Freelancing & Finance

I’ve been working with the brilliant coach Sarah Fox for the last few months, trying to pin down exactly what it is that I want to do with my freelance / consultancy practice. One of the issues of building this side of my work is that I don’t talk about it online very much so people don’t know that I do it! Working with Sarah has helped me define what it is that I do now and what I want to do more of, focussing on supporting individual artists and creative businesses and working with organisations to do this too. So look out for more on this!

I recorded this podcast with Sarah back in early December when I was recovering from Covid and am pleasantly surprised to find that I could string a coherent sentence together! We talk about freelancing and changing careers, about finance and selling our work, about not working for free, about different business models and about my business model based on sharing and collaborating. This conversation was incredibly useful to me in starting to articulate what I want to achieve and what my purpose is. I talked about my Money Manifesto that I was working on… that’s fallen a bit by the wayside with ongoing family things happening this winter but I will get back to it soon.

We talk about how to create and sustain a business built on sharing and being generous, about the challenge of selling our creative ideas, about working for free or not and about the issues of pay in the creative freelance world. You can listen to the podcast below or find and follow the series on your own podcast app. I would love to know what you think. You can also watch the recording on YouTube here too (or below), if you would like to see us both.

The People of 2022

My review of the year through the brilliant people I’ve worked with.

I’ve been thinking about lots of different ideas or lenses to review of 2022. I don’t want to just write a list of things that I have done, or even to list the things I have made. Celebrating success is important but also I don’t want to  be one of those people who just proclaims about how well they have done as that’s neither realistic or inspiring for anyone else. Nor do I want to be someone who focusses on the negatives, because however positive a spin I put on it, it’s just gloomy and I don’t like to dwell. I have made a list of failures and successes for my own private contemplation but I am not going to subject you to them!

In order to work out what angle to use to review my year, I turned to my coaching group for their thoughts. The simple fact that I chose to discuss it with other people gave me the answer – I should review the year through the lens of the brilliant people I have worked with! 

 

Collaboration and working with other people has been a really vital part of my work for years, although it’s only fairly recently that I’ve noticed and celebrated that. The 2020 lockdown was of course a reminder to me of just how much I enjoy and get energy from creative work with others, alongside my own solitary studio practice. I was used to working with groups, spending time in other artists studios, giving talks, going to events, teaching and mentoring in person. I found the lack of conversation and connection around creative practice really hard. I was lucky in that I had ongoing and new projects that enabled me to work with other people remotely in 2020 (on WebinArt and on Textiles in Lockdown) which really made a huge difference to how I felt and what new work I could created. I pursued artist mentoring via Zoom which has become a major part of my work and something that I love, and eventually this also led to my Maker Membership where I get to work with lots of different people and support their creative practice over a long period. I also first created Gentle Goal Setting in the autumn of 2020 and ran it for the first time that winter. (It’s now revitalised into Find Your Focus which is starting this week and open for the whole of January). One of the most important goals I set for myself for 2021 was to connect and collaborate, and it has continued to be one of my guiding lights in how to develop my work.

Once I started gathering the people I’ve worked with this year, I realised it is potentially quite huge, so this is actually a snapshot of the connections and collaborations of the year rather than a detailed list, and I hope one that will be interesting for you to connect with too. 

Podcast & Making Meaning Live Gathering

The most exciting bringing-together of people that I’ve done in a long time was Making Meaning Live which ran online in July and involved three days of presentations and conversations between the artists and creatives and an audience of about 100 people from around the world in each session. It was utterly exhausting and completely wonderful. The recordings of the sessions are still available for free and there are three podcast episodes with edited highlights and the full programme here.

This year I’ve produced the second series of Making Meaning Podcast which has been a joy to make and I’ve had the pleasure of conversations with Helen Hallows, Sharon Adams, Claire Wellesley-Smith, Alice Fox, Michaela McMillan, Mandeep Dhadialla and Gillian Lee Smith, as well as a solo episode, one about my Maker Membership and three highlight shows from Making Meaning Live. Making the podcast is fantastic, I really do love getting to talk to brilliant, creative people about what they do and why they do it. The admin is less enjoyable, but really it’s worth it to have these chats and to share them with so many – which brings me on to podcast listeners as another group of people I have connected with. Podcast audience numbers this year has exceeded all expectations. There have been over 100,000 downloads this year and some episodes have hit 8000 downloads. This is really incredible and I am so honoured that this small, low-budget podcast is having such a great impact. I will be chasing for donations to make another series very soon so I hope many of those listeners will be able to contribute to making more episodes this year as I have some great people lined up. 

Groups 

I’m writing this during one of my regular Tuesday co-working groups with three freelance friends, Emma King, Claire Wellesley-Smith and Wendy Ward (all of whom have appeared on my Making Meaning Podcast in one form or another). I think I started this in 2021 but whenever it was, it has worked out brilliantly. We meet on Zoom, have a chat and then quietly on our own projects for 30-40 minute bursts before breaking for more chat and repeat. Sometimes  it’s more chat than work, but we all acknowledge how important it is to have space to talk about issues in freelancing – problematic employers, funding issues and even stuff in our personal lives which impact our ability to do the work we love. The group has been so valuable to me, both in terms of having work buddies to chat to and the accountability of co-working time so I get stuff done! I’ve made a shift this year so the sessions are focussing on writing, so here I am doing the thing, on the first day back to work. That’s the power of connecting and working with others. 

I also have a great mini group of other artist mentors & coaches with Melody Vaughan and Sharon Adams. This was Melody’s innovation, because she recognised how challenging it can be to both support others and to run a business supporting others and that sharing with others who really understand both aspects is vital. We meet roughly quarterly and talk about all kinds of practical issues, new offers we are thinking about, bounce around problems and ideas and also explore some of the bigger picture stuff about supporting others and the things we would like to learn and develop. 

Sharon is also a member of another group which started working together early this year. At the end of 2021 I applied for funding called Four Nations which aims to bring together partners from the four UK nations and others from overseas. I created a project of artists coming together to talk about artist support and also to be that mutual support group for each other.  We meet online across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Sweden and The Netherlands and decided to call our project Artist Support Recipes, based on the idea of recipe books which bring ingredients and methods together. The group includes Sharon Adams, Gillian McFarland, Collette Rayner and Liz Nilsson. It’s turned into a supportive and fun collective of brilliant women with great ideas and innovations about how we can be supported as artists, how we can offer support to others and how we think organisations should go about supporting artists. We have also become highly expert in creating food & cooking-related metaphors for artist support! The funding for this project comes to an end soon but the learning and the connections will undoubtedly continue and we hope to offer our findings to organisations and others who want to do better in supporting artists. Working with this group is one of the many things that has helped to cement my decision to focus on supporting artists as my main freelance / consultancy work for this year and beyond.

I also have the pleasure of monthly chats with my European business friends: coach Elin Lööw, artist Gesche Santen and jeweller Daphne van ver Meulen about business and personal development.  We met through a group programme in 2020 and have kept in touch since, and share a lot of the ups and downs of running a business and trying to fit in a life around it. These connections are so valuable and beneficial that I am even prepared to meet at 8am ! 

Working with artists

I made a decision in 2021 that I needed to be working with other artists on my various projects both to share the load and to have a creative collaboration to make it all more fun. I invited Mandeep Dhadialla to work with me on Woodgate Wellbeing last winter and then included her in my funding application for Community Spirit in the Spring / Summer. We had a great time collaborating on this project and then managed to follow it almost immediately with another one in the late summer. I supported Mandeep’s project with ArtReach in project producer role, as well as running one workshop. It was a really enjoyable collaboration and we are looking at other similar partnerships for this year. I’ve written about the project here. All of these projects have really made me think about who I work with an on what basis. Supporting artists with projects is something I really enjoy so I am formalising that work now – so if you need a producer to support an artist-led project, please do get in touch. 

I’ve also had the pleasure of spending time in person with Kathryn Parsons this year, as well as seeing her new moths work on display. We had a mini retreat together in the summer to talk about art and landscape and making a living out of a research-led practice. We are planning another retreat before too long to continue to cook up ideas for another artists group (it seems that I cannot have enough!). 

I’ve also been co-mentoring with Gillian McFarland, who I collaborate with a lot, and we took a really inspiring week’s retreat in the autumn, which you can read about here. Conversations with other artists who get what I do are worth their weight in gold (if you can weigh a conversation?!) and I am really lucky to have so many creative friends to talk to. 

Other People and connections

Alongside many brilliant artists, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with other professionals this year, firstly at the start of the year, Louise Jones-Williams, Director of Llantarnam Grange where I showed my Criminal Quilts exhibition for the last time in the Spring. Louise has been fantastically supportive of my work for a number of years and it is always a pleasure to spend time with her. We had a live-streamed conversation for the exhibition launch in February and then in March we recorded in person for my Making Meaning Podcast which you can listen to here

In the Spring I also worked with Josslyn and Evelyn of Peace of Green on the Woodgate Wellbeing project and we’ve been talking about doing more together in the local countryside in the coming year, which will be great. I also got to have a long chat with Jemma Bagley and see the Loughborough Wellbeing Centre which is really inspiring and another place I hope to work with before too long. I also had some great, supportive and inspiring connections with volunteers, library and venue staff and volunteer co-ordinators during my Community Spirit project in the summer. It’s a shame that was only a short project as I made some really positive connections, but that’s often how things work in the community arts field. I’ve reflected on my volunteering experience here.

I also did a great bit of research and facilitation with ArtQuest earlier this Spring, working with a group to discuss ideas about improving the equity of open call artist opportunities. I loved doing this work and working with ArtQuest and the experts they brought into the discussions, and it’s really inspired me focus on more artist support consultancy work.

I didn’t end up working with Clore Leadership this year, as I wasn’t selected for their visual arts fellowship, one of the disappointments of the year for me, although I was pleased to get through to interview. Instead I decided to work with the fantastic coach Sarah Fox to help me work out the next steps I want take in my consultant / producer / freelancer work. I started Sarah’s Lasting Impact programme in September and it’s been fantastic. With her support, and the others in the group, I have started writing more about things that matter to me and sharing my thoughts more widely. I’ve written this autumn about textiles and having something to say (which seems to have created a project!) and the start of a series about artists and money which I will continue this year. I’ve also really clarified the kind of consultancy work I want to do in the future and started making steps towards making this happen.

As always, I have loved supporting others through mentoring and it’s such a privilege to be part of the creative journey and hear about all the exciting projects happening with my mentees. Some of the people I’ve supported this year include: Jennie McCall, Tzipporah Johnston, Carol-Ann Savage, Lucie Bea Dutton, Carole Miles, Phiona Richards, Jenny Beattie and Sarah Trowsdale, and Mandeep Dhadialla whose feedback I have shared here.

And last, but not at all least, I have the pleasure all year round to work with the wonderful humans in my Maker Membership, some of whom appear in podcast episodes 17 and 24. We’ve had some great online sessions over the year as well as a small group of stitchers getting together in the spring to create work and have conversations about our feelings about the invasion of Ukraine. The group continues to be a wonderful community and such a great space to connect and share. I am so happy that I created this space and that it supports so many in their creative journey. 

If you would like to spend some time reviewing your year and thinking about what you really want to do next, my Find Your Focus course is open now. The five week course begins with a holistic and mindful review of the year to help you plan what you want more of in the coming year. The course is open for the whole of January, with new lessons released each week. Find out more here.

Embellished sewing tools

I’ve recently completed a small series of works for sale with the lovely Beyond Measure shop. I don’t make a lot of things for retail so these are pretty special.

The darning cards are £36.50 and you can find them here. This scissors start at £49 and you can find them here. Beyond Measure also stock the very last of my Patchwork Colouring Books.


The darned darning cards and embellished scissors ideas both started life in this exhibition piece I made
in 2018.

I inherited my grandmother’s sewing box over 40 years after she died. I never knew
her, yet we share a thread of textile inheritance.
I spent several years pondering this box of embroidery threads, unfinished projects, tools
and bits and pieces before I worked out what I wanted to make with them. I started by
unravelling, tidying and sorting her threads and tools and then once I could see everything
clearly, I decided to make small embellished pieces. I only used threads that were already
started, short lengths and scraps and only used the tools and other things found in the
same box.

Wrapping and embellishing scissors and functional things makes them even more
precious and turns them into miniature works of art which resonate with stories and past
lives. I collect old darning cards with wonderful old graphic design and scissors which have
been used over decades and love to select threads and stitches which give new life to
things which have languished in sewing boxes for years.

I’ve made a few commissions using these techniques too, details below and worked some boxes full of these kind of sewing tool treasures (I have one or two of these left, please get in touch if you would like to see images).

photo of red silk lined box of victorian sewing tools with stitching and embellishment by Ruth Singer.

Email inboxes can be full of all kinds of tedious and boring things. Work. Bills. Adverts for things you don’t want. I’d like to brighten your inbox with a couple of emails a month full of inspiration, ideas and ways to see and share what I’m doing. 

Joining my Studio Stories email list is the best way to keep in touch with what I’m doing, more blog posts about creative business and about my work and projects. I’ll share courses and workshops too as well as behind the scenes studio stuff.

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My new Find Your Focus course starts in January. It covers core values, a realistic review of your year, looking at what matters most and then working on how to build in more of the good stuff and less of the stuff that’s not taking you forwards. The course is delivered through 5 video lessons starting on 3rd January, fresh and ready for the new year.

Find Your Focus

Neutral textile background with the words Find Your Focus Online Course with Ruth Singer 3-31 January 2023

The world is pretty distracting at the moment isn’t it? Creative practice is pretty distracting too. Confusing as well. It’s all too common to find ourselves wading through too many ideas and not knowing which to concentrate on, or struggling to know what ideas are worth pursuing. Running a business and keeping moving forwards with creative practice is even more complicated. There are so many potential projects, ideas, collaborators, ways of marketing, types of selling, different products and oooh that new shiny thing over there that is tempting us away from the stuff we’ve already started.

Do you struggle to find the right focus for your creative energy? Keep trying different things in the hope that this is the ‘right’ one? Want to do all the things and not concentrate on just one at a time? I really do understand. My early years in creative practice were pretty messy. I wanted to do everything even though I didn’t remotely have the time. I wanted to experiment and try new things but I also wanted, desperately, to be proficient and skilled and really expert in one thing. It’s all a bit much.

What I’ve learned in the 17 years I’ve been doing this is that focus is absolutely vital in making a success of a creative practice or business. You can’t do everything. And the thing(s) you focus on have to be the things that are most important to you, not what someone else told you should do.

That’s really what Find Your Focus is all about, honing in on the things that really matter, the stuff you love and want to put all your energy into, not what distracts you and that you think you ought to be doing instead.

Work at your own pace with this online course

I’ve created Find Your Focus from my Gentle Goal Setting course, workbook and live workshops over the last couple of years. After working with lots of people and doing the gentle goal setting process myself three times, I have refined and expanded it into a wider course looking at identifying your focus points or guiding lights for the year to come.

Over five weeks of online video courses, plus two workbooks, we will look at your creative core values, review the year in a realistic and gentle way, dig into what matters to you most, why you do what you do and how to single out those areas of focus that will be taking you forwards into the new year.

You’ll work at your own pace through the video lessons and workbooks but with accountability and reminders through the weekly course emails. There are two workbooks to download and keep too which you can refer back to whenever you start to lose your way. They include printable sheets of your key focus points and help you break down each focus into achievable goals and action steps.

I honestly find this process so valuable and have loved sharing it with many of you over the last few years. I hope this version of Gentle Goal Setting – now Find Your Focus will help many more in being gentle with ourselves and our plans while also achieving the things that really matter.

Find Your Focus starts on 3rd January with a pre-recorded video lesson and four more each week until 31st January. You can join any time.

If you find you want more support there will be a discount code for subscribers of the course to book 3 or 6 sessions of 1:1 mentoring with me.

Artist Mentoring

If you are feeling a bit at sea with your creative practice, I’m here to help. I’ve created my mentoring programmes after years of working with and supporting artists and really understanding the challenges of creative life. I’m on your side to help you figure out the meanings and the reasons behind your creative practice and how to move forwards. Find out more here.

If you are looking for a creative community with ongoing support and resources to challenge your thinking and take your creative practice further, have a look at my Maker Membership. It’s a monthly rolling membership that you can join any time. I create workbooks, blog posts and videos about all kinds of things including research, creative development and reflection. There’s also a lively community who share their work and their thoughts via the members chat and we meet monthly on Zoom for a group mentoring session which is always really inspiring and encouraging. Find out more here. It’s £25 per month to join with no minimum term. Find out more here or click the button below to join.

Stitch with something to say

Before I visited Festival of Quilts earlier this year, I was thinking about another world where something other than quilts were on display in a huge, annual competition. I was inspired by Fashion Fictions which Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd introduced in Making Meaning Live where alternative versions of the world are explored where there are restrictions on clothing or fabric production as a way of creatively imagining ways to address over-production and over-consumption.

First of all I pondered a world where it wasn’t possible to buy new fabric to cut up and sew it back together into patchwork… where we had to use scraps to make patchwork for practical purposes if cloth wasn’t so over-abundant and little-valued like it is here and now.

I was also thinking about alternative cloth / sewn things that might have become popular to make other than quilts. Why have quilts become the thing we make for pleasure, creativity or retail? What if patchwork had never grown into the art form it is now? What other large-scale textiles might there be on display? Flags? Sails? Banners? Unique handmade garments? 

That led me down a route of thinking about protest banners and political or social banners which were so important in the 19th century and how they are such a small part of our textile world now compared to quilts. Banners were an extraordinary art form in the 19th and early 20th century and an important means for women to use their skills and creativity to further a cause or social issue or promote a sense of belonging for a community. It’s something I keep coming back to myself for my own work – and I’ve started in a miniature way with my Protest Pincushion, a tiny sort of banner! (This was not in the Festival of Quilts because it’s too small and it’s not a quilt.)

Community quilts and group textile project, sometimes with a political or social message, were such a big thing during the pandemic and this demonstrated just how powerful and meaningful collective message-making.  I found it so interesting to explore this in the Textiles in Lockdown podcast which I’ve republished as Making Meaning episode 18.

Thinking about this has made me appreciate group quilts and projects more and I’m really interested in exploring what is out there in the world of textile with a message. I visited the banners exhibition in the Textile Biennial in 2019 which was really amazing but it makes me sad and frustrated that banners aren’t as well-explored art form as quilts and there isn’t a place for banners to be shown annually, to be awarded prizes and publicity and where we can come together to make textiles that have a positive impact and use resources consciously. 

So let’s imagine a fictional world where using precious textile resources was only acceptable when the finished piece had to say something. It had to be activist, community-made or share a message. Imagine those halls of the NEC full of protest banners or social group banners proclaiming their important social message. There is a competition for the best banner in a number of categories such as activism, community groups, human rights, image-based, text-based, political… and then I thought why aren’t they the groupings that quilts are entered into now? Why isn’t there a ‘statement’ category at Festival of Quilts? I really think there should be.

So with all these thoughts in mind, I visited the Festival of Quilts with the intention of seeing just how many pieces in the open competition had an obvious political, social, personal or community message. I know there will be some I didn’t see and I’m sure there were plenty of others that had a message but it wasn’t visually immediately obvious and was maybe more apparent in the artist statements in the catalogue, but I didn’t have one and very much didn’t have time to read them all.

I was so delighted to find so many with a message ranging from very subtle commentary within quilts to pieces overtly political or with a powerful, meaningful statement. I expected to find pieces made by groups with a strong meaning or message and I was amply rewarded. Quilts have a great history of being used by groups to come together and share emotions or to make a point or a message, partly because of their ideal format for individuals to make a piece which is then assembled into a whole. It really is a great vehicle for community practice and one which I have used myself many times.

The Grenfell Memorial Quilts were by far the most impactful pieces at the show, partly due to the size of them but mainly due to the impact and meaning behind them. I can’t help feeling though that they didn’t get the space, prominence or display impact they deserved, maybe because they are wonky and imperfect and very much community-made which is always a contrast to the perfection of competition quilts. There’s a place for both of course. I would LOVE to see community arts practice given the stage it really deserves in galleries and in society but that’s probably another blog post / life’s work. 

The Sophie Hayes Foundation was a brilliant example of this kind of work done really well, and clearly with a bigger budget and structure behind it than the grassroots Grenfell Quilts. These really combined powerful messages, excellent craftsmanship and really good marketing. I don’t mean that I thought they were in any way ‘better’ than the Grenfell quilts, they are just differently produced and presented. 

I really enjoyed hunting out pieces with a political, personal or social commentary within the competition quilts. As this isn’t a category of quilts to enter, they were dotted around and I am sure I missed lots.  The group quilts category is a good place to look for statement pieces, there are still some covid-related pieces and I am sure I will have missed many of these shown last year when I didn’t attend. There are a number of them in Textiles in Lockdown and I know there are hundreds of them around. What fantastic records of life experience during 2020 they are.

Here are some of the pieces I spotted. 

 

I would love to hear from makers of these or other quilts or textiles with a message. Where do you show and share your work? What’s the place for this kind of impactful textile?    How would you change the textile world to allow more space for stitch with something to say?

Working for free

Artists and freelancers regularly get asked to do unpaid work for organisations and institutions. In this blog post I discuss one of the common scenarios, share some thoughts on how things need to change and suggest some actions you can take.

Photo by kevser on Pexels.com

Should I say yes to unpaid work?

This is a perennial complex problem for those of us working in the arts and one I regularly want to moan about. So instead I’m giving it some thought and offering some alternatives to approaching this thorny question. Opportunities to give away your artwork, time, expertise, knowledge, potential earnings and wellbeing are bountiful. The creative world is full of ways for you to not earn any money. Finding ways to do the opposite and make an income is one of the greatest challenges of creative practice.

There are some things in the sector that pop up again and again which involve working for free and I have been thinking a lot about about how to make these decisions for yourself and how to try and make changes in the sector so this happens less.

There is no one simple answer to whether or not you choose to work for free as it all depends on:

  • where you are in your career
  • what you are being asked to do for free
  • your own financial situation
  • the financial situation of the organisation offering the thing
  • what else you might get out if it

The main thing to remember and to focus on is exposure does not pay the bills. Artists cannot live on goodwill. Those of us that have to make a living cannot keep being undercut by those who can afford to work for free. What ends up happening is those who need to earn a living say yes to unpaid things because it’s presented as ‘good for their career’ and they don’t have the confidence or leaderships skills to say no and why.

Choosing to work for free is a different thing – writing a speculative application, a proposal, responding to an open brief, donating work for a charity etc is a matter of choice. The problem really is when artists are asked to do work which really should be paid, such as running events, providing design or creative work or giving up their time & expertise to help a funded organisation do their job. It’s the latter I am focussing on here.

Over the 17 years I have been self employed, I have done plenty of unpaid work and I still chose to do some now, but only if I don’t feel exploited by the organisation and when it is otherwise beneficial for me. I choose not to work for free when it is mainly beneficial to an organisation with paid staff.

I do consultancy work for organisations on artist support and development activities as well as offering mentoring, training and business support to artists and creative businesses in partnership with organisations. Please get in touch if this is something your organisation would like to develop.

In the last few months I have been asked to be on a selection or jury panel for open exhibitions, both run by organisations with local authority funding support and salaried staff. With exquisite irony, this is exactly the thing I have been writing a report about for Artquest – for which I have been paid a professional consultancy fee. The report I’ve written is about artist Open Calls and making them more equitable and fair for artists. There’s a lot in this project about unpaid labour for artists, about paying fairly, about appreciating the value that artists and freelancers bring to an organisation, and paying them fairly for their work, including those on selection panels. So in both these cases, I have declined to do the work. In the first case I asked about fee as it was not mentioned and then declined in a vague way citing busy on the day. But more recently I’ve tackled the issue headlong and said why I can’t do the work for free, that I understand their budget restrictions etc and why it is important to value artists time.

My own work in my Narrative Threads solo exhibition 2015

In both cases I’ve felt vulnerable doing this and sad not to do the work – it’s something I would really enjoy doing, but I have to practice what I preach and not take on unpaid work in order to (hopefully) further my professional relationships with the organisations involved. That’s the issue I’m weighing in the balance every time I consider some unpaid work –

Will there be other benefits to me in doing this?

What is the non-financial value to me in this transaction?

Is there a value to me in this transaction at all or is all the value benefitting the organisation?

Why should I give up several hours of my potential income-generating time in order to benefit their open call exhibition? They are not charities. The people asking me have salaried jobs. Would they do it for free?

1292 Foodbank Visits in 18 Weeks, Ruth Singer, 2020. Hand stitch on cotton.

Its really important to remember that it’s not the fault of the person doing the asking, it’s the fault of the structures they work within who expect freelancers and artists to work for free. There is a pervasive culture of creatives working for free, an established, but unspoken rule that artists will do stuff for free because we need to further our careers and being helpful to organisations who are the gatekeepers of exhibitions and other forms of paid work is seen as necessary.

As a result of this culture of unpaid labour, it falls to me, as the unpaid artist, to explain to them, to pass on to their managers and budget-holders why they shouldn’t ask artists to work for free. If you value my professional expertise in this project, I deserve a professional fee.

I freely admit I didn’t know or think about this properly when I was employed by an organisation. I employed artists but I did expect them to travel across London and come to an unpaid meeting to discuss the 2 days of paid work. That’s not fair. I know that now and I point it out to organisations as often as I can, where they haven’t already addressed it (some have).

In conclusion, the most impactful thing we can all be doing about this is talking about it rather than hiding our frustrations and disappointments and letting bad practice continue unchallenged. We can sign up to campaigns like the brilliant Paying Artists. We can also make conscious choices about what we do for free, rather than just accepting it as the way things are. If you feel able to share, I would love to hear your thoughts about when you are asked to work for free and how you responded.

If you are struggling with this issue, I suggest starting with this: record all the unpaid work you do in a project or in the development stages of a project with an organisation. You may not do anything with this but it is so useful to have some data. If you feel able, you could share it with the organisation and just say “This is the amount of [additional] work I did unpaid in this project, if I was charging, this would be £££ value.” Making our unpaid work visible is a great first step in opening up the conversation.

This is the first in a series of blog posts tackling money issues around artist and freelance practice. I’ll be sharing more soon as this stuff is really important for us to talk about and for organisations to be aware of, and ideally, act upon. Please share this post or my social posts to try and get the message across. It would be great if you wanted to write your own post addressing some of the issues and how you approach working for free / getting paid for your professional expertise. I would also love to hear from organisations about what you are doing on this issue! You can get in touch with me here.


Email inboxes can be full of all kinds of tedious and boring things. Work. Bills. Adverts for things you don’t want. I’d like to brighten your inbox with a couple of emails a month full of inspiration, ideas and ways to see and share what I’m doing. 

Joining my Studio Stories email list is the best way to keep in touch with what I’m doing, more blog posts about creative business and about my work and projects. I’ll share courses and workshops too as well as behind the scenes studio stuff.

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My new Find Your Focus course starts in January. It covers core values, a realistic review of your year, looking at what matters most and then working on how to build in more of the good stuff and less of the stuff that’s not taking you forwards. The course is delivered through 5 video lessons starting on 3rd January, fresh and ready for the new year.


Artist Mentoring

If you are feeling a bit at sea with your creative practice, I’m here to help. I’ve created my mentoring programmes after years of working with and supporting artists and really understanding the challenges of creative life. I’m on your side to help you figure out the meanings and the reasons behind your creative practice and how to move forwards. Find out more here.

Making Community Spirit

Behind the scenes on my current community project

Creating great projects is all about the preparation and behind the scenes work. As my Community Spirit project is coming to an end, I’m reflecting on all the work and unseen effort, creativity and chaos that goes on to make things like this look seamless. I started working on the funding application last summer when my house move got delayed again and I suddenly had 2 weeks with not much in the diary. But the idea of the project was even longer ago than that. While I was deep in the middle of volunteering for the foodbank in 2020 I went for a walk in the park (because I couldn’t go any further) and was thinking about just how vital and impactful volunteering was proving to be. And I wanted something to show for it. Something that others could see and that would really shine a light on the amazing work done by volunteers. It took 12 months more before I turned it into a funding application and then it took three attempts to get the funding, taking me through to the very end of 2021. It was hard to write the application and even harder to revise and change it and keep the energy and enthusiasm needed to get it finally funded.

Luckily, one of the changes I made to the project in the re-submitting stage was to bring in an associate artist. I realised that I need to collaborate, to work with others and have a team to work with. I invited Mandeep Dhadialla to work with me on this because of her experience in running community workshops. In fact originally I thought she would be doing all of the workshops although it really didn’t work out like that!

Our first joint job was to create the concept for the artwork. I love coming up with different ideas for making projects where different people can collaborate and work towards a finished piece. The original application says that we’d make a quilt but I knew from the start that I actually wanted to do something different. I love a community quilt project but there are a lot of them around and I always want to take the least obvious route in a creative project.

The other element in this project was that I was working with Mandeep not just by myself and I soon realised that the quilt idea wouldn’t work with Mandeep’s print on paper specialism. So I wanted to find a different way of working that would allow paper and textile to be used and I realised that it would also be great if the pieces made could be returned to the participants rather than produce one large piece which would then need a home.

One of the inspirations was Alinah Azadeh’s Medals for Everyday Courage, shared by Craftspace. I loved the idea of medals or tokens to celebrate the work volunteers had done. But I didn’t want to copy this idea for my own project, I needed my own concept. We bounced around a lot of ideas and eventually rosettes came out top. It worked perfectly – could be made in textile or paper, there’s space for words and images and they would make great mementoes of volunteering for makers to give as gifts or to keep for themselves.

We both worked on creative concepts that would be easy to make in workshops and at home with materials kits and put together all the stuff required and made prototypes.

I wrote instructions and printed booklets with photos to go with make-at-home kits while Mandeep prepared printed and hand drawn papers for the kits and workshops. And then we got started. Over 50 rosettes were made and contributed to the project over the summer and we then had to work out how to bring them together and display them in a way which allowed us to move it around easily and return the rosettes to their makers after the tour ended.

After a lot of research and experimenting, I decided to make a simple quilt for the pieces to attach to and went on the hunt for a suitable display stand which would work. I had a lovely time researching quilt displays but in the end opted for coat rack / open wardrobe style stand. The one I picked was designed to move easily and folds up for transport. It has a large box attached at the bottom which is not ideal in some ways but does mean I can store the packaging for the display all in the base and leave it at the venue.

So then I made the quilt to go on the stand, for the rosettes to attach to. That was a lot harder than I hoped, as I was running out of time and had to short cut to make a simpler version. I had intended to make a complex patterned patchwork but eventually realised that it would be impossible in the time I had left and also would be covered in rosettes so wouldn’t show anyway! So that rather lovely but wonky piece of patchwork is going to become my own artwork about volunteering – smaller scale and more visible as a standalone piece. Mandeep and I spent a day securing rosettes with extra stitching, backing, glue and other scaffolding to make sure they stood up to being moved and handled regularly.

One final inspection by my cat and it was ready to go on tour.

The showcase, along with the film and a booklet of my research is now on show in Loughborough at John Storer House. It’s there until 14th October and then has a couple of other venues in the county before it’s taken apart and the rosettes are returned to volunteers. You can also watch the film and download the booklet here. This is the last of a flurry of community projects I’ve been working on in 2021-22 but there will be more, in time. If you work for an organisation that would benefit from an artist-led project, please get in touch.


Creative Producer

Projects around making things happen and bringing together people, places and stories

I love working with people to explore places and stories. I create and deliver projects inspired by my three sources of joy: textiles, artists and heritage. I add in research, partnerships and funding to produce experiences around People, Places and Stories

The experiences I create might be for artists, for textile-lovers, around heritage and stories, by, with and for communities.

Find out more about my Creative Producer work here.

Making Meaning Podcast Episode 26 with Gillian Lee Smith

In this final conversation of the series, I am talking to Gillian Lee Smith, a Scottish painter based in Northumberland. Gillian and I first met as members of a designer-makers group in the English midlands but we reconnected over Zoom during the pandemic and have had some wonderful conversations about our practices, our mentoring work and our creative ideas. In this conversation we focus on mentoring and talk about how both supporting others and being supported ourselves helps our practice. We talk about the zigzag journey of creative practice and how reflection and talking things through with others really helps to clarify things, to open new doors and to inspire. 


Gillian Lee Smith is a painter living in Northumberland. Her ongoing work is inspired by maritime history – fishing communities, the stories of the ocean and the man made structures of harbours that mark the boundary and often create sheltering spaces from the storms.

Gillian is embarking on a new body of work called The Lost and The Left Behind which will explore themes of the ongoing resonance of history, loss and memory. The process of painting (creating, burying and excavating) allows an image to reveal itself over time and can connect to a particular story, memory or experience in surprising ways. Gillian is exploring ways of taking this approach into other media such as printmaking and mixed media for her new work. 

A practicing artist for over 15 years, Gillian teaches in person workshops and creates online courses such as her signature programme Building a Body of Work as well as working closely with other artists through mentoring. Exhibiting locally and nationally, Gillian recently won a highly commended award with her portrait Through dust and darkness (The Miner) at Woodhorn Mining Museum. 

Play here


Other links

Solo exhibition November 2022 to February 2023 at Newbiggin Maritime Museum


Artist Mentoring

If you are feeling a bit at sea with your creative practice, I’m here to help. I’ve created my mentoring programmes after years of working with and supporting artists and really understanding the challenges of creative life. I’m on your side to help you figure out the meanings and the reasons behind your creative practice and how to move forwards. Find out more here.


Maker Membership

My Maker Membership is now open for all makers wanting to explore their motivations and to build meaning and research into their practice and be part of a supportive creative community. We meet once a month and I share resources, tips and research to help you develop your own work. Find out more here.

My Creative Retreat

What I learned from taking a week out to just be an artist again

It makes me laugh when I get comments saying how nice it must be just to stitch all day in my lovely studio. I think it would be nice too, but that isn’t quite the reality of making a living from my creative practice. I spend 90% of my working hours online and sometimes it feels like 90% of my entire life in front of the computer! Time spent actually making stuff with my hands is only a small part of what I do. But I’m not saying that to make you feel sorry for me. I chose this working life and on the whole it suits me. I love the work I do on the computer from 1:1 mentoring to writing resources for my Maker Membership to recording the Making Meaning podcast to writing blog posts like this. It’s all creative practice and it’s all stuff I love but I also love the artist studio bit too. It’s all too easy for that to get squeezed out by the challenges of making a living, delivering projects and running a complex multi-stranded business pretty much singlehandedly.

Moving house last year and settling into my new studio has proved to be an excellent decision. The new space is inspiring and I have access to country walks within minutes of my home which really helps me with thinking and reflecting on my creative work. I haven’t however, got into a good routine of using this space for making / studio work on a regular basis. I have only just over the last 6 months or so got back into making new work after lockdowns which sapped pretty much all of my creativity.

I’m winding up a lot of projects at the moment and looking forward to the autumn and winter of getting back to some things of my own that have been on pause for far too long – a book I planned in 2018 for a start – and finishing off several pieces and groups of work that have been waiting for me. To kickstart this I took myself on an artists retreat in early September and I’m going to share a bit more about that and why it worked so well for me.

A few years ago I started taking a few days in autumn or winter to reflect, focus on my practice and basically get away from the computer for few days. It seems like a real indulgence, spending money to go somewhere else to do what I could be doing in my own studio. And yes it is, in some ways, but also it is an acknowledgement that my artist practice doesn’t get the attention it deserves in an average week. Also I tell myself, I have a home studio so I am not paying rent for it every month, so I can save it up and go away for a few days of space to think and work.

Drawing and printing materials, plus cups of tea set out on a table, one pair f hands with sketchbook
Gillian’s printing and drawing set up outside

This time I invited my long-time friend and collaborator Gillian McFarland to join me. We used to share a studio in Leicester but she now lives back in Scotland so we met in the middle, near Barnard Castle. We also co-mentor each other so have really got to explore our practice together in the last few months so this was a perfect time to reflect and get moving with some new things.

Collection of found objects and natural materials including acorns and old broken pottery, feathers and twigs
Our nature table and found items

We walked and talked, gathered and drew. We did some printing and some natural dyeing and lots of reflecting on our own practices and where we were going. There was lots of reading and sharing ideas, and listening and suggesting.

I made a start on some ideas that have been brewing for years, stitched paths on fragments of cloth and printed paths on lino.

Long narrow textile with fine pink stitched line along the length, displayed on a rugged stone wall
Stitched paths in thread
Black and white artist prints laid on a table. Prints are wiggly lines travelling across the print plate.
Experimental prints

I also visited a lot of medieval sites, churches, abbeys, castles – returning to my roots as a medievalist! This has been a powerful reminder of just how much I want to revisit with the eyes of an artist rather than an academic history student.

I did two research visits to museum collections as well, looking at corded quilting which was absolute heaven! And spent some time just browsing for fun at the Bowes Museum. Museum browsing is probably my top choice for inspiration and idea-nurturing.

Broken roman and medieval pottery display from the Bowes Museum
Broken roman and medieval pottery display from the Bowes Museum

So what have I learned from this trip?

  • Creativity needs space to thrive. I can find that space at home in a normal busy week but allowing myself the space to expand into a bigger creative space was really useful
  • Time to think and reflect is fundamental.
  • Talking to someone about your practice helps you figure things out yourself
  • There’s always a lot of unknown with creative practice. You have to learn to be comfortable with not knowing if what you do will be good or useful or what you intended.
  • Experimenting and releasing some of the self-imposed restrictions on what you do can be joyful as well as scary
  • And I learned that the ideas that are bubbling away under the surface need to rise up and get the attention they deserve, whether or not they turn out to be good.

So that’s what I’m doing over the next few months. Allowing my creative practice some space. Pausing and ending some projects to allow the capacity for some others – my podcast is pausing over the autumn and will restart some time in the new year and my community projects are all coming to an end. I’m going to try spending one day a week properly focussing in my studio and not turning the computer on at all. I am going to take drawing and writing out on my walks and do a lot more visiting inspiring places and just see what happens.

Cloth scraps and threads in beige and purple dyed with natural dyes
Cloth scraps and threads dyed with foraged natural dyes during the week

If you would like some support and nurturing of your creative practice, wherever you are in your career, I would love to help. I really do love mentoring, being trusted to travel alongside a creative journey and help you figure things out. I would love to grow this side of my work and help more people so I have created some new mentoring package – 3 or 6 months of 1:1 support via monthly Zoom calls. You can find out more here. If 1:1 isn’t right for you at this time, you might like to look at my Maker Membership which is by far the most affordable way to work with me and get feedback on your creative practice, as well as be part of a supportive community. And finally, my Find Your Focus course runs in January – this is a development from my Gentle Goal Setting workshops / workbook which involves reflection, finding your own criteria for success and creating guiding light principles and activities which will take you forwards. Find out more here.

Artist Mentoring

Support and guidance with your creative practice with experienced artist & mentor Ruth Singer

My 1:1 mentoring sessions are back! I took a break in August and September to get a few other things finished and to have time to figure out what I wanted to do with my mentoring practice.

I’ve been mentoring since at least 2014 (according to my oldest testimonial!) but I am sure I was doing it more informally before then too. And I really do love it! It’s so energising to feel like you are making a difference to someone’s creative practice and to see the change and growth in your clients.

The two episodes of this series of Making Meaning Podcast are with two of my recent mentees and both talk about how useful and nurturing it is to have support in your creative practice. Mandeep’s podcast episode is here and there will be a new one out 29th September with guest Gillian Lee Smith reflecting on mentoring.

Here’s what Mandeep said on Instagram

“Today involved a moment of reflection within my practice – looking back, looking at my present stance, and looking ahead. 

It’s been a few months now that I’ve been working with artist and mentor @ruthsingertextiles to help articulate my creative thoughts, and today’s session was as fruitful as always. I’ve come to think of each session together as a series of layers gently building towards the bigger picture. 

The biggest and most important factor in choosing to work with Ruth is her holistic approach – having the capacity to engage, listen, provide space and show a genuine interest in bringing out the potential of my professional practice in line with my own holistic way of working, through inner and outer care. I’m felt understood in my visual language; the exchange of conversation never fails to inspire or encourage my wider ambitions.

This isn’t a push to gather more clients for Ruth nor is it a paid partnership; more an open sharing of thoughts, of how the idea of togetherness contributes to raising one another, of how what we can learn from one another organically weaves into our individual practices. 

This linocut was a print I began last year which went miserably wrong, yet taught me a lot about technique and about myself. But most of all it invited conversation of all kinds to take place with printmakers and non-printmakers, influencing the developmental direction of my practice. It was an eye-opener, much like mentoring is – expansive; your hand held, with soft focussed guidance in finding your footing in your practice, and individual seat in the big art world.”

I’ve realised over the last couple of years of online mentoring that figuring out your creative practice isn’t something that can be achieved in one session! I now offer 3 or 6 session packages which give the mentee time and space to figure things out and move forward.

Find out more about mentoring here. If what you are looking for is community and a lighter touch of support then you might find my Maker Membership is the right space for you. I share loads of resources in the online space and we meet monthly on Zoom for group chats where you can ask for advice or feedback on your work. You can find out a bit of what it’s like by listening to Maker Membership episode of the podcast here.

What kind of things do you struggle with in your creative practice? What kind of support or help might take you forward into doing your best creative work? I’d love to hear from you, you can comment here or on my Instagram page.