Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Growing Family

Oliver, whom I showed you yesterday, was a big hit when he was finished. People really seemed to like his warm demeanour and his inviting smile. As with a lot of my other work, I was very fortunate to get commissions for more bears after I had developed a range of my own design. Again I was in the business of customising my creations for children and adults alike.

When I was making Oliver I had bought a tiny baby grow. I cut and chopped it to fit his body. I sewed a new hem and neck line and added the slogan with a felt patch I had embroidered. For this guy, I found a toy waistcoat and scarf pattern in one of my knitting books. I feel all these extra details can really help to build up a character for each individual bear.

I have found a strange but good thing when making these bears. Even a small adjustment in the weight of wool I am using or a new texture leads to each bear taking on a slightly different shape and size. They develop in their own way which strengthens their individual look.

I can add to these differences by where I position their ears, the thickness or thinness of their limbs and the buttons I choose for their eyes. Their expressions develop as I sew each stitch in place and before you know it you have a new bear before you.

When creating each new personality I try to think what I would like to infuse into his/her character. Sometimes I am trying to convey something I have learned and I have been moved to communicate it, like in the case of Oliver. With Theobold I wanted to show his boldness and I wanted to be bold myself by making something that was difficult and unsavoury in spirit. If I am making a toy for a child I think about playfulness, friendship and love. When I am making a bear for an adult I will think about comfort and a reconnection with innocence.

I have found by thinking about and concentrating on these things and also the person the piece is intended for, a kind of layman’s magic occurs. The expression of my intentions tends to appear on the bears face as I sew it and when people hold the bears and encounter them, they more often then not will declare the feelings I had been focusing on when making it. It is a wonderful process to behold and it says to me, you don’t always have to say how you are feeling, sometimes you can just show it.  

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

How NOT to be Cool in a Modern Era, a Personal Story of Letting Go

I would like you to meet Oliver. He is a benevolent bear: benevolent meaning humane, compassionate, kind-hearted and tender. Obviously the idea of making a ‘good’ bear had not left me after the completion of the terrible Theobold (see my post He is Not a Tame Bear for further details). But I have to say that the true idea behind his creation was sparked by a book Gary brought home from work one day. The book is called “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger. It was originally a four-part television series made for the BBC in 1972. John Berger then created this book with his producer Mike Dibb and also Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox and Richard Hollis.

I have decided I will share the book and series with you in a more in-depth way in my *Recommends* blog in the future. The book contains seven essays and for now, I would like to discuss the impact that one of the seven essays had on me. When I read back over the essay now it is not even the main theme of the piece that really sparked something in me; it was a point that the author made about glamour that really stuck in my head and changed the way I see things.

The essay I am writing about is about many things but publicity is at the heart of it with themes of modern technological advances, oil painting and the impact that ideological images have on us as they surround us and saturate our environments. It speaks about how the publicity machines sell us not products, but the dream of a future happier self with all the money, possessions and companionship that a person could want or need.

“Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.”

The glamorising of this future self leaves us feeling dissatisfied with our present selves and so, we must start striving to buy and acquire all the products that the dream machine sell to us as the cure to our present dissatisfied and unsatisfactory state.

Berger also shares his belief that publicity preys on our fears and targets our anxieties, making its presence in our lives not a benign force but something that actively plays a role in our decision making and the development of our culture. This is quite a crude outline of all that is contained in the essay, the writing itself is beautifully interwoven with art history, political implications and thought provoking imagery. I highly recommend you check it out for yourself.

“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other thing, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.”

There is one main paragraph in the essay that really influenced a thought pattern in my mind and which then led me to make this bear. Let me share it with you.

“Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest - if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.”

When I read this small grouping of words it seemed to me that they were lit up on the page, highlighting its message and it called out like an invitation to a new world. It said to me, in such a clear and straight forward manner, a truth that I felt in my guts.

As I read the paragraph for the third time I replaced the word ‘glamour’ with the word ‘cool’. I felt from my own life experience the absence of being the ‘cool kid’. Art College was an amazing experience for me but there is an aspect of it that I never really participated in. I feel I struggled in a social sense, I never felt like I had the coolest clothes, the best taste in music or that I had any edge. I have never been a drinker or a drug taker and I have found it hard to go with the flow. I was a hard worker, an enthusiastic learner and I also had high and low moods that needed constant attendance. I have always been a person of extremes but I think my extremes are definitely of the un-cool variety, there is very little glamour with them.

The idea this paragraph presented to me was that ‘glamour’ or ‘cool’ was something that was constructed to aid a very specific goal that actually bore no relation to my well being and more than likely would be unable to deliver on any of its thin promises.

It said to me that being ‘cool’ or ‘glamorous’ was a tactic created to bring power and control to a certain group of people and if you were willing to learn the ways of it and take action, you too could have the power of cool and glamour on your side. It is not something you are born with, it is not something special about you, it is just the manipulation of factors with a more or less guaranteed outcome that has been observed and harnessed for the purposes of selling perfume, lipstick and really expensive cars.

I felt the actions I would need to take in order to obtain this kind of glamour were the opposite of most of the things I was striving for in my life. The line “You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest” jumped off the page. I thought how sad it would be to appear disinterested in everyone and everything in order to maintain a façade of superiority. You could not let anyone get to know you because if they begin to relate to you, you become less fictionalised and therefore more real, with problems, imperfect skin and ailing relations like everybody else. The glamour story sells us about a world where none of those things occur anymore. Super models don’t have split ends and aunts with breast cancer. They wear bikinis all year round and their only care is where the next martini is coming from, they don’t have emotional needs and they definitely don’t nag.

I feel I have been striving for perfection my whole life. I have a long held belief that I am unsatisfactory. I do believe the constant stream of overtly sexualised images of women, long shimmering legs, flat stomachs and prancing smiling girls has impacted on this expectation of myself. You don’t have to agree with me, it is my belief. I think women are constantly sold the idea of physical happiness through a specific body type that will equal life happiness and life fulfilment. I believed for a long time in my teens and early twenties that being thin would solve all my problems. I swallowed the lie and chased the dream.

After a lot of work on myself I have come to realise that that old story is just that, a story and that dream will never be fulfilled. Not that I can’t lose weight, no, that the losing of weight will answer the question of life happiness. It is a hard dream to let go of, it is all encompassing and simple. One answer to a million questions; Brilliant! But I have known too many beautiful, kind and intelligent women who have suffered with eating disorders and have been distressed by image problems to have much faith in that dream any more.

So let me come to Oliver. Oliver has a loving, warm smile on his face. On his t-shirt I have embroidered the slogan “Too Warm to be Cool”. This just about sums me up. I have tried to be kind, understanding and compassionate for most of my life. I have great interests in many things and I love sharing these interests with other people. My enthusiasm bubbles over when I see a good film or I read an excellent book. The thought of having to keep that to myself, to hide my excitement about life when I find it, to have to “…look out over the looks of envy which sustain them” in order to be thought to be ‘cool’ or ‘glamorous’ is just not worth it to me.

The day I read that essay is the day I let go of chasing the idea of COOL. Now that really is Brilliant! I don’t mean to imply that now I am magically fixed so that I don’t care how I look or how I am perceived. I think I have just let go of the one big answer and have started to pursue the millions of individual answers to life’s questions. What makes me happy? How do I accept myself as I am? What will I make? What do I want to say? The list goes on and on as does the work to answer these questions. I do know that I have warm blushed cheeks, a warm heart and warm ideas. I have set coolness and its cold ways aside. I could learn to be cool and it might come in handy along the way. But for today I will bask in the warmth of a perfectly imperfect self.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Let’s get to the Heart of the Matter- A Little Extra

Over the weekend, as I was going through some of my photograph files on the computer, I found these images. I knew I had taken photos of this heart talisman in its final incarnation but couldn’t find them in my work folder. They were hiding away in a public file but the up side is I get to share them with you now to complete the visual story of this art piece.

As I said in my Let's get to the Heart of the Matter post, I suspended the talisman in the jar so that it could be contained and displayed. The glass jar gives it some protection but also allows it to be moved or positioned in different places.

Aesthetically, I have always been fond of old-fashioned bell jars as a means of display. They seem to single out certain objects as special, worthy of protection and also to draw the eye to something that might be valuable to observe closely. These art objects suspended in glass jars like the Fat Bees or indeed, the turquoise sea horse are my version of a bell jar. They remind me of how I used to store my childhood treasures like tadpoles, pocket money or colourful plastic jewellery. These transparent receptacles are strong but are also fragile and need to be cared for. They hold a window into beauty and protect their contents without completely withholding them from the world.     

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

He is Not a Tame Bear

Last week I shared my Bad Bear family with you. The final addition to the dysfunctional bunch is a bear called Theobold. I had the idea to make a BB in a larger size. I had been knitting the tea cosies for some time and I also had been experimenting with other patterns. So I thought, rather than make a larger version out of felt I would have a go at knitting one.

As with SomeBunny, I adapted a knitting pattern for a small basic doll. I made the arms and legs thicker and a little longer. I made up a pattern for his ears and knit everything except his face and his paws using one strand of normal wool and one strand of the textured hairy wool I had also used for the Snugs. This turned out to be a really good rendering of a teddy bears fur and helped to make him soft and appealing.

When the bear’s body was knitted, stuffed and sewn, I had before me, a prepared blank canvas to transform into the personality and characteristics of the Bad Bear family lineage. When I set out to make him I was determined to make a mean bear, a real curmudgeon if ever there was one. But when I saw the finished form, all plump and furry with long dangling limbs and pointy ears, I began to have second thoughts. Wouldn’t it be nicer to have a good bear, a friendly bear or a wholesome bear?? Was it time to put these so-called BAD bears aside and embrace something more positive?

Well, the answer is clearly NO! I decided there were plenty of ‘good’ bears out there and I wanted to finish what I had started by creating a soft toy that wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

To me, Theobold seems to be a young Bad Bear. He is still a little fresh-faced. He is lacking any physical scars or patching up that is evident on some of the other bears’ faces and bodies. He has two button eyes, one bigger than the other to show he is a bit off-beat. He has a crooked mouth full of pointy teeth and flushed red cheeks that show he has just been up to no good. He has a furrowed brow that is contemplating his next move but I don’t think he is always a big thinker. I think he is more impulsive and spontaneous than some of the big-wigs in the Bad Bear crew; think henchman rather Don.

 Even with all his misgivings I still think he is pretty cute. If you were playing a game of cops and robbers I think he would make an excellent villain or if you were going on a mysterious journey he could turn up as the lovable rogue turned back-stabbing pirate. At the end of the day, I think you could give him a hug but he might forget himself and try to bite you. Life is full of complexity after all.

So here he is; raucous and belligerent, wild and wilful, an unbearably BAD bear. I don’t think he does his homework, I don’t think he does what he is told and he is very, very unreasonable. If your child picked him up somewhere and he has come into your home, I would say watch out for this mischievous mite. The next time you find your favourite vase smashed on the ground and your child says with big innocent eyes “Theobold did it!” trust those eyes. There is no knowing what he will be up to next.     

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Key to Getting to Market on Time is......................... Part 2

Welcome Back

Gary and I have sat down many an evening at the computer designing and perfecting labels for my numerous projects. The next stage in the process is to print out and cut out a label for every single one of my freshly completed goods. I like to finish my work to a high and professional standard and the labels add the finishing touch that satisfies this standard for me. For a long time I just used a good old fashioned scissors to cut out my labels. One day I spotted a super fancy cutting device called an XcutShape Cutter System in a hobby shop. I requested it as a birthday present and my good parents willingly obliged. Now I use this to help make the labelling stage a little more efficient. In a very short period of time I am surrounded by paper clippings, my single-hole punch and piles of market ready key-rings. This generally takes place the day before the market and it is all go go go until the last minute.

The second last stage in the process is my most loathed; packing. I bloody hate packing! I have to wrap everything in bubble wrap and tissue paper, put things in boxes and arrange them all in the giant suitcase I take with me to markets. I find it really stressful and all my nerves about the coming day show up as I try to organise the mess into a one-stop-shop for all my marketing needs. I get snippy and worried about all the details. Do I have enough stock? Did I remember to bring the sticky tape? Is my work any good? How many paper bags should I bring? Am I wearing any trousers? It is at this point that I think Gary would like to drown me. But he doesn’t, good man. He tells me to put down the scissors and go to bed. I resist for about ten minutes and then fall down from tiredness.

The last stage of the Bad Bear Key-rings journey is to arrive at their destination. Market day starts early. Sometimes I take the bus, suitcase in tow; on a lucky day some lovely person will be available to drive me and my wares to the market location. After finding my allocated spot, I then set about unpacking, arranging and displaying my art pieces on the table provided. I will bring tablecloths, props and different receptacles to display my work. I would sometimes do a mock-up table the day before to get a sense of how I want the finished table to look.

I feel it is very important to present your work well, so much effort has gone into getting it to this stage, it is only right that it should be shown off at its best. I feel attention to detail is key; plenty of colour and variety, well displayed prices and information and interesting or unusual set-ups always catches the eye in my experience. I will admit to having a bit of a pet peeve about poorly displayed prices at markets and in shops in general. I know it can be a sales tactic to get people to ask the cost of something in order to be able to engage with them as the customer. But having worked in retail for a good few years, I feel I just can’t employ such devices to get sales. I prefer for someone to buy something if they really want it, know they can afford it and don’t feel pressurised into the purchase. Strong feelings! Me?? Never!

Anyway…….. The final thing to do is smooth the tablecloth for the umpteenth time, straighten yourself out and sit behind your (hopefully) beautiful table and…….RELAX. Take a deep breath and take in your surroundings. The day is about to begin and the market is just about to open. There is no knowing how the day will unfold but I always feel I am glad I have taken the risk to be the person behind the table, proudly declaring that “Yes, I made all this myself”.   

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Key to Getting to Market on Time is......................... Part 1

After I began selling my Bad Bear Brooches, I decided I would expand even a little bit further into the world of Bad Bear Key-rings. It was not a massive jump from one to the other and it seemed to fill a gap in my market. A lot of men did really like my work but unless they were of a badge wearing age, they really were not going to go in for sporting a brooch. The key-rings did very well when I premiered them at my next market and so, I have continued to include them in the Bad Bear line-up.

I thought it might be interesting to share with you the full life cycle of one of these pieces that is destined for a market stall; from materials to making, from making to packaging and from packaging to placement. They go on quite a journey from beginning to end.

I’m generally in Dublin city centre on a Thursday and so, about a week before I am set to go to market, I can be seen going from fabric shop to bead shop to ribbon shop early in the morning. I have a well worn route that I take to make the most efficient use of my time. The night before I will have made a list of the most pressing materials I need and then I will make a small map of the shops I need to make a stop at. I do have a very good store of materials at home in my studio but you would be surprised how often you need to stock up on basics like felt squares and brooch backings. If you find yourself needing to buy more essentials it generally means you have sold your work so it is not a task I complain about. 

I find that in a bustling and jostling city centre, the haberdashery shop is a calming and quiet sanctuary. They are usually filled with intent shoppers looking for a specific coloured thread or a certain size of sewing needle. I find them to be a relaxing and enjoyable environment to be in.

I wasn’t always so comfortable I have to say. But I found when I made regular visits to these places, learned the lingo and got to know some faces, I soon felt right at home. I found going in over and over again, even for short trips, helped to build my confidence and I even have come to enjoy this aspect of my work. You also may feel a little intimidated by a shop that sells niche or specialist items. My advice would be to take your time, hitch a great big smile on your face and ask some questions. In most shops, they will be more than willing to help you with what you need.

After getting my loot home, my next job is to assess the stock I have left over from the last market. I will count my numbers, check my sales journal, assess what sold well the last time and make a judgement about how many of each item I could make for the upcoming event. I then will set targets for myself. I write a list of all the things I would like to have made by a certain day. As I finish making things I will check them off my list and assess where I need to focus my attention next. I always have priority pieces to finish first and then less important or irregular sellers lower down on the list. I find this helps to keep me motivated and focused in the run up to the market. Without clear and achievable goals I begin to panic so I try to make the time for this important step.

The next thing I do is roll up my sleeves, take out my materials and get to work. Over time I have developed some work habits that have helped my productivity. In regards to the key rings, I split the making up into several steps. I do all my cutting out first. I draw on and cut out my basic shapes from felt in a big batch. It can be fiddly work but if you do it all in one go I have found you can get a rhythm going that supports you to do it quickly and easily.

The next step is to embroider the faces onto the felt backgrounds. This is where I have to engage my imagination and have a confident hand while stitching each newly invented expression. Again, I try to do this part all at one time so that I can keep track of what I am making in terms of sizes and colours, but also to keep a momentum going rather than constantly chopping and changing tasks.

I attach the key-ring clasp, stuff the head and sew up the completed piece all in one go also. This last step can be quite technical and a little monotonous but you are on the home stretch so that helps to keep you going. When I see a full row of Bad Bear faces scowling up at me I feel it is a job well done.

Join me tomorrow for part 2 of this journey.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Where Bad Bears Move Forth to Conquer Fresh Domains

A couple of years ago I began to look at ways to get my art out into the world and also, I wanted to explore different options for generating an income from my art work. As Ireland has a strong tradition for craft and art markets, joining a market seemed like the natural next step to take.

The Bad Bear Pincushions were purposely made for my escapade into the world of market stalls. I wanted to make affordable items to sell so that people could browse and consider my larger investment pieces like the Snug tea cosies but could also purchase a token or a small keepsake of my work. I feel I have a strong instinct in regards to the packaging of my pieces; I think this came in useful when preparing to bring my work to a new market place. I feel it is another way or a further way to communicate your ideas and also your personality.

The Bad Bear Pincushions were very well received in the first couple of outings. Men and women alike seemed to enjoy their grumpy faces and the funny back story that accompanied them. I decided I would expand the range by making small brooches or pins using the Bad Bear faces. It turned out to be a great way to explore that already mentioned theme of individuality.

When I was getting ready for an up-coming market, I would spread out all my materials out in front of me; multi-shades of brown felt for their faces, every other colour of felt for their muzzles and backing, embroidery threads, accessories like beads, ribbons and buttons, brooch backings and my trusty circle template to mark out heads, ears and muzzles in numerous and ever changing combinations. I used to love going to some of the jewellery findings and bead shops in Dublin and come home with small paper bags of shiny brooch backings of different sizes to create new miniature personalities. It was a great way to use my imagination and my creativity; I tried to make each piece in under an hour so that I could keep the cost low and make them affordable for my customers.

I also put the same message from the pincushions on their labels. I declared that these were indeed very BAD bears. I can’t share with you what they have done; it is truly terrible, it really is better if you don’t know.

This sentiment used to drive kids crazy at the markets. I remember one small boy sidling up to me a couple of times, nudging me, and practically begging me to tell him what these Bad Bears had done to warrant such a warning.

I have to say I love this side-effect to the packaging. When people read the labels, I can nearly see in their eyes what they are imagining these bears have done. I think and hope for children, these things are still in the realm of school yard pranks and cartoon villains. They do seem to delight in the outright bold personalities they see before them. For adults, I think it is a good litmus test for how much news they have been watching or where their imagination takes them when bad deeds are mentioned.

I also like thinking about if the bad things they have done are People Bad Deeds or Bear Bad Deeds. What would a bear need to do to be qualified as “bad” in his/her bear community? This opens up a whole other world in my imagination and I can gladly play there for a while.

I like the really cross looking characters especially if they have a bow or a really mean pair of glasses. But I am also rather fond of the bears that look very sweet and innocent; you never know what is lurking under that cheerful façade! I hope you enjoy looking at their different faces and see if you can come up with at least one truly tantalising back story for one of the Bad Bear crew.