When did it all start? Maybe when I wrote a short play for my school. The actors sat in a row, on a bench, one after the other, itching and twisting. A mangy looking dog wandered around scratching at itself. The fleas moved from the dog, to the first human on the bench, then the next, and on, until all the characters were infested.
My first memory of writing. Or maybe, my ever arguing mind chose to believe I wrote this little skit for my school play and in reality I plagiarized. I played the part of the dog of course.
I have a flashback of a picture of a poodle for a children’s program on the BBC. Blue Peter had a competition and I must have won something as there was my poodle on the TV. Perhaps my first professional drawing?
In the evenings, before my father rang the dinner bell (a bell which came from the camel corps in Africa) my brother and I would disappear into our bedrooms. What my brother did I have no idea, I think he wrote poetry and built forts; I created.
Where did the book come from? Did someone give it to me? A book of soft toy patterns. One of the designs was a duck.
Jemima Puddleduck is one of the better known of Beatrix Potter’s children’s book series. If I could add a hat and a scarf to the stuffed felt duck body she would come alive.
The dinner bell rang, … it rang again. Finally the human summons. I had to drag myself away from the tiny stitches. The duck was taking shape.
A few meals later and there she was. In my eyes she was perfect, and perhaps she really was.. Memory is easily disrupted.
Stitching, sculpture, crafting, engineering. All these things were used in making Jemima.
Laying the foundation, laying the foundation.
There were scraps of stories and small illustrations. Coloured pictures of fairy castles, and a tale about dragons. I was always drawing, writing and making things.
Eventually I found an advertisement for a mail order art course and wrote for information. What I hadn’t realised was that a salesman would eventually bang on our front door (brass lion knocker) and try to sell this course to my parents.
The piece I sent was a black and white of encircled rooms in a house. Was it any good? I have no idea but I was maybe 10 years old and had an absolutely comprehensible, perfect little drawing. My parents were somewhat embarrassed at having to send this sweet salesman away.
My next creative recall was attending art classes at the Royal Naval School. We had a very sexy art teacher (at least we all thought so. He was a male and that was all that was necessary!). My 13 year old girlfriend would flash her early breasts at the poor man. He would play Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime moi non plus” during class. The house he lived in with his family (provided by the school) had a staggering vegetable and fruit garden. I particularly remember the currants of every colour. Perhaps this was where I started my love of edible cottage gardens? One thing I don’t remember was what we actually did in the class! I’m guessing the beleaguered man tried to teach us basic principles.
On to a life lived for myself. My first marriage was short and probably not terribly sweet for my husband. I was a rotten wife having done the classic rebound and sunk into the willing arms of the ‘best friend’. He was a chef and I was a trained cordon bleu cook. Yes, we did actually once make a turducken – deboning all the poultry and stuffing it into itself. But I don’t believe I drew or wrote much during these few years. He was a songwriter and musician as well as a chef, and played guitar in local bands. Most of my creativity went into cooking for elaborate dinner parties.
Moving out of our house with the divorce settlement meant I could buy a little flat – a couple of streets away. We parted amicably although I do believe a heart was broken. Someone else was in my life by this time though my ex and I stayed in touch. He eventually married and continued living in the same house with his second wife.
Once single I got back to drawing. Somehow I managed to involve myself in an abusive relationship – with, for heaven’s sake, a writer. Who, as an aside, is rather well respected with a great many published books under his belt. He is passionate about cricket (the game, not the insect), and to this day travels from the USA to the UK to report on incredibly exciting matches (not) at the Oval.
I drew so I could disappear into another world, away from the horrible dynamic of our everyday battle. Coloured pencil and charcoal was my medium this time. My cats and anything else which took my fancy were sketched. Some of those pieces are still with me.
Life took on an international flavour. Not content with working at Britain’s Treasury, my next job was working for the editor of the Cambridge Evening News. Yet another flat was purchased (yup, I did sell the one in London near my ex husband. I’m a flipping fool). Little artwork was done in this amazing university city but many friends were made.
Not satisfied with prowling around England it was time to widen my horizons and leave home – or rather head out to the wider world. A complete evacuation to the West Indies was in order. Walking past the sofa in my hallway on my way to the airport, I thought – I hope the buyers come and get this because if they don’t they’ll have a hard time finding me!
My boyfriend du jour and I, plus several suitcases headed out the door aiming for Antigua in the Caribbean.
Painting – Watercolour
Memory doesn’t serve me well here. Did I paint the hibiscus before the police picked me up as a suspected murder victim, or after? Doesn’t really matter – another story for another day. Whatever the timeline there was definitely an art exhibition and I definitely went to it. As I wandered along the paintings I thought, Hell, I can do this.
So I did.
Outside our tiny studio apartment (by the sea of course) I painted the first hibiscus from a live plant. The next time the Antiguan Art Association had an exhibition my painting was there. For about 5 minutes, and then someone bought it. Pretty darn cool and certainly got my artist chops going.
Working in a little 2 bedroom Caribbean shack I continued painting in watercolor and created a black and white series of prints. Hibiscus, Antiguan pineapple (sweeter than Hawaiian, though no doubt someone will dispute my claim), trunkfish – don’t ask, very tasty and ancient, and a conch shell (pronounced conk, DO NOT pronounce the ch at the end, you will embarrass yourself).
At the time my artwork was shown in an English Harbour art gallery where I just happened to volunteer my time. The incentive being, selling my own work without the gallery taking a commission.
If you tried that here in America you’ve got the Rule of threes in survival. 3 minutes without air, 3 hours in a harsh environment, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food. ie. you would not survive as an artist.
Fortunately the locals and tourists in Antigua made sure my water, environment, and food was paid for. The air was free. In other words, I did very nicely thank you, working from my studio. Erm, room in shack. Moving on from rather insipid watercolours to oils – more experimental than serious. Very cool medium. But not for me.
Painting – Acrylics
Then I tried acrylics, which are a sort of cross between watercolour and oil paints. Again, a very cool medium but not for me.
Painting – Gouache
Eventually I landed on gouache which is an opaque watercolour often used for illustrations as it really is saturated and covers paper well. AND, much more suited to tropical light.
To support myself I took on all sorts of interesting enterprises. People would come to my house and buy paintings before they were finished; wall murals were popular – I painted small Caribbean scenes on hotel room walls, a Mill Reef resident asked me to paint a whole wall with a replication of one of my designs; hand-painted t-shirts; restaurant signs. You name it, I painted it.
You could support yourself, as a full time artist, on this island. What a shock when my new husband imported me to the USA and I found this was not possible in America.
I reached the age of 40, single and carefree, earning enough as a freelance artist to get by and do some traveling. Time to get serious and get my life in order.
How to catch a husband? Well you write out a list of all the attributes you would like to find in a mate and then go out and get them. You must be specific. I forgot I don’t terribly like bearded men. I should have made it clear in my list. My now husband sports a beard – which is actually rather handsome.
David imported me to the USA where I joined the American Artists Studios in Virginia. Terribly disappointing sales. I was used to having my work fly out of the studio and nuh uh, not here.
What to do? And I needed to make friends. We were living on the side of a hill, in the country, and I didn’t drive. First thing was to pass a driving test – which I did, to the horror of my husband. Second thing was to find a quilting group. Which I did.
Oh, and while I was exploring my new home and surroundings I painted a wall mural in our living room – just for fun. David was often away for long periods of time on business so I could settle in and work on a long project without interruption.
Back to the friend’s side of things. How about the Waterford Quilters Guild which actually met in Waterford, Virginia. (Doesn’t any more but that’s another story). The only reason I needed to pass my driving test was to drive out to quilt meetings. At the time, we lived in a rural part of Virginia so there were 3 cars and a tractor on the road. This I could handle – or rather, drive.
Off I went and this sparked off my transition from gouache paints to little pieces of coloured fabric. The ladies at the guild guided my learning. I began with basic techniques and over a period of time began branching out into art quilts. These are non-traditional quilts which lean towards abstract art, personally designed geometric patterns, figurative work, and any other direction artwork can go.
The Studio Art Quilt Associates was founded five years before I found them. I discovered they were holding a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico so I went. My ideas of what an art quilt could be suddenly blossomed into craziness.
I even dabbled in optical illusions by designing anamorphic quilts.
I made a few pieces in various styles but my real interest was in fractals. A geometric equation which supposedly explains non-linear geometry. Well who cares what it does? If you learn how to use UltraFractal software (which is a skill in itself, believe me), then you can create the most fascinating images. The artistry comes in designing each image – shapes, colours, composition, lines, value. Oh boy, all the good stuff.
And the pay off? I have a completely original fractal design to convert into a textile wall hanging. This is the ‘thing’ I am known for. This is where my finished work became sellable, showable, talk about-able. For many years I showed in galleries, museums, traveling exhibitions, and art centers. Busy, busy, busy. Every piece took many hours to stitch together. And I spent many hours in my basement studio in Virginia with needle in hand, swatches of fabric strewn everywhere, rows of coloured threads. A lot of time and mental energy was spent in that basement studio.
My favourite story is when Craft magazine published a picture of my piece ‘Skating on Thin Ice’ and mixed up the description with someone else’s piece. The someone else was Martha Sielman who went on to become the President of the Studio Art Quilt Associates and a very happy acquaintanceship developed between us.
I worked with fabrics for more than a decade and then something happened.
At my mother-in-law’s complex there is a room called Pearl’s Closet. In it are things no longer wanted: the owner has died, moved, gotten bored and so this room is used to gather these things for anyone who might fancy them. Basically a thrift store. As my MIL lived about 3 doors down from this room my husband and I would always visit to see if anything interesting turned up.
Blast and damnation. A huge pile of beading magazines leaped out and I scooped them up. At the time we were living in Tampa, Florida and I was able to join a beading group. They did not believe my beginner status. Especially when my first written beadwork pattern was accepted by Bead & Button magazine.
From there I shifted my beadwork towards the embroidery side of things. Now I create sculptural pieces using both beadwork and bead embroidery.
And of course, there isn’t an event or outing which I can’t accessorize with the perfect piece of jewelry!
What next in my artistic explorations? First stitching, then writing, onto painting, stitching again, now beadwork. Personally, I think I’ll be writing again.
Every single thing I have ever created has been made up of very small pieces. And what is writing but stringing very small characters into words, into stories, into books.
I’m good at that…