There was a moment at a critique, in my college days, when an exasperated illustration lecturer sat across the table from me, and blustered; 'Gretel, you cannot go on being a creative butterfly if you want to build a career'. He was a nice man - one of those tall, fair Scottish types who go red in the face with emotion. As he spluttered at my sulky 25 year old self, he was quite alarmingly pink. This was when I had changed my project technique for the second or third time, trying to decide on the all-elusive 'style'. He had a very good point. It took me several years to realise it, eight years to pin myself down to concentrating purely on watercolour painting and only the last few months to discover that actually, if I put my mind to it - and with self discipline - I can be a creative butterfly. So long as I stick to selected flowers. Because my gut instinct has always been that while I am a painter, I also love making things - always have - always had a complete obsession with toys, even when I was tiny. Old toys, broken toys, sad, worn out toys I could love and give security to; the security I often lacked even before I was old enough to realise it.
'Little Clown' 2008
Where was I - oh yes, deciding what to do...since graduating in 1993 to the year 2004, I did not manage to snag one single commercial job. Not one. I still worked every day, re-styled whole portfolios, sent samples and stories out, got them sent back - as you do. My time in the wilderness lasted over a decade, supplemented by various part time jobs. I started out washing up and ended up in a book shop; a career ladder of sorts. In the mid-1990's I was butterflying about with all kinds of crafts, from needlepoint to embroidery, patchwork to temari balls and trying to run my own tiny self-publishing outfit, the Tiddler Press. (This actually had some small success, but I lacked the investment needed to develop it, and so with great sadness I shelved it - for the time being).
After a while my fluttering took me to the plan of having my own company, through which I would sell my amalgamated creations, including my little books. It would be called Red Flannel Elephant, with the Tiddler Press as a subsiduary. So I started producing the first RFE cards. I had no money, so expensive printing was out of the question. I simply traced out various designs onto watercolour paper, hand painted each and every one, mounted them onto blanks and sold them mainly by word of mouth, for the princely sum of (I think it was) 2.00 each. I kept one of each of the designs, just to remind myself never to do it again. Looking at them now, I can see many themes I am still using today. Re-use, recycle.
I sold some, maybe a couple hundred, but the sheer fag of hand painting something for not-much-money got to me in the end, and again, I gave it up, at about the same time as I abandoned my books. This was in the year 2000, and I was still battling horrid bouts of depression and low self esteem, not really the best ingredients for setting up any kind of business, let alone a multi-faceted one which needs sheer balls to sell yourself to shops and customers. And I was rather lacking the organisational skills required to juggle all the various arty-crafty areas I wanted to explore. Ah, the dark days before universal Internet - before everyone and their cat had blogs - before dear old Etsy. If only Etsy had existed, I might have made it work. But it didn't. I sank into despair: Andy was slogging his guts out at a job he disliked, simply so that I could fulfill my so-called vocation, and here we were, seven years later, still renting, no pensions, no savings, and struggling to get by. What on earth had it all been for? How delusional had I been? And how completely selfish to drag someone I loved down with me. I gave up creating anything. Especially illustration: it was obviously leading nowhere.
For about 3 months I led a relatively 'normal' life. I drank a lot of cheap cider and made batches of chutney; maybe I would become one of those nice, jolly 'Country Living' small business women, selling homemade pickles through exquisite delis. I almost felt settled. But I hadn't counted on my head. A head that had a lifetime of imaginings and was used to expressing the multitude of images and feelings which flitted through it every day. Where did they go? Well, with no other outlet, they came out in my dreams. One night Andy returned from work to find me dolefully stirring another pan of vinegary fruit, took me by the shoulders and said - 'look, you are an artist. You are never going to be a world famous chutney maker. You are an artist.' I think I cried. And started painting the next day. The things in my head - the 'Bird Ladies'. They had invaded my sleeping hours, now I was going to set them free on paper. And something had happened to my technique in that time - it had grown up. I drew out my first image, and thought, hum, I wonder what would happen if I tried doing this..? By the time it was finished, I had a lovely new style which had appeared from (it seemed) out of my previous darkness.
So began the brief period of the Bird Ladies. Some of the most rewarding work I have ever done. Then we really had something to worry about. Our landlord sold our home and we had to move, in an area where rents take up over half a wage packet. We ended up here - the 'middle of nowhere' as it felt like at the time. The final part of a long healing process began. 'Nelliephant' appeared and I held a small exhibition of (mainly) toy paintings in Oxford, amazed when I sold them all. I held another one and realised that actually, despite all the years of rejections, real people liked my work. I concentrated 100% on my lovely new technique, determined not to distract myself, not to fall into the creative butterfly trap. I got a commission with Disney, and some other jobs, and was able to go properly freelance. That was soon after I started this blog. It's been upitty- downity since, but I am still - just about - here. A year of not having had any 'proper' work to speak of has concentrated my mind wonderfully. I know exactly what I want to make and how I am going to draw all my efforts under one big Red Flannel Elephant umbrella.
I started with the cards, am continuing with the painting and now slowly stirring in toy making. So far, so manageable. I do find that I have little time for much else though (plus ça change...) so please forgive me for lack of emails and blog visits, if I have erred in that respect. Next on the list is to dust my old sewing machine off, as there are toys to sew, creatures to stuff. And sometime this year - I am going to re-print my little books and produce more. Oh yes, and my new best friend, needle felting, what a happy, happy discovery that has been, and how welcome the online felting community has made me feel!
There are still paintings to liberate - so many things, so little time. But somehow I can deal with it all now. I have been brooding a lot about why I made such a difficult hash of things. Why it took me so long to realise that toys are all I ever really cared about. I was recently asked to do an in-depth interview about my art and why I do it; I've had a few similar requests in the past. But I don't like 'going' there. Too much pain and sore memories. I usually sidle out of it, being unable to give a happy response. This time, however, I did. A young musician called Gordon Roque approached me with an intelligent series of questions I felt I needed to answer. He understood my work so well, it would have been churlish to refuse. The result took hours to compose, but it was rather like lancing a boil; it's out now. Had I had a happier childhood, I would paint happier pictures, it is as simple as that. Gordon is an exquisite musician, a lyrical, gentle songwriter and sublime pianist. His site has samples of his lovely music, and I am very much anticipating his new album, Sea Horses. Even if you are heartily bored of reading my navel gazing, do pop over and have a listen. My interview (should anyone be interested in why I paint such melancholic pictures) and a rarely seen Bird Lady can be found here.
Thank you for your indulgence.