Yes, Christmas and New Year were a big pile of poo as the festive season coincided with my youngest daughter's growth spurt which resulted in her medication being too low...
We have had to deal with seizure after seizure after seizure, ambulance trips to hospital with rarely a days break in between. Yesterday she had four fits. I haven't left my house or had a good night's sleep for a month as I have to sleep with one hand on her so if she fits, I wake up.
I'm hoping that it is no more than another week before her new improved dosage is properly in her blood stream and then life will improve. I am stir crazy and finding it so hard to get any work done - there just aren't enough hours in the day and I can't leave her. I've had to stay up late doing accounts and tax returns - that sort of thing.
It has made one thing very clear though - there is no way that I could dream of project-managing the artistic side of Medway/Thames gateway regeneration. I had been to a meeting with a council person and a government person and various other artists and they were very keen on my ideas. I then spent ten minutes telling them why I shouldn't be in charge of it and how mad my life is, to which they replied that it sounded as if I was very good at juggling things - perfect qualities for a project-manager!
Yes my ideas for Medway are great and a part of me really wants to do it. But my home situation makes it impossible. I'm still going to submit my ideas though - I want them to happen, even if I can't run the operation. This Christmas has properly reminded me that I cannot do anything with a deadline because I never know when my home life will be thrown into turmoil.
On the plus side, the Lee Child portrait is almost complete, I have just registered for the BP National Portrait Award and I have had a few enquiries from prospective clients, though I could do without my husband and friends saying "Oh she'd probably do it for around so much" to people, vastly undervaluing the amount of work I do and making me seem mean when I try and explain why I can't do it for the price they have quoted...!
I'm sure I will be in a more positive frame of mind when I finally get some time on my own to work...
Hope you all had good holidays!
So, being a technotard, I wrote to Mr Site to try and get help to fix my blog - why do none of my changes stay? Where do my photos go? Here is their reply:
Thanks for your mail.
Can you please try to revert changes for your blog entry after which it stop working as it may have broken the code part for page. See if that resolve the issue. Please let us know if that solve the issue or not, so we can check the issue with your changes.
Please let us know if you require any further assistance
Mr Site Team,
Now, either this is an automatic computer reply or it has come to me via babelfish. I know that I messed up the code - what I don't know is how to fix it. Revert it? Unless there is a button named 'revert' then that isn't particularly helpful to me.
I think I am going to need to make one of those expensive phonecalls to them...
I've had a few art-related things happen since I returned from Harrogate:
An email arrived from someone who had found my blog and who wanted advice from me(!) about setting up their own business. After explaining to him that I'm really at the start of things myself so didn't know if I had anything I could say that would be of use to him, I was still on a real high. It's the reason I started the blog - to chart my progress from complete amateur and hope that the things I learn along the way are useful to other creative people.
Then this week I had phonecalls and emails from people who want to commission work.
I also was persuaded into registering with Yell.com for a relatively small monthly fee - we shall see how much extra work that brings me. From next month I will be in the new Yellow Pages and on Yell.com. I will give it a year and if the work I get through it doesn't exceed the cost of the advertising then I'll drop Yell.com next time round. Luckily the Yellow Pages is free.
Meanwhile my children who are on school holidays are trashing our home and the chances of me finishing the novel in the next couple of weeks seem more and more remote.
I will find a way!
Sunday 22nd July
Somehow I managed to get up, pack everything and be ready just in time for the first panel - What really gets me going. Mark Billingham, Christopher Brookmyre, Natasha Cooper and Val McDermid were guesting with Peter Guttridge hosting. Yet again, it was a really comic performance. I particularly enjoyed the way Val kept referring to Natasha Cooper by her real name Daphne and every time Daphne would say "Natasha" in a reprimanding sort of way - it tickled me after a while, especially when Val very pointedly remembered to call her Natasha with much stressing of the word...
Mark's pet peeve was adults who read Harry Potter for their own pleasure. I'm not sure he had much support. Certainly not from me! Afterwards on the way out, I managed to find the man from Orion again and show him a print of the painting. He loved it and is going to contact me. I hope Ian won't mind walking into his publisher's offices and seeing a massive portrait of himself hanging there - I would love to be there the first time he sees it!
Everyone kept asking me if it was me who had asked a particular question during the panel - even Mark. They said this woman sounded just like me; she had a really soft voice. Do I have a soft voice? I know I used to - before I had kids! Now I spend half my life delivering sentences I never thought I would say that may never have been said before, in a weird staccato, hard way: "Banana. Skins. Do. Not. Belong. In. Bookcases."
I checked out of the hotel at 11am, stashing my case in their luggage room. I barely made it - next year I pack the night before - unless I go to bed at 5am then too.
The final talk of the festival was Laura Lippman interviewing Harlan Coben who she accused of having the laziest pen-name in history as his real name is Cohen (Very nearly Heimy Fgoffery Cohen!) It was a really entertaining interview and a great end to the festival.
Everywhere became chaotic downstairs in the hotel and I decided to hang on a while - I also had portrait no. 3 to sort out and a mini photography shoot to do. Subject no. 3 said, "That's extraordinarily expensive!" when I told him how much the painting would be, but really it isn't - not for 4 months work of 50-70 hours a week. However we might be able to do a deal...! He said, "We'll talk!"
Kevin Wignall had given me a copy of Laura Lippman's novel so I got her to sign that too. I also had to pick up my copy of Harry Potter - just to annoy Mark.
I stayed at the hotel for a late lunch with some forum members which was really enjoyable. Most people had gone by then so it felt really relaxed and if I can afford it, I think I might stay that extra night next year just to recover! It was nice, not rushing off but by about 3pm, I knew I had to leave or I would never get home. I travelled back to London with Daryl and his missus, sitting on the floor by the toilet because my biggest bag in the world would not fit down the train corridors.
I was home by ten, exhausted but nowhere near as bad as last year!
So, to recap...
I have come back with:
An invitation to send my novel to a good agent
3 portrait commissions - sort of
2 possible other portrait requests - will be contacting me later in the year
1 publicity feature to be done about me for the internet
Some possible radio publicity
Extra publicity on an author's website
Not bad for one long weekend away! The only thing left that bugs me is the amount of people who could not remember my name from last year. It is perfectly understandable but I hate it. I want to be more memorable dammit! Still, at least next year I'll be 'thingummy who paints portraits'.
Unless they forget that too!
Saturday 21st July
I had a lie-in and woke up feeling relatively rested. Then I switched on the telly. The news was full of the excessive rainfall from the day before and how the south of the country was shut off from the north of the country. They said that the train line I had used to get to Yorkshire was closed as parts of it were underwater. I knew I had no more money for extra nights at the hotel, so became a little worried. I sent a text to my husband and his reply was "Well, what do you expect me to do about it?" so I did the next most logical thing - decided to worry about it the next day. We had realised the night before that it was raining a bit heavily but the extent of our concern was how horrible it was for the smokers among us and how annoying it was to be shooed away from the hotel entrance as if we were pigeons...
The books I had brought with me were calling to me! The struggle across London with the enormous bag would have been completely futile if I didn't get them signed. I bunged most of them in a bag and dragged it around everywhere with me, along with the two prints I had been carrying around all weekend, in case I met the guy from Orion. (I have a very nice four and a half foot by three and a half foot painting of Ian Rankin that needs to find a new home and Orion's offices would be the perfect place!) Mark Billingham had said he would introduce me but so far all three of us had never been in a room at the same time. I was getting so sick of carrying them around. However, a lot of people were looking at them and saying, "Ooooh!" and "Aaaahhhhh!" which is always nice.
We were banned from the main bar as there was a wedding going on but most of us found the other one with ease.
The manager told me that there had been a rape outside the hotel the night before. I was so shocked. We had still been up when it happened because I remember seeing the police van parked up and wondering why it was there.
It's slightly ironic that it happened right outside a hotel full of the best crime writers.
The Getting Vigorous panel was great fun. C.J.Carver, Simon Kernick, Michael Marshall and Zoe Sharp were on the panel and the host was Stuart MacBride who did a wonderful job. There was much laughter (and disgust) at some of the questions. Zoe's answers, all delivered with a broad smile, made her become an increasingly terrifying person you wouldn't want to mess with and Michael Marshall did a good job of being worried by her, shifting his chair away from her and closer to Stuart, getting huge laughs with his dry humour! All the panel were very funny and everyone enjoyed watching Zoe incapacitate Simon Kernick when Stuart asked her to demonstrate her self-defence skills. Carving objects out of soap while answering the questions was an unusual extra request from the quizmaster but they all did a good job.
I bought a couple more books on my way out, dithering over the latest from Mark Billingham, Simon Kernick and Chris Brookmyre, knowing I could only afford to buy two. In the end, I chose Mark's and Simon's as I have known them longer, deciding to buy Chris's book when I get home. I only wish I had remembered that when I called him over later to sign it...oops.
I grabbed people in corridors, in the bar, outside and got nearly all the books signed. One of them was perfect timing. Outside having a ciggie I was 'giving it a bit large' saying, "I don't do signing queues - I just wait until I see them and then I poun...oh Lee!" and nobbled Lee Child as he came out for a smoke! Harlan Coben was nice enough to sign his when I approached him in the bar. I tried again to convince him to let me do his portrait but he said no again so that's a definite no! He said no artist or photographer has yet been able to capture his inner machismo and beauty - something along those lines - very tongue-in-cheek. Then he drew a smiley face and told me it was his portrait for me!
There was a fair bit of commotion among some of the authors and I asked someone what was going on and they said, "Just trying to stop the whole event going tits-up." and then they did a zipped lip gesture and ran off
My artwork was still being passed around and finally I was able to get a couple of the people I wanted to paint to pose for my photographs. (Thankyou Daphne for being the go-between with one of them!) I don't like working from photos but these people are so in demand and their time is limited; at the moment there really is no choice. One of them said that they would put the finished artwork and a photo of us together on their website, which is great! I don't expect them to buy their paintings but I hope they will, once they see them. I haven't talked money with them so as such I can't really call it a commission. I asked them. The thing about painting people with a fan base is that there will be someone out there who will want the painting, but I would rather the subject loved it so much that they wanted it. This year I really do need to start being more commercial. I balk at the idea of contracts and money up front but I think I will have to think about that side of things soon - ish. Chris High was impressed with my work and told me he wants to do a spotlight feature on me for his website because he can't bear seeing talent not being recognised...always nice to hear!
I met more people I hadn't talked to before. Martyn Waites was really nice. I'd like to have a longer conversation with him next year if I get the chance. And bizarrely, people kept bringing my charming Irish friend Michelle and me food - which I will never object to!
The next three events were all ones I had planned on going to, but I missed them all because of the arrival of forum members and people I had met last year. I'd imagined Smudge as an Essex boy and could not have been more wrong when this bear of a man with broad northern accent was introduced to me. I immediately liked him but didn't get nearly enough time to talk to him.
Gungho was someone else that I had not talked with much on the forum, yet we got on really well and I really enjoyed his company. I know that if I was locked in a room with him for a week, we wouldn't run out of conversation!
Helena was hilarious and the rest of the forum members were great too. There was a real party atmosphere, only dampened by the weather every time any of us needed a ciggie.
During one cigarette break, Mark Billingham asked me, "Are you going to the Fredrick Forsyth event?" "Yes." "No, you're not!"
It turns out that because of the floods, he had cancelled so all the organisers were desperately trying to pull something together to avoid disappointment. They did a good job too, creating a very amusing debate between UK and US authors about who wrote better crime. Harlan Coben and Lee Child represented the US and Mark Billingham and Val McDermid represented the UK, with other authors coming in with arguments for both sides. Mark Lawson presided and I didn't hear one complaint either before in the queue or after, that Fredrick Forsyth hadn't turned up.
Next was the Late Night Quiz Show hosted by Natasha Cooper and Simon Kernick. Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben were on the next table to us and after trying to identify the baby pictures on our table, I said to Laura whose baby pic was very girly, "I know which one you are." She then tried to give me some guff about how everyone confuses her with a boy in her baby pictures. I said, "I don't believe you." in a sing-song voice and she laughed. Nice try, Lippman. When it came to swapping answer sheets with them, we were pleased to see that they had lots of blanks too! I think we beat them but I'm not sure...
After the quiz we were told we had to remain in the ballroom because of the wedding. How dare they! I went, assisted by Helena to find Stuart and James to sign my books because I wanted to get rid of my bags. I found James Twining but just didn't really get the chance to talk to him beyond my five minutes at his table this year. Maybe next year! I gave up on Stuart and left the room to take my bags upstairs but met him in the corridor. He signed my book, complete with drawing and then thanked me for painting Mark Billingham. "We've had so much mileage out of that this week!" "Have you? Have you been tormenting him?!" "Oh, have we just! But you've got him! You've got him spot on!"
Finally we were released from our basement and allowed access to upstairs again. By this time I was a little bit tipsy but it wasn't long before I had drunk myself sober again. I was however drunk enough to tell Stuart MacBride that he had the profile of Beethoven - it's something about the way he carries himself. He has something of the marble bust about him...
Outside, I got up the nerve to have photos taken with people. Unfortunately my ability to focus my eyes had pretty much gone at that point and I look as if I have Bells palsy but some nice people didn't seem too embarrassed to be seen with me.
with Lee Child
with Kevin Wignall
with Harlan Coben
As we were being snap-happy, I decided to try and get a picture of me and Mark together with him smiling. I've never yet managed to get a photo of me and him with him properly smiling. As we posed, I tickled him and said, "You'd better be smiling!" He answered, "I AN sniling!" through gritted teeth and then everyone started laughing and the flash went off. It's a hideous picture of me but at least our smiles are genuine.
with Mark Billingham
I had a really nice night in the bar. At one point I was waiting for the barman to serve me and realised that the people next to me were staring at me. I looked and it was Peter Guttridge and David Hewson. Peter reintroduced me to David as 'a really good writer' from one of his old classes. He has never even said that to me before. Really good writer. I'll be happy with that!
I think I also redeemed myself with Paul Johnston. We had a very interesting conversation that went on late into the night and again, he is someone I feel I could talk to for hours on end without ever reaching the point where we run out of things to say. At least this time I was sober! That is the nice thing about staying up late - you get the time to have a proper conversation with someone without constant interruptions.
As always it was great to spend time with Kevin Wignall and Michelle too. But at 5am, as the sky began to lighten, we decided enough was enough. I felt ridiculous, setting my alarm for only two hours later!
Friday 20th July
Some insistent banging on the door from the guy delivering breakfast woke me up barely three hours after I had gone to bed. After some near-fatal confusion in the shower about which way was up (I was about 40 degrees out), I realised I was still drunk. I never get like that on red wine or vodka - and the white wine was playing havoc with my insides. I eventually managed to stagger downstairs and make my way to the ballroom for Val McDermid's interview.
I found a seat and felt a little delicate, but thought I would be fine. Natasha Cooper introduced Val and her interviewer and then left the stage, slipping on the stairs and banging into the doorway. Unfortunately, she must have hit a button with either her hands or her head when she slipped and she had set off the disco mirrorball! My stomach started to churn, my head started to throb and so I left my seat and found a member of staff to turn them off. Then while they were trying to sort all that out, I sat at the back to listen to Val, well away from the flashing lights, but still feeling very ill.
Afterwards I went to the bar where someone had persuaded me that a cup of tea would do me good. I sat with Agent Phil for a bit (tea-leaf) and then went upstairs intending to sleep off the alcohol. The strange thing about Harrogate is that you really don't want to miss out on anything so as soon as I was up there I knew I wouldn't be able to settle. I went back down and chatted to some people, starting to lay the groundwork for getting some portrait work. I hate all that. I wish people would just come and ask me to do their portraits. I don't want to have to go out there and be pushy - it seems anti-creative in a lot of ways. The things is, I really am doing them a favour. At the moment I am affordable and one day I won't be. I'm too good at getting the likeness to remain an unknown, I'm sure, as long as I keep working and keep improving. Many people are worried about being seen as egotistical if they commission a portrait of themselves but you don't really have a portrait of yourself for yourself. You buy it for posterity, for your children and grandchildren, as an investment in the skill and promise of an artist and out of sheer interest to see how the artist will interpret you (and out of pity for the poor struggling artist). If you had a photo of yourself blown up to 3ft x 4ft however, then yes, I would agree you might have a HUGE ego!
I was beginning to feel a bit better so agreed to go to lunch with some friends from the forum but I must have still not really been with it as instead of visiting the ladies' in the restaurant, I forgot it existed and walked the length of the hotel to the other ladies' room. On my way back I saw Kevin Wignall checking in and quickly said hello.
After lunch, we went to the Snobbery with Violence panel where David Roberts seemed to delight at being the 'baddie', taking on Sheila Quigley, Martyn Waites and Laura Wilson with outrageous comments!.
During another nicotine top-up, Paul Blezard told me that Alex Barclay had arrived and was with Kevin Wignall in the other bar so I went to see them and catch up, joining them and the Dutch publisher (names,names,too many names) for a glass of champagne.
The champagne had made me feel a lot better - almost back to normal and from then on I alternated Vodka's with diet cokes and felt just fine! Lee Child, Harlan Coben and Laura Lippman had arrived and I was beginning to be properly aware of time flying by so I introduced myself to Lee and asked if he would be interested in me painting his portrait and he said he would, before being whisked off to his event, which left me stunned! Did he just say that?
Many people from the year before had arrived and it was great catching up with them again. I don't really get nervous meeting the writers now unless they are really big, hugely successful authors which is really silly because they are just as nice and just as normal as the rest of them. All the nerves do is get in the way and make me gabble like an idiot and make a complete fool of myself - like I then did while talking to Harlan Coben and Laura Lippman. I told Harlan that I knew about sixty women who were really jealous that I was meeting him and his reply was, "Are they hot?" Then I tried to get him to agree to have his portrait done but he said no, very nicely but no, at which point I wittered on pointlessly for five minutes longer...
I also met yet more people from the forum I frequent. One of them could not get up the nerve to approach Mark B and introduce herself, so I went and got him instead - no nerves left there...!
Then I really showed myself up on the way to Lee's talk. Stuart MacBride was coming the other way and the polite thing to say would have been, "Oh no! I had your book with me a moment ago but I have left it in my room. Would you be able to sign it for me later?" Instead I said, "Oh B%ll*c£s! I've left your f^c&!ng b^$t*rd book upstairs!" which made the people around us start laughing and him say, "Oh, that's nice!"
Lee Child's talk was great. After hearing his stories, I have decided never to get on the wrong side of him! I particularly liked his account of the moment he was fired, when he recited his firing speech along with the person firing him, having already hacked it and memorised it. Brilliant! His comment about having not just determination and desire but having desperation to be a successful writer also went deep. I've got the desperation! It's trying to use that, without being needy that is the trick... It's also fascinating to see how far he has come in only eleven years.
Then, another fun event hosted by Simon Brett, with Laura Lippman, Stuart MacBride (who had developed a strange obsession with cheese) and Mark Billingham and Stella Duffy playing various other characters. Stella does a great lush!
I met lots of new people this year and liked almost all of them. David Hewson was very interesting, as were Chris Brookmyre, Al Guthrie, Nick Stone, Michael Marshall and co.
I had a bit of an argument with the guy who has written the Diana conspiracy book about the lack of taste of doing such a book now when everything has pretty much been resolved. He said he hadn't watched the recent documentary that proves the paparazzi were not to blame and in the end to stop the conversation I said that I just don't like people banging on about it way after the fact because I used to know her and he said something along the lines of 'yes I knew her too - her sister was my best friend's cousin's friend...' at which point I started talking to Nick Stone.
We had another late night which turned into one of the funniest nights of my life. There were a bunch of us chatting in the bar. Much alcohol had been consumed. Someone from Penguin was showing how she could do the splits. Simon Kernick said he couldn't even touch his toes and then showed us. I showed surprise that he couldn't do it and he said, "Can you?" "Yes." "Prove it!" so I gave my drink to Kevin Wignall to hold and put my hands flat on the floor, then stood up again and retrieved my drink. Simon tried touching his toes again and Agent Phil and I started a conversation. I said that it wasn't really fair of me to ridicule Simon because my daughters and I all have a condition called hypermobility where we are naturally a bit more stretchy. Phil asked me if I was double-jointed and I showed him where I am double-jointed on my fingers which he then tried to copy. He was quite stretchy there too which led him to say, "I wonder if I could do the splits...".
Down he went, to within a few inches off the floor and it obviously really hurt but it looked so funny! The others hadn't noticed yet but I was crying! I tapped Kevin on the arm just as he took a swig of his drink and as he looked, he started choking on it. The others then realised what was happening and burst out laughing. Phil was crying out in pain but it was impossible to help him because it looked so funny. Eventually Simon and Kevin pulled him back up and he hobbled about while assessing the damage. Everyone was still giggling. Phil said to me, "I think I'll just have to keep to ape impressions as my only skill." "Ape impressions?" "Yes, I do a great monkey."
So I said, "Show me!"
(I've just realised that I am completely responsible for all Phil's injuries and embarrassment from that night - but I'll deny it in court!)
So anyway... Phil squatted, stuck his bum out, did something really bizarre with his shoulders by turning them in and became the shape of a silver-backed male gorilla. It was freaky and ridiculously funny. By this time we were all crying with laughter again - not the polite kind of laughing but the kind that involves snorting, doubling over and nearly losing control of your muscles while water squirts out of your eyes. Then off he went, leaping over couches, picking up objects with his fists...
Not two minutes later, a whole lot of people came into the bar again and couldn't understand what was wrong with us. We still couldn't speak without giggling.
I left the bar at 3.30am. Peter Guttridge and Richard Burke's crowd were still going strong...
Thursday 19th July
Creative Thursday was good. It started with me being delivered the most amazingly full breakfast tray I have ever seen, yet somehow I managed to polish off most of it.
As Chris and I waited for the first event to start, I saw Sandy (Canadian) and called her over. One of the nicest things about Harrogate is meeting up with people you have met before, while making new friends each year. Will I ever go there and know every person in the hotel? Sandy really impressed me by remembering the title of my novel, one whole year after I'd told her. That proves it - it's a good title!
Simon Kernick started the day, talking about plot and he did a really good job. It was all entertaining, particularly the moment when he told us "never listen to advice about writing, from anyone who isn't in the writing industry" and went on to tell us how his dad had suggested to him that he should say in his letter to an agent that he had finished the novel, when in fact he had only written the opening chapters. For the first time, Simon wasn't rejected and he had to pull a major sickie from work in order to write the rest of it!
After the talk, I went outside to top up my nicotine levels and instead of having one, I had two, which meant I missed the second talk starting, Greg Mosse's 'setting'. I used the time to go upstairs and unpack my bag. I had been trying to get them to move me to a room that faced outwards as this is the second year that I haven't had a view and as it is the only holiday I can afford each year (although now I'm self-employed, it counts as work and is tax-deductible) I feel I should get a room where I can at least see the sky and maybe a tree or two! But there were no rooms available, so I gave up - for this year.
I had lunch with Sonja in the dining-room. Nice as it was, the room doesn't compare with the one at the Old Swan. However the food is much nicer!
Laura Wilson's 'Inventing People' came next and was really enjoyable and useful. Someone had only been moaning to me earlier about not knowing their character and I had said that they needed to ask that character questions to make them clearer in her mind, like do they drink tea or coffee, what is their favourite food, do they have a brother or sister etc...so I felt very smug when we were given a list of questions to help us get to know our characters! One of the things she said was, "If you don't care about the character, you won't finish the book - if you are at party and the people there are horrible, you leave." I thought it was a great analogy. "No swipage at ex-husbands and nasty teachers" was a good bit of advice too, and I liked the Emmerson quote:
"We have as many personalities as we have friends."
Natasha Cooper's talk on writing was wonderful - to use variations on 'The cat sat on the mat' was a great idea. She also gave some advice which I thought was positively brilliant. I've been writing my novel for so many years now and the end part is so much better than the beginning, despite much editing, because I am a better writer now than I was then.She said that when you finish the book, rewrite the first chapter again without rereading it. It was one of those Eureka! moments where I realised what I had to do to fix the last troubling bit. Natasha also surprised me by referring to our conversation from the previous day and something I'd said about keeping on going until I've got that first draft next time, rather than stopping to edit as I go.
It was a good thing she did because it meant Daryl (from a forum I visit) was able to work out who I was and approached me, just as I was asking people "Have you seen a tall Australian anywhere?".We went outside for a chat and it was great to find that he was a) really nice and b) normal! You never know with people you meet on the internet and it is a relief when their screen persona is the same as their real persona. Of course, there is an added difficulty; not only do you have to put the face to the name but then you have to learn an entirely new name for them!
On our way back inside, someone shouted, "Sarah!" and I had just had enough time to say hello to my Irish friend Chel and introduce Daryl before rushing back in for the final talk 'Selling' with Jane Gregory and Hilary Hale. They did a great point by point 'what happens next' scenario so we understood the entire process from start to finish. Then they explained how few people make it, how many submissions they get etc which was all potentially depressing but I think I must be really arrogant because I am so sure I am going to make it. I'm not really entertaining the idea of failure. There was a guy who was sitting at the front who had asked questions in every talk. His questions took the 'paint by numbers' approach and I could tell he was nowhere near publication standard yet - he didn't seem to have any idea about his own voice or having his own story or a need to tell it. He was too damned methodical. I asked a question right at the end, saying that given the poor chances of publication and the competition etc did they still profoundly believe that a good novel would always find a publisher? Sandy behind me called out, "Good question!" Both Jane and Hilary were nodding. Jane said yes and Hilary said, "More than that, I believe it will sell." I like that idea. It puts the onus back on the writer, rather than fate.
We hit the bar when we came out and I decided I would be drinking white wine, which ended up being a huge mistake. I didn't want all the downsides of my usual tipple of red wine. It gives me a purple ring around my lips and Queen Mother teeth. I had a brief argument with Agent Phil about whether or not he'd had facial hair the year before and then I went for an early dinner with Chel and Betty which was delicious.
We came back for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award to cheer on Stuart MacBride (also a member of the same forum).
The interviews with all of them were very funny and there was a lot of "moving swiftly on"s from Daphne! Then the winner was announced. Al Guthrie. The colour drained from his face and he started swallowing a lot while he received huge applause and all the women in the audience went "Awwwwwwww! Bless him!" Everyone wanted to give him a cuddle! While he was doing his thankyou speech, his eyes appeared to be leaking and he had exactly the same expression on his face as Val McDermid had the year before.
Then it was the Festival Party and I must admit, I don't remember an awful lot about that so I think it is possible that I might have been a tad drunk by that time. What I do remember is being outside and talking to Al Guthrie for a while and Sandy calling Chris Brookmyre over with such confidence that I said, "Do you know him?" "No!" He still seemed happy to come over and talk to us, not trying to escape at the first opportunity, so hopefully we weren't too boring. And we liked the black kilt! I quite fancy painting Chris but I never quite got around to taking the photos of him. The evening degenerated into utter silliness while I was standing outside with Al, Chris, Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham, Agent Phil, Paul Blezard and a few others; I seemed to be in a playground with a bunch of nipple-flicking twelve-year-olds playing 'slapsies' and calling each other 'flids' and 'spaz', listening to them wonder if their name-calling would look good as blurbs on their novels. It got more and more ridiculous until finally Paul Blezard stepped back and said, "The creme de la creme of British Crime Writers!" and everyone got the giggles too much to carry on.
At 1.30am when most people had gone to bed, Chel and I made our way to the lift but were called back by Simon Kernick, Paul Blezard and Adina. We ended up drinking until 3am so were the last to leave the bar.
I went to the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime-writing Festival in Harrogate with only two goals:
1) To come back with some work that I want to produce, so I don't have to spend the next year painting from baby photographs and schmoozing corporate clients.
2) To remain fairly sober so I didn't end up making a thorough tit of myself like the last time, when I managed to collide with Ian Rankin in a dining-room doorway, nearly wipe out the Baroness as I walked across the entrance hall, hit agent Jane Gregory in the chest with my bag, twice, and nearly knock Mark Billingham out with my bag as I left the train, chewing-gum connecting my backside to the seat I had left far behind. I think I had also terrified Paul Johnston, pinning him to a wall and firing questions at him. I remember none of the answers. This year was going to be different...
Wednesday 18th July
I set off straight after the school run, hauling the biggest bag in the world which was ironically called a 'Light Pack'. I had at least 20 hardback books in there, plus a framed piece of artwork and about 20 mounted prints. I'd also somehow managed to fit some clothes in. If that bag weighed less than five stone, I'd be surprised. Somehow I managed to get across London with it and onto the train to York which was unexpectedly empty. I sat with a frenchman and a very gorgeous guy from Newcastle who was reading a Lee Child novel. I told him that Lee was going to be in Harrogate this weekend and there might still be tickets so before long he was on his mobile, telling his girlfriend about it. Luck was on my side for the entire journey and I never had to wait for any of my connections so arrived at Harrogate only six hours after leaving North Kent which was about my limit for how long I could go without a cigarette. Stupid non-smoking London stations grumblegrumblegrumblegrumble...
The Crown Hotel was beautiful and as my taxi pulled into the entrance, the manager greeted me, helping me out of the cab and calling someone to take my enormous bag for me.
They didn't do that at the Old Swan last year!
In my room I cranked on the telly, only to find Richard Madeley waxing lyrical about Simon Kernick's book Relentless. When I went back downstairs, I told Simon and he said that the book is currently no. 3 in the Bestseller charts, thanks to Richard and Judy.
There were still only a few people in the bar and I started talking with Daphne/Natasha Cooper and Jane Gregory, mainly about writing. It was all very interesting - I love any advice as to how 'the business' works. It all increases my chances of getting somewhere, I hope. Ever so casually, Jane said, "Well you could always send your novel to us." and then she and Daphne started listing all the people she represents. It was a great start to the Festival! That's three agents interested now...
Then I met Sonja who had come all the way from Greece and also ran into Chris the playwright farmer from Wales so we spent a fair while catching up. It was all great.
I went to bed fairly early because I knew what little sleep I would have during the rest of the week but you can never get enough sleep in advance to prepare for Harrogate...
Tomorrow I am off to Harrogate for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.
I am hoping to persuade three or four of the writers there who I have wanted to paint for a while, to let me do their portraits. If I am successful, I will have work for the next year and can breathe easy.
If I am unsuccessful, I will come back home to no work, no income, abject failure, financial ruin, lose my studio and my self-confidence until finally I am reprieved by sweet death...
No pressure then.
I quite like my many conversations with the tax office today.
I started out talking to the tax credits people who said that I needed to officially tell the tax office that I am self-employed.Then I spoke to the tax office people (and a real arrogant jobsworth) who said that in order to work out when my start date of self-employment was, I needed to speak to a status inspector who would clarify things for me.
Then I rang the status inspector who clarified things for me. His exact words were "Whenever you like!"
I then rang back the tax office with my start date - basically when I started working a full working week but again with the info that at the moment I am making a loss. I was told I would get a penalty for not registering within three months of starting, but that as I hadn't made any profits, if I appealed I would probably not get fined.
Then I rang back the tax credits woman with all the info and she said that I would still get credits and that next year my losses will be offset against my husband's earnings so we will be better off. Then she asked for a rough estimate of how much I thought my losses might be. I said, "Ooh thousands!" and she lost it - started laughing at me down the phone! She could barely speak for laughing. Then she got even worse after she had said, "So even if you make a loss each year..." I had said "…hopefully a big one…" she lost it even more! Eventually she managed to say, "Well if you should ever start earning anything, give us a call and let us know of the changes." and I don't think she could get me off the phone quickly enough, she was laughing so hard! How unprofessional!!
So I am now officially self-employed!
And the daft thing is that as a working person earning less than nothing, I am worth more than a housewife earning nothing.
While I was preparing for the exhibition, I really thought that the entire learning process would be in the preparation and lead up to it. I did not expect to learn anything during the two weeks we were there but I learned so much.
First, was learning to become relaxed about people looking at my work and becoming able to talk about it to them. I think I was probably the worst of the three of us at that. Clare is used to doing it, Tina was incredibly nervous about it until the day of the private view when she suddenly became this focused, efficient, articulate, confident person who then remained for the rest of the exhibition! It was wonderful to witness - a chrysalis to butterfly moment, but left me feeling like the inarticulate one.
However, somehow we all managed it and it soon became evident that we all attracted different types of people. Clare's art attracted mainly the cool, slightly hippy people and her bright colours appealed to everyone. For a while, Tina seemed to mainly be attracting psychologists, sociologists and healers or people recovering from depression! Mine attracted traditionalists, other artists and art students which was great but the reaction I got from them was that they were inspired by something I had done to go home and try a different medium or try and replicate the style of something I had done, which meant a lot of my artwork came home with me!
We also discovered that I attract the strange people - the oddly eccentric people who you might consider crossing the road to avoid! I don't know what it is about me. The other girls commented on it. At one point we saw one particular person approaching who had spent a good couple of hours talking to us (the captive audience) the previous week. I stood up to run off and get coffees, planning to leave this person to Tina but I found I couldn't move - Tina was hanging on to my clothes! A scuffle ensued...
The thing that surprised me, was that I was able to become clearer about my own work. When I first hung it, Clare commented that all my paintings have a dark side to them. This is also true of my writing and my personality. It was bizarre to see it up there. Only when all the work was hanging together could I see it for myself. I'd painted an experimental painting of seagulls against a blue swirling sky - possibly reflected in water. I had many people tell me that they would buy that painting if it wasn't for the dark gull in the corner, which scared them. We also had classes of schoolchildren visit the exhibition and apparently (when Tina and I hadn't yet arrived one morning) a bunch of school children were saying to each other, "Did you see the bad gull? Did you see the evil one?" Of course these comments made me consider painting over it, but then I thought that would be fake and commercially-led. I painted it that way for a reason, so let it stay.
Tina found when she delivered some of her paintings, that the people she had sold her artwork to lived in houses that she loved and had the same taste as her. She could see her paintings would be at home in their houses. We realised that it isn't so much about finding the right painting for that person as it is about finding the right person for the painting. There is someone out there who has the same dark side as me, who will be drawn to that painting as it is; that person will be the right person to buy the painting.
The first time I sold a painting to a stranger was a big deal to me. This wasn't someone who was buying something because they were a friend or because they wanted to support me. This was someone who had fallen in love with my artwork. I felt very warmly towards them!
My 'safety' paintings, (one's I produced that I thought would be crowd pleasers) did not sell so now I feel justified in sticking to the paintings I love - the detailed portraits. My future lies with commissions whereas Tina and Clare are more dependant on exhibitions.
I really enjoyed people-watching. I always do. Our only complaint was that we couldn't secrete microphones in the walls so we could listen to what people were saying about our work. We strained our ears and sometimes picked up lovely comments, but generally we couldn't hear enough!
I was quite moved by the woman - either a mother or a child-minder - with the two under three year olds who stood in front of my Key in the Door painting discussing it for a good fifteen minutes. "What do you think it is about?" "How do you think she is feeling?" "What would you do, if you felt like that?" It was wonderful. I was so impressed with her. I would love her to look after my kids.
People made me laugh too. A woman in a wheelchair came in who was obviously interested in art. However her partner, who was pushing the wheelchair obviously wasn't. They circled the entire room in under ten seconds with her pointing at my work as she whizzed past, saying, "I like that one..."!
However, the best conversation of the whole two weeks was with Bridget from Canterbury. She came in, the weight of the world on her shoulders and we talked for a long time. She left, unable to wipe a huge grin off her face, inspired and hopeful. I felt that whole exhibition was worth it, just for that one conversation and the uplifting effect of art. It reminded me of the importance of what we do - something that by its nature seems to be a little self-indulgent when we're in the process of creating it.
The award for funniest conversation goes to the lovely older couple who stopped and talked to Tina and me and started analysing our work. The man was doing an art course and said that his tutor would go mad over Clare's work as a perfect illustration of someone discovering their sexual self. He said that in her work there was a strong labial representation. He was extremely complimentary about my work and I asked him what his art tutor would make of my work. He said that I was spiritual and aspirational, a deep thinker, shooting for a dream, always climbing higher. (I think this was mostly based on my seagull painting.) Tina said, "Do me! Do me!" and he told her that she was very grounded, connected to the earth and that family was important to her. The strange thing was that he had me and Tina spot on, so now we don't know what to think about Clare. Is he right about her?! It was fascinating. Then he carried on talking about Clare's labia until his wife finally said, "Come along dear. Let's go and get you some fresh air!" I loved them! I could spend a lot more time talking to them. We told Clare about it when she came back and she said, "I'm glad I wasn't here!"
The strangest thing about doing this has come to my attention since I have visited the big galleries in London. I find I am looking at art differently. I have a strange sense of kinship with the artists in there. The painting I am looking at is just another painting by someone like me. I didn't expect to feel that way, not even when I walked in the gallery door and it feels really arrogant. Yet when I talked to Clare, she had the same sensation too when she visited the big London galleries.
We are real artists now, not playing anymore. We have every right to call ourselves artists.
Well it is official - I am slightly late with my blog - by two months. Apologies! I intend to get everyone up to date over a series of blog entries.
The exhibition is over and the whole thing has been exhausting, but a wonderful learning experience. I cannot quite explain how mad it was trying to get everything done in time. The invitations went out and various things were organised. It felt as if I was spending my entire life on Photoshop sorting out publicity blurbs, the press release, advertising, information sheets for people to take away with them...all the time not knowing if our estimates for how many we needed were too many or too little. Then I had to sort out my personal publicity; I'm part of an Open Studios event at the NAC in June, so had to print something up for that too.
All the frames were eventually made; the Ian Rankin frame was fixed on, the day before the exhibition, despite the painting still not having been finished and I had to carry on painting with it fully framed. I had to repair ones that I had made badly which were beginning to split at the corners. Mirror hinges needed spraying and I ran out of paint halfway through. I had to go to the printers for my own individual prints...it was non-stop. I had to buy so many more rolls of bubble wrap than I had thought I would use. I'd estimated that I needed one or maybe two, but because of the size of some of my paintings, I ended up buying five rolls. The expense has been worrying. By the day of the private view, I only had three pounds left in my bank account - not even enough to get to Whitstable the following day!
Somehow it all came together and with a neighbour babysitting the children, my husband and I managed to fit all the artwork in a borrowed Volvo. The Ian Rankin portrait only just squeezed in there with less than 2mm to spare. If I had put the mirror plates on there, it wouldn't have gone in.
My artwork and I stayed at Clare's overnight and the next morning after a bit of stressing, we successfully managed to get it all to the gallery.
All through the preparation for the exhibition, our biggest concern has been that there would not be enough work to fit in the Horsebridge Centre. As we brought in the work, it soon became evident that we had too much! We had propped work against the walls all the way around and then were piling up artwork in front. We were astounded. Each of us on our own could probably have filled the space quite satisfactorily. A long time ago Clare had said that she would like us to have artwork filling the walls with some hung high and some hung low and I had thought "Yeah, right!" but it had come true. When we had booked, I had set myself the target of having eight paintings completed for the exhibition; by the time we were there, I had thirty-one. The other two artists had produced about the same.
We had expected to spend hours deciding what went where but choosing where everything would go probably took me less than twenty minutes. We spent eight hours hanging everything with the help of Tina's husband Gary and Clare's dad. The guy in Gallery 2, Graham Miles (whose photos are great) was having a private view at and we finished hanging our work with only fifteen minutes to spare.
All the time we were hanging the work, people were coming in and wandering around, looking at it, despite most of it not being on the walls. It was something I had been nervous about, but I was so busy that it was a nice way to get used to having an audience, without being overly concerned about it.
The next couple of days leading up to our own private view on the Saturday were eye-opening. The gallery was rarely empty and it was fascinating to people-watch on a grand scale, see what people were drawn to, who liked what and try and eavesdrop on the comments made. I did not expect the exhibition itself to be such a learning experience. I'd thought I would just be sitting there with a book but there really wasn't time. We felt a bit on show, sitting in the centre of the room; we should have had a cage around us and a sign that said, "Do not feed the artists." People would come up and talk to us, discuss our work with us etc and the comments were fascinating, but more about that later. For the moment I will just say that there seemed to be a bit of a buzz going on about our exhibition. People kept telling us that it was the best exhibition that had been there for years and one dear old lady was reduced to tears, saying "It's all so spiritual!"
I don't think she was suffering from dementia...
Tina and I arrived, dressed for the Private View on the Saturday mid-morning, giving Clare time to go off and change and collect the drinks and glasses etc. My eldest daughter had been inconsolable before I had left as she had developed a temperature and was devastated that she was going to miss everything. Of course, this meant that my husband and youngest daughter couldn't come either. She had particularly wanted to meet Mark Billingham as she is a big fan of 'Maid Marian and her Merry Men' and was sobbing, "This is the wo-or-or-orst d-d-day of m-my li-life." I told her I would get some photos of him for her.
In the morning, Tina sold her first painting (first of many) and it put her on a real high. It was lovely to see her confidence blossoming and the way that she was able to go up to strangers and start talking to them about her work - one of the things she had been most afraid of doing when we were preparing for the exhibition.
People started showing up just after one, as well as the general public milling through. There were rarely less than twelve people in the gallery at any one time throughout the morning. Then Clare and her husband Jim turned up with everything and we hurriedly set up all the glasses and poured out all the champagne and wine etc. There was a constant stream of people walking down the road heading straight for the gallery and at one point I think we had roughly about 150 people in there. People I hadn't seen for nearly a decade showed up which was great but I was still more concerned about what Mark would think of his portrait. The girls and I had discussed that the whole event was most similar to a wedding - a year and a half to prepare, invitations, drinks and then the big day...the nerves were probably about the same.
Then Mark and his family arrived. His eyes immediately sought out the painting and even while he was saying hello, he couldn't take his eyes off it. He strode over to the portrait, his family not far behind. There were so many people to talk to and whichever way I turned there was someone else standing there wanting to talk to me, which was great, but I was still trying to see how Mark was reacting to his painting - hard to tell from the back of someone's head! It must be so strange to go somewhere and have a larger than life painted image of you on the wall there. I've never been that end of the process - I have painted myself, mainly because as models go, I charge myself very reasonable rates, but to see how someone else has interpreted you must be really odd.
I couldn't bear it any longer, so I joined them. They were still analysing it. Mark said, "I look really grumpy." His wife Claire said, "You are grumpy!" "No, I'm smiley - look!" he said, pointing at his own face while smiling! We stood discussing it for a while. Claire was impressed with the eyes. When your subject's wife says you have their eyes right, that is huge praise, I think! I told her it was the thirtieth version of his eyes - I must have reworked them more than any other part of the painting. We discussed Mark's face and the problems of drawing things that aren't quite symmetrical without making it look as if the artist can't draw. I'm still not entirely happy with the eyes - they aren't large enough - but there comes a point where you realise it is probably as close as you are going to get and you have to let go of the painting. Mark said, "You've made me more handsome." He then gave me a sharp look and I didn't know whether to agree or disagree! I said nothing! I don't think I've flattered him at all in that portrait, although Andy Hayes used to tell me that he looked healthier in my painting than he did in the photos I had of him. I had an email a couple of days ago from Kevin Wignall who said that the portrait was unflattering in a Lucien Freud sort of way so if that is anything to go by, I'd say that no, I haven't made him more handsome.
The funny thing was that usually when Mark has a conversation with a person, he gives them his full attention, lots of eye contact and is quite relaxed, but he could not seem to look away from the painting for more than a few seconds at a time - he was almost twitchy. When I had to go and talk to some other people again, I would glance over to see what he was up to and he was always looking at the painting, regardless of where he was in the room. He started to go around looking at the other artwork, but I don't think he ever made it more than three metres away before he had to return to his portrait. After three months of my hard work, it was very gratifying.
A man I had never met before, Andy, who has kindly supplied his photos of the private view (see Behind the Scenes - Mixed Emotions page) came over and started telling me how much he liked the painting and how lifelike it was. Mark was still standing next to me so I said, "Not as lifelike as him!" and Andy said, "Oh is that him? No, your painting is more lifelike!" It made me giggle inside!
I really enjoyed the afternoon and met some great people, had some wonderful comments, including those from some old school friends who have known me for so long and reminded me that I had wanted to paint and exhibit my work when I was barely thirteen! I don't remember ever saying that but they all reminded me of it. The only things I remember were some disastrous paintings at school that were so bad I tore them up at the end of term and put them in the big bins near the main entrance. I remember trying to paint a hot air balloon and doing it so badly, trying to get the edges right that the balloon grew and grew on the page until the entire painting was just one colour. I also remember painting a man's eye so badly that in the end I put an eye-patch on him to hide it! These were the paintings I tore up and threw away and they were the same paintings that my 'friends' pulled back out of the bins and chased me around the school with, waving my mistakes at me! It was nice to have them at the exhibition - no eye patches in sight - I just wish there had been more time to talk to them.
A bundle of people from the NAC also turned up to support me, which I appreciated a lot.
When a group of people had left me, Mark said, "Well - you've made a sale."
I was delighted. He and his wife were so enthusiastic about the painting - anyone could tell they genuinely loved it and that they were not just being polite! They are prepared to wait until after the National Portrait Awards for it, even if it gets into the top 50 and goes on tour for a year (which I think is unlikely - there will be at least 10,000 entries this year, I think). They both were suggesting names of people I should paint next. I have my hit list and Mark has said he will give testimonials if ever they are needed.
Before they left, Mark posed with his painting for me and recorded a message for my kids that worked a treat - cheered them both right up!
Eventually the crowd thinned out, all our friends said their goodbyes, as did many welcome strangers. The girls and I had a bit of a collapse and surveyed the damage! When we had put out the glasses at the start, there had seemed to be too many by far and we had been worried that we would have a poor turnout and have lots of alcohol just left there or alternatively that we would run out of alcohol, but it was just right; all the glasses had been used except for about three of each type of drink (except the champagne) and we each had some alcohol left over to take home with us. We all went our separate ways, resolving to have our girly evening out to discuss everything after the exhibition had finished. We were too tired to do it that night as originally planned and needed time to process everything...
I went off with the NAC crowd and had a couple of drinks in the pub next door, then sausage and chips on the beach. We then went back to Medway and off to a pub in
It was a good day!
I am no longer convinced that I have time to get everything done. I think I probably will, but the doubt is in there, stirring at me, ruining my concentration and this week the panic attacks kicked in again.
I've bought the wood for my picture frames and am attempting to make them myself - which is just hilarious. I've learned that the 3mm margin for error that my husband was telling me about is necessary after all. Everything is a bit trial and error at the moment, but I think I am capable of doing it and will solve the wood splitting problem with my next attempt. I haven't even started the sanding and gluing and varnishing part so there is still plenty of opportunity for me to mess things up, but I have a good supply of wood so I should be okay.
I think that once I have all the existing paintings framed, then I won't be so worried about having everything ready in time. I will be able to concentrate on the Ian Rankin painting properly and although I only (because of school holidays) really have about three weeks of painting time left - at only three hours a day - I should be able to complete it in time.
The publicity information has been sent off to all the necessary people and I have had a few responses - mainly because I have discovered that if you send an email with an attachment and then press the back button to go back to that email and change the address and alter the covering letter, when you send that email out, the attachment doesn't go with it, so I had to do all of that twice.
We even managed to mess up our printing. All three of us checked over everything to be printed and not one of us noticed that on the posters, Tina was listed under her married name, not her artist's name, so they have all had to be reprinted. More money.
We still have to send out the invitations and give out all the other publicity blurb stuff, and Clare and Tina have to sort out their websites so that we can get the last of our publicity info printed.
All this means that I have had no time to work on the novel and I think I just have to accept that I can't go near that again until March - it will give me something to do while I am sitting in the gallery for those two weeks. If I get any evening time to do it, I will try, but any evenings when my husband is home early enough for me to work are being used up at the studio. I have to grab every minute.
I have also sent off my application to enter the BP National Portrait Award.
I must admit that I am looking forward to the Private View, because from that moment on, I will be able to breathe deeply, relax, regroup and have a well-earned rest!
I've been a bit of a computer geek this week. As the only one out of the three of us to have photoshop on their computer, I've been sorting out the invitations and the press release and our publicity bumph for the exhibition. It all takes time.
I've also been panicking about the amount of things left to do and the tiny amount of money I have in my account. I still have to pay studio rent and have just upped my membership level at the SAA so that I can have their third party public liability insurance in place before the exhibition. I've had to pay for my entry to the BP National Portrait Award 2007 and I still have to buy wood for frames, and mirror plates to attach the artwork to the walls.
But my biggest panic was when I well and truly messed up the Mark Billingham portrait. I went back into it to sort out the previously mentioned problems (see 'The End' for details) and after reworking the shape of the eyes, mouth and shoulder successfully, I managed to balls everything up completely. I darkened his eyes to try and make them more like his real eye colour and it threw out the whole painting but being a bit dense, I didn't realise that was the problem and started attacking the rest of the painting. He began to look a bit jaundiced, so I tried putting colour into his face and his mouth which resulted in him looking like a transvestite. It just kept getting worse and worse and the painting must be an inch thick in places, but today I have managed to repair it and it is a much stronger painting for the extra work. I'm quite pleased with it. He still looks a little bit swarthy but I'm not messing with it ever again! I'm learning from my mistakes and have resolved to make sure I get the skin colour correct for the Ian Rankin painting - more pink and less yellow.
I am now quite happy to enter Mark's portrait into that competition and more importantly, happy for him to come and view it. The expression in the painting is very intense - somewhere between aggression and sadness- but it makes it striking and grabs people's attention.
I only hope that he likes it.
I'm late with my blog this week. Life is hectic, and that is without all the extra non-arty things that have happened - like my five year old swallowing a ball-bearing and having to go to casualty...
This week, Clare, Tina and I had another meeting to sort out invitations, posters, advertising and anything publicity-related. Clare brought along some samples of our invitations and some brochures from the Horsebridge Centre which now contain the publicity for our exhibition.
It's so exciting! It is suddenly all becoming real. There we are in print and the invitations look pretty good too.
We sorted out everything and then even managed to decide who has which bit of space in the gallery for our work which had the potential to be a bit of a flashpoint as two of us wanted the same wall. (Thanks for letting me have it!)
However, now that we are closer to the exhibition, differences in what we want to do are becoming more noticeable. A good six months ago, some artists who Tina knows were asking her how many people were in her exhibition with her and when she said that it was three of us in total, there were knowing looks and grimaces, suggesting that it wouldn't be an easy ride. Then one had asked whether or not we had argued yet, which we thought was laughable - after all, we are all friends!
The thing is, now that it is all happening we can see it and things that were just vague theories before are becoming important to us. We all know what we want for our exhibition and they aren't necessarily the same thing. Because it involves our work and we are passionate about it, we are less willing to let something slide. We have been working towards this exhibition for over a year and when you've done that, you don't want to just shrug and say "Okay, yeah whatever..."
We are all friends and have managed to work through everything so far, but with 54 days to go who knows what other unexpected stresses will come our way. Will we fight over finger food? Will we whine about wine?
If you see three women on Whitstable beach in a month hauling each other around by the hair, it probably won't be us.
But it might be!
It's that time of year again and this year more than ever before, I am determined to change my life. I think there might even be a chance of keeping my resolutions this time.
Last year changed my attitude and my approach to life and moved me into a much better situation, with my own studio and artistic people around me. I've even sold one piece of work and had interest expressed about others. I've had three people ask if they can commission work in the last week alone...I am hoping this all bodes well for next year.
(By the way Clare, I'll need you to pick up my artwork for me and transport it to the gallery in your van...thanks hon!)
And have my shower fixed.
And the kitchen rebuilt.
It's time to sort myself out. I'm 38. I want to be financially stable, fit and healthy, confident and successful before I am 40.
There comes a moment when you know a painting is finished and ready to go - sometimes you hang it on a wall for a bit in case something jumps out at you and needs changing but most of the time you know it is finished.
Unless you do something stupid like look at it in a mirror.
I knew the Mark Billingham portrait was finished. I was pleased with it. People loved it. Everything seemed great. I was even filling out my application to enter the BP Portrait Awards with it. I was used to the proportions and nothing jumped out at me as being wrong until I looked at it in a mirror yesterday and saw a distorted, uneven-eyed, twisted-faced, distorted-backed freak. I expected him to start saying "Esmerelda...the bells, the bells..."
My friends say "Yes, but how often will you look at it in the mirror?" which isn't the point! The point is that by using a mirror, you see the painting you are used to with a fresh critical eye and the mistakes jump out at you. By God there are mistakes! I can't believe I was going to put that out in public. I can fix it, I am sure and it will be a much better painting for it but it is very frustrating to only realise the problem now.
Other friends said, "But is it just that you are used to looking at Mark that way round and so he looks wrong back-to-front?"
I am pretty sure that when I met Mark Billingham for the first time last July, my first impression of him was not of someone who belonged in a circus. I don't remember thinking, 'Dear Heaven that man is ugly!'
The strange thing is that despite knowing all this, it still looks okay to me when I look at it the right way round, yet I know I am being deluded.
From now on I will always work using the mirror too.
Yesterday afternoon, having realised my mistake, I was in a very bad mood. I wanted to start fixing it immediately but knew there would not be time to sort it all out that night. I had taken my laptop down to the studio with a plan to work on my novel so I tried to put my irritation to one side and concentrate on the book. I needed to have a successful day to combat my feelings of irritation about the painting.
I became so involved in the writing that I forgot to eat, took relatively few cigarette breaks and produced more work in one night than I have ever produced before. I worked through the night, intent on not interrupting my final scene because I was scared of messing up the pace of it if I stopped and came back to it another day. The buzz hit me - the excitement of being so close to the end was great and eventually at 6.30am this morning (Christmas Eve) I typed the words 'THE END' to a novel that has taken me eight years to write, on-and-off. I was a bit teary as I typed and it was a really meaningful moment. I am still on a high from it, despite the kids having some sort of vomiting virus today...
I still have some work to do on it but not too much as it has been heavily edited and rewritten already and I am hoping to send it off to the first of the interested agents by mid January.
As Paula at the studios said, "Just don't do anything stupid like look at it in a mirror."
I have a love/hate relationship with school holidays. I love not having to get up at 5.30 in the morning, just to keep on top of everything and get two unmotivated children to school on time. I hate having no time to myself to work. I have more time to clean the house, but do it less effectively because there are two children behind me messing faster than I can clean - it's like painting the
Yesterday I took the kids to the studio with me, thinking I would be unlikely to get much done, but I might at least be able to finish off a seagull. It wasn't the main reason for going there - we knew Andy's daughter would be there and I wanted to see her and give her mum my contact details, and also hoped that she and my eldest would hit it off. They did, which was great so then I had three children in my studio...before long I had five girls in there with me, aged 5, 6, 8,9 and 9! Then the excitement level gradually turned up and before you could say 'Adult Protection Unit', the air was filled with flying play-dough.
We have a few things planned during the Christmas Holidays: visits with friends, pantos, sleepovers etc but what is worrying me is the time factor.
FACT 1 - I have to finish my novel before the end of the
FACT 2 - I have four paintings to finish before the end of the
Christmas holiday so that in the New Year I only
have to worry about the Ian Rankin portrait.
FACT 3 - I have to get on top of the housework.
FACT 4 - We have no money for Christmas as my cheque
for the Harrogate Festival went astray and hubby
had to use the last of his money to pay for that fast.
I have written him a cheque which will clear on
Christmas Eve if we are lucky (because banks
apparently need even more time now to process
cheques despite being able to see instantly if the
money will go through...) So no food, no presents,
no nothing. Thanks heavens Father Christmas is
definitely coming this year.
FACT 5 - We need to get our publicity info, invitations,
mailing list, business cards etc. pretty much
ready to go by the first week in January. Eek!
FACT 6 - They need printing and my
designer/printer/specialratesforfriends guy is in
FACT 7 - I need money to pay for all the above - and my
FACT 8 - I need to frame my work, have no money
blah blah blah...
FACT 9 - I haven't even done my Christmas cards yet!
There's more but I would get too stressed if I even began to think about it all!
This would be a lot to sort out even if I was childless and had the headspace to deal with it.
The plan is to plod my way through it all, go to the studio late at night when hubby gets home and work through until the small hours - the kids don't usually start fighting until mid-morning, so hopefully I will be able to get a bit of a lie-in! Somehow it will all be done.
It won't always be this difficult, will it?
It seemed very simple when I started writing my novel and short stories; I would use two different names. I would remain as Sarah Langstone when producing artwork, to keep continuity with my earlier work and I would use my married name, Sarah Higgins for my writing. Easy.
No, not easy. You see, I never really thought further than signing my name and being written about in a newspaper article - Sarah Higgins takes the Booker for example. I might even have considered payment and directing people to write cheques to the Higgins version of me but that was as far as I had travelled down that particular avenue.
Now I am beginning to have problems. I'm at the studios and meeting a lot of new people - do I introduce myself as Sarah Higgins or Sarah Langstone? The same goes for all the networking meetings. What is the point of giving people my real name for them then to see my work somewhere and not realise it is me? And what about databases? I had to fill in a form online the other day for the BP National Portrait awards for them to send me information about entering next year. Which name do I use? If there is room, I can put 'Sarah Higgins working as Sarah Langstone' but there rarely is room. Once I start earning I am going to have to register myself self-employed with the tax people. What do I give them as my company name? I write and I paint using two different names. I am beginning to live a schizophrenic existence and don't have a clue how to do it. Did I mention that I do cartoons and caricatures using a third name - 'Slang'?
And what about the blog situation? At some point I am going to put together a writing site so should I have a separate blog there or should I provide a link to this page and make this my art and writing blog page?
There is another side to this as well; a slightly Shirley Valentine quality to the name thing. You see, Sarah Higgins has kids and is married. Sarah Higgins is a bit of a drudge, to be honest. Sarah Higgins gets stressed and shouldn't be on the computer now because she has a pile of ironing waiting for her that is almost as tall as she is. Sarah Higgins knows that there is a pool of garlic dip sauce dripping from the bin bag in the kitchen onto the floor that needs clearing up. But Sarah Langstone has her own room in a whole other place! Sarah Langstone is free. Sarah Langstone is creative just for the sake of it and has a whole bunch of new friends that feed her soul and make her enjoy life a lot. Sarah Langstone isn't bothering to clear up the sauce because she is busy on the computer in a creative-related way.
I can't abandon the Sarah Langstone part of me and absorb her into Sarah Higgins because it just doesn't seem to work that way. Since getting the studio and freeing myself from the house and all the "I must just load the dishwasher/load the washing machine/empty the dryer/hoover/make the beds" side of things, my work has improved tenfold. So both tags have to stay, and as I have already begun to make a bit of a name for myself with writing as Sarah Higgins, I can't change that either.
I have to find a way to make this work because the wishy-washy way I introduce myself at the moment is embarrassing. It is hard enough for people to remember one name, but two? I can see them switching off as I try and explain it. It is easy when I introduce myself to writers as my real name - not a problem. But with the artists, I don't quite yet feel confident enough to say Sarah Langstone and leave it like that. I feel as if I am denying the existence of my children and my husband.
Add to that the many other names I have: a school nickname, a college nickname, an adapted school nickname for the children of one of my schoolfriends...writing Christmas cards can become very confusing.
Maybe I should ask people who have already done it.
Do you know anyone?!
I needed 'The Artists' Way' to give me the major kick up the backside to get me going. I'd had plenty of encouragement before that but had never picked up a pen and written all the positive comments down on a couple of pages of A4 before. For a while they were pinned up in my study to help me keep going when all the negative thoughts came rushing in. Gradually I found that I didn't need that list anymore because positive thinking became a major part of my life and also because I was receiving more encouragement from people around me on a daily basis. The guestbook on here has given me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling!
The single most useful thing that I did was to move to the New Art Centre studios. The constant mix of experience and advice there has been of the greatest benefit to me. On my first day there, I heard a voice outside my room say loudly, "Looks like Jane is having a bit of a clearout!"
I poked my head out of the door and said, "Jane's moved to a bigger studio. I'm Sarah." The guy out on the landing came in and introduced himself as Andy and from that day on became one of my biggest supporters. Rarely a day went by without him coming in and looking at what I was up to, singing my praises, telling me that I was talented, forcing his missus to come in and look at what I was up to. He and Hilary Halpern (who set up the studios and the Foundation that supports us all) were my two most constant visitors. Andy would often have his young daughter with him who would go and sit in Hilary's studio making beautiful things out of clay while Andy worked. Andy made models so I knew we would get on. I have friends who are modelmakers, I've lived with modelmakers. My husband is a modelmaker!
Over the last few months Andy and I became good friends and learned a fair bit about each other's personal lives too. He was quite affected by my 'Key in the door' painting, telling me how it related to someone in his life and that the painting made him feel really sad. And while obviously I felt sympathetic to him, the artist side of me was thinking "YES! Result!" Being Andy, he laughed when I told him.
If I praised his work his head would go down and he would look embarrassed and awkward - he could give it but he couldn't take it!
He loved the Mark Billingham portrait most of all and was in every day, sometimes two or three times to see how it was progressing. All the time I had his encouragement and confidence in my abilities. I missed it in the week when he wasn't around, just before I was away for a week with sick kids. Hilary told me that Andy was having a few problems and was in the hospital but didn't want visitors. I was confident that he would be fit and well soon, because the last time I had seen him he had seemed well enough so I thought, "How ill can he be?"
Andy Hayes died yesterday.
I'm sure I will have many more people keen to encourage me but I doubt if anyone will ever be as good at it as Andy. He was a lovely man and I will miss him every day.
My husband delights in telling me things that make me panic. He says it is unintentional but I am not convinced; I am sure he tortured bugs when he was a boy. Last weekend in an oh-so-matter-of-fact way, he mentioned that I've less than 100 days until the exhibition.
This news sent me into manic mode. I began compiling lists in my head of all that I still have left to do, with the pressure of Christmas holidays approaching, full-time childcare and no time to work. That will be at least 21 days lost, right there. (Christmas spirit? Bah humbug, I don't have time!) I found myself counting canvasses every time I entered my studio, maybe hoping that elves had been at work during the night to produce some more. I had also decided, to save myself some time, that I would project the images onto canvas at the start of a painting, to save all that fiddly drawing time, but no, the NAC's projector has gone missing and I had to choose between buying myself one or Father Christmas visiting our house this year.
Father Christmas will be coming but he will be doing so grudgingly...
The last thing I needed was to be ill, or for the kids to be sick, so imagine my delight when all of us went down with the same thing at the end of last weekend. Another 7 days were lost. I had to be Mum.
To get to my point, finally, how does any creative person manage to balance their life? Creativity demands all your attention. There is no greater high than the excitement of having an idea, an inspired idea and running with it, uninterrupted. You know that if you don't give your all, the freshness of the idea might go and your work will become stale. You can count on it going stale if you take too long to get around to it. But if you have a demanding job, or an even more demanding family, or both, how can you achieve a satisfactory balance and not end up with everyone being frustrated?
I had a shock a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting with some of the other artists from the studios, drinking a latte and chatting. We were talking about our favourite children's books and which ones we had kept. I said, "I bought 'Where the Wild Things Are' for my girls because I love those illustrations." This led to many of the artists saying, "That is my one regret about not having children..." or "If I had had children..." and I suddenly realised that I am possibly the only non-retirement age female artist at our studios who has children.
If a female artist wants to pursue any kind of artistic career with more than a hobby-like interest, in many cases she has to choose between nurturing her ambitions and nurturing a family, unless she has an extraordinary partner. I thank God that I didn't have the motivation to get my career going before I had children or I might have chosen the same path. When I say 'chosen', I don't think it is an active decision; I think female artists are so busy building their name and their client list and their portfolio and only gradually realise that the time for children has passed. Every one of them would make a fantastic mum.
So when Clare and Tina and I find it hard being torn in all these different directions, well maybe it is meant to be hard. We could have waited until our children grew up before we started this - but in all our cases, we couldn't hold it back any longer. It was bursting out of us. It had to be done. If we find it frustrating being with the kids when we want to be working, then that is just the way it has to be - as long as we don't show it. They aren't children for long and it can only get easier with each passing year.
The week at home was not completely wasted. I managed to produce a couple of drawings and built myself a website!
As for how I manage to juggle it all - well, I have had to let one thing go...the housework!
During the writing of this blog I was interrupted twice by daughter number one, twenty-seven times by daughter number two, had to take daughter number one to Brownies, let my can't-be-bothered-to-look-for-my-own-key husband in and was then interrupted twice by him. I take no blame if this entry is less than coherent.
If any of you have any tips on how to juggle your creative life with your real one, I would love to read your comments.
A little over a year ago, my youngest child started full-time school. It was a moment I had been waiting for; to claim back some of my own life and do what I wanted to do for me.
I had produced some artwork while still a full-time mum and had also written most of a novel. I'd had a story broadcast by the BBC and three books I illustrated had been published. All the time, people were telling me, "CHOOSE! Are you going to be an artist or are you going to be a writer?" and I felt that there was something wrong with me because I couldn't choose.
Then I read a wonderful, inspirational book called "The Artists' Way' by Julia Cameron and chose to be a 'creative'! I would do both - to the best of my ability. I would trust in fate or God or synchronicity…whatever you care to call it. And I would see where I ended up if I went for it totally, not allowing fear to get in the way. And before you start rolling your eyes, I am the least hippie-like, tree-hugging, quorn-eating person you could meet. I am very practical, very logical and very pragmatic so I want you to appreciate just how much of a leap of faith this was for me.
I started small; a friend (another mum from my daughter's class) and I began working at each other's kitchen tables, setting each other small challenges to try and stretch us out of our comfort zones. She would make me do abstract work which I found hideously difficult and I would make her do self-portraits, which she found torturous. But it worked and before long we were able to say "That's enough of that." We had enough get up and go to continue doing our own thing. Gradually we remembered techniques that we had forgotten and what we were producing began to work - we were throwing away less and less.
Then the idea came up for us to book an exhibition - to give us something to work towards. The idea terrified me, but in the spirit of not saying no, my friend Tina and I got together with another old friend of mine, Clare and started talking about having an exhibition together a year later. We were all keen on booking The Horsebridge Centre in Whitstable and had in our minds a specific couple of weeks. Clare called them and was told they were booked up over a year in advance. Then they said "What weeks were you thinking of?" and Clare told them our dates…
Someone had cancelled those dates that very morning.
I met up with an old friend I had not seen for twenty years. He was off work because he was recovering from cancer. As we talked, we realised we have more in common now than we had then. We were both trying to live our lives in a new 'grab every moment' way. We discovered that we had both worked our way through 'The Artists' Way' course.
Because of 'The Artists' Way', when the opportunity came up for me to go alone to a Crime Writing Festival, I said yes where before I would have said no. And it wasn't just writing opportunities that came my way at that festival. I got up the nerve to ask a couple of the crime writers if they would pose for photos so I could paint their portraits. They agreed. These are people whose work I have long admired and who a while ago I would have found too intimidating to talk to, but they agreed. And they may well come to our exhibition.
The next strange thing that happened was when Tina said she wanted to go and speak to a particular artist in
Networking with people from the NAC led to Tina being accepted at the West End Studios further down
So here we are, a year on; we have an exhibition not too far away, are producing work at an incredible rate, have our own studios and constant contact with other artists. It could not be further away from my previous incarnation as stay-at-home mum.
I am really excited to see what will happen in the next year and will use this blog to chart my progress, my fears, my particular worries over various bits of work and hopefully, my success. I hope it will help other artists, especially artists like me - jargon-free normal people! If you catch me using buzz-words, give me a slap. I believe that art should be accessible to everyone and not frightening to Joe Bloggs. Too many people are intimidated by galleries and I think everyone should have access to art.
Everyone should go after their dream.