Sunday, 25 October 2015

Drawing Strength Potion

 This week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion follows on from thoughts last week. I am still drawing, sketching every other day, and finding I am not as hopeless at it as I thought (although perhaps still slightly hopeless... practise makes better!)

I am doubting myself ever so slightly less than I have done of late. So, the stitching this week reads "Have more faith in your abilities". This applies to every area of life; work; friendships; juggling swords. My dyspraxia aside, I feel more comfortable in my own skin, more sure of myself, and more ready to try doing the things I feel trepidatious about, but I know either must be done or I desperately want to do. The peachy pencil represents conquering my fears and proving myself to the only person I need to prove myself to; me.

Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Sweet Kernel Potion

This time of year heralds some of my favourite things; Twin Peaks watching season, warming bowls of food,  woollens, the colour orange in plentiful supply, hunting for mushrooms in the forest, and yes, leaf-peeping. I realise all this makes me sound like a Pumpkin Spice Latte acolyte (I've never touched a drop I swear), but I still think Autumn is somewhat magical.

As yesterday was spent fungi foraging, it seemed apt to include sketches of mushrooms I made last week along with photographs from our family walk in Epping Forest as the diaristic element of last week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion.

I finally bit the bullet and started drawing, and the results do not appear to be utterly catastrophic. It reminds me of a page from this visual diary entry and this #secretsofselfpreservation potion from back in March, which was about feeling the fear (of drawing terribly) and doing it anyway.

I drew inspiration from one Ms Hermione Granger and embroidered "Fear of a thing is worse than the thing itself" on to autumnal ribbon. Because it so often is.

The potion's label is from the first page of my altered book What To Look For In Winter. The potion's title is Sweet Kernel Potion, a reference to Keats's To Autumn, and to hope in the face of fear.

Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Conductive Cushions

Conductive cushions - mixing crafting with tech from Share UK on Vimeo.

On Tuesday it was Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace would be a remarkable woman in any age, but in the 1800s she was a true trail blazer. The only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Ada's puritanical mother, Anne Isabella Noel Byron, thought that instructing her daughter in the sciences would quell any dangerously poetic genetic pre-disposition in Ada. What she didn't quell was Ada's brilliance. She was a gifted mathematician, far more forward-thinking than her male contemporaries, and credited as having written the world's first computer program. Ada's most famous quote is "That brain of mine is more than merely mortal, as time will show." The computer programs which add so much ease, convenience, and support in our daily lives are proof of that.

In this spirit, in the run up to Ada Lovelace Day, Share UK, "a community based organisation that uses digital technology to share stories, ideas and skills", ran a two day coding and crafting workshop for pairs of mothers and daughters at Gnome House in Blackhorse Road, Walthamstow, led by Esther Freeman, with ingenious Carolyn Abbott of Walthamstow institution E17 Designers manning the sewing machines and Bronwyn Goodwin providing techy know-how. And I taught a wee bit of embroidery and threaded a lot of needles.

The truly thrilling (at least to me) part of the project was incorporating hand embroidered circuits into textile craft. It was so exciting, in fact, that it has to be written in italics. The theme was inspiring women, and so in my sample I prepared earlier to give the mothers and daughters some ideas, I paid homage to my heritage with the phrase "This thread connects me to a lineage of needlewomen across the ages." I stitched a sort of "family tree" of sewing kit essentials, with scissors, a pin cushion, a thimble and a skein of thread all represented. As the latest member of the "family tree" I stitched a light bulb, in the centre of which was a tiny blue LED connected up to a battery holder. I think I audibly gasped when I put a battery in and it worked first time.

The participants in the workshop had much better ideas than my rather scrappy one. The little girl in the duo who created the cushion below was named Aphra, after Aphra Benn, the first woman in this country acknowledged with earning her living from her writing (she was also a spy for Charles II, but it's the other fact I find more inspiring). Behn was a playwrite, and so modern-day Aphra and her mother appliqued and embroidered Comedy and Tragedy masks on to the cushion, along with a spyglass, and most cleverly of all, a "quill" fashioned from a feather and an embroidery needle, which, when touched to an inkwell, completed the circuit and made the cushion light up.

Taylor Swift was a popular choice of inspiring woman, with two cushions featuring gleaming guitars being created in her honour.

The creator of the cushion below wasn't so keen on hand sewing but took to the sewing machine instantly, and very cleverly replicated the glowing light of the XBox controller with her circuit.

With this cushion, it was one of the mum's turn to shine; I showed her how to couch, and she produced the most beautiful lettering in a variety of colours. I think the choice of Beyoncé song may have been her daughter's, though, and I thoroughly approve!

A very sweet mother-daughter team worked really hard to make the cushion below, based around a true female role model (or at least I think so!), JK Rowling, appliqueing the magic word for the light-giving spell, "Lumos!" and surrounding it with other words for light, and LEDs refracting beneath crystal glass beads.

A number of my female friends will be very happy to see their alma mater paid respects; this cushion is dedicated to the teachers of Walthamstow School For Girls, hand appliqued and embroidered with its crest and motto "Neglect not the gift in thee"; good advice for every girl and woman, I think. The centre of each of the flowers on the crest light up.

This impressive cushion was produced by a pair of friends rather than a mother-daughter duo; it features the Suffragette colours of purple, white and green (which reminds me I must book tickets to the cinema to see Suffragette soon), reminding us of the struggle and sacrifice so many women made for us to have the vote. The circuitry is all hidden behind the flower and its centre glows a warm yellow.

The mother of the pair who made this cushion owns a vintage company, and had excellent colour sense when putting together this tribute to Sonia Delaunay with her daughter. There's some gorgeous, joyfully colourful long and short stitch in there, but unfortunately when I took this photograph it was dark (to show off the LED lights to best effect) and so it doesn't show up. Which is all the more reason to get down there and see the cushions exhibited for yourself! They're up in the windows of the café at Gnome House until the end of this month. Here are directions and a map.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Dumpling Days Potion

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that food looms large in my life. This time of year heralds plentiful supply of my favourite food group; stodge. Realising this always reminds me of an idyllic autumn afternoon I spent with my Mum in Epping Forest, hunting for fungus and crunching the fallen leaves. I mentioned that the change of the seasons augured the cooking of my favourite stodge, stew and dumplings (mentioned in the previous post). "Yes" my mother said; "It definitely feels like a dumpling day."

It is now that time of year once more; dumpling days are here again. Hence this week's potion is named Dumpling Days Potion; my particular brand of salad days.

This week's diaristic element is a scrap from one of Daily Life Ltd's illustrated coasters (don't worry, I have several) which succinctly expresses my views on dumplings. The embroidered words on the autumnal ribbon may seem unrelated, but as I mentioned in last week's potion post, I am feeling much brighter than I have of late over the past few weeks. So the embroidery reads "Yes you can", which is not particularly meant as an Obama reference, more a simple and impactful affirmation for me to always bear in mind, and a reminder for you, too, should you need it.

Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

World Mental Health Day: Thoughts on the Dragon Cafe and Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings

In the run up to World Mental Health Day, I have been reflecting on my visit on Monday to the most extraordinary place. The Dragon Cafe is the UK's first mental health cafe, "a relaxing cafe and imaginative space, open to all." They certainly got the relaxing part right. It immediately put me on a level playing field, where I could be open about myself without judgement, and have a laugh with the like-minded. Perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, the Cafe was a hive of activity; Tai-Chi, gardening, filming of conversations about "re-covered" chairs, dance, and a workshop with the wonderful Daily Life Ltd (and more) featured in the few hours I was there. The food was delicious and the volunteers big-hearted. I spent my time drawing a big bowl of stew and dumplings, to explore cultural identity and heritage through sharing an illustrated feast on a white paper tablecloth with many others at Daily Life's workshop. The conversations were as warming as the satisfying stodge I drew on the paper.

My rather paltry (and unfinished) offerings to the table, alongside more delectable dishes

I spent several blissed out hours nattering away with Daily Life, until it was time for a "one-man play" which gave voice to one of the re-upholstered chairs. Referencing everyone from Blake to Bob Marley, the wordsmith's generous spirit was infectious, and he received riotous applause and laughter.

Bobby Baker of Daily Life Ltd, who I am beginning to think of as a punk rock fairy godmother, gave an illuminating talk on the Diary Drawings she drew first daily, then weekly, whilst a patient at a mental health day hospital. 

I had more than one moment of something more than empathy whilst listening to Bobby and looking at her drawings. Recognition; realisation that I wasn't the only one, that I perhaps wasn't as singularly and hopelessly mad as I had previously thought.

Two of Bobby's Diary Drawings; one portraying her time of weeping tidal waves of tears (another thing we have in common) and another asking how many hats can one woman wear?

Two drawings in particular led to this realisation; the first a drawing of Bobby's skin lifting away from her face like a mask, to reveal a demonic skull beneath. Bobby had shown this drawing to a mental health professional to try to explain her desperation; to seek help. It had not had the expected effect. The mental health professional asked for a copy. "I know a lot of people who feel like this" he said.

The second was perhaps more distressing. A distraught Bobby wept blood from her eyes, mouth and nose. Blood was something she had hallucinated frequently during her illness, she told us.

Aside from my immediate family and medical professionals, I have never (up 'til now) told anyone that I hallucinated blood when I was ill. Buckets of the stuff. Everywhere. I won't go into particularly grisly details, but suffice to say, it was not unlike the lift scene in The Shining. For someone who faints during blood tests and once had to go and lie down in a darkened room after reading a passage in The Bell Jar about self harm, it wasn't the most pleasant experience.

Bobby may feel she had her public "outing" via her Diary Drawings thrust upon her, but she could have said no. And as her son gruffly said when she consulted him about the matter, "It's got to be done, Mum." Showing the world at large how monstrous you feel beneath your exterior, exposing that vulnerability, is an act of extreme bravery. But we are not in fact monstrous. We have had monstrous things happen to us.

That's why I wanted to write about my psychotic symptoms (the hallucinations, the delusions) today. Because, aside from the occasional slight whiff of stiff-upper-lip-pull-up-your-bootstraps-ism when I am open about anxiety and depression, I do feel that society at large is beginning to understand and accept these illnesses. But mention that you have heard or seen things that others don't, or have had, as the mental health literature politely puts it, "unusual beliefs", and be prepared to brace yourself for the reaction.

If you have these symptoms, you have crossed over from being "run-down", from "having a lot on", from being "sensitive" or "over-tired" or "angsty". Congratulations, you are 100% genuine, prime cut bonkers. Even up to the middle of the last century, schizophrenia was classed as a degenerative illness, and this stigma still looms spectrally in the background. What comes into your mind when you read the word schizophrenic or psychotic? An unkempt vagrant moving erratically and mumbling to themselves? I would hope by this point we have moved beyond the facile stereotypes of mad axe murderers, although as recently as 2013 supermarkets were peddling "mental patient Halloween costumes" at this time of year.

How about a young woman with a first class honours degree, holding down a job, taking on self employed work, in a committed relationship and surrounded by friends, family, and love? Or an artist with a thirty year career, director of an Arts Council national portfolio organisation, who tours and exhibits internationally is one of the most patient and generous souls you could ever meet, and similarly has a whole host of family and friends who cherish her?

I'll admit, as Bobby said of herself, I am incredibly, incredibly lucky. Not everyone has back-up; people who love them and will fight for them. Which is why it is so important that we all fight for them. For all of us who have been touched by mental illness. Because there is no them and us; there's only us.

Please allow me, if it won't ring the alarm bells that I'm having one of my "funny turns", the liberty to see into the future. I can see a day, and it's not too far off, when the stigma is gone. When we have killed the most insidious and inextricably woven in part of mental illness; stigma, the real monster.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Agency Potion

For the first time in over a month, I'm feeling (somewhat) in control of my life and (somewhat) positive about the future. I am moving towards accepting that I am an artist and a millenial and that consequently it's never going to be easy.

This meant that last week's #secretsofselfpreservation potion was a no-brainer. A tutor of mine once described me as being "a bit of a free spirit", which, as a person for whom the phrase "highly strung" would be a polite way of putting it, I found hilarious. But I must concede that going with the flow a bit more would be good for me, and so last week's potion reads "Being mistress of your own destiny is nothing to fear."

Inside the potion bottle is a smaller potion bottle filled with coffee, for reasons best left to myself and my future therapist.

The potion's name, Agency Potion (as in self-determination) is written on the back of my business card, which I like to think of as a metaphorical passport to my future.

 Remember you can get involved too, via the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation, by writing about a simple way you plan to, or already do, take care of yourself. Alternatively, you can create your own embroidered (or written on paper) potion - just remember to include the hashtag #secretsofselfpreservation along with your snaps of it.