“Mentoring is a brain to pick, a ear to listen and a push in the right direction.” John C. Crosby
It’s interesting how important it can be to have a label with which you can describe what you do. When I worked in the NHS, I used to tell people that I was a Textile Artist and Writer (note the capital letters!) but now that the NHS and I have parted company, I feel the need to add something to my job description. Something worthy. In researching my book on personal creativity, I realised how much smoother my journey could have been if I had had access to a mentor. There’s a point at which explaining my inner thoughts to Lily does not get me the level of feedback which I would like.
I never wanted someone who would advise me how to do things their way. I wanted a sort of critical friend who would listen to my ideas, explain concepts I didn’t understand and challenge my conclusions or point out the practice of others that might be useful. When I was at the University of Glamorgan, I was lucky enough to have tutors like Barrie Llewelyn, Maria Donovan and Rob Middlehurst to take on the role; at Hereford College of Arts, Delyth Done and Lisa Porch did the same. In the years before and in between, I was very much left to my own devices so the fact that I got to where I am is due to sheer good fortune. I recently spent a weekend catsitting for my sister Nell and this allowed me the time to think thoughts, imagine ideas and explain my conclusions to Molly
Let’s go back to 1976. Until I fell asleep half way through a two hour long lecture on the mechanics of slicing an onion, I was destined to become a cook or a chef. If I had managed to stay awake or at least stay upright in my seat, I may have been writing today’s blog about some new recipe or gastronomic insight. Instead I slid from my chair onto a shiny parquet floor, the contents of my pencil case clattering noisily as they scattered. At the same time, I made that loud and undignified piggy-like snort which comes with unexpected waking. With hindsight, it comes as no surprise that my lecturers insisted a switch from studying Food & Nutrition to a Textiles & Design course beckoned. I spent the remainder of my time at the School of Home Economics in Cardiff going from having virtually no textile related skills to becoming competent at everything from spinning, weaving and dyeing to fashion design, pattern cutting and dressmaking. You will note the use of the word ‘competent’. When it came to anything related to yarns, threads or fabric, competence was all I could muster. It wasn’t just that I was cackhanded with a needle, it was that I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing to be ‘creative’.
With the exception of me (4th from left), everyone in this picture knew what was meant by terms like 3D processes, surface pattern design and contextual narratives. Thanks to the onion episode, I was already on the at risk register of being told to leave and didn’t dare ask for guidance. I decided that competence was a safer option than trying to unleash creativity so I got on with becoming skilled. After graduating, if I had stayed in teaching for more than 3 months, then I would probably be bitter and twisted from rehashing the same old lesson plans rather than writing a blog. Luckily I spent the next 35 years working in the NHS doing things which were interesting, challenging and worthwhile but definitely not related to teaching young, disinterested people how to do a machine and fell seam or the difference between a pleat and a tuck. Beneath the surface of my own world, however, a little seed of creativity had started to grow. I discovered the joy of combining needlepoint with embroidery stitches for surface texture and embellishment.
If I had not joined the Embroiderers’ Guild then I would never have found out what would happen when I incorporated something meaningful into creative work. In this case it was a response to a competition title “Words – Messages in New Materials.” As you’ve seen above, I’ve got form when it comes to finding esoteric concepts incomprehensible so I did what I’ve been doing ever since and started with a quotation. In this case it was Samuel Johnson’s “Words are the daughters of the earth.” Before I knew it my seed of creativity was growing into a little plant as I started reflecting on the way in which women use words as expressions, tools of negotiation, carriers of information and even weapons in emotional wars. I used materials which carried the quotation either impressed into their surfaces or intrinsic in their being. After coming runner up in the competition, I enrolled with the Open College of Arts and spent four years studying drawing, painting and textiles. Could this be the turning point in my creative journey?
No. It might have been if I’d kept stitching but I didn’t. I changed tack completely and went to university to do a degree in Creative Writing and Welsh. Textiles was relegated to a summer holiday pastime until I graduated. Since then, however, not only has my seed of creativity grown, it has taken on a life and purpose of its own, refusing to be hemmed in to any one genre or medium. There may be no assignments or projects to hand in for marking but there’s inspiration a-plenty in the ancient tracks and trails that criss-cross the Glamorgan uplands
and the dramatic seascapes of the Welsh coast for me to try out photography, poetry, field sketching and textiles.
This combination is working particularly well as I try to map features of the metaphysical landscape relating to the way in which the Roman invaders routed the indigenous Silurian tribe in the 1st Century AD. It’s an aspect of Cultural Geography which continues to occupy much of my creative work. I’ve spent November mapping part of a cobbled causeway known as a sarn which crosses a common near to the village called – somewhat unimaginatively – Sarn.
As I was stitching my art map of Sarn, I had been wondering how to go about establishing myself as a creative practice mentor. Curiously, no sooner had I decided what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, then people started to approach me to pick my brain, let me be a listening ear and give them a push in the right direction. Happily, as well as me doing something worthwhile, I find it is strengthening my own reason to create. Life has suddenly got much more exciting!
“Mentoring is the last refuge of the older artist. With luck, disciples will keep one’s books in print, one’s reputation alive.” Michael Dirda.