My first real experience with creativity was a bead curtain at the age of 12. Despite a commission for another one, they weren’t my thing. What I enjoyed most was drawing words letter by letter as I sounded them out (e.g., Disconnect becomes d i s c o n n e c t). Who knew this kind of wordplay would feature strongly in my first self-published book, One Small Drop decades later.
In 1988, I emigrated from Manchester, UK to the lush shores of New Zealand. Creativity took a backseat while I was busy running several businesses and raising my daughter. Then, one day I discovered a handmade book crafted by textile artist, Allie Snow. I was captivated.
This was the creative outlet I’d been searching for without even knowing it. My hobby moved rapidly from the dining room table to the garage. An empty nest a few years later was the catalyst to take another step and my business, Book Art Studios, was born. At the time, it was considered unprofessional to work from home (especially in a garage). I was self-conscious about that until two executives from Coca Cola visited me there. They didn’t bat an eyelid. That experience changed my perception and landed me a commission with an iconic brand, elevating my fledgling art business to include corporate clients.
Upcycling is a major part of my practice. No raw material is too sacred. I’m not the sort of person to keep their best china in a cupboard for special occasions. Always looking to include little things that may otherwise go unnoticed, I love plunging into an idea with one-of-a-kind materials, repurposing and giving things a new lease of life.
I make art that’s characterful, bespoke, has a use and stirs an emotional response within the purchaser. When I work on commissions, an idea may be given to me, but often, one simply manifests. When I mail my finished books, I ensure packaging is tied in with the concept. It works, as people write to tell me they spent ages just looking at their parcel before opening it. Creating anticipation and delight in receiving a book is all part of the experience.
In 2015, to celebrate my 50th birthday, I challenged myself to climb a creative Mount Everest. I self-funded a trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair to exhibit a collection of handmade books alongside One Small Drop. To make an impact among the 7,000 exhibitors, I designed a stand where visitors felt like they were stepping into one of my handcrafted books. It was so very different from the slick commercial strategies of the other exhibitors, and the response was electric. People were noticeably excited. Somehow, I carried one bulging suitcase, because that’s all I could afford, across the world.
A meeting at the fair with Austrian Publisher’s Freya Verlag resulted in a contract to write a how-to book for the German market, called DIY Notizbüchlein. I still marvel that I managed to write a guide for an unknown audience and translated it into a language I don’t speak. In 2017, a New Zealand publishing house, Little Island Press, published an English version entitled DIY Notebooks Made Easy. This whole experience reaffirmed to me that anything was possible. I came home and excitedly wrote myself a synopsis of this incredible adventure:
- Don’t be afraid to experiment.
- Say yes to creative projects, even when you have no idea how they might be achieved.
- Be open to where experiences take you and be prepared to change direction as necessary.
- Don’t let a lack of funds stop you from epic adventures.
- FIND A WAY.
My next challenge was finding a new home with an adjacent creative space large enough for me to work in and also to run a range of bookmaking/paper dyeing workshops. The place I finally found was NOT love at first sight. The whole property had been neglected and mistreated. My future studio, a garage with a workshop attached, was deep with dust, stunk of diesel and had graffiti-fogged draughty window panes. After months of elbow grease and some refurbishments, the studio now works like magic, drawing people in. It’s a play-space where people feel nurtured, calm and connected. Sometimes I sense a collective sigh, an “I’m home” feeling.
“Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.” — Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
I’ve kept one brick wall in its natural state to reflect my Mancunian roots. Blackboard paint on a dividing wall allows me to chalk up ideas, inspirational quotes and to-do lists as they come to mind. Throughout the rest of the studio, I re-lined the breezeblock with salvaged timber, which I then whitewashed.These wooden walls allow me to easily attach and rearrange shelves and displays. Since realising my vision for an effective and workable studio, my classes have grown too.
I’m consistently networking with and feeding into my creative community, both physically and online. To further extend myself as an artist I started experimenting with Facebook Live. To my astonishment, it’s grown into Book Art Studios TV, with a regular time slot! I film live demonstrations (that often deviate in unexpected directions) and interview other artists. Viewers simultaneously share information and ideas with each other in the comments. I’ve faced countless technical issues, accidentally filmed up my nose and had a close encounter with a guest’s dog. But, I don’t give up easily and continue to forge a path, sometimes wondering—but never fearing—where it might lead.
As I sit here writing this in my studio listening to the sounds of my neighbourhood and the winter rain on the roof, I’m also working on my next adventures. While I have one eye on the New York Book Fair, the other is looking for the right publisher for a recently completed manuscript; two hefty goals that require endless effort and energy. Making books though reenergizes me, and I feel as driven and passionate now as I did 20 years ago when I first started creating them.