from the seeds of ideas through to their finished dolls. Now that some time has passed, and those students send me images of the dolls they’ve made since completing the workshop, I can see how their ideas have moved forward and how confident their work has become.

Development artwork by @sheilaghdysonmixedmediaartist

This, for me is the most enormous bloody privilege and joy.

With this in mind, I’ve written a ten lesson creative doll making course that will focus on free form, intuitive doll making and understanding your creative process.  This is not a step by step instruction manual, and it requires an openness to working in ways that may seem a little bit odd at first…

I never wanted to write a tutorial that was about following my idea or pattern or design. First of all, my ideas, patterns and designs are mine. They are the result of my life, my experience, and to be honest, a lot of happy accidents and failures that I just could not communicate in a lesson if I tried, and what’s more, I don’t want to.

Secondly, for me, it’s just not satisfying to teach people how to do things the way I do them. When I teach, I want to see a student find their own voice and their own way of doing things, and I’ve learned over the last twelve years of teaching that my skills are best directed that way.

Dolls in progress by artist Eleanor Sloan at a workshop in Glasgow in February ’20

So what am I offering you now?

Let’s start with what this course is not.

This is not a course where you will learn how to follow a step by step doll making process. This is not a course where you will work from my (or anyone else’s) designs and patterns. This is not a course that will teach you one method of doll making. This is not a course where you will produce the same result as all the others who are taking the course. You will not be learning how to make a Pale Rook Doll and you will not be learning complex pattern cutting (seriously, pattern cutting is hard, even for those of us who have been taught it, and an online course really isn’t the way to learn it unless it’s by a really skilled pattern cutter who can describe complicated measurements and calculations in writing. I’m not one of those).

What I can teach you is how to find your way of working and to identify what makes you tick.

Which leads me to what this course is.

This is a course where you will be taught to identify your own creative triggers, ideas and impulses and to identify what works for you.  This is a course where you will learn how to design your own style of doll, and to draft and cut your own simple doll pattern that can be adapted, tweaked and developed.  Through this course you will learn how to make a doll that is entirely unique and personal to you.   In this course I will share the methods I use to work through creative blocks and design problems. This is a course where you will build a collection of creative ideas and projects, and by the end of it you’ll have the skills and confidence to develop your own doll designs.  As well as opening up your creative flow, this course will give you the practical skills and tools to create dolls with their own character, style and story.

You’ll receive ten emailed lessons – two lessons each week for five weeks. Some of them are deceptively simple creative warm-ups, and some are detailed, challenging and in depth. The lessons will build up from identifying the very beginnings of your creative thinking – finding the seeds that are worth nurturing, finding the triggers that make you think and feel as an artist, to learning simple, practical doll making skills that can be adapted to your own needs.

What’s the course fee?

Well, that’s up to you. Since we’re living in completely weird times, and this is all new to all of us, I’ve decided to offer this course on a pay-what-you-can basis. You decide how much you can or want to pay. I’m suggesting a minimum of £30 and a maximum of £120. There is no need to justify or explain how much you’d like to pay. I know that for some of you, this is a time of enormous uncertainty so I hope this makes the course more accessible to those who aren’t sure if their future income is secure. Regardless of what you can afford to pay, you’ll receive the same lessons and support as anyone else.

How many places are there?

I’m going to limit the places on the course to the number of students I can comfortably connect with over the duration of the course.  I want to be able to offer one to one email support for those who would like or need it.  I don’t want this to be one of those courses where students are flying solo and the teacher has no real connection with anyone.

If you’d like to register, you can complete the contact form below (registration is currently closed, but will reopen again at 8pm (UK time) on the 26th of April), only your name and email are required, although messages are nice!.  I will email you full terms and conditions, plus a payment link within 24 hours.  The first lesson will be sent out on Monday the 11th of May, and then on every following Thursday and Monday afternoons.

Finally, THANK YOU SO MUCH for all of your interest and support.   We are living in strange and frightening times and it’s hard to not feel helpless and overwhelmed, especially when we’re all hyper aware of just how amazing our emergency services, our postal workers, cleaners, shop workers, delivery drivers and many more others are right now.  In times like this (what times have ever been like this?!) I try to find ways to be useful, and I hope that this course is useful to some of you in what ever way, whether it’s creativity and solace during a frightening time, or just something to do while you’re stuck in the house.

I am so grateful to have so much support and connection.

Keep safe and take care for now.

The course is now full, thanks to everyone for your interest. 

Ushas Rising

Midden dolls

I have been putting this off for ages, mostly because I’ve been avoiding writing for so long that it’s now become a bigger deal than it would have been if I’d just kept this blog updated and ticking along in the first place. I miss writing. I really do, but it falls away when I get stressed, yet it’s always what makes me feel grounded and relaxed once I’ve got my thoughts down on paper.

So what’s been happening? An emotional cluster-fuck of a year to be quite honest, but the sun has come out now and I’m looking back wondering how the hell it all happened and how the hell I got through it, but here I am.

My work’s changed though.

It’s become darker and bigger and has taken on a bit of a life that I’m not quite making sense of yet.

I can be quite passive in terms of decision making about what I make and why I make it. I follow my intuition and instinct and flow with whatever comes to me as a piece comes to life. I’ve never been very good at deciding exactly what to do and then following through with intention until it’s finished. My process goes more like, “oh, here’s a beautiful piece of fabric, what shape does it want to be?, ok now follow what it wants, ok now it wants to be embroidered, let’s dip it into some dye to see what marks and patterns come out of that and where they want to go, oh now the dye needs some sanding, ok, let’s do that then draw a face, oh this face is taking on a life of it’s own, ok, let’s just let it be what it wants to be…..”

Creatively, I tend to respond and adapt to what comes along. This is not a bad thing, in fact, it can be a very good thing and it’s served me well. I trust that whatever wants to come out of me will do so in it’s own time and most often in a language that isn’t fully clear to me until I have enough time to look back and understand it. It’s as if my creative mind won’t speak directly to me, it only speaks in dream images, symbols and impulses. It whispers, I do as it tells me. It rarely steers me wrong.

Self portrait doll 2018/19

Through most of last year, (and the aforementioned cluster-fuck) I worked on a large doll that had no name, no timescale, no intention, no expectation. I liked having her around the studio. I worked on her now and then, adding hair, layers of fabric, some embroidery, then lots of embroidery. She felt like more of a companion than a piece of work, and the process of making her felt quite different. Rather than my creative process whispering and nudging, while I respond and flow with what comes, while I was making this particular doll it felt more like…dare I say it….a conversation. We’d hang out and I’d decide what colour her stockings would be and she would decide that her face was detailed enough, and a lot of the time she would just sit next to my work table and simply be there while I worked on other things.

In the spring of this year, once things were gradually getting back to normal, I found myself in what I can only describe as an emotional hangover. After a year of emotional highs, lows and upheaval, my mind felt exhausted, and while the emotional chaos had settled, I felt grey, drained and depressed. It felt like I had run down every possible emotional resource I had, and now that my mind had a chance to rest, it shut down. Everything felt heavy. All I wanted to do was sleep. Going into the studio, the last thing I wanted to do or had the emotional resilience to do was to open up my intuition, and delve into myself to draw out new work.

I decided to make something that would bring some joy back, just for the sheer bloody hell of it. I decided to make a wee band of characters who’d bring a bit of fun to the studio – the sort of wee buggers who’d be knocking important things over and causing a bit of a ruckus whenever I tried to feel sorry for myself. I wanted some light and fun and cheekiness back in my life. What I ended up with were a wee band of tearaways who were far fiercer than I’d originally intended. My creative mind had responded to my demand by giving me what I asked for and then some. I called them Middens.

Plum Midden doll

While making my Middens, there was still a sense of following my intuition, responding to the cloth and the dyes and the developing character of the doll, but as small as it sounds, consciously deciding to create something that would address and fulfil a need in me was a bit of a revelation.

I can’t say “I want.”

I was going to say I “struggle” to say “I want” but to be honest, it really does stick in my throat.

If I try to say “I want” I end up saying “I kind of want this, but to be honest, I’ll be grateful for whatever you have going, or even just whatever’s left over after you’ve taken what you want”.

Creatively this has led to me not always going after what I want and instead flowing with what comes to me. What the fuck am I saying, this applies to my whole blooming life, not just my creative one.

In terms of my work, this means that I am grateful for any inspiration that comes my way and that I respond to it as and when it comes and always worry that at some point it will run out and leave me empty. I worry that if I say “I want” the response from my muse will be “you can’t have”. What actually happened when I did make a clear demand was my muse stepped the hell up and said “YES, thank fuck you’ve actually shown up! I can serve you just as much as you can serve me, where have you been all this time?. Here, have what you want and have a whole load more inspiration from me on top for good measure.”

My default setting seems to be to take whatever comes to me, without demanding anything just in case the answer is no. If you can’t say what you want then it’s not a far fall to not being able to say what you need. If you can’t say what you need and want, what does that do to your sense of identity? In my case it has fed a sense of being a fluke and an imposter when it comes to any kind of success in my life.

I’ve always admired people who can own their success and stride into achievement. People who can stand in the centre of their success and say, “this is mine”.

I never seemed to manage it.

I think a lot of this comes down to me not believing in an identity that allowed me to go after what I actually want. Because I’m not used to asking for what I want, I’m not used to getting what I want so when anything resembling what I want shows up unbidden I think it must be some horrible mistake and that it’ll disappear into nothing as soon as I believe in it. When what I want shows up I try to ask as little as possible from it, and be as gentle as I can with it because I think that if I expect too much it will up and leave. Of course, this means that what I want never gets the full force of my energy, trust and intention, which leads to it not quite working out, which reinforces that same sense of it all being a fluke and not really mine in the first place.

My identity took a battering last year. My circumstances forced me to take a look at a lot of aspects of my life and my self that weren’t serving me. When it came to asking for what I wanted and needed, I couldn’t do it. I only managed it when I was at the point of complete emotional exhaustion. That was the point where I thought, “Fuck this shit, I’m making something that’s going to make me smile.”

This does seem like a very small thing to do, but it opened up a conversation between me and my muses that set me up as an equal rather than a servant to my work.

I’m tentatively asking for other things.

Ushas Rising

I wanted to make a piece that was about power. Not the corrupt, dominating kind that has become so normalised in today’s world, but a power that is nurturing and reviving. This is the sort of power I needed to claim for myself.

Ushas Rising

I made Ushas Rising. I didn’t feel like she arrived from some elusive spring of creativity that flowed through me, but from a clear intention and a conversation between my intuition and my drive. I bloody love her. She felt like the dawn after a stormy night, so once I’d finished her I named her after a Hindu Goddess of the dawn. Ushas isn’t the sort of dawn goddess who opens gently like a flower at first light. Out of the darkness, Ushas drives a shining chariot pulled by, get this…..golden cows! She brings truth and joy and light in the darkness. Hell yeah, that’s the kind of power I wanted to find in this piece.

Previously, I would have worked purely on intuition and months after completing Ushas I would have looked back, noticed a power in her and realised that what I needed from my work at that time was a sense of power.

Now I’m beginning to be able to acknowledge what I need and to ask for it.

Does it seem a bit tragic that this is something that I’m only learning to do at forty-one?

I’m going to carry this on in a separate post because I’ve got a bit of an announcement to make that’s connected to this whole personal revelation. I can’t actually make the announcement until the 4th of July so apologies for what started as getting back into the blogging saddle and ended on a cliff hanger, via a fair amount of rambling self reflection.

’Til the 4th.

Ushas Rising

Creation, frustration, destruction, creation.

 

I’ve been quiet for a while haven’t I? I realised that I haven’t posted on Instagram or Facebook or updated this website or written this blog in a long time.

Let’s cut to the chase.

It’s been a hard year. I was going to say “tough”, but that’s not enough – it’s been hard. Mostly this has been down to the people and situations around me, and me trying to hold things together without the time and space to sit down, rest and work through what’s happening in my own mind and body as a reaction to what’s happening to them.

A couple of months ago I cut off my long hair and now it’s a jaw length choppy bob. This is the third time I’ve cut my hair from my waist to above my shoulders. The first marked the shedding of a toxic relationship, the second was an act of defiance. This time, this time it was like shedding my skin. I wanted, in fact, needed to see a different face in the mirror.

When I moved into my house, I inherited a tall leafy plant that reached up and out towards the living room window. Over the first few months of taking care of it, it became clear that the plant was dying. It’s leaves were becoming dry and greyish and limp. The trunk was shrivelling up and no matter where I put it or how carefully I tended to it, it wanted to die. One morning I took a knife to the trunk and sawed off the top half, cutting away all the leaves at the top that had once been so lush and thriving. I hacked away at it until about a metre of dying plant came off. What was left was a slim, bare trunk, or what looked more like a stick in a pot of mud. I left it in the corner of the living room, next to the window. I stopped watering it and left it to it’s own devices. A few months later, without me even noticing, tiny green stumps had appeared along the length of what looked like a dead stick. A few weeks after that new leaves were reaching out and up towards the light coming in from the living room windows. I started to water the plant again.

There came a point recently where my dolls lost their faces altogether. At first their eyes closed, then one day their eyes didn’t appear at all. I couldn’t articulate whatever was inside, and despite always being able to find some sort of expression, even just a faint eye nose and mouth in the past in dark or confusing times, there came a point not too long ago where the faces just would not come. My dolls grew wings, scarlet hearts, long articulate fingers, but their faces remained blank.

It felt like I couldn’t go any further with them. Instead of feeling like they were clambering to exist and that I didn’t have enough hours in the day or days in the week to bring them to life, they felt like they’d given up. It was at that point when I decided, or rather felt I had no choice but to give up doll making all together. I realised that if my emotional state can shut down my ability to do this type of work then I need to find another job. Where once my small, calm inner voice was telling me to “make dolls”, it was now silent.

This is a big deal for me. I rely on my intuition, what I call my soul voice or heart voice or inner voice, for guidance in most things. It’s never wrong. It has literally never failed me. It took a long time to tell the difference between that voice and fear, or longing, or need or ego. The difference is that when I listen to this particular voice, it’s calm. It doesn’t bark orders, or plead, or insist or shout; it speaks clearly and calmly, even when it makes no rational sense whatsoever.

So I tried to plough on without it.

I had some ideas for pieces I wanted to make and thought that if I could just keep making, then things would resolve themselves.

Nope.

Well, sort of.

A doll can take anything from a few days to a few months, or in some cases longer to make. I don’t start with a plan, more of an idea of one central detail, or a feeling or a sound that I want to explore. The ones I started to make around about this time put up, what I can only describe as a fight. Nothing worked. I’d diligently make something carefully and beautifully and it wouldn’t look right. I’d dye it, sand it, embroider it, stitch it – nothing made it seem complete. So I’d leave it alone for a bit, then try again. There was a constant pull between hammering away at it, and leaving it to the side. The dolls felt defiant. They felt demanding and belligerent. One in particular would not leave me the hell alone. Every time I thought I’d got through it and come almost to the point of completion it would not work. I nicknamed it The Firebird because it was like some unruly little harpy that kept harassing me, and the name stuck.

Can I just take a moment to state that I know that these are dolls and that writing about them as if they are tiny little demons who need appeased sounds bonkers. I know this. I have also found that resisting it and not paying attention to what they seem to want from me inevitably leads to time wasting, frustration and freaking out. My mind doesn’t seem to be able to explain what I need to me in rational, straight forward ways – it needs to project the whole thing on to wee cloth creatures. Like I said, bonkers. I know.

Rather than taking three or four days to complete, some small pieces were taking weeks and months and never seemed the way they were supposed to be. I have a personal rule that I do not fuck with those who buy my work – I do not sell or offer for sale work that doesn’t feel right or complete or the best that it can be. This, however, means that churning stuff out and making stuff for money isn’t something I can do. I can’t say, “sod it, it’ll do”.

So I kept sewing, kept hammering, kept trying and my body eventually packed in and one morning I woke up with a frozen shoulder, a dead right arm and no way of doing any more.

Which brings me back to thinking I can’t do this any more.

So I’m not going to.

I had one week of enforced stillness. No sewing. No making. Not much of anything because I could barely move. I’d tried to push on regardless and my body had said no more. What happened though while I rested and watched Kath and Kim on Netflix is that I started to remember ideas I’d had years ago when I first committed to doll making. Ideas that I’d never followed through on because I had found a flow and a niche in sewing them from calico.

I looked out pieces I’d made that were more about tearing things apart or salvaging scraps or winding cloth around wire, pieces that weren’t made to be seen or sold. I found half sewn dolls that had been on their way to being completed and I sanded the top layer of fabric off of them, drenched them in dye and mud and tore them up. I reconnected with the part of me that doesn’t know what the hell I’m doing – the very part of me I’d been trying to escape, the very part of me that I was immersed in when I started making dolls in the first place. 

And like the plant in the living room – there is a certain type of creation that comes from an act of sudden destruction, a tearing down and slicing off and ripping apart. It’s a type of creation that can go one of two ways – the shock can make you desperately cling on to what it was before and you can try to recreate it as closely as possible to what it was, all the time knowing that it will never be the same; or that same shock can make you rebuild in a way that makes more sense now, a way that grows out of what you’ve sliced off but is fresh and free of dead leaves.

It’s a scary thing to do though. This year has been so emotionally draining that what seemed to make sense was to reach for something stable, something reliable and I’d hoped that my work would be that safe place. Instead it felt like the dolls were angry with me ( I KNOW! Bonkers, I get it). It was as if they wanted me to let the instability and the chaos in to run amok. It’s only now that I’ve let it happen that they are settling down and coming to life again.
It’s a fine line between knowing and respecting your process and tumbling headlong into self indulgence. Again I have to remind myself that I am incredibly lucky to be able to have this work to do. I have to remind myself of when I worked three minimum wage jobs to scrape by and how that’s the reality for many people. Mind you, I remember years ago, sheepishly explaining to a business mentor that my creative process involved “intuition”, and how she went with it and how we were both right to go with it and how well it’s served me and how important it is to have acknowledged that part of my working process. Maybe all of this is only self indulgence when you try to pick it apart and glorify it or condemn it. Maybe it simply is what it is, it’s part of what I do. Creation, frustration, destruction, creation.

 

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The Pale Rook

When I was at Primary school, I remember being told a story about a fox and a crow. The teacher was reading it aloud while we sat on the floor. In the story the Crow is carrying a piece of food and in order to trick her into dropping it, the Fox tells her that he wants to hear her beautiful singing voice. The Crow caws, she drops the food, the fox steals it. The moral of the tale is don’t be fooled by flattery, yada, yada, yada.

At the point in the story where the fox pleads with the crow to sing her beautiful song, I remember the teacher looking over the top of the book and asking us with a half smile “does the crow have a beautiful voice?” . I didn’t get the joke. Everyone else seemed to know what was going on and they all said “no” and laughed.

I really didn’t get it.

To me the caws of a crow were one of the most beautiful sounds, and I listened to bird song a lot. I spent a lot of my childhood either close to trees or literally in the branches of trees, and I would listen carefully to bird song then try to mimic it back to the bird in the hope of making some sort of meaningful connection or even having a conversation!

To me, the crows caws, clacks, and knocks were sublime! So much variation, so much character – I just knew that they weren’t just singing, but having real conversation with each other and I ached to be able to join in.

Crows have featured a lot in my work in the last year. Not as much as I would have liked because it took a long time to get them right. My first collection of them was called The Story Tellers. I promised myself a series of nine, so far there have been four. I have also promised myself that I’ll keep one for myself. I love all of my dolls, but the making of crows has felt different. With most of the “human” dolls I make, they come from a place within me that needs to be expressed or seen. With the crows it comes from a need in me to feel closer to them. Of all the dolls I make, it’s the crows that seem the most “other” to me. My dolls are mostly self portraits in one way or another, but the crows are where I reach out and try to connect with something beyond myself.

Right now I’m finishing off a pair of hooded crows that I’ve had in mind for a while. Hooded crows have a particular place in my heart, as it was a hooded crow that I finally managed to make some small contact and connection with at a time when I was deeply lonely.

I didn’t even know hooded crows existed until I visited Norway for the first time.

They are the same size as typical crows, but instead of black feathers, their bodies are a soft, dove grey colour.   Their heads and wings are black, hence the name “hooded”.  One giant one seemed to spend a lot of time around the cabin I spent a lot of time in, and would screech and caw any time anyone would walk down the path. I would make soft, reassuring sounds, or gently announce my presence as it would swoop and squawk at me, and eventually after a while, it stopped cawing. It would come a little closer. It would look at me, trying to work out what I was and why I was telling it “it’s only me, calm down, I’m not going to bother you”.

It would still shriek at anyone else who dared walk down the path, but over time it recognised me and would accept me entering it’s “territory” and simply watch me. There’s something about a wild creature showing an interest in you that opens you up to the reality that we, as humans are not in charge. We often confuse the ability to appear dominant with genuine superiority. We build houses, and roads, we use the internet, and wear shoes and take selfies, but how well would we cope for just one day alone, naked and left to our own wits in a forest? The crows are part of a community. I can’t help feeling we as a species would be in a better position if we saw the rest of the world as our community and neighbours instead of our subordinates and inferiors.

The more time I spent among the crows, the more I realised how much they understood, how perfectly adapted they are to their world. Some nights I would sit outside on the moss and I could feel them gathering, anticipation building as more and more crows would arrive in the trees over head until it was difficult to see what was tree and what was crow, until the air felt electric, the way the atmosphere feels at the beginning of a festival, when everyone is gathered but the music still hasn’t begun, and then finally, as one they would all on some mysterious signal take flight and soar across the fjord towards whatever it was they’d been discussing above me.

Another time, I was walking along a different path with my dog, and a huge hooded crow was working on a large piece of food it had found. I spoke to it, as I now tend to do with all crows, and it took a good long look at my dog and I before hiding it’s food under a rock, then hopping on top of the rock to watch us pass by. I looked back to see it still watching us, then plucking it’s dinner out from under the rock again.

I get asked about the name The Pale Rook a lot. I tend to half tell the truth when I answer, that the image of a white corvid in the Gormenghast trilogy inspired me, as the bird was the eyes and ears and spy of my favourite character Gertrude. That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Part of it also came from sitting among those crows and wishing that for just one hour I could be one of them. And I’m pale, very pale, especially for a corvid!

Me in 2013 with one of my first crows

When I first decided to make dolls, in fact, when I decided to sort of work my way back to making dolls by making “creatures”, the first thing I decided to make was a white crow. It wasn’t my most successful project, but it got me sewing and thinking again, although the crow I made sat mostly forgotten until I started making corvids again last year, this time ones with “human” bodies, somewhere between crow and human. It all came from that same need to be closer to something that I thought I’d never be able to fully connect to. 

A few weeks ago I visited a wildlife sanctuary in Ayrshire in the south west of Scotland. It was a sort of hen (bachelorette) party for my sister who doesn’t really like hen parties, but loves animals. This isn’t a usual thing for the sanctuary, but my sister has been a fund raiser for their work for a long time and they made a special exception for her. I hadn’t really looked into the sanctuary too much before hand. I knew that they rescued injured wildlife, then released the animals back into the wild once they were healed. I was expecting foxes, hedgehogs, badgers – that sort of thing, and that’s what we saw. We visited the hospital full of young birds who’d fallen out of nests. We met a bald hedgehog who couldn’t be released because of how vulnerable she is without spines to protect her. We met two foxes who had been hand reared by a well meaning human, and could now not be released back into the wild until they were wary of humans again. We met seal pups who’d been abandoned or injured, and who we were reliably informed, were vicious wee buggers given half a chance.

After the tour we had some tea and coffee and fed the chickens that had followed us around the sanctuary for the last hour and a half. We were getting ready to leave when the member of staff who’d been showing us around told us to wait because she wanted to show us one more thing.

We followed her down a path through the woods to a collection of large aviaries with different types of birds who were there for one reason or another. I walked on ahead until I caught a flash of a long pale pink beak and snowy feathers. I knew his eyesight wouldn’t be great so I spoke gently to him to let him know I was coming as I edged towards the front of his huge aviary, hoping I wouldn’t frighten him, and from the back of his roost he flew straight towards me and landed inches from my face – an enormous, pure white crow.

His name is Jeremy.

There are times in life that I become hyper aware, knowing that this is something special that needs my full attention and that I am storing a memory that will be with me for the rest of my life. I don’t take photos, I don’t try to capture or hold the moment – I allow myself to experience it fully for as long as it lasts.

I don’t know what Jeremy and I must have looked like to the rest of the group, but they all held back and stayed well behind us, then they all wandered off to see the rest of the animals along the route. I remember someone behind me asking “is that your spirit animal?”. I’m not sure if I replied. I’m also not sure how long I lingered there with Jeremy, who hadn’t flown back to his perch yet, and was most likely wondering why the hell I wasn’t feeding him (I’m a romantic, but even I know he’d flown at me expecting his lunch!) , but eventually I pulled myself away from him and found the rest of the group.

I’m hoping it won’t be the last I see of him.

In Celtic and Gaelic mythology, a white crow has the same meaning as a “black sheep” – an outsider, one who doesn’t blend in with the group. Someone who can’t help but be seen for their inability to fit in.

That’s largely how I felt among humans in Norway, and on many levels how I felt for most of my childhood too. Maybe that’s why as a little girl I would climb trees and try to talk to birds. Why I would build them nests and hope they would move in and start a family.

While we were visiting the bird hospital at the sanctuary there was a large black crow in a cage in a corner eating a bit of a grisly lunch. He was recovering from an injury and was due to be released soon. It was upsetting to see him in a cage, but it was the closest I’d been to a crow since my time with the noisy hooded one on the path at the cabin. My sister saw me watching him, and I told her that in Norway I had “had a crow”, then quickly realised that I had never “had”, or indeed wanted to “have” a crow. They’re at least our equals and on rare occasions, if we respect them, we can share a special moment with them.

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I see, I think, I wonder … when the kids met the crows.

I’ve just arrived back in Glasgow after the opening of my exhibition in the Tig Gallery.  My first solo exhibition.  My first exhibition where I felt like I had something to say and where I met actual people, face to face, who had never seen my work before and who had opinions about it that they wanted to share with me.

Right now I am exhausted.   I worked flat out for about three months on this show and up until about two hours before the doors opened I was still sewing.

Until last night, my work has been shared mostly online.  Some of you buy my work, some of you read about it, some of you send me messages about it, but until last night it felt, somewhat ironically, private.

The opening night was lovely.  Lots of people braved the rain and the cold of the first night of a Scottish west coast autumn to come out and drink champagne and see the show.  Many of them wanted to talk to me about the work and share their thoughts about it and it was helluva daunting.  If someone sends me an email, I can read it, reply, think about what they’ve said, then close my laptop and carry on with my day.   It’s different when someone is right in front of you and you can see their eyes and hear their voice.

They got it though.  Within twenty minutes, one woman had approached me to tell me that she’d been moved to tears by one of the pieces.  The one piece that had moved me to tears when I made it.  The one piece I needed to make because it was demanding to be brought to life, and she got it.  She understood and was kind enough to find me and tell me that she had been moved by it.

This morning Ros, the director of the gallery had arranged for the local primary school kids to visit the gallery and have a chat with me.  At first I was a little concerned that my work often includes boobs, bums and nipples, and that maybe this could be a bit of a bone of contention, but the head mistress thought this would be fine and it was.  Ros regularly invites the local kids to come to the gallery.  We both come from a similar background in art education in Glasgow’s museums, and Ros is committed to connecting kids and young people with art in engaging ways.  Before the kids arrived she told me about a ‘game’ that they play when they visit.

It’s called “I see, I think, I wonder”.  The kids have a look around the gallery, take photos if they like, then choose a piece of work that they are drawn to for whatever reason and then tell the rest of the group what they see – it could be a description of the piece, how it’s made, what it looks, whatever.  Then they talk about what they think about the piece, their reaction to it, whether it’s how it makes them feel or their opinion on how it’s been made, or what they think it might be about.  Finally they share what they wonder about the piece.  Again, this can be something practical like how some part of it has been created or anything at all that they want to question or investigate a little big further.

This was to be the first time that children, other than those in my own family, would engage with my work and, let’s face it, kids are WAY more honest than adults when it comes to things like this, so I was very interested in how they were going to respond.

When they first arrived I didn’t want to tell them anything at all about what I do or why I do it.  I wanted them to come to it with just their own open minds.

The first kid blew my head off.  He chose to talk about one of the large black crow dolls – a half crow, half man, perched on top of an antique suitcase. He told me that he saw a man turning into a crow, but who’d been frozen as if a magic spell had been caught and held still half way through.  He said it was definitely a man turning into a crow, and not a crow turning into a man.  This kid is ten years old.   This kid needs to start writing my artist’s statements for me.

 

A girl stepped up and chose to talk about the other crow doll, a female with large rounded hips and a ruffled black muslin collar.  She told us that this one had a different story.  The girl said that this one had been a circus performer, then something had happened, something that had frozen her in time,  but she is waiting and not giving up that time, she knows that’s still who she is.  This kid is also ten years old.  I want this kid to be my therapist.

This went on around the room as each of the children took the rest of the group to something they were interested in and talked without any apology or self consciousness about how they responded to it.  I would struggle to get a group of adults to do the same.

“This doll does yoga”

“A cat ate all the fish and left just the bones behind”.

“These look like they’ve come from the sea”.

“The crow man is wearing a diving suit that’s not orange”.

“How come it’s got nipples?”

It was bloody brilliant.

The teacher thanked me for talking to the kids, but I got at least as much out of it as they did.  I recommend it to anyone who creates anything – invite a group of kids to tell you what they see, what they think, and what they wonder, because they go right to the core in ways that I as an adult massively overcomplicate.

Next week I’ll be back in the gallery working in a studio just off of the exhibition space and hopefully meeting more visitors.  I’ll be teaching two kids workshops where we’ll be making animal masks and creating stories around their characters.  I’m looking forward to it even more now that I’ve met some of the kids and have some idea of how creative they are.

 

 

It’s now almost two weeks since I wrote the first half of this post.  The ten year old girl I mentioned above is called Catriona,  and she came back to the gallery last week to take part in the mask making workshop with me  After the class she asked me if she could come back the next day to show me some of her drawings.

Catriona has one of the most vivid imaginations I think I’ve ever known.  She doesn’t just draw and create beautiful, interesting things – she creates whole worlds.  She can tell you every single detail about a character – their history, their relatives, what bought them to the point of the story she’s telling.  She also has an incredible knack for actually telling the story, for narrating with tension and atmosphere and suspense.

There was a lot of talk about what she could do when she grew up.  As much as I believe she has an amazing future ahead of her, I couldn’t help but be astounded by just how much she is already achieving.  She has the mind of a movie director. Of the sort of writer who has enormous worlds, mythologies and dynasties in her mind, fully formed just waiting for their turn to be spoken out loud.

I asked her again about the story she’d told about the crow dolls, and if she would let me record her telling the story.   I carried one of the dolls over to the table where we were sitting,  and as the adults in the room closed our eyes, she told their story.  She has very kindly agreed to allow me to share that story here.

The Story Tellers – by Catriona, age 10

The story is about two brothers in a circus act called The Two Crows.

The brothers lived together in a cave because their parents died when they were very young.   One day the circus came to town, and they went to the Ring Master and asked “please sir, may we have an act in your show?”   The Ring Master said “Of course you may, but on one condition;  you must bring your own costumes”.

So the brothers went back to the beach and searched all over for hours, and had almost given up, until they found two dead crows and decided that they could use beaks and feathers to make their costumes.  They gathered up all the bits and pieces, then headed back to the cave to build a fire and get some sleep as they would need to have their act ready soon.

After making their costumes from the feathers, beaks and twigs, the brothers went back to the Ring Master who welcomed them into the show and quickly put them to work rehearsing for their debut.   The brothers practiced their act back stage as the audience began to fill the tent.   Among the audience was a strange man, who carried an unusual magical looking stick or wand.   He sat quietly among the crowd.

The Two Crows drawn by Catriona

By two o’clock, the bell rang and it was time for the brothers to perform their balancing and juggling act.  For ten minutes the brothers performed, then something peculiar happened.  The thing the strange man was carrying in his hand was different, something not right and suddenly he threw it at both of the brothers.  They froze.  The audience moved quickly out of the circus tent, everyone left, but the brothers were still frozen half way between crow and boys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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