Friday, 15 October 2010

Biography - An Introduction to Me

This is me

Sitting comfortably? I can go on a bit....

An Overview of Things
There were years of playing around with paints and pencils, clay and glue, tinfoil and newspapers. There was sewing, building, inventing and much mess. This is the story of lots of people, so what makes me any different? Probably the fact that I never grew out of it.

There were times I should have been doing other things but I simply couldn't drag myself away from the latest project. Lots of those times in fact. Then there were years where necessity was the mother of invention, which is when I learned to knit and sew and decorate rooms, make toys and games and generally recycle anything I could get my hands on. I baked cakes and decorated them with models of people (I'm no Delia Smith, the eating part was not the best), painted old wall tiles in enamels, broke up discarded glass and begged a few hours here and there to melt it in a kiln, borrowed and stole old materials (my greatest guilt was the dried seahorse I liberated from a dusty old store room somewhere. He remained with me for years and was the subject of many a painting and pencil sketch. Someone stole him from a display of my work years later and I fancy he lives on, being hijacked by those in need of inspiration before moving on to the next vagabond with sticky fingers).

I sometimes think I spent a lot of my earlier  life like a long term prisoner, scrabbling for bits and pieces to play with and losing myself in my imagination. A whimsical Hollywood interpretation of the wronged artist no doubt, but then folk like me are prone to such fits of fancy.

It's not all been doomed scrabbling of course. I live in a northern English town and I've had a life other than trying to make things that will change the world.

I've worked in all sorts of jobs, had children, studied and travelled a bit. When I say travelled, it's mostly been by accident, like the time I was stricken with depression after some ill fated events (mostly of my own doing) and my sister gathered me up on a trip to France with her and her daughters. Then there was another trip to France many years ago with my Nan and yet another one to stay with an English friend who'd take root over there. I still don't speak the language enough to do more than order a pain au chocolate, but it gets me by. There have been two visits to the US, the second being to New York which ranks up there with some of the greatest events of my life. I was enchanted by Hell's Kitchen and the people there, especially the flea market they have on Sundays. I plan to go back one day.

The UK has its joys for me too. My family live all over the place, so I've stomped up and down from  the south coast to Scotland, the latter being my latest journeying. There's much inspiration to be had in the countryside there, and the skies over Glasgow alone could inspire an army of painters.

Growing an Artist 

So, backing up a bit.

There came a time when I decided I would give a formal art education a go. I'd studied art and design full time for a year after I left school, but in the way of a lot of teenagers I was rebellious and wanted to escape education for what I (typically) thought were the greener pastures of grownup life. It was to be ten years or so before I went back (with humility I'd lacked as a youngster), to grow myself into a proper artist.

I can say with absolute honesty that I would never have appreciated the opportunity to study when I was younger. Starting college again in my mid twenties was a joy to me. I no longer had to justify time taken away from everyday life to do creative things, on the contrary, this is what I was supposed to be doing now.

I didn't think I would be successful, nor did I have the confidence to barge my way in there and make my mark like you would expect from a repressed creative. I was just a shy and underdeveloped person trying to find my path. I don't know if fate had a hand in it (just a turn of phrase there, I don't do airy fairy crystal-rubbing nonesense) or if I was just tremendously fortunate, but whatever it was, I fell in lucky as they say.

Firstly, I was utterly enraptured with the masses of materials and equipment at hand. Imagine a graphics department, print room, kilns, paints, computers, books, easels and everything you could imagine right there at my fingertips. It was a veritable Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory of wonder to my eyes. Secondly there were people. Artist people. You have to understand that I had spent many years without adult company and certainly lacking the views and conversation of those who had lived their lives outside the confines of a small town. It was like landing on an alien planet full of people who were making a living doing the stuff that I'd only dreamed of.

Most importantly, though I didn't realise it for some years, was John Charters. John was the senior art tutor at the college and I could spend pages describing him. I won't, because this can't go on too long. In sumary, he was warm, hilariously funny, intelligent, experienced and humble. I adored him and he believed in me more than anyone ever had, apart from my little sister, who has always been one of the few rocks in my life.

John seemed to love everything I made and ran alongside me at breakneck speed as I grew and developed. He would write little notes of encouragement on index cards and post them to me, often including the paw print of his beloved dog as a signature. He engaged with every tiny idea I had, suggested new routes and rejoiced in my achievements. It was he who taught me  how to make my own sketchbooks in the traditional library binding style, and he who sat with me in his little Victorian herb garden at his home, discussing the way forward when I couldn't find the confidence to make decisions by myself.

Foundation year at college was a huge success for me. I finished with a distinction and amazingly managed to secure a place on the university course I wanted. It was a horrendously difficult decision to make, as I wanted to study everything, but I settled on constructed textiles at Liverpool John Moores University due to the scope they gave students in their studies. John was to follow me there eventually when he was made redundant form the FE college and took up a tutor position on my degree course.

The Degree Years

I doubt there has ever been a more nervous degree student than I was in that first semester. Not being the most confident of people I struggled to find my niche at first, and I admit to being somewhat of a prat. It can take a while to get rid of the small town mentality when you suddenly find yourself in a city and in close confines with people of whacky ideas.

People talk about university life and education, but my take on it is that if you utilise everything on offer you can come out the other end as a much more enlightened and mature being.I entered that three year stretch with nothing but a small talent and a desire to learn. The finished product was so much more than I had known I was signing up for (apart from the student loan of course).

The variety on offer to me was immense. I learned a huge amount of skills and didn't stop there. When I reached an impasse and my tutors no longer had the answers I needed I took myself off on unpaid work placements to  pick the brains of people in industry. I had the cheek of the devil, I would ring people and announce that I was a student who needed to learn x, y and z, or needed materials, advice or whatever else I could think of. Mostly the people I contacted were extremely helpful and sent me materials, letters full of advice or in some cases, the offer to work with them. Clark's Shoes sent me shoes to butcher and adorn (they had no provision for me to work with them but they did all they could to help me in other ways), textiles companies provided me with fabrics, glaziers sent me broken window panes, manufacturers allowed me to use their machinery and the expertise of their employees. I soon grew the gift of the gab and could get all sorts of freebies and help. I always offered my services free of charge in return and spent my holiday weeks on jobs, making whatever I was asked and helping out in workshops.

The tutors would take our design samples to trade shows a few times a year and if they sold we would get the cash, a welcome injection for any student. One show in Paris was a major success for me and I sold to Calvin Klein and DKNY on the same day. I was overjoyed of course, then even moreso when I was approached by a glossy Paris magazine who wanted to showcase my work. I recall that they included an especialy ugly photo of me, but I didn't care because I was seeing my work in print for the first time.

A few weeks after I had been made famous (indulge me here, I know it's hardly earth shattering) I was called from my studio to reception to take a phone call. An American voice on the other end told me she had seen my work in a magazine and she wondered if I would accept a commission to work on a movie she was involved in. Naturally I thought this was a joke, someone winding me up. I thought the best thing to do was play it cool and ask her to call me at home later, which I did. Amazingly she did ring back and make her proposal, which was to produce latex fabrics to be made into costumes for the X Men movie which was in pre production at the time. 

To cut a long story short, I did make and submit the work, which was included in the film. I got a horrible fright though. I was approaching the end of my final degree year when I was working on this job and my tutors very kindly agreed to allow me to use the designs as my final project. This was a stroke of luck, as I doubt I could have done both to any acceptable standard in such a short timescale.

The bad part was on my last day at university, the day when all students are putting the finishing touches to their degree show and inviting important people to come and view it. I had worked towards this day for three years and suddenly here I was with nothing but some books of sketches and photographs on a table. How horribly disappointing when all around me were huge professional displays of impressive artwork. I felt a fraud and a failure and cried all the way home, so convinced was I that I had messed up at the last minute.

We had to wait a while for our degree results. Dissertations were marked and work assessed as we waited at home for a month or two with baited breath. I will never forget the day we went to collect the results. I drove to Liverpool in tears, not knowing what to expect. I was certain I'd shot myself in the foot by doing the movie stuff and I had been vexing about it continuously. I can't convey the emotions I felt when I finally found my name in the huge list pinned on the wall at the entrance to my university buidling. I stood there in silence for goodness knows how long, staring at my name and "1st Class Bachelor of Arts with Honours" alongside it. I think I cried.

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