Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Accidental Alchemist

I’m recovering from a radical attack of what D V Thompson calls “the craftsman’s appetite for new methods and materials.” It claimed my total being last weekend.  It was exhilarating to paint yarn for the first time: being let loose to play with so many pots of colour, and being guided to create some of your own by Clare of Boo’s Attic, set me dancing with unbridled enthusiasm.  Clare said we were entering into a little alchemy, and the journey of discovery certainly made you feel that way. 

Artists mixing paints, like friend Debbie Ayles who kindly showed me her latest work earlier  today, must have such an uplifting element to each working day.  I remember watching my mother work water colours together in an old metal-style paintbox and being excited by the results.  As an impressionable young PR person in the late 70s I was also lucky enough to visit the Windsor & Newton artists’ materials factory in north London.  There I was totally captivated by the vast vats of colour we passed walking along the visitors’ gantry.  Being able to combine colour and yarn and come out with what footballers call ‘a result’ at the dye workshop last weekend sent my spirits soaring!

I can only imagine what it must have been like for artists working on medieval illuminated manuscripts, hitting on just the right shade yet having to work with a limited number of pigment options.  Their ingenuity, especially amongst the symbolic, life-like flowers of the Flemish Illuminated Manuscript painters, is highly laudable, especially when you read what they had to work with in books like D V Thompson’s ‘Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting’. 

I had my own bit of accidental alchemy occur when, towards the end of the workshop, I asked to dye a plain piece of scarf-sized silk to see what happened.  I’ve read the odd bit about the Japanese art of Shibori, which I’d love to go into in more detail at some point,  but I was totally unprepared for the marbled effects that occurred by simply flapping the corners over and very roughly winding the centre of the piece before painting.  An astonishing  piece of serendipity occurred, as you can see from the picture.  I’d never be able to repeat that, even if I tried! 

Unlike certain medieval alchemists, we were not imprisoned until we made gold but were allowed home at the end of the day, each of us sporting rather more hand-painted yarn than was strictly good for our bank balances.  From reds to blues, tropical colourways like mine to David Hockney-esque greens and purples by friend and fellow weaver Debby, we were all very proud of the magic that coalesced to colour our day.  May a little of our magic painting essence find its way to you in the coming week.   

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Making Revolution

Something’s stirring out there: it’s the rise of the Makers.  London’s Victoria & Albert museum apparently recorded the highest ever number of visitors to a free exhibition  - some 320,000 - for its Power of Making joint exhibition with the Crafts Council, according to the Independent.  Yet the real power lies with the people who are making it happen for the makers - quietly giving advice, promoting confidence, encouraging professionalism, and encouraging more people to open up their secret creativeness. 

I’ve just finished Pete Mosley’s book ‘Making your creativity pay’:  there’s so much of ‘me’ in there!  He’s well in tune with every facet of the human condition, from our self-doubt to our procrastination, and yet gently and realistically encourages his readers to get on with it and give it a go.  Recommended reading for anyone thinking of changing their life path to something more creative.  I think he’s involved in the Makers’ Symposium at the National Centre for Craft & Design at the end of April.  Alas I can’t get there but those who do should find it enlightening. 

Making it easy to try new crafts are the people at All Craft Media, who had their first open-day for readers of their various magazines at their new offices today.  Some of their titles are aimed at beginners in different hand-crafts, others at the more experienced.  But having been invited to be part of their first open-day, able to meet and question their editors in person, you get the impression that their passion for what they do is backed by realism, humility, humour, and even a little shyness. In coming out of their editorial shells to meet us face to face, they were completely open and desiring of constructive feedback to make their titles better serve us readers.  If you’re thinking of going on one of their future open days, you’ll be refreshed by their personal sincerity. 

Someone else who’s putting their all in on my behalf and that of others is friend and indie dyer Clare (Boo’s Attic on Ravelry and Etsy), who’s holding one of  her colourful yarn-dyeing workshops this weekend.  I’m looking forward to learning something new and experimenting with different ways to combine colour and pattern on a skein, albeit of somewhat smaller gauge yarn than I'm used to! 

As human resources professional know, a lack of ‘learning new things’ is one of the top three reasons why people leave their jobs.  Here’s wishing you a week full of new and inspiring experiences, and support that empowers you to get your tasks done with joy.  Power to The Makers!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Online, offline, above and below the line

Surveys are wonderful things: if you read the right ones they fill you with hope.  One that I’ve seen says the market for original British craft  is larger than that for original British visual art.  It also says that 5.6 million pieces of craft work are bought in an average year in our country.  But it’s finding a sufficient concentration of those potential buyers, and at a time and in a place you can access, which is the difficulty for most craftspeople. 

There are wonderful shows like the British Craft Trade Fair taking place this weekend at Harrogate, or on a smaller and more textile-focused scale, the Selvedge spring fair in London a few weeks ago.  But having the resources to attend multiple fairs  in a year is beyond many of us operating at the smallest of small scales.  For makers and dyers of yarns, the additional puzzle is defining where you fit into the craft-scape.   Are we to be classed as ‘contemporary craft’ or are we, because of the heritage behind us,  ‘traditional’ makers?  I could hardly call what I do anything other than contemporary, even though spinning as an activity has millennia of history behind it. 

When you look around at craft fairs, though, I wouldn’t fit at most of them.  So am I more akin to a ‘designer’ and should I be classed as part of the ‘fashion’ industry?  Or am I making something which is art in woolly form, so should I be classified with the artists?   Defining what you are  is easier for some crafters than for others.  It helps if you have a finished product resulting from your craft, such as fine basket-maker, friend and fellow spinner Eleanor.   

Defining routes to markets for craftspeople has spurred on Juliet Bernard and colleagues to launch Planethandmade recently.  Their aim is to bring designer makers together with markets and media to help them on their way: a service which will be much in need.  They’re starting by engaging us in conversation and through quick and easy questionnaires, available on their homepage. 

Makers need the oxygen of publicity, both online and offline in the printed media, to create an appreciative following.  In advertising terms, you need ‘above the line’ (mass broadcast, print and physical/tangible) promotion, as well as ‘below the line’ activities (relationship-building more directly with customers) to give yourself a sound business footing.  (Oops, the ‘day job’ is showing!)  But don’t let statistics bamboozle you.  It’s certainly impressive that over 95 million Tweets were sent each day in 2011, and around 200 million people accessed Facebook from their mobiles.  It might well be that online retail sales in Britain topped £50 billion in 2011, but that doesn’t make online selling the best option for everyone.  Some of us will need the far more bespoke and focussed help that people lie Juliet at Planethandmade can provide. 

Following its Spring conference in March, the Heritage Crafts Association is to hold a marketing seminar in September this year.  It’s another step towards bringing crafts marketing up-to-speed with the modern world and, as their Parton, HRH The Price of Wales put it in his conference message:  “…not simply hanging on to the past, but ensuring that they [craft skills] continue to bring genuine economic and cultural benefits to our communities today - and for generations to come.”  

If you’re trying to find some of of the 4.4 million people who aspire to own original craft works, then may you find special, swift and successful routes to market in the coming week, and beyond.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Green Woman, Green Lion, and Green Flower Power

What’s the common thread between a woman sleeping in a Chelsea Flower Show garden, a hospital report and the National Trust?  It’s the power of green.  Parents who say “Greens are good for you” can now feel vindicated on more than one level. 

This week, the National Trust launched a consultation on what it called ‘nature deficit disorder’ amongst Britain’s children.  BBC Environment Correspondent Richard Black, reporting the story, quoted from author and campaigner Richard Louv, who believes there’s a mental and physical health cost in limiting human beings’ access to nature.  From my experiences as a part-time gardener and garden adviser for a regional hospital, I heartily agree with him.

Colour therapists will tell you that green is calming, relaxing and balancing, with all its natural-world associations.  Others say this is a result of its physiological effects, slowing heart rates and breathing.  Research in the last decade though has gone far further than that.  CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, in its recommendations on hospital improvements said access to a hospital garden or even just to views of nature out of a window, improved patient outcomes.   The power of ‘green’ reduced stress, anxiety and depression;  helped patients summon up their own inner healing resources;  reduced the need for pain killers, and speeded up recovery times. With that kind of evidence,  why are hospitals still like concrete jungles instead of green oases?

Working with the hospital gardening team, we tried our best to make the small space we had into a green oasis, and even celebrated the power of green by installing a brave but kind green lion, designed by Steve Manning of Topiary Art Designs, at the entrance to the children’s unit.  On a miniature scale, we were paying homage to the phenomenal plantsmanship shown in the 4head Garden of Dreams designed by Marney Hall and Heather Yarrow for the 2006 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  That really was a triumph of green! 

With the arrival, as Shakespeare put it, of  ‘well-apparelled April’ this week, along with a small but gratefully-received amount of rain for East Anglia, spiritually-restorative greenness has at last returned to the verges and hedgerows.  In the garden, green flower is power blossoming around me as I spin.  Making art yarn mirror life is never easy, and the sheer multiplicity of spring greens adds another level of difficulty.  Here’s hoping nature will accept my attempts with good grace! 

May good things blossom for you this week, whether at your spinning wheel, in your garden, or inside yourself.