But where can I buy all the pretty???

Visit Vagabond Romantics shop now to browse and buy altered art, wearable collage, and lovingly curated craft materials unearthed from the farthest reaches of granny's attic.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Inspirational Icons: Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy has the distinction of being the first visual artist whose work moved me to tears. It's strange in a way, as his work isn't as obviously emotionally evocative as many other artists. In fact one could say that it's emotionally neutral, a "blank canvas" in the reaction it seeks to provoke. But the first time I witnessed a collection of his large scale works up close at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2007, I was totally overwhelmed.

The video at the top is a short introduction to Goldsworthy's work, but at the bottom of this post I'm including a link to the entire 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides which is (currently, at least) available on Youtube. If the first clip intrigues you, it's well worth spending the time (ninety minutes or so) it takes to watch the second. The variety of Goldsworthy's work, the time he devotes to it, and the visual impact all mean it rewards those who explore it in more detail. 

Actually there are so many things about Goldsworthy's art that are magical to me. I love how he combines art and nature - especially this year as I've become more preoccupied with the diverse natural environments around me. The fact that he's working with nature, albeit in a controlled way, re-organising it, proves that we can be in harmony with the world and still shape it in a loving, respectful way. The transient nature of much of Goldsworthy's work speaks to this too - ice melts, water dries, leaves blow away. Goldsworthy's use of environmental materials extends to tools and the most basic building blocks - natural pigments are ground with stones and bound with water, branches are fastened together with thorns, leaves are linked through each other or thread onto grass, mud acts as glue. These works can easily be absorbed back into the earth as Goldsworthy is not introducing anything "alien" into his environments. Because of this, his sculptures also sit particularly beautifully in their homes.

I also think there is something incredibly magical in making art that is not necessarily for public display. The fact that Goldsworthy's works are often created in remote places, destined to be destroyed by nature, their existence recorded only on film, is somehow fitting. Some things are too precious for the public to be entrusted with.

I also love the concepts behind much of Goldsworthy's work - there are often surprising levels of detail, such as in the Snowballs in Summer project of June 2000 where thirteen giant snowballs, each weighing a tonne, were shipped overnight from Goldsworthy's Scottish home and installed in the streets of London. This would have been a striking enough concept on its own, but Goldsworthy also included hidden "surprises" in a sort of environmental variant of "Pass the Parcel" so that as the snowballs melted, they revealed traces of their rural Scottish origins in the shape of raw fleece and cow hairs, pebbles and pine cones.

Goldsworthy's art speaks to me precisely because it is such a multilayered affair. There is the concept, the process, the finished piece, the documentation - each of these elements an essential link to the whole. It is a balm to the soul in the same way as a walk on the seaside or a hike in a forest. It offers hope that humans and nature can co-exist peacefully, that patience is rewarded, that wonderful things are happening around us all the time, often going unnoticed. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to work on my driftwood dolls....

Friday 25 November 2016

No Sales Today, Thank You!

Of course, normally I am not-so-secretly hoping that anyone reading this blog will go straight to my Etsy shop and make a few purchases. After all, you all want your lives to be just as exciting as mine, don't you?! But today I am breaking with tradition and asking you to refrain, in honour of Buy Nothing Day 2016.

Today is a subversive little holiday which was founded by Vancouver artist Ted Dave in 1992 as a day to take time out from our usual habits and consider the implications of overconsumption. 

American habits - especially the bad ones - seem to spread all over the world. From fast food to lowest-common-denominator politics, it seems like the worse an American idea is, the faster everyone else rushes to adopt it. So Black Friday sales suddenly abound here in the UK, though thankfully not with the same level of insanity that accompanies the Stateside events. Across the pond, it's a chance for retailers to finally turn a profit and for consumers to spent the night queueing to buy artificially cheap "bargains" that they will later look at and wonder "What was I thinking?!" In the UK, it's more likely to mean a 10% discount on something you were probably planning to buy as a Christmas gift anyway.

So just for today, if you possibly can, spend the day away from all retail and consumer outlets. You may find you actually already own everything you need! And if you must buy, buy it from an independent business. It's kind of common sense, but it bears repeating. When you buy, say, a piece of jewellery in a High Street shop, you can be sure it's made in a factory abroad. You can't be sure of the conditions for the workers. Chances are that mere pennies of your purchase will actually go to the makers (and hopefully some for the designers too) whilst most of it will feed into the overheads of a huge company and directly benefit no one but their shareholders. The quality may not be brilliant, it may even be the kind of "fast fashion" that is designed to fall apart so you're forced to buy next season's designs. And there's every chance that at any party you go to this holiday season, there will be a few people wearing the same thing.

In contrast, consider buying a similar piece of jewellery from a maker on Etsy. It's often the case that they will be charging a very similar amount to what you'd pay on the High Street - we're all trying to compete and sadly most artists still consistently undervalue their work as the conditions above have created a false impression of the true cost of many items. That Etsy crafter is very probably (assuming they are playing by the rules!) making that item by hand, in their home, between school runs or while the kidlet naps. Each piece we create is our baby, and we love it, and we desperately want the buyer to feel the same way. You're not likely to run into anyone else wearing the same thing, or feel the need to worry because it might have gone out of fashion next season. And the money you paid - barring transaction, listing and postage fees - goes right back to the maker. And it may be enough to allow us to pay our listing fees for the next month or year, or buy that sleeping child the toy they have their heart set on, or the materials we need to try out the new idea we're working on. It may even be grocery money for next week or go towards the rent. And however much we end up with, whatever profit margin we've allowed ourselves - we, the makers and designers, are in control. We have chosen what price we think we should be paid (albeit probably underestimated it!) and we know what percentage of the cost is going elsewhere. We'll give you personal service too - I've already gift-wrapped my first Christmas sale, and the customer didn't even have to ask. And in the very unlikely event that there's an issue with your purchase, you better believe we're going to bend over backwards to put things right - small businesses can't afford to have unhappy customers!

So if you can avoid buying anything today please do. If you must buy, try to support local and/or independent businesses. And beyond today, think about making some changes to your shopping habits. If you are reading this, I am probably already preaching to the choir. But we really can't say it enough: buying a gift direct from a maker shows the recipient you care, and is also the best present the artist can hope for!

Thursday 24 November 2016

What are You Grateful For?

My friends and family in America will be celebrating Thanksgiving this week. There will be no feasting in my house as Thursdays are a busy day here, but I always welcome an opportunity to practice gratitude.

Many British friends have asked me about the origins of Thanksgiving. It's a holiday which is now steeped in controversy, and rightly so, especially when so many Native Americans are suffering this year. But it's also a holiday that I find difficult to totally discount. However hypocritical we may be, a holiday that celebrates gratitude, friendship and community seems a worthwhile one. Personally I'd prefer it to be kept, but rebranded with a less spurious origins story.

According to American tradition, the original Thanksgiving was a feast that took place when the first wave of settlers to the New World celebrated their autumn harvest. The story goes that the local Native American tribes had helped teach them which plants would grow, the best ways to fertilise, and how to preserve foods. So when it became apparent that the settlers had successfully grown sufficient food to last them through their first harsh North American winter, they invited the locals around for a huge celebratory feast. It's a rose-tinted view to be sure, and one that conveniently ignores all the later atrocities committed against these tribes and others - the legacy of which is still, sadly, very much alive in the US today.

But I can't help it, I love Thanksgiving. For one thing, it's all about the food which always seems like the best place to start a holiday. No gifts are exchanged (though I have been known to tell British visitors otherwise out of pure mischief), decorations are minimal, everything closes, and it's usually a very low key day spent with loved ones. A proper holiday, in other words, that defies too much commercialisation and keeps the focus pleasantly traditional.

It's also, of course, an excellent excuse for reflecting on the past year and counting our blessings. I thought I'd share a few of mine with you.

*I'm thankful to live in such a beautiful place
*I'm thankful for my faithful, funny little cat
*I'm thankful to have spent so much time this year close to nature
*I'm thankful for old friends I've reconnected with and new ones I am still getting to know
*I'm thankful for my creative impulses and ability to express myself
*I'm thankful that my mother is in good health and for our close relationship
*I'm thankful for all the people in my life and beyond who are trying to make things better, both on a small, personal scale and in the broader world
*Sadly, I'm thankful not to live in America at the moment (sorry, guys! I do feel for you though)
*I'm thankful that I have the freedom to choose how I live
*I'm thankful for the people I love, and the people who love me in return
*I'm thankful for my curiosity which means I am always learning, always inspired, and never bored
*I'm thankful I was able to go abroad this year
*I'm thankful for all the privileges I've been given, and which I know I've done nothing to deserve
*I'm thankful for my health, which has improved this year

What are you thankful for in 2016? It's been a trying year but look close enough and you'll hopefully be able to find something!

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Inspirational Icons: Yayoi Kusama

I first discovered the work of Yayoi Kusama just a few years ago when I was teaching art history to children. I'd last studied art history myself nearly twenty years before, so there was a sizeable gap in my own knowledge which I had been lazy about filling in. I was fortunate to have some incredibly switched on pupils who refused to let me rest on my laurels, and after a couple of terms fielding questions like "Why don't we learn about more women artists?" and "Why are all the artists we talk about dead?" I realised it was time to hit the books and gen up on my contemporary art.

One of the characters I ran across in my quest to find living, working female artists was, of course, Yayoi Kusama. And I will be eternally grateful to the children who pushed me into doing the research that led me here. I soon fell in love with Kusama's work, and her story, and the children I taught loved her too. For an artist as prolific and fascinating as Kusama is, she deserves to be much more well known.

Kusama's artwork will strike most as bright and cheerful, "wacky" in an immediately accessible and appealing way. But it belies a much darker truth - Kusama has suffered severe mental illness since childhood. Her artwork is not just her way of dealing with her condition but also a visual representation of the hallucinations she has experienced throughout her life. In fact, after garnering major success as part of the Pop Art movement (at the time, only Andy Warhol was a more famous proponent), Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital. She has continued living there since the mid-1970s, leaving daily to work in her studio and occasionally attend exhibitions. Now approaching her 88th year, Kusama is still exhibiting internationally.

Art heals. And Yayoi Kusama is living proof that no matter how broken you may be, you still have something beautiful to bring to the world. 

Monday 21 November 2016

These are a Few of My Favourite Things

Today has been cold and wet, but inside the radiators are going, my duvet is lovely and fluffy, I've had a nice hot bubble bath, lingered over a good book binged on my favourite telly, eaten comforting carbs and catnapped with my feline companion. In other words, all is right with the world. It's got me thinking about what the very best, most satisfying sensations are. Here's a few I've come up with but feel free to add your own in the comments!

*That moment when you are drifting into sleep but just conscious enough to know it
*Sinking into a bath that is almost too hot
*A long drink of ice cold water on a hot day
*The weight of a relaxed, purring cat as it snuggles into the crook of your arm (especially on a cold night)
*Laughing uncontrollably
*Lengthy eye contact with someone you might be falling for
*Being weighed down under heavy wool blankets
*Sunshine on your face
*Sleeping outside
*Warm sand between your toes
*A really good kiss
*Rainy night, wood fire, knitted blanket (good book, sleeping cat or dog and cup of something odd all optional but highly recommended extras)
*Being alone in the woods
*Going someplace new, just because
*Ticking off the last box of your to do list
*Waking up to snow
*Freshly washed hair
*Taking a dog to the beach
*Cuddles from a child
*Staying up all night working because you've been inspired and you know you can lie in the next morning
*Mastering a new knitting stitch
*Remembering that you have leftovers in the fridge
*A shelf full of homemade preserves and pickles
*Snow falling on Christmas Eve

Sunday 20 November 2016

Mushrooms and Mermaid's Purses

(I managed to hit "save" rather than "publish" for this post, so it's a little late appearing! Apologies)

I am currently curled up on the sofa in front of a woodfire, with a dog snuggled up on the hearth. I confess that dog, fire and sofa are all borrowed - I’m visiting friends this evening. But it is just the ticket, especially after spending the afternoon communing with nature.

I spent an hour or so on the beach as planned. Sadly I didn’t get the full benefit of yesterday’s winds as the tide was still mostly in - damn these early nights! But I did collect some very inspiring bits of driftwood, some of it far more substantial than usual. It was also a good day for large cockle shells and mermaid’s purses.

I cannot resist a mermaid’s purse. My father was, until he passed away in 2011, an extremely competitive beachcomber. He always wanted to claim the best finds for himself, or at least the most. He was particularly obsessive about fossils, mermaid’s purses, and seaglass, which he used to fill glass jars and vases of all types. Indeed his beach glass collection destroyed more than one vessel which was simply not up to supporting the weight of its contents! He and both longed to find mermaid’s purses. I think he got his eye in first, but I soon followed. Up until recently though, he had logged far more hours on the beach than I had and his finds dwarfed mine accordingly. If he ever had the chance to acquaint himself with my favourite beach, I don’t know how I’d have dragged him away. So every time I stumble across a mermaid’s purse, I feel like Dad is there on the beach with me - I feel sure certain there is no place he’d rather be. And so, although I haven’t yet found a use for them, each of these reminders of him is is dutifully collected and taken home to add to my ever-growing collection.

I have now amassed quite a few mermaid’s purses and I’d like to find a creative use for them. If anyone has any ideas, please do let me know! I’m planning to try gilding a few, perhaps stringing some onto a garland. They’re not beautiful objects, but they are pleasing nonetheless and I suspect there is plenty of hidden potential if I can just hit on the right angle!

I rarely feel the cold but today the wind bit hard enough to drive me from the beach. It was a wonderful relief to climb back into my car and turn up the heating. Indeed, it was so lovely that I lingered a bit longer, taking a very slow drive deep into a forest where I was rewarded with a basketful of edible mushrooms and the kind of views most people only get to see as the backdrop to a motivational poster.

But tonight, the sleet is pounding down and I am very happy to have my feet up with a fire burning, a cup of tea and a good friend - a perfect end to a lovely day!

Friday 18 November 2016

The Calm After the Storm

Our sleepy little corner of the world hit the news yesterday with winds recorded up to 94mph. I was fortunate enough to be only minimally affected myself. I was on my way to an appointment when I rounded a corner and found the road blocked by a massive tree which had taken a power line with it as it fell. I rerouted and arrived only slightly late.

However, this morning I intend to investigate further....I have an afternoon engagement, blogs to write, Etsy items to list, emails to send, a house to tidy, and a million other things to do. But the sun is shining, it takes twenty minutes to drive to my favourite beach, and who knows what the storm will have washed up? I'll let you know if I find anything good....

Tuesday 15 November 2016

What's an Artist to Do? A Glimpse into the Studio...

I spent such a huge portion of this year on the beach or outside that up until recently I felt I'd done very little creative work. I'm beginning to make up for lost time now, but the problem is that my to-do list always far outstrips the time I have to work.

There are far too many works-in-progress to cite here, but just a few of them include:
*A selection of knitted zombies and accessories including clothing, organs, etc
*A patchwork lace curtain for my bedroom
*A knitted blanket tracking this year's temperatures
*A knitted scarf tracking my mood this year
*Some wall art based on vintage embroidered table linen
*Several pieces that need dyeing or re-dyeing - an art I have not fully mastered
*A cardigan which needs embellishments to match a skirt
*A hand-sewn dress which needs the seams reinforced by machine
*A pair of trousers with new waistband halfway through being attached
*Two Mermaid's Grotto wall art pieces that just need borders and backing
*A box full of decoupaged bottle vases that need finished off
*No less than three sculptures for an exhibition I envisioned early last year on which I have made good headway but never finished
*A whole slew of mixed media images I've started on to decorate my bathroom but never got round to finishing
*A pair of embroidered sugar-skull cushion covers
*A Christmas tree skirt I have begun to mend
*Gorgeous wrist cuffs that desperately need lined to make them ready to sell
*Folk-painted spice racks for the kitchen
*Dining table is still waiting for me to finish stripping back the hideous honey pine varnish and repainting bits of the legs
*A "flotsam fairy"
*A shadowbox of Italian shells

And there are even more ideas which so far exist almost entirely in my head (barring, perhaps, some of the necessary articles to make them):
*Linen trousers
*Linen smocks
*Linen tunics
*A jersey skirt for the gym
*Knitted legwarmers
*Many more aprons and pinafores in different styles
*Purple knitted lacy shawl
*A bag for collecting shells incorporating a waterproof cushion for sitting on the beach on damp days
*Chrstmas baubles
*A new Christmas tree skirt
*An overskirt using the amazing silk panels I bought in Italy
*A dress to sell using the amazing silk panels I bought in Italy
*A portable grotto (yes, you read that right)
*An anatomical charm bracelet
*Bunting for a friend
*An embroidered banner for another friend
*A mosaic-type mixed media image incorporating paper and broken glass
*Bell jar necklaces
*Wearable art pieces based on the many designer seconds I have bought in Italy
*Display shadowboxes of my favourite seashells
*Several plain cushion covers crying out to be embellished
*A patchwork skirt of vintage doilies
*A quilt
*A garden blanket a la Jan Messent
*Anything at all crocheted
*A doll's house
*More art dolls
*Everything else...

Plus product photography, marketing, social media, sales, workshops, and at some point perhaps even an attempt at having a social life. Or is that just too much to ask?

Sunday 13 November 2016

Entering the 21st Century

It's easy to become isolated as a self-employed artist working mainly from home. When work is going particularly well, I can disappear for days on end as I hermit away, surviving on cereal and resenting the few hours of sleep I grudgingly submit to. So it's always interesting when the opportunity arises to do "normal" work things, such as the 9-5 crowd might do.

Yesterday was one of those days. I had the chance to attend a training day which an excellent local community arts organisation offered, on the topic of using social media for creative businesses. It's great to have a chance to network with other arts professionals, they are always interesting people and I have never come away from such an event without learning something. It's also a useful way to remind myself that the arts industry does not just pertain to visual arts and craft - as a non-performing, non-musical type, I genuinely forget that arts organisations support these good folk too! As well as myself there were two other visual artists (one who painted, one student who took our breath away with a highly detailed, hypnotically beautiful drawing), a costume designer, a drummer, a performance artist, and representatives from a couple of different arts organisations.

This particular workshop was facilitated by Teresa Carnall of TBC Marketing who was absolutely excellent. She had her work cut out for her as none of the group were particularly social media-savvy, but there was still a wide variance in both the skill levels and needs of the participants. Despite these challenges, Teresa delivered one of the most useful training events I have ever attended. My only regret is not having a chance to chat with her in more detail about specifics, as I suspect I could have picked her brain very nearly clean!

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I am developing a Social Media Plan. You heard me right. There's going to be a plan. It might even be a cunning one. So look out for a much bigger online presence for Vagabond Romantics over the coming months, and do let me know if there is anything particular you'd like to see more of here. I aim to please.

Friday 11 November 2016

Dance Me to the End of Love

RIP Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016
I remember the first time I heard Leonard Cohen. I had popped into a record store to visit a friend who worked there. He played an album for me - I don't even know which one - and I was immediately taken with it. I was a teenage wannabe who was only just beginning to find the cultural vocabulary to express who I was, and I'd never heard anything like this but I knew immediately that I had wanted to.

As with many of the other musical icons who have died in 2016, it would be presumptuous to claim I was a Leonard Cohen "fan". I never properly "pursued" his music, I didn't educate myself. I liked what I heard but I never got round to "properly" listening. A bit like Bowie, I didn't have to - his music was just there, woven into the fabric of my world as I got older, and I didn't seek it out specially because it always had a way of finding me.

This year feels unprecedented in the number of icons lost. I know that great public figures die every year and the loss of the people who shaped my world will happen more and more as I get older, but I haven't yet prepared for artistic losses of the scale we've suffered in 2016. The following lyrics have been running through my mind this year as I mourn not just Leonard, but all the great trailblazers who spoke to misfits like myself.

A dream
Or a song
That hits you so hard
Filling you up
And suddenly gone

...And you're shining
Like the brightest stars
A transmission
On the midnight radio
And you're spinning
Your new 45's
All the misfits and the losers
Well,you know you're rock and rollers
Spinning to your rock and roll

Thursday 10 November 2016

Coming Soon to Etsy Shop!

Took advantage of another sunny interval to visit the beach for another quick photo shoot. Here are some of the items that will be listed in the shop over the next couple of weeks. Please do email in the meantime if you spot anything you can't resist!

Wednesday 9 November 2016

The Elephant in the Room

Normally I would avoid politics in this sort of blog, but as an American citizen (albeit non-resident for most of my life now) I cannot ignore what has happened in my birthplace yesterday. I was never a great patriot - in my experience, one country is much like another and the good usually balances the bad out. Furthermore, none of us have any say in where we are born, so it has always seemed a little strange to me to get too hung up on such matters.

That being said, the ideals the United States was founded on are pretty sound, for the most part. And my life there certainly wasn't unhappy or unpleasant. So it is a shock to the system to feel that the country where I grew up no longer exists or, if it does, it's facing extinction.

I welcome interaction with people of opposing viewpoints, I love learning from others and am always happy to take part in an intelligent debate. But this election went beyond that, it seems that the far Right is driven not by intelligence or conviction anymore, but by pure hatred and greed.

To all my American friends and family who no longer feel safe in the land they call home, my heart breaks for you. Please know that the rest of the world is on your side, and let's work together with love and compassion to heal the rifts that have been create and will undoubtedly widen over the coming years. 

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Italy, again...

I keep talking about finding inspiration in Italy - where do I find it? Aside from the haberdashers and the market, that is...It's hard to predict but it can be almost anywhere. For example:

The colours in this sweet shop window (check out those meringues!)

This spectacular sculpted wall

 These amazing door knockers.

Grand religious art tucked into unassuming corners

This very saucy cake (the Italian name was translated for me as "Nun's Tit" so no, it's not just your filthy imagination...)

Ceramic wall plaques in the town of Faenza (which is famous for its majolica pottery).

The colours of a doorway.

The texture, elegant lines and sheer scale of this rather austere church.
The ceiling of this bicycle hire place.
This riverside cafe with its eclectic seating and picture-postcard views

Random architectural details

The colours of this charming boat in a canal by the sea (not to mention the fact that there is a canal running down the middle of the High Street)

Stylish bikes artfully tumbled against every wall
Display cases full of pastel treats as stylish as a rack of designer dresses
This highly covetable, convertible vanity table - I'll bet Emma Peel had one of these!

And of course the beach....but that is another post!

Monday 7 November 2016

Sea Fever

...I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

So wrote John Masefield around 1902, and who am I to argue with great poetry? The sun is shining, it's a beautiful autumnal day, and tomorrow the forecast calls for a sharp drop in temperature and heavy rain. We're going into the long, dark winter and the months where the sun doesn't appear for weeks at a time, so this blog, my shop, new work, household chores....all these can wait. The sea is calling (or, more specifically, the beach).

Sunday 6 November 2016

Haberdashing in Italy

 I don't know if it's the sunshine, the "I'm-on-holiday" state of mind, the stimulating company, the free-flowing vino or the sugar rush from all the pastries and gelato, but it seems I can always find inspiration in Italy. Or perhaps it is just the excellent haberdashery.....

On my first visit to Italy, my hostess recalled a haberdashery warehouse of mythical proportions she had once visited. We set out on a quest to find it, and eventually we did - on a distinctly unpromising-looking industrial estate tucked away behind the main street in a particularly dull part of town. Stepping inside, we were greeted with racks of seemingly random and not-at-all noteworthy clothing, and my hopes subsided. But round the corner guess what we found?

Shelves and shelves filled with massive cones of yarn to be purchased by weight. Cubbyholes stuffed with skeins of high-quality wool-blend yarns. Round another corner and there are floor to ceiling shelves crammed with fabric bolts. And towards the front of the shop, drawers and boxes literally full to overflowing with every kind of braid, trim, lace, motif, and notion you could dream of. I had found my spiritual home.

This warehouse skyrocketed to the top of my Italian bucket list, and we plan our shopping trip carefully each time I visit to allow me all the hours I need to rummage through the boxes of braid and reels of ribbon. I am now recognised and much celebrated in said shop - apparently most customers do not buy in the quantities that I do! I could, of course, spend infinite amounts of both time and money if my schedule, bank balance, Italian vocabulary allowed, and airline and customs restrictions allowed, but I do my best to rein myself in. Luckily my friend is a great sport and rarely makes this particular pilgrimage on her own, so she is pleased for an excuse to have a look herself, and wonderfully patient.

Shopping here is a vastly different experience to anything similar in the UK. There are no shopping baskets - when we ask for a container to corral my rapidly accumulating purchased, a carrier bag is produced. There's very little signage and much of the stock is unpriced - one is safe in assuming the charge will be reasonable, and the proprietors have flexibility at the till. On this visit one assistant had recently had a baby, and a squawling infant was being passed round the staff. The fabrics and trims are crammed into their spaces in no apparent order, bursting off shelves and over the tops of boxes. At the till, the clerk and I are equally laissez-faire. I call out random metrage as we pull my treasures from the bag, the clerk shows me an inkstain on a broad silver-grey lace and shrugs as she unrolls another metre onto my length. I pause, considering how much of one braid I want, and in that moment the clerk chucks the reel in my bag, saying I must take it without
charge. I imagine the customers behind cursing me, but the shopkeepers are very happy and I am thrilled to be restocked - there really is nothing like Italian lace.

If you are the kind of person who knows what you want and expects to walk straight towards it, hand over your cash, and leave, this would be your idea of hell. For me, it's an experience to be savoured every bit as much as the wine we will sip over lunch: a friendly, creative chaos with pretty things everywhere you look and laidback assistance to just about keep the confusion under control. No wonder I am so at home here!

Friday 4 November 2016

Riddle Me This!

I've got a puzzle for you.Today I went to the beach and filled a bag with treasure, but I didn't collect a single shell. What did I find? You can see in the photo.

 No points for guessing what kind of plans I have of this lot, though - the clue is in the next image!

Have made a few of these driftwood dolls already. Originally they were going to be more detailed - I have a vision of a sort of folk art-style "flotsam fairy". Some of them will probably end up as fairies eventually. But three of the basic "skeletons" have been sitting in the studio watching me work this week and I've grown rather attached. In fact I've decided that I like them so much as they are that it would be a shame to mess with them. Indeed I doubt I will be able to part with the first two - hence the need for more driftwood. Luckily I can find it in abundance on my beach - in fact the hardest part was leaving after only a few minutes, because my bag was full and I had other errands to run. How lucky do I feel to be able to pop to the beach on my way home from getting the groceries?! There are definitely some perks to living in the back of beyond.

More Thoughts from the Mermaid's Grotto

It's been a long time since I dreamed of seeing the ocean, and I've walked on a lot of beaches since that first one some 30 years ago. This year, this summer, on the beach I now consider "my" beach - that has been different. This is the first beach I have really come to know. But I have spent less than a year with my beach now, so there's still a long way to go to familiarise myself with her many moods and seasons.

I'm sure I cut a strange figure on the strand, in my linen smock, the capacious pockets weight down by shells and damp from being carelessly trailed through tide pools. Short, squat, and tipping into middle age, I approach the beach with the tireless fascination of a child or a dog (though my enthusiasm is a good deal quieter!). Oftentimes with my back to the sea, I crouch over tide pools or kneel on damp sand to scrutinise the tiniest of shells. Time ceases and I can find hours have passed while the salt spray has dried on the cuffs of my rolled up trousers and the tide which has crept in unnoticed threatens to carry my treasures away. Most times it is only the fatigue in my muscles or the darkening sky which drives me, somewhat resentfully, away.

I've come to know my beach pretty well this summer. Under the cliffs there are limpets by the score. The estuary yields small cockles and broken fragments. High up on the shingle is the place to scavenge driftwood, mermaid's purses and whelks. As the weather turns colder and the beach empties of holiday makers, there will be tiny shells as fine and transparent as a baby's fingernail. Sea potatoes tangle in the seaweed at the strandline, I know they won't survive the journey home intact but I can't resist collecting them anyway. When the Gulf Stream arrives, shoals of By-the-Wind-Sailors litter the beach with their indigo lips and transparent sails. I've come to recognise the clay where my feet will slip, and learned the hard way that it's best not to kneel on the peat slabs where the ancient forest emerges from the waves at low tide.

With each step along the strandline, I feel calmer, more centred, more rooted in my environment. I knew all along this would translate to my artwork, sometimes it just takes awhile to make the connections. Now that I have begun building the Mermaid's Grotto collection, it feels like the pieces have been in me all along, I was just waiting for the tides to turn so I could uncover them. 

Thursday 3 November 2016

Italian Inspiration Revisited

I didn't plan to go to Italy this year....times are tight for us creative
folk, and I'm trying hard to act like a responsible grown up type of person. But when my dear Italian friend commented how much she missed having me visit, and wished she could just send me a ticket, I decided to look into flights. Just out of curiosity, you understand.

Fast forward three weeks and I am stepping off a plane into Mediterranean sunshine. In the past, I've always gone to Italy with the primary intention of visiting a much-loved friend. However, each trip I have made has contributed vast amounts to my treasure trove of art and craft materials, and also to my mental store cupboard of inspiration. Why, Vagabond Romantics itself was largely conceived on just such a holiday! So this year I decided to call a spade by its rightful name and consider it a business trip right from the start. A business trip that involved lots of wine, pizza, gelato, and chat, but definitely a business trip!

I ran a crowdfunding campaign to help ensure I came back with the most beautiful bounty and whilst it was a necessarily short duration and didn't meet my target, I was fortunate enough to receive donations from three wonderful friends. One of them donated anonymously, but I'll pause a moment here to thank KD Shull and Mark Gowdy, both past-life chums who have managed to stay in touch over many years. I felt a bit cheeky, as though I was just asking people for spending money, but I knew it would be a fruitful trip and indeed that has proven to be the case! After a long period of creative doldrums, I am back in the studio and churning out brand new loveliness at record speed.

This post will serve an an aperitivo, as it were, to whet your appetite for more photos and details in the fullness of time. The photos showcase some of my favourite finds, a hint of future designs!