Step By Step

One day at a time

Not too long ago I had a wall planner diary for the whole year, I was waiting to hear about a 12-month project so I could fully schedule in my 12-18 month work plan around my holidays, teaching away from home, deadlines and exhibition touring schedule. I always have teaching and exhibition plans up to 2 years ahead in my diary and a plan for what work I will be doing from month to month, usually quite detailed for 6 months or more ahead. I like planning. I love knowing what’s coming up and what I need to do to keep up to speed with both the work and the time off. Obviously that’s all had to change. Instead of long-term plans I have a blank diary with some pencilled-in possible things later in the year if things get better and an income planner which is less encouraging every day.  Like all self-employed artists, I’m having to rethink a lot of what I do and how I do it. I am incredibly lucky to have some ongoing paid work which will keep me afloat while everything else is in chaos, and I have a safe home to be in and the great blessing of a home studio.

 

Over the last few years I have travelled thousands of miles for teaching and exhibitions and spent far too much time away from home and it was my 2020 plan to spend more time at home and get on with some self-initiated projects. Not all of those are going to work out so I am still doing ongoing rethinking about what I can do to keep my business afloat, even as I ‘celebrate’ 15 years as a wholly self-employed artist / writer. I am incredibly proud to have made it through 15 years, including the last hard 10 years of Tory austerity which has radically cut arts funding alongside so much more. Part of this year’s plan was to figure out how to pivot my practice so my work would support my social justice values whilst still making me a living. Some of that thinking work is still ticking over, some of it is going into (modified) practice and I am exploring new routes to making that happen. However, I was turned down for 3 lots of funding for this work in January which has made it even harder to see the route through, and which is only getting more difficult now. But the work itself, using art to make lives better for those most severely disadvantaged, is even more important now that the inequalities in our society are being shown so starkly.  This will continue to develop, but at the moment I need to focus on supporting community action where I can and concentrating on making a living so I can still be ready to rise up and work for and with other people when the time is right. At the moment I am creating resource packs for Criminal Quilts work with women on probation, in place of workshops I was due to run in May. I will be doing a lot more like this I think, finding ways to get creativity and self expression into the lives of people who need it the most without being able to meet with them in safe, creative spaces.

If you would like to support my work, you might like to take a look at my Patreon membership where for just $10 a month you will get a digital mini magazine about my work, textiles and whatever interesting things catch my eye. You could also get a monthly print of my work – this months are just about to go out and May’s will be ready soon. Subscribers are a vital life line for artists and creatives who normally rely on teaching income or public-facing work which we just can’t do at the moment, and every single one of you makes a huge and very real different to me at the moment, and always.

Refocussing towards social justice

Last autumn, on one of my many long work-related drives, I was pondering what kind of themes I wanted to explore in my work in 2020 and beyond. Two major projects had been filling my brain for months; Criminal Quilts and my personal work exhibitions Emotional Repair and Textile Traces. All of these had powerful, emotive stories at their core, either exploring society and criminal justice (Criminal Quilts) or my own personal experiences in the other exhibitions. There is still more for me to say on all of these topics, but I was feeling very much that I wanted to take my work a step further on than illuminating difficult histories to encompass change and development. Some of my work has been closely engaged with other people, particularly around sharing and collectivism (such as with my Memorial Sampler, a collective memorial of lost loved ones) and exploring stories which touched many people deeply and personally. In my community practice work, the aims are always around improving lives, in one way or another. I love this aspect of my work although it is a lot more hidden and separate from my exhibition output. I have been working towards bringing these two disparate aspects of my practice together, but it is harder than I would have liked to do this.

On my long drive I decided that I had to make a fundamental change to the way I work, to concentrate on making my entire practice, not just my community work, fully engaged with making lives better for those that have their opportunities limited for so many different reasons. I was fired up and excited. And then there was a traffic jam and a roundabout and another hour of tiring driving and probably a distracting bank of wildflowers on the edge of the A50. And I forgot all about this plan. I was just too busy with what needs doing now to think about what I wanted to do in the future. I remembered having had a great idea on the A50, but somehow it had evaporated. I spent most of last winter in hibernation, having worked myself ill, and had 3 months off sick. By the spring I was back up and running but just running to keep up and there was no time for contemplation and imaginative thinking. Then in August this year I went to a talk by Giles Duley which was part of the brilliant Journeys Festival in Leicester. Suddenly, it all came back to me. I had to bring my values, my desire to improve social justice and my politics into my work.

 

My first action was to build more of this social justice work into my next phase of funding for Criminal Quilts in 2020-21. This will be a test project, a move towards where I want to be and hopefully will achieve some of the aims I have set myself. I will be working directly with women in the criminal justice system and with campaigners, activists and others engaged with trying to improve the lives of women caught up in the criminal justice system today. I want to illuminate their stories to create understanding and to make a small difference to their lives through my work as an artist.

This autumn I have also submitted several funding / residency applications around developing this new strand of work and for me to work out how to have the impact I want to have and to create a sustainable business model for my long term creative future. As well as illuminating stories, I want to find ways to have an impact on improving lives, still create powerful, meaningful artwork, and a financial income for me to live on. It’s a challenge but one which I am very excited about. Last week, the day before the General Election, I shared some of these thoughts on my social media, both making a statement about my left-leaning politics and saying out loud that I am going to change the way I work and speak out more. Despite the gloom the result has caused to many in my creative circle, I have been bowled over by the response from other artists and creatives who felt inspired by my words and expressed a desire to shift their work or their life towards activism, social change or just improving things for others, or to be honest about how their political beliefs and values are part of who they are as an artist.

Being political or activist when you run a business which has not previously engaged with these topics feels risky. Should one be neutral? Will one lose customers or supporters? Will people be angry, complain or insult me for my opinions or values? No one wants to enrage social media trolls. But I want people to engage with my work, regardless of how they vote or any other aspect of their lives. I may lose the attention of some followers or fans, but I hope that everyone will stay with me to learn, to understand and to explore alongside me as I navigate this new path. It is not my intention to alienate anyone who does not have the same values or politics as me, I don’t want them to go away but instead I would love it we could all learn something new, see a different side to a story or issue and have our minds opened to new things through the wonderful medium of creative self-expression. Because that’s what art is to me, a way of seeing into different worlds and opening minds.

I don’t yet know what the new work and new business models will look like. I have a lot to learn still and a lot to work out. This will be an ongoing, long term journey. I will be sharing my thoughts on this from time to time on this blog so please join my mailing list for monthly reminders of what I am doing and what I am thinking about.

 

Ruth