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A short history of me and how I accidentally fell into the wonderful world of Craft!

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

I was born in the long hot summer of 1976, the one with all the ladybirds apparently, in Rustington near Littlehampton on the south coast of England. I was too young to remember before we moved to Ferndown in Dorset a stone's throw from Hurn / Bournemouth Airport. My Dad worked for the NHS as a financial manager throughout his career and my mum was a midwife until she had me.

After a few years there we moved up to Shrewsbury in Shropshire in 1982 and I’ve been here pretty much ever since. All of my family were down south and we used to visit them regularly. There were many a road trip to Dorset and Hampshire with tapes of Meatloaf and Genesis playing on the car stereo down the M5.

Growing up it was all about planes and trains and there were many an hour spent on a station such as Crewe or at the end of a runway somewhere, much to my sisters dismay! It’s where my model making obsession came from and I ended up with a collection of planes of well over 200 lining shelves in my bedroom. Yes I am a geek! These are mostly in boxes in my parents loft but the habit started again recently and I’m already running out of shelves!

I’ve had a bit of a mixed bag of experiences through my education and work over the years.

School wasn’t an easy time for me, I was bullied a lot and I was put into the remedial group throughout my secondary school years and only after persistence from my parents eventually saw an educational psychologist who said that I had some level of learning difficulties. Basically I have Dyslexia although they didn’t want to say that at the time, it was the early 90’s.

This all happened just a short time before I sat my GCSE’s and I was given extra time in exams. Extra time to sit there and not really understand everything. The feeling of your peers leaving before you and you still struggling away doesn’t exactly help. Anyway I got 3 GCSE’s at grade C, Geography, Technical Drawing and Design and Realisation (Woodwork Metal Work).

But that’s not how I got into Craft.

With limited options as to what to do next and no real idea what I wanted to do, my only interest at that stage was planes. I went to my local technical college and struggled my way through two BTEC Engineering courses. It was way too much maths but I did like the making.

Still not how I got into Craft.

I tried applying to get into the RAF as an Engineer (and later as a photographer) but couldn’t get through the aptitude test due to the mental arithmetic. Probably in my naivety I decided to go on to study Aeronautical Engineering at HND level in what was then called NEWI in Wrexham in North Wales. More struggling ensued as this was more Maths, but it was about planes, I thought.

No it was pretty much maths, maths, maths in various disguised ways. I remember having to resit a Maths exam at least 3 or 4 times and when I did eventually get it, it ended up being the last time I would do differentiation. I don’t miss it!

I did manage to get my HND and the course offered the opportunity to carry on for another 2 years to get a degree. With no other idea what to do I decided to try but after only one term into that I’d had enough. I was not enjoying it and it was just beyond me and so I left.

I went on to change courses and got onto a combined Degree at Wolverhampton University in Computer Aided Design and War Studies but with a 6 month break working for the Royal Mail unloading ‘junk mail’ from an HGV at 5am. Not the worst Job I’ve ever done and the breakfasts were great in the canteen.

I doubt many people have a degree in CAD and War Studies, it's a bit niche! The CAD was a follow on from my technical drawing and the War Studies from my interest in military aviation. War Studies was to be a challenge as it was a different type of subject to get my head around, in so much as I had to read books and write essays and reference everything. It was kind of the first time I’d had to do that. I did enjoy it and wrote my dissertation on the Future of Airpower and ended up getting a 2:1, something I’m still proud of even if I’ve not directly used it in my career.

At that time and just after I was a student member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and joined their Air Power group attending dinners and conferences. There I was in my ill fitting suit and complete naivety mixing with Air Chief Marshals, Wing Commanders and MP’s. I’ve had a Gin and Tonic at the RAF Club on Piccadilly don’t you know! They were welcoming but I felt so out of place.

I wanted to get into defence research and had a couple of interviews with what was then called DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency) at Farnborough and Malvern. I distinctly remember my interview was on Sept 12th 2001 as on my journey south to stay with my aunt the day before the 9/11 terrorist attack in the USA was unfolding.

They did offer me a graduate position but it wasn’t in the area I was most interested in, so I declined. I will always wonder where that may have taken me had I accepted it, but sometimes it’s best not to dwell.

After leaving University in 2000 I got a Christmas temp job working in my local Boots store initially working in the cash office. I’ve never handled so much cash in my life but I must have been deemed trustworthy. It always amused me that they got me to deal with counting up the money with maths not my strong point.

In the end I got stuck there for 4 and a half years although I did move onto the Photo Lab after a while. Photography has always been something I enjoyed and used to take photos on holiday and of course planes and trains. Boots were good enough to allow me Tuesdays off to go study part time an HNC in Photography at Wolverhampton College which I really enjoyed.

This started something off and I began to develop an interest in and style of architectural photography, high contrast black and white images of angular buildings. There was a brief pause from that after suffering from depression, finally leaving Boots and going travelling for a year in Australia.

I have so many wonderful memories of that trip Down Under although it seems a long time ago now. I jumped out of a plane, hang glided off a cliff, swam with a Whale Shark, walked around Uluru, fossicked for sapphires and saw so much incredible scenery and amazing wildlife. I loved the freedom and nomad-like qualities it gave me. I do miss that I have to admit and yearn for that sense of adventure.

The scale of the country was something that will stay with me. One particular walk I did in southern Tasmania I only passed a few Wallabies after several hours and when I reached the sea there was then nothing between me and Antarctica. The UK is so tiny in comparison!

On my return I did a few random jobs, delivering wheelie bins and data input at a veterinary laboratory (there were slices of sheeps brains in jars in a fridge) but I soon ended up going self-employed in 2007 as a freelance photographer. I got a Prince's trust loan to buy a camera and started building up a portfolio of architectural images to offer my services to architects. I also got involved with a few business and photography development courses and organisations in Birmingham at the Custard Factory.

Rhonda Wilson ran Rhubarb Rhubarb which did portfolio reviews and I had a few at different events including one with Simon Bainbridge the editor of the British Photographic Journal. No one quite knew what my photography was, it wasn’t fine art nor technical architectural photography and so it never really went anywhere and I started to lose interest and direction.

I did exhibit my work several times with a few group shows with my HNC cohort in Wolverhampton and at the Brighton Photo Fringe which I would also do solo a few years later in 2010. My claim to fame is that one of my architectural images of Shrewsbury’s then new theatre building was used as a prop in the Christopher Nolan film Inception. A gang of us went to watch it at the cinema when it came out, which was fun! Leo and Cillian are having a heated discussion in a swanky hotel bathroom and it’s on the wall behind them.

I remember Rhonda saying to me something along the lines of ‘you should try moving image’. Sadly she died before I ended up going down that route but I still wonder what she would have thought of the direction I ended going in.

Around this same sort of time my sister Helen had been studying woven textiles, firstly her BA at Winchester, then she worked for Wallace Sewell London as their studio manager for a year or so before going to the RCA in Kensington. I visited a few times and must admit I was surprised the first time to see the facilities. They weren’t as grand as the name suggested. I enjoyed hanging out there, there was a creative hubbub and the view across to the Royal Albert Hall was great. This is where I started to understand the world of textiles and meet people who I still know today.

Once she left she came back to Shrewsbury and we ended up finding a studio space in town which we shared for about 5 years, an old dance studio. It was spacious although freezing in the winter but could fit her newly acquired loom in. This loom was bought from the RCA and it had been in their basement for some time. Roger the then technician had modified it with a hand soldered computer box.

Off we went in a hire van to London to pick up this collection of wooden beams and bits and bobs. For anyone familiar with the RCA Kensington site, parking is a pain in the arse!

It was then the task of trying to work out how to construct it as it didn’t have instructions. We managed it although the wires in the computer box didn’t like the journey and several came apart. This was beyond my electronics knowledge and I think Roger had to come visit to sort it out. Helen’s had about 3 different AVL looms over the years and they’ve moved around a few times. AVL loom building has become a bit of a skill now!

In 2011 Helen did the Crafts Council’s Hothouse maker development scheme. During that time she was sent various opportunities including a call out for films for the Power of Making exhibition. Arron I’d crossed paths with a few times through the Shrewsbury arts scene and through a few workshops he ran. He’d started doing a bit of work from our studio and we decided to take the opportunity to make something for this call out. He was very much into making films in a day.

So one Sunday we were all free and not having a video camera and just my SLR we decided to shoot it all with bursts of still images which would then be animated together. Moving image and using this burst setting were not things I’d tried before so it was all new to me. We made a 2 min film in black and white with some audio of Helen saying weaving related words and a sort of poem…Arty!

At this time I was doing some IT support work with a stained glass artist in Shrewsbury called Nathalie. She asked if we’d make her a film too. This had a series of images of glass used to overlay onto the footage to give an interesting effect...again Arty! Anyway we submitted these two films to the Power of Making Call out.

We were surprised when both our films were selected. I think it was 40 films out of about 250 entries. And so began 12 years of working as R&A Collaborations, a name we quickly had to come up with for the entry. Keep it simple as they say!

We decided that ok we’ve got these films shown at the V&A Museum in London, where can this go? Admittedly the films were all shown on a tiny screen at the back of the gallery with the sound off but it looked good on the C.V.

We carried out an experimental project shortly after where we made 5 films in 7 days all finished on the day we made them. We learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t. One of the participants was a jewellery maker in Somerset, the only person we didn’t know as we’d put something out on Twitter.

Her name was Erica Sharpe and there was a strange moment when she left us in her studio to make tea and there was a pot of gold granules on the bench. This was very trusting of her with a pair of strangers in her space…GOLD! She used Cornish tin in her work combined with precious metals. We heard the cry of tin, the sound it makes as it's rolled and it really is an otherworldly sound. This film and also helping my sister at a few Craft Shows started to open my eyes to the sector and the fascinating people and objects they made.

I remember the first show she did was Made by Hand at Tredegar House near Newport in South Wales. On a wintery day, my dads Ford Focus loaded up with an old wooden school desk and coat rack, we travelled down to set up. This is another skill I’ve learnt over the years, stand set up! Over the years it's reduced in furniture quantities as quite frankly it was too heavy and cumbersome!

At this first show I remember going around and meeting people handing out cards. Makers seemed deeply suspicious, who is this guy? There were lots of people there which we would go on to work with and call friends. But at that time it was all new.

I remember that the best option for food in Newport at the time, at least that we could find, was an all you can eat world buffet…you’ve got to try a bit of everything haven’t you?

Gradually we built up our portfolio and visited more shows getting to know more people. After a while the suspicion ebbed and makers started to get what we did. Between around 2014 to 2018 was the sweet spot where we were involved in some really great projects as R&A Collaborations. I’ll talk more about some of those in a future post.

So I’ve come into the Craft Sector purely by accident and not as a maker per se but as a Storyteller and increasingly as a networker / relationship and community builder / connector / glue or whatever you want to call it. Again more on that in a future post too.

Until next time, mind how you go 🧡

10 Nov 23

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