Updated: May 12
What a year!
This may be oversharing but in what has been an extraordinary year, I’ve found that reading about how other people have faced challenges and coped with them has helped. So I thought I'd reflect on 2020.
In many ways I’ve written this for myself. In the past few years I’ve started scribbling notes, reflecting on the previous year, to prompts such as 'What did I discover' What changes did I face? What did I discover? What would be helpful to leave in 2020? and What would be helpful to carry into 2021? I have a tendency to focus on negatives and need to work a little harder to look at the positives. The exercise helps me do that. Reflecting on the positives, there are indeed many.
I've seen countless messages about wanting to forget 2020. 2020 isn't a year I want to forget about. I’m not going to pretend it’s been easy. I work and live on my own. I connect to people through meeting in person and shared experiences. Having a big part of that cut off has been hard. It's a year where I've had to dig deep to keep going and learn to adapt. Like I imagine we've all had, there have been many highs and lows.
I've learnt many new skills and made new connections. It certainly wasn't dull!
Resilience to change
Previous redundancies have held me in good stead for the pandemic. From the outside it may seem like I’m reacting to the situation and not giving myself time to cope with the change. I’m someone who has huge amounts of enthusiasm at the start of a project and being honest, may not always be as good at finishing. I’ve found using that initial burst of energy works. I’m good at problem solving, so prefer to tap into that to get ideas flowing. Otherwise I’m in danger of slipping into self pity and what’s the point any more. We all have different ways of coping with change. I guess I'm quite resilient and as my mum will say, determined.
Adapting to change
In business, 'pivot' seemed to be the word of the year. Basically, adapting to change. And quickly!
Pre-pandemic my business was made up of several elements: selling original prints, teaching workshops in my studio, graphic design and commercial illustration projects.
Taking those one by one, this is what happened.
Graphic design. This had been one of my main sources of income. I don't often share the projects I'm working on through social media. I’ll be honest, I can charge an hourly or project rate that reflects experience and true time on a project. Printmaking, being a slow handmade process is very very different and hard to do that.
Apart from one small project, graphic design work dried up overnight. My regular clients stopped needing new marketing materials and one sold their business. New clients are usually small startup businesses who need logos and branding designing.
Illustration and commercial linocut commissions. I'd been half way through a project. That's been cancelled. A book I've illustrated with linocut prints is still awaiting being published. I hope to be able to share that as soon as it is.
Linocut workshops. Through February and March I'd taught 10 linocut workshops. This has become a big part of my business and something I very much enjoy. My last workshop was on 16 March. Although I've since created an online course it doesn’t replace in-person teaching, financially or as something I personally prefer to do. I miss that connection and rapor.
Original prints. Now this caught me by surprise. I seriously thought that people would stop buying art and I'd be stuck with all my new prints as fancy loo roll!
It's certainly not easy making a living from art. As I've said above anything handmade takes time and original prints are certainly no exception.
I already had an online shop. Online sales were small but it meant I was already in a good position. I just needed to improve my photography and add all my prints and cards.
Through the kindness of others, regular customers showing their support, word of mouth and my work being shared on social media or through the press, orders came in. And they've continued to do so. In fact in many ways this year has done me a favour. Prior to the pandemic I sold my work through local events and galleries, now my prints have gone off all around the country and even as far as New Zealand!
But my print sales have been what’s kept me afloat and believe me that's one hell of an achievement!
Sense of Purpose
The main thing I needed was a sense of purpose. Something to focus on. A reason to get up, get dressed and get on with the day.
My initial reaction to the pandemic was, "What can I do?" That was two fold, I’ve often wished my career and skills were something that helped people and more useful in that way. At the time it also felt like my business was on hold.
PPE was in short supply. Through my contacts I got involved in what became the Covid-19 Visors York project.
On week 2 of the lockdown 1, The Design Trust ran a free webinar ‘How to Teach Creative Skills online’. It’s something I’d toyed with but didn't have the time or skills to do so. Wouldn’t it be great to have a passive income? I could make a course and offer support but I would need to be there all of the time.
I can’t say the thought filled me with joy. I much prefer face to face communication. With teaching in particular, there’s a rapor. I can adapt my style and the content to each individual or group. I get a lot of satisfaction from feedback. Indirect mainly. The look on someone’s face when they peel back their first print is priceless. I've had many Keith Brymer Jones teary eyed moments. Teaching online can be quite detached.
At the time it felt like I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t think people would buy my prints. It was my only hope of bringing in an income. What it did do though, was give me a sense of purpose.
I didn’t have the skills I needed. The course was very intense. Weekly live webinars and stacks of homework too up most of my time. I wasn’t earning money from that, which caused a lot of stress. That’s a lot of pressure on one thing.
Learning to film and edit
Financially I needed to film it well and edit it all myself. Skills and equipment I didn't have. Alongside the course I taught myself how to use Adobe Premiere Pro. Although I’m a dab hand at some of the other Adobe packages, this was another language. I struggled no end. Initially I practiced on videos for the Virtual York Open Studios event. Six months down the line the basics are nearly second nature.
Filming and photography was another hurdle. Initially I borrowed a friend's video camera. Videoing myself demonstrating carving techniques is not easy! Talking to the camera when I was exhausted with it all wasn’t easy. The amount of takes it took to get good footage is ridiculous! Come to that, taking high quality self portraits while holding tools for press releases wasn't easy either!
But I did it.
My first online course launched in July 2020. It may have been tough and I can’t say I enjoyed all of it but I’m very proud of the results. Being my own worst critic, I didn’t know how well it would do but I've received lots of positive feedback.
I have always wanted to learn how to lino cut but didn’t know where to start. This course has given me all the basic steps to begin but also inspired me with ideas of how to Mark make in order to progress designs. Very clear and concise, I also loved that I can pause the content or slow it down to really study technique. Thank you Michelle."
Learning new skills
I've already spoken about learning to teach online, video editing and improving my filming above.
I’d been meaning to do a navigation course for a while. My internal compass is shocking. I avoid walking on my own for that very reason. I’d rather have company too but this year that wouldn’t always be possible. It was more of a ‘should do’ rather than something I’d wanted to do. Friends were booked onto a two-day navigation course at Kilnsey, Yorkshire Dales with Where2Walk. On finding a reasonably priced room in nearby Grassington, I saw it as a sign and booked onto the course.
Of course, as it turned out, I wasn’t as bad as I thought. Rather unsurprisingly, I lacked confidence. If I stopped to think things through properly, applied logic and the skills I'd learned, rather than getting in a flap, I mostly got it right.
I've sewn from an early age. "I hate knitting" is a phrase I’ve often used! My friend Sal knitted me a bobble hat for Christmas last year. I’ve re-taught myself how to knit. Persevering with it and knitting a coordinating cowl over Christmas.
I've stopped beating myself up about my writing. English was my worst subject at school. I find writing hard and been carrying a chip on my shoulder about being rubbish at it for years.
I have quite a few friends that are professional writers. They’ve encouraged me and helped me realise that my open and honest writing style isn’t so bad. I’ve learnt that I like writing more than I did, very early morning works well and I’ve found it helps me too. We live in a world of information overload, so I suspect not many people read my blogs, newsletters or social media ramblings. If you do, thank you for listening.
Sleep or lack of
The second I close my eyes I’m asleep, until 4am that is. Overthinking and my problem solving brain kicks in and I’m wide awake. Two solutions, write it down and eat a bowl of muesli. There’s been a lot of that. In the beginning, my thoughts were about how to make a living, then learning how to make my online course. Through November it seems editioning prints that were running low on stock where playing on my mind.
Forever plugged in
I’m the sort of person that prefers face to face communication and by choice will pick up the phone rather than emailing. In many ways I prefer the non-digital world. But on the other hand, I realise that I wouldn’t have a successful business without it. This year it’s had many benefits. Community is the main one, which I’ll come to below.
The creative community have really pulled together.
Pyramid Gallery in York set up an online exhibition for those affected by the York Open Studio cancellation. York Open Studios is run by volunteers and alongside their own upside down worlds, created an online event.
York Printmakers took our monthly meetings online. In November we gave them more purpose by starting a monthly creative challenge. We create a piece of work to a theme. We share how we made it and our thoughts behind creating. It's given a focus to our meetings, helped us learn more about each other and different printmaking techniques. At last I've found a positive to Zoom!
I didn’t think there would be a silver cloud to this. Listening to a podcast last week I understood more about a big one.
Pre-pandemic, I either sold my prints through art events or galleries. I sold a few online. With events cancelled and galleries forced to close, people looked online.
I’ve always shared how I make my linocut prints online. In a way it’s my own personal diary. It helps me see the progress I’ve made. Creating art is a solitary pursuit, so it also gives me a connection with the outside world. Constructive feedback is invaluable.
The thing I hadn’t thought about was that for many people, there was now a new more direct link to artists and a window onto their creative worlds. A bit of an escape that we all needed too, I think. It also opens up art to people that may not have previously ventured into an art gallery.
I’m very thankful to everyone that has taken the time to share my work, email thoughts of support or commented on social media. It’s certainly kept my spirits up and given me a reason to keep going. I keep a note of them to remind me.
These are just a few quotes from customers:
“Everything is lovely, Blakey Ridge particularly so. It is a view I have stopped and admired too. You’ve captured the essence of it so well. It will be going back to York, to my Mum, who I’m sure will love it as much as I do.”
“It's so beautiful and a lot of your pieces are some of our family's favourite places so I will definitely be expanding our collection. The hard part is choosing!”
“We walk in the Dales a lot, and I also love your work of Littondale & Kettlewell!”
“I’ve bought the 3 peaks for my husband for Xmas, and I am trying to support small businesses this year!”
“I wanted to buy something really meaningful.”
“I was looking for a piece of linocut art and as Whitby is special for me this piece was perfect.”
One of the highlights of the year has been the sense of community. We now have a street WhatsApp group. Living at the end of the street, I only knew my immediate neighbours. Now I know many more.
Connecting with nature
Nature has played a big part in keeping me sane, particularly at the start of the pandemic. I discovered my nan’s green fingers when I moved here. It’s my first place with a garden. I was soon to make my mark on it, growing plants from seed or adopting plants from friends. I realised that running my own business, had sidelined it a bit. I’d created a low maintenance garden plus in time off I wanted to get away from 'my office’.
My garden became my true sanctuary once more. I’m an early bird, particularly on lighter days. My early morning ritual was to make breakfast, gather my yoga mat, some blankets, my duvet jacket and wooly hat and take them out to my ‘sunny patch’. Simply some concrete slabs on breeze blocks, against my garage wall. I sit watching the sunrise, feeling its increasing warmth, while listening to and watching the birds.
In fact every coffee and meal of the day was out there. I made myself a table from some palette scraps and vintage table legs that I’d been meaning to do something with.
This year it seemed everyone was taking to their gardens to grow things. Although I don’t have a conventional veg patch I do like to dot courgettes and runner beans and things amongst my plants.
Lockdown 1 meant I was spending a lot more time in my garden. I love taking close up macro photographs of plants and nature, particularly first thing. I guess it’s my kind of morning meditation. I noticed plants growing in even more detail, my cherry red peony the most. Over the years my nan had given me plants from her garden, this is one. She’d been in a care home for a couple of years and Christmas 2019 was the last time I saw her. I suspect on a deeper level the peony was my connection with her. Sadly she died in August, just before her 99th birthday. In many ways I was glad it had come to an end, she never did want to be away from her garden. She certainly had a good innings!