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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