Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Wishing Tree for Christmas

Sometimes a job comes along that's a bit of a challenge, but turns out beautifully and stretches a few neurons as it develops!

I was asked by Alison Lloyd, duty officer at the beautiful Margam Park, in Port Talbot, Wales, to create a metal tree for the castle on which visitors could hang their wishes. Written on little tags, each visitor would be invited to add their wish to the tree's limbs before leaving.

Having seen the Trysting Tree I designed for the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Scotland, Alison's colleague Judith asked whether something similar, but larger, could be created for their castle. I had only designed the Robert Burns tree - quite a small one, at about three feet high - but hadn't had anything to do with its production. So this was to be a bit of a learning curve.

The brief was quite tricky - the tree needed to be made of metal, needed to come apart and be packed away for events throughout the year, and be used indoors and outdoors. It therefore needed to be very sturdy, but light enough for two people to assemble and dissassemble without damaging themselves or the tree!

The tree at Robert Burns was laser cut and powder coated, so I decided on the same route. The Inkymolers in the fortunate position of being friends with the incredibly skilled quartet at metal art fabricators ArtFabs - Andy, Cass, Ant and Rob in Warwickshire, who do things with metal that don't seem possible. Seeing them work with metal is like watching someone fold and cut paper, bending and shaping it into beautiful shapes to artists' maquettes or designing solutions from scratch. They'd just finished building and installing the huge Liver Bird Meccano sculpture in Liverpool, an eye-watering feat of engineering and artistic interpretation, so I knew the first call I needed to make was to Andy, the owner.

Needing to be large enough to have impact but low enough for children to reach the branches, I decided on a 5ft tree in 2 parts, slotting together like an old-fashioned wooden Christmas tree. I drew the tree in ink with a brush, adding the hand-written 'Wishing' lines with a Nikko-G Japanese nib (which allows for both flat, wide strokes and fine lines) so that they made contact with each branch - laser-cutting requires a close eye be kept on any accidental free-floating elements, and joins need to be monitored for laser-ability.

The technical challenge was how to make one part of the tree slot into the other without movement, but also without scratching its opposing part, so I made a series of life-size projections on the studio wall, alongside endless bits of sliced 5mm foam board to get the slot width just right. Additionally, a 1m base was recommended by Andy for extra stability, so slots were incorporated into the base for the four 'legs'.

With the input of local laser cutting firm Subcon, who we'd used before for making modified parts for our cars, we decided on 6mm aluminium, with a powder coated finish. This would be light but strong, and the coating would protect the metal from finger marks. The design was scanned, brought into Illustrator and refined just to the point where it was suitable for a laser cutting machine, without sacrificing the organic, and-drawn look of it. It's too easy to get carried away moving points and fiddling with bézier curved in Ai, and over-smoothing was the last thing this tree needed; while fingers needed to be safe from sharp bits, this wasn't going to have the plasticised look of a lazy vectorisation! I exported to a .dxf file and handed it over to Jaz at Subcon, who checked it pre-flight for cutting, correcting the odd join and wayward spike here and there, and away it went.

Meanwhile white was chosen for the powder coating, and we waited anxiously for the metal to come back.

When it did, we were in for a surprise. Matt at Subcon phoned enthusiastically to let me know that it was finished and in fact, although we'd allowed time and budget for it, we might want to change our minds about the powder coating; having assembled and photographed the finished tree in the sunshine the morning it came off the machine,  it had surely glittered and sparkled its way to a bare finish - and we agreed

Fortunately, the client did too, and having let the powder coaters down gently, the tree went back to ArtFabs where Cass buffed, smoothed off any burrs, and hand-built the tiny bespoke brackets and bolts to hold the two-part tree to firm on it's 1m round base.

A 10 hour round trip to Margam Park in a truck saw the tree installed in the breathtaking entrance to the Castle, where a real robin greeted us by bouncing around among the park-sourced foliage festooning the gargantuan stairs. Christmas lights twinkled in the chilly air as the tree was erected and took its first 'wishes', where it will continue to live throughout the Christmas and new year holiday. I didn't think to add my own wish, but I might post one up for them to add on our behalf!

I want to thank Andy and his team, Matt and Jaz at Subcon for their advice and enthusiasm, Leigh for driving the tree to its destination and finally Alison and Judith for inviting me to make the tree. The challenging jobs usually turn out to be the best ones, and I think everyone is delighted with the outcome - I know I am!

I'm looking for excuses now to build something else in metal; I'm itching to do it again. But maybe bigger...or more complex...or a different metal...or several metals...or...well we need a new Christmas tree, so maybe start there?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

World Mental Health Day

I made this little tiny Gif as I ate my noodles today at lunch.

There's no such thing as 'normal', but it's definitely 'normal' to have a mind that goes up and down, sideways, round and round and to the other side of cheerful and back.

Sometimes for ages.

10 Years at Bernstein Andriulli

I worked out a couple of weeks ago that it's exactly ten years since I signed with Bernstein Andriulli, my agency in Manhattan, NYC.

The invitation to to join them came after an incredibly busy period taking our Write Off the World Show from London's Truman Brewery to Manhattan, where we'd taken over a whole chunk of Chelsea Market at about 5 weeks' notice; an unbelievable amount of space in an unbelievably central location for an unbelievably low cost. There is no way we'd get that space now, because a) it's been split up into lots of little eating parlours and b) the cost would be totally prohibitive to a two-man-band like us. But back in 2007, we had the whole space to ourselves, an apparently always-available-to-help site supervisor to pitch in with logistics, and a security guard who knew All The Right People. And we had determination in spades, together with helpers in the form of family and friends flown out for the occasion.


So, there were were; the show had had its raucous, whirlwind opening party with performances by Sage Francis and B.Dolan, Christine O'Keeffe Aptowicz, Taylor Mali and Shappy Seasholtz, the drinks table was halved, the freebies cracked into, the nibbles nibbled and the merch table had had a good going over. I'd already got a few clients in NYC, and had invited them along with Louisa St Pierre, who I'd known from AOI talks and from running Central Illustration - now overseeing Bernstein Andriulli. In she walked, a picture of poised curiosity, with the most elegant companion - an art editor at Vogue who had me glancing down anxiously at my bought-that-morning Forever21 dress - only to fight her way through a maze of hand-printed wallpaper covered in profanities, get shouted at by angry poets, and faced with artwork full of skulls, crying faces and lost orphans.

Amongst the raw energy and the politics, the sad stories and the reflections on death and humanity, she must have seen something she liked, for the next day I was in her office, chatting about plans, bags, Forever21 frocks, NY life and having an agent. I'd never had an agent before, having flown resolutely solo for 13 years, so I didn't say yes straight away - but by the time we left the city a week later, I had. I knew I was at the point where if I was to enjoy more work in the US, I needed someone to help facilitate that. Within a few months the folios were sorted, the postcards printed, and I was In The System.


I had joined the US's most prestigious illustration agency. A lot has changed in that time - trends and movements and fashions have continued their restless shift, agents have joined and departed, the company's moved premises, but I've blazed through a decade of work without seemingly taking a breath. From the initial green light to today, I've worked on a ceaseless parade of jobs from all corners of the USA and Canada, brought my book cover list up to over 400, and had the enormous privilege of working on projects which have seen us travel, make new friends and see the work appear in places we never thought it could.

I've hardly taken a pause for reflection, which has been both a good and a bad thing. The time has flown, and I've not once got to the end of the list - B&A are good at keeping the work coming. Many times I've described them as a 'weapons-grade' agency, because of their relentless pursuit of jobs, history of multi-pronged promotion and organisation. At times, juggling 15 jobs at once (my maximum so far) with as many art directors, it's felt like having 15 bosses in several time zones, overseen by the agents overseeing them, and that takes a lot of energy and administrative focus - you need to be horribly organised to deliver that many jobs in parallel without the wheels falling off. While 'side-projects' have continued apace, working that hard for this long has not come without sacrifice (TV, sleep, socialising, learning and playing have all been forsaken at various times), but I like the challenge.


I've been posting a few jobs on social media from the last 10 years of working with B&A, from the huge 72ft billboard in Times Square to the 3" black and white matchbook, the infamous Playboy cover and the classic novels, but there have been so many jobs in between I couldn't possibly post them all. I can only think of a single one which ended on what you could call a less than positive note - and even that wasn't terrible. I'm grateful and bewildered at the variety and pace of the work.

When students ask me about getting an agent, I always say that it's good to get a few years' experience under your belt first. I still firmly believe that - there's no way I was ready to enter into a relationship with an agent on graduation, and I think it's extremely healthy to learn the ropes before you start to lean on an agent to take some of the responsibility. Does the average eager Instagrammer need an agent, or even think about getting one? I don't know. The other thing I tell them is that signing with an agent is a relationship. Both sides work together to build on a career and ultimately turn your artwork into $, creating a win-win for each party. Even now in these very evolved times of immediate, uninterrupted client-to-artist exposure, rapid shifts in trends and technology and global access, I hear students and new creators suggesting they can take a back seat while the agent takes the reigns. Maybe that's true for some, but I know I have always felt the anxiety of needing to stay proactive.

I don't know what the future of agency representation is, but I do know it will always be work, of the best and hardest kind. I'm staring into the future with curious, watchful eyes, and look forward to agency-style collaboration continuing, in whatever shape and form it may take.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Having assistants is great!

Lisa wasn't officially an assistant, but this is what assistants are supposed to look like, efficient and cool and in control my head, anyway

Since the late 90s, I've had assistants. The first one was my best mate Jules; the second who worked next to her was my other mate, another Sara, and the third, my sister's best mate Michelle. At one point all three of them worked together alongside me, doing different shifts, helping me run the wedding stationery business which ran alongside my illustration and lecturing work - you can see why I needed extra hands! - and later I employed a family member to run the accounts (who's still here).

'Staff' Christmas Party, 2003 - Sarah, Jules, Michelle.

This is Jules 7 years later, sitting in judgment with later assistant Drew, who LOVED stamping things.
And assessing the suitability of my clothing on arrival at work. 

We often get emails asking whether we currently have an opening for an assistant or intern. I've almost always said no - and not because we don't need one, but because we already have one. And we make an important distinction between Interns and Assistants - traditionally, and especially of late, Interns aren't paid; they're meant to be getting 'work experience' on the job, something companies can easily take advantage of. They're often expected to be grateful for the opportunity, and do it for free. We don't buy into that however; if you're working with and for us, yes, you'll most definitely be getting experience in the form of Illustration Boot Camp, (just ask our former assistant Brook), but we'll also be gaining from your input, knowledge, skills, your third pair of hands, eyes and your brain. So it benefits both parties, and for that, we pay very fairly, and handsomely over the minimum wage.

Lily was invited to rifle through my entire archive of original work, and put up an exhibition of what she liked - followed by the curation of a show of her own work, and a blog written about the process of doing both. 

Graham Robson did a similar thing in his first week - put up his own show of work, which included two murals, one of which Sarah is sitting in front of at one of our pop-up Secret Sunday Breakfasts! (I'm eating off my collection of Inkymole press)

If you come and work with us you'll be expected to work. Not watch. Anyone can make tea, and I'll probably make as much tea as you do. If you do make the tea, however, you'll be shown the right way to do it (bag in first, milk only after it's brewed). But you'll also be asked to undertake a sometimes bewildering variety of tasks which engage the brain and call for initiative.

For example, our successive assistants have:

- been our 'eye in the sky' back home as we travel through Europe checking out an exhibition venue, looking out for logistics, watching email, helping to order passes and other legalities

- helped paint a 15m mural in a half-completed building without power or light - on breeze block, the bastard of all substrates

- helped painted a restored pub, powered by chips

- made an oversized silicone penis door stop, from scratch

- worked out the basics of copper etching and assisted in etching album cover art

- completed entire illustrations in a style to complement mine

- built an archive

- been a waitress in our pop-up restaurant

- edited and subtitled a film

- went on a solo mission to London, twice, to find a suitable exhibition venue

- set up an image tagging system

- set up a server

- been indispensable right-hand (wo)man during the publicising, set-up and installation of a two-week exhibition - twice

- pitched in with drawing hundreds of mathematical formulae for a 72ft high Manhattan billboard

- been the Fourth Man in setting up the technicals of hosting an online and FM radio station over a 72-hour shift (including doing 2 live DJ slots)

- built 3 websites

- helped build a web shop

- solved endless technical challenges

- solved brain-crunching iTunes issues

- turned a Mac into a PC to run broadcast software

- installed a Firewall

- done photoshoots

- accompanied us to agency dos

- built an iPad folio system

and that's by no means an exhaustive list. These jobs of course are all alongside the day to day tasks like simply giving a second opinion, brainstorming, researching and ordering supplies and equipment,  making lunch and dinner for everyone in the studio, and stamping hundreds of mailings and Christmas promotions.

Graham adding a hand-painted postbox to the office front door.

Brook Valentine with Leigh in her show-hosting costume/shoes!

...and seeing if your name's down on the list.

So you're kind of in at the deep end if you come here, but part of that challenge is accepting that there will be days when there is simply nothing for you to do. The single most quoted obstacle to having an assistant which I hear illustrators talk about is 'but what will I give them to do'? And that's why our assistants have to have spades of initiative, for precisely those days when you need to either fend for yourself, or work out what WE need you to do - because often, when you're really busy, you can't actually see what needs doing, or where you need help, till someone else points it out to you. When your assistant starts to spot what needs doing before you do, you know you're onto a winner, and all those slightly awkward days early on in the arrangement have all paid off.

Sarah Jinks constructing a piece from almost 2500 Swarovski crystals for our 2006 'If A Girl Writes Off The World' show

Graham helping with the etching

As well as the obvious joy of having a pair of helping hands, there is the changed dynamic of a studio with another person in it who isn't you or your partner. As we've got older, our assistants have, as a matter of chronological fact, become younger than us - and this is a GOOD THING. Millennials come in for a shit load of stick, but they're great - they're interesting, they think in a different way, their skillsets are not the same as ours, neither is their experience of the world, and their energy is refreshing. I don't actually even like the word Millennials - there's something very 'other-ing' about it - but there is most definitely an energising effect to having one bounce into your studio with their slightly askew, quick humour, ideas, opinions and musical choices (we will check the contents of your iPod before we say yes - there's no point you spending your days hating what we're playing, and vice versa - because some days, we'll put you in charge of the tunes!)

The second reason I've heard people give for not having an assistant - including me, definitely, from time to time - is 'but having an assistant is just going to create extra work for me'.

Well, yes, it is. It can be hard work in the early days having someone in your space that you don't know, and you can't just bury your head in your work and pretend they're not there. You have to make sure the bathroom's tidy. You need to make sure you've plenty of tea bags. That they've got somewhere comfortable and well lit to work in. That they know how you like to have your phone  answered, that you've set up their own email address from your studio; that hey feel comfortable around you and they have plenty to do - bearing in mind, 'plenty to do' when you first start in a job, especially compared to your own workload, can actually be about a third of what you yourself would consider 'plenty to do'. But when the ball's rolling nicely, and you've all got to know each other's ropes, it's wonderful.

Graham 'at the wall' - the 15 metre, bastard breezeblock wall

If you think you're getting bit overwhelmed from time to time, you work by yourself or feel like an injection of energy is needed, I heartily recommend an assistant. It took me a long time to get used to the idea of a helper beyond giving roles to my mates and family, as I too used to worry about what they'd do, feeling that I might bore them to death, or their presence would be extra work for me. They don't have to be five days a week - ours have never been, except in REALLY busy times - as the likelihood is they'll have their own shit to crack on with. But maybe try it. The benefits are mutual, long-lasting and good for our brains, careers and creativity. You'll very likely help them on their way, via them helping you on yours.

And who knows, you might even have FUN.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

The joy of commissioning your mates.

We've got some extremely gifted mates, and there's nothing like the feeling of asking them to make something for you which employes all of their skills, plays to their strengths and makes you the thing you need while maybe, hopefully, testing them a little bit.

I don't get to collaborate all that much in my day-to-day work - with art directors yes, via email and phone, and if we're doing something on a wall, some help there too. But pooling your ideas and desires to make a new piece of furniture, a garden sculpture, something stitched for the home, or even the architecture of your new home and studio, is quite different, and the pressure's on someone else to deliver - which can be really refreshing!

Spencer Jenkins, who lives with artist partner Alisha Miller in Warwickshire, has been a friend for the best part of 20 years and during that time has eased his creativity into a unique space which embraces woodcraft, weaving, alchemy (I mean, the man pickles oak you know?) and complex self-supporting structures coaxed from nature's shapes using patience, pondering and drawing. Carved and steamed wood forms complex, thoughtful and reaching pieces; they're aspirational, comfortable and sometimes challenging, but they're all uniquely Spencer, and are commissioned by the RHS, Gardener's World, Chelsea Flower Show, Hampton Court, Vertigo Records, gardens and institutions the length and breath of Britain...and Black Sabbath.

We have long needed a big sofa to go into the room on our top floor; a long, pointy room which along with the rest of the house is on a skewed rhombus; not a right angle to be found. Pretty much all furniture and storage has to be custom made, and the top room - my studio for ten years - has additional challenges as it is at the top of a winding, steep, narrow, staircase - you can't get anything up there without huge struggle, least of all a sofa. And we need a sofa - the whole of the ground floor is studio and office, middle is sleeping and washing, which means the top floor has finally become our dedicated TV, movie and film space. When we finally put pens/mice down and chill, we need to feel work's over for the day.

The studio as it was. There's just a big telly there now!

This 'thing to sit on' needed to be wide, deep for Leigh's long legs, and capable of being assembled on-site. No flat backs or right angles. We briefed Spence on all this, Leigh driving the direction with his idea around a metal park bench with slats, like this one he saw on a trip to New York:

Spencer started with drawings of 50s-inspired space rockets, all Festival of Britain angles and aspiring points:

His cardboard and wire maquette was extremely cute too:

This blog will massively simplify the many processes Spencer undertook, and what can't be communicated is the incalculable amount of thinking, problem solving and man hours that went into this beast. But we shall begin here; once all feeding-back and chipping-in and discussion had concluded, Spencer enlarged his drawing of the profile of the sofa and laid it on the ground of his workshop, starting to lay the metal bar over the top:

after which it was a case of 'Let Bending Commence!' (which by all accounts was Bloody Hard Work). For those into detail, the metals are a hybrid of round solid steel bar, hollow steel tubing and flat steel bar:

This centre strut was created to make a frame for the wooden slats which would form the sofa:

The sofa's four dainty feet began to emerge, delicately en pointe where they would meet the new black sheep's wool carpet:

and suddenly, the final form of the piece made itself known at full size:

At this point there was the opportunity to powder-coat the structure, which had been done to slick effect on some of Spencer's other commissioned pieces. We thought about it, but were so enamoured of the texture of the metal and the polychroming of the welded areas that we decided to leave it, the evidence of its construction, and seal it in with lacquer.

Spencer picked up on this and experimented with varying levels of heat treatment along the bar:

Perhaps a little giraffe-like, the effect was appealing, and the colours gorgeous, but we felt it yelled a bit over the simple, clean lines of the structure:

Here are the arms being made, in Spencer's Hellraiser-esque bending improvisation:

Once the wooden arms, metal feet, legs and back - in one piece - were created to bookend the structure, the wooden slats were cut and shaped, one at a time. Calculating the spacing was crucial, so that gaps were consistent. This is Ash, and the arms are made of steamed ash (to allow the bend):

And quietly, towards the end of July, the finished 2m wide construction appeared in Spencer's workshop. We couldn't wait to go and bounce on it; Spencer couldn't wait to get it into our loft and out of his space! It had occupied huge chunks of his brain and workshop for months on end, and although he was pleased, I think he was happy to...

...take it apart and build it again. Because of course, the constructed version in the workshop had to be disassembled and taken up to our loft room, one section at a time, and rebuilt there.

Sorry Spence.

Our beautiful sofa is now upstairs on its black sheep's wool carpet, with only a light, little table and big telly for company (oh and my massive book cover archive which I've yet to decide what to do with). The next step is getting removable upholstery made, but meanwhile it's home to our small but growing collection of Japanese-inspired textiles - a Dan Kitchener cushion and throw, a Tenugui print by Nomoco (currently being adapted into a large soft cushion by my Mum, resident guru of the needles) and a grumpy, squishy Gudetama who's in a constant state of judgement - along with three other creatures and assorted bung-it-all-on-there blankets and soft things.

It's a nice place to be, and it's a one-off - we've told him already, but here's a large and fulsome public thank you to Spencer for his problem solving, inventiveness and dedication during a period of total Sofa Rocket immersion. 

It's great to commission a mate.


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