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.