On being a creative butterfly

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 2
004, 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 bou
ts 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.

'The Walk' - an early Bird Lady

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 us
ed 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.

'The Packet' - my first Bird Lady

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 f
inal 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.


Hally said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I think your work is adorable.

Catherine Hayward said...

Fascinating and touchingly frank.

Karen said...

A thought provoking narration. Thankyou. I have put your interview on favourites to read later. Good luck with everything, your work is amazing.

Helen/Spike and Drusilla OK Citizens said...

I have been a lurker for a couple of months, because I love your work. Andy is a gem! Congratulations on finding your way and making it work. It's great that you perservered so long so that you could make it work!

Melanie said...

I enjoyed reading this blog entry immensely. It has poked at a little part of my mind with some truths that need to be dealt with. I look forwward to reading your interview.

Unknown said...

An inspiration to keep going and stay true to what you love doing .... You were lucky to be described as a creative butterfly ... I was described as "Eeyore-like" ..... I'm not sure if that mean's I was chubby and grey or sullen and slightly witty ;-)

AC said...

Sometimes it helps to bring deep feelings out into the open and confront them head on...I think that it can help us to then move on to the next level.
Remember talent will always shine through and boy do you have talent.
Take care,
Alison x

Joanna said...

Glad to see your books, This is a wonderful post and has filled me with of a muddle of words to say to you, but such a muddle I will keep them to myself.

Racheal Miles said...

Hi, thanks for commenting on my blog.

I am so pleased to have found you, I really enjoyed reading this post.

Racheal x

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Gretel for this post. I'm having a very bad day and you've cheered me up :)
I had a horrible childhod too and expressed it in my early student work with aggressive birds and odd looking creatures (sculpture). By reading your story, I realise that the thread in my own life has been the joy of colour. I share the love of old toys too - couldn't keep any as we moved so often, but the memory of illustrations in story books are what drives me today. Thank you.xx

Merisi said...

" ... before everyone and their cat had blogs ... " - oh, Gretel, you are so funny! I bet there are even some toys out there blogging, even yours, behind your back. ;-)))

You do not have to apologize for anything, I admire your perseverance. I remember what I have read on your CV, I could constantly hug you to make up for what you had to go through. Contrary to what you say, I do not find your paintings or toys melancholic in the commonly accepted definition, but more full of a sense of wistfulness, the kind of wistfulness even young children at times express, as if knowing what adulthood will bring, yet still full of hope that they will be the one to master life, to wrestle best out of what they will be given.

Amongst The Oaks said...

Hi Gretel,

I loved this blog; so honest and thoughtful. All artists must go through this process now and then, mustn't they? I love your illustrations, and can't wait to see your felt elephant.
Hugs, Laura

Carol said...

Hi Gretel, I am pleased that you found my blog and that in turn lead me to yours.......the trouble with blogging is I could sit here all day reading and then I would have no spare time for trying to be creative at all!
I did enjoy reading your blog this afternoon.
Your art 'style' is simply beautiful...

Anonymous said...

Hello there, Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

I'm a new fan through Etsy.com and just wanted to pop in to say how much I enjoyed this blog and the interview you completed. Love the bird ladies.

Your work is so inspiring and your toys have a quiet dignity that really gets to me. Somehow, you are also instilling that into your new needle felting as well.

Your partner was right (and what a nice man);
you are an artist.

Love Jem

ellen said...

What a lovely and sensitive interview, with a lovely and sensitive artist.
Thank you both.

natural attrill said...

Hi G,
Just went to read your interview, the pics of your work there are so clear and bright they look really good.
Like the look of the red felt elephant, cant wait to see how he turns out.
Toby just replied to your question on our blog.

Tea said...

Thank you for sharing your story. It`s wonderful that by not giving up, you`ve become successful at your beautiful art. I love your bird ladies too. Especially that first one. It really tells a story. She`s walking blindly, not really having a clue as to where she`ll end up, but never the less, persists, bringing her wee trusting bird behind her for the journey. Will she turn right or keep walking straight?


Tart said...

Hmm, as a keen collector of The Tiddler Press's small but beautifully crafted gems in the olden days, I for one would be delighted to see more!
I think Vienna... is right that your works have a sense of wistfulness rather than out and out melancholy. They are delicious and thought provoking.
(PS busy dyeing yarns and fibres and have taken your suggestion on board)

Elizabeth said...

What a wonderful story.
Being an artist is terrible in so many ways.
but I suppose if you are one you can never really stop being one.
So it was worth it all in the end.

tlawwife said...

A beautiful post and a wonderful interview. Thank-you for sharing.

Caroline B said...

How brave you are to bare your soul like that! I think the journey is an integral part of becoming who we are, and without the struggle who knows where we'd be instead. It's just a shame it's a long hard road to reach where you want to be (and it doesn't pay well at all!!) You are lucky you were given such a pretty label - I was always called a 'messer' by my family, referring to too many fingers in too many creative 'pies'....

Anonymous said...

Goodness, such a lot I can relate to here. As a fellow creative 'butterfly' I'm where you were some time ago - on the brink of giving it all up and doing something ordinary; grappling with depression, chronic fatigue and self doubt. Having read what you have to say, I'm willing to stick with it a little longer and see what happens. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.

Deb said...

hello gretel. thank you for sharing such an honest post. i enjoye reading it and finding out abit more about you. dx.

Rima Staines said...

Gretel this is a lovely tale and encouraging for us all... I know well those feelings, and am so pleased that you are now happily devoting your time and mind to your true thing. What a wonderful illustration that is at the top there with delicious browns. And aha! ..There are the elusive bird ladies.. I was looking for them with no luck when snaffling your work for my blog! (so perhaps I could sneak one or two in in place of what's there?) I have always really loved "the punishment". And your wonderful painstakingly beautiful tiddler press publications... DO bring them back!!
And what a lovely interview...
Been meaning to say... look forward to seeing your oil paintings and I noticed in your twitter snippet the other day that you are teaching? Hurrah - what lucky pupils :) I really enjoyed the teaching I have done too ...
Hmm, must stop waffling... love your new banner by the way.
And thanks for your visit ... yes I am happily animating away in the attic besieged by sleet (yes our spring poked its head out and went back to bed again!) and I have had no more falls!
Cheerio & lotsa love xx R

moonandhare said...

Thanks much for this very touching post. I've been flitting around myself for years, so I know what you mean.

It's true for so many artists that life is full of self-doubt, guilt over not giving up and getting a "real job," and a serious shortage of funds and encouragement.

I'm so glad that you've come through it all and found out what you need to do. Your work is lovely, and I hope you have lots of success!

French Knots said...

A heartfelt post, a difficult journey to reach your current success. Your work has a wonderful and appealing quality, perhaps because of the road you travelled.

Marianne said...

I've always loved your blog, Gretel: it never fails to bring a smile to my face and heart. :-D

You do such wonderful expressive paintings, that say so much. One can look at one for quite a long time and 'see' a whole story in its brushstrokes. Don't be afraid of the oil paint. It's my first love. I learned when I was 12, from my grandma, and only started taking it seriously in my 20s. Here I am, with the dream of being a cover artist finally let go of. It caused a major depression over two years ago, but when I went back to painting exclusively in oils, it was a whole new outlook on my creativity. A new maturity and confidence. I'm currently painting pointy rocket ships that sail on waves of nostalgia, and a balloon ship to carry my dreams. Just completed three more this week, and the ideas continue to rise...

A raised cup of cheer to your perseverence and courage, and to the true creative within you. :-D


Anonymous said...

Hi Gretel,

Thank you for your kind words about me and my music. As an artist/musician myself, I can relate to the doubts and challenges that have been a part of your journey. I truly am honored that you granted me this interview. As a lifetime supporter of the arts, these profiles are just my own little way of encouraging independent artists such as yourself to keep doing what you do. I do this in hopes that the added exposure will lead to more financial and creative success.

I am believing more and more that anything is possible. I hope you are doing the same.

-Gordon Roque

auntpearl said...

I am so thankful that you have continued your artwork. I just think you have such a unique style. I treasure my pieces I have of yours... They bring a part of my childhood back to mind.
I wish you all the best my friend. Can't wait to see what you create next.

Sending you bunches of hugs,

Deborah Lambson said...

I just happened upon your blog through trafficjam and what a treat...lovely illustrations filled with moody reflection. I hope you don't mind, I've added you to my blogroll..

Gordon Fraser said...

Really nice new stuff here Gretel!! You've been a very busy bee!!

(Thanks fer visiting us again!!)

Elizabeth said...

this is a very small world.
Yesterday I went shopping in NY and visited my friend Frances who manages the most super (expensive!) clothes shop when she is not painting and blogging.
She said she is a blog friend of yours........
have a peaceful weekend

Erica-Jane said...

Dear Aunty Gretel,

I sooo know where you're coming from re:artistic butterfly!


Anonymous said...

Breathtakingly honest and beautifully written too boot. Can't wait to see your toys, I've never found your pictures sad to me they speak of love, the sort so well expressed in The Velveteen Rabbit.

Francesca said...

beautiful work and I loved the interview. I can relate to a great deal of what you write - this fellow butterfly salutes you!

natural attrill said...

That's a very nice headless pink elephant you have there!!

kate said...

That was a wonderful interview - your candidness and honesty was refreshing. I admire you for staying true to yourself, no matter how tough it has been.

I'm glad you've got some loose tea too!! Twitter is great fun ...

Cowboys and Custard Mercantile said...

What an epic journey and arriving at your destination must be immensely satisfying.. and rewarding..
Well done you for never losing your nerve or direction or vision...


Cindy Garber Iverson said...

Thank you for this post!!!!! Your act of chronicling your journey so publicly has resonated so deeply with me. I have so many parallel experiences and am on the cusp you found yourself on just a short while ago. I have been going through a creative funk the past few weeks asking myself, "Why even try this all again?" Then I came over and read your post. Thank you!!!! You have no idea how much this has helped me and inspired me!

Cindy at Rosehaven Cottage

P.S. I was just at Disneyland a couple of weeks ago in a gallery being encouraged by the cast member to contact them concerning my artwork. You writing of your connection with Disney seems quite serendipitous.

Frances said...

Small world indeed. Elizabeth got here first, but I'd been wanting to tell you what a grand confluence art can create.

What you have written here will be so encouraging to so many artists who may just pop by.

Finding your style. There is a very deep concept. Think of old man Picasso and how he moved through a bit of canvas and paper before, he discovered himself. Same is true for many.

It is time and quiet that may lead you to have the opportunity to think of all you know, all you have seen, all you have felt, and then ... maybe just as Gretel you now will get that felting going ... it just might all come together. And in a year or two might recombine in a totally different creative result.

Your site is really generous and quite a gift to many creative spirits around the world.

Just look at your comments! xo

Unknown said...

Hi Gretel,

I found you on an Etsy Accident of pressing the location button and it inserting my home town and you were the only hit. Seeing your felted toys, I feel like I just had an 'Ah ha' moment.

Your toys are exactly the kind of thing I like to look at and then I saw your painting style and its just blew me away. Some of the toys have such a well-worn-loved sense to them, with a subtle sadness. like each picture tells its own velvetine rabbit story in one image.

This post and the interview you did really hit a chord with me. I'm trying to find my way creatively and i keep getting my hands on new craft ideas. I'm going to try giving needle felting a go, just from seeing what you've made with it.

Thank you for your words and your art, you've inspired me this week to try to enjoy myself more.

Mariann Johansen-Ellis said...

This is a great post! Thanks for sharing, and for showing, that there are more than one way to being an artist....:o) Mariann