For details about my work have a look at my website,

I am currently working on large prints combining water based woodblock techniques with oil based linocut: nothing if not a challenge! I'm also doing some teaching and go back to school myself in the spring to qualify as an adult education tutor

Monday, 7 December 2009

Pipes and Quiet

I’m not very big on shopping which is an unfortunate character flaw for anyone visiting Tokyo. Shopping there is a serious business: department stores have their own stations on the underground while Japan Railways own department stores in return; full size roller coasters twist through the high rise malls, illuminations flash, people throng and the noise is beyond imagining. Throw in a couple of replicants and you get the picture. Raised in central London, I suddenly found I was a village child in the big city for the first time.

I blame the subsequent feelings of confusion and deep longing for some quiet for my hiding in the Tobacco and Salt museum in Shibuya district. I’m even less of a fan of cigarettes than I am of retail therapy having spent years in the dense fug of my stepfather’s sixty-a-day habit, but this is a surprisingly charming museum. Miraculously it has a fabulous collection of Edo period woodblock prints along with a worrying encyclopaedic collection of fag packets.

The museum also revealed* that the washi paper I’ve been using and the same sort that I watched being made at the paper mill is largely responsible for Japan’s excellent record for preserving documents. Washi is phenomenally strong when wet: when fire threatened, documents were thrown into the nearest water to be rescued later. The damp paper printing technique (the cause of so much angst on my part) means the pigment dyes the paper rather than sitting on the surface and so remains legible after the dunking, the paperwork restored perfect nick when dried. Neat eh? And just as well with all those smokers around…

* bizarrely this was the only information available in English so I was unhampered by any serious consideration of the history of Japan’s tobacco production (last visited while in Mrs Smith’s upper fifth geography class.)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Coats of many colours

I’ve got into the habit of watching a soap opera while I eat my lunch. It is in unfathomable Japanese, but I have a strong suspicion that it is sponsored by a fashion house. Every episode features the same pretty heroine who stands outside in a wide variety of elegant winter coats having angst ridden conversations with other women in other coats. I invent dialogue from the Archers and it works just fine (one of my finest achievements while here has been to convert American Betsy into an avid Archers fan thanks to BBC iPlayer).

I have also come to the end of my first set of editions. The terms of my contract were to supply three copies of three prints to the institute. Producing the woodcuts was hard, but nothing prepared me for the horrible gamble of printing: the potential for mistakes is huge and the further down the line I got with each print so the investment of time and effort started to stack against the knowledge that one small slip would write off a print. My last print required twenty three separate passes (a pass being to ink and print the block) which, multiplied by the fifteen prints I started with, adds up to an awful lot of room for error. By the end of yesterday I was twenty passes in, had nine good prints and a rotten bad back and head. This morning I finished: eight good prints and a handful of painkillers.

Now I am preparing to go again, this time editioning on hand made kozo and washi papers from the lovely paper mill we visited. It ups the anti considerably to know I’m now working with precious paper and I’m beginning to feel I left my comfort zone back in the UK by mistake.

You can see my work in progress at

Friday, 6 November 2009

Size Matters

I apologise for the gap in my blogs, but it’s not all been biscuits and sake here. We have now long finished with the teaching part of the residency and are working on our personal prints. This morning I started to prepare the final fancy paper for printing by sizing it with rabbit skin glue and alum which, especially before breakfast, smells just as nasty as its name suggests. I’m wondering if I can get glue like that in the UK or if I’ll have to put my butchering skills back into practise and skin a few of the rabbits the cat brings in? There has been so very much to learn and so many things that can go wrong, starting with the size and ending with a Prussian blue thumb print in the wrong place (today’s misery).

The more I do and the more I learn, the further I see I have to go and most of it is a matter of experiment and experience. There is a phrase common to all the sensei who’ve taught us which is ‘It is your choice’ which is just about as helpful as Alec Guinness saying ‘Feel the force’. Both I think translate into ‘You’ll learn’ and I should shut up before they make me do it blindfold like poor Luke Skywalker…

Yesterday we were taken to a small factory where natural papers are hand made, largely using local bark fibres. Better than the Bolshoi, we watched four experts make the largest sheet of handmade paper available in Japan. Standing at the corners of a frame 5m by 2.5m, they each hurled some dozen buckets of liquid paper fibre in a perfectly choreographed dance; the solution fanning across the frame in rippling washes which, when drained, formed a perfectly uniform sheet. Later this was polished smooth with immense dedication and a single camellia leaf.

This evening I am going to be interviewed by my fellow artist Philpp. His blog is a shining example of what a residency blog should be and you can read it at

Thursday, 15 October 2009


I’ve just eaten a whole packet of biscuits in two days. This is not like me: I come from a family where biscuits are eaten in twos with tea (the tea is compulsory): to have just one is unacceptably austere, to have three too hedonistic. I’m certainly not given to lying on a bed stuffing two at a time until the packet is gone. Admittedly they were Japanese which meant they were a lot more like little gems (remember those?) than digestives, but it’s still not good. Perhaps, now I live in a world where everything is individually wrapped, then wrapped and wrapped again, it was just that they only had the one plastic bag? Maybe my brain now thinks that one wrapping = individual portion. If that’s the case I’m in big trouble when I do come home.

I think the real problem is that I miss my cooking. That sounds horribly egocentric, but, since I am the cook at home, it makes sense. The food here is exquisite in every sense of the word: the fish twitching fresh, vegetables like jewellery, noodles in silken hanks, but the fact is that bread is not Japan’s strong point and it is mine. I want a big hunk of crusty, chewy bread, fresh and warm straight from the oven with a smear of salty fresh butter. I also want it to be richly wholemeal: malted, spelt or rye.

This craving for bread attacks periodically, I’m making do with computer access to Radio Four instead. I realise it’s a lateral solution, but somehow its welcome familiarity is almost as soothing. It also has fewer calories and, if I’m going down the biscuit route, that may be something I should think about…

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Fine Tuning

Three weeks into this residency and I have finally learnt to play the shower. The water pressure is great, but the temperature unpredictable. Such is the size of the bathroom that the sink does for bath and shower with a sort of neat flip over switch for the shower and an extra long tap to hook over the bath. Provided I have a hand out of the shower and play the taps with the sensitivity of Evelyn Glennie on percussion, I can have a really good shower while the bathroom floods like a rice paddy. The first time this happened I was horrified, now I realise it’s fine: it’s why there’s a drain at the back of the unit.

It’s good that I’m showing some signs of dexterity in the face of my slow progress with the hangi-to knife. Our current Sensei (one of the last few master carvers able to raise fluid lines the width of a human hair in cherry wood) has been teaching us all week with amused patience. I can see what he wants me to do with the knife, I can see what he can do with his knife, but so far I’m the five year old with a fat wax crayon scrunched in a hot fist (and yes, my tongue does stick out as I work). He gamely lent me his knives and let me cut one of his practice blocks. He’s also showered us with gifts. Such kindness in the face of our inexperience: he tells us his apprentices serve for seven years; we have less than seven weeks…

Sunday, 11 October 2009


My feet and back are currently shot. My feet because I have failed to bring shoes suitable for walking up and down the steep mountain hillside. I carefully bought shoes suitable for taking on and off efficiently at Japanese doorways and they seemed comfortable enough. Sadly I now have a penny (100 yen) sized blister on the back of my heel and a crop of mini blisters between my toes which make me look like I am sickening for something sinister.

My back is the result of kneeling at a dinner to welcome me and the other five artists to Nagasawa. It was a great party; we were guests of the local people, mostly farmers, who host this unique and generous residency every year. Housed in a very traditional room with tatami mats and paper walls, it confirmed my every fear about low tables. While perfectly designed for the small and supple Japanese, they are a nightmare when you’re nearly six foot, have a dodgy back and toes that dislocate at every opportunity. Let’s just say that I deserve the Queen’s medal for unobtrusively relocating two errant toes and maintaining an unflinching smile in the face of cramp. Copious quantities of sake and lots of good home cooking helped of course.

I spent the best part of today cutting out twenty two tiny circles to represent persimmon fruits for my second ever wood block. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Sunday and I’m a whole lot better at cutting circles with the hangi-to or cutting knife now than I was this morning. A razor sharp knife, the hangi-to is the primary tool for Japanese woodblock and is held in the fist, thumb on top, and pulled alarmingly towards the stomach. Ok so far, I try not to think about slipping…

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Vital Statistics

Some observations about size (in homage to Sei Shonagon)

Large: the insects. Our notes about the course included a warning about ‘virulent’ insects. I thought this meant a lot of mosquitoes (which there are); I didn’t think it meant hand sized house spiders and giant orange hornets (which it did). We are learning to live with Ashidaka gumo, the huntsman spiders living in the house which come out at night to catch cockroaches. I admire anything with a taste for roaches, but at 11cm across they are too big for comfort. Fortunately they are very shy: I shared the kitchen with one in the dark of early yesterday morning and we circled each other with mutual horror. There are also large orb spiders, Betsy (fellow artist from Seattle) and I went out for a walk and saw one, marvelled at its hugeness and then slowly realised, in true horror flick fashion, that every tree, power line and gutter were infested.

Also large: Philipp and Ross. To their great credit they were considered too big to learn to print traditional style on their knees so we are all seated at desks for which I will be eternally grateful.

Small: almost everything else. I notice it in the supermarket where there are no shopping trolleys, just baskets or, for the large family, two baskets in a frame with wheels. Our kitchen work surfaces are 79cm high which, even when the spiders are absent, makes cooking a challenge and me feel like a troll. Food comes in tiny packages - just as well as mostly shopping is a total mystery and sometimes it’s best not to have too much to eat before changing item.

Small (but deep): my bath. It’s lovely, like reclining in a large packing case. I need it at the end of the day. To say this is a steep learning curve would be to understate: gone are the days when I would mess about in my studio and get away with saying ‘but it’s art’ to every process error. It’s achingly clear when water based woodblock goes wrong and I am making every mistake in the book and probably a lot that aren’t.

Large: gap between me and a decent print…

Saturday, 3 October 2009


The last time I travelled long haul I was thirteen and it was back in the days when the in-flight film was a communal event with a wobbly screen at the front of the plane, no choice and someone’s head inevitably between me and the action. So I was amazed by the individual seat back screens and spent many happy minutes tapping around, doubtless irritating the hell out of my neighbours with excited squeals when I found I could see the outside of the plane with a choice of external cameras. I was less pleased to discover that my headphones were on an anarchy setting, rattling through all channels at five second intervals. Much screen tapping later and just before I complained I found that I had plugged into next door’s socket instead of my own and had to quietly move my headset, settle down and behave myself.

I did get to see us landing at Dubai at midnight through the pilot’s eye view camera and that was very exciting. I used to have a phobia of flying: 25mg of valium would just about keep me breathing and sitting still, but I had to give that up as its sedative qualities would kick in as I left the plane and relaxed, leaving my husband to support a sleeping wife, the baggage and our son. That and I would unpack under the influence and once successfully tidied our passports God knows where, causing a last night panic in southern Italy which had to be experienced to be believed. So I toughed it out and now enjoy flying – I would like to think there is a message of hope in there, but I think it’s just that I have a short attention span.

Osaka airport was a bit scary. Jet-lagged and sleepy, I was first finger printed and then photographed. I made it as far as customs where the white gloved and face masked official asked me if I was ‘sure, really sure’ I had nothing to declare. I immediately felt horribly guilty and it must have shown as he made me open everything up. Try explaining that the pillow you’ve brought to cuddle at night and have vacpacked into a white brick is not in fact cocaine – I had visions of immediate imprisonment. Fortunately he realised what I was miming, thought it was hilarious and released me.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Lost in Translation

With my departure day a couple of dozen hours away I am now revisiting every serious exam situation I have ever experienced: severe inertia combined with nagging confusion as to why I’ve failed to revise/prepare well in advance…

Part of the problem is trying to absorb enough Japanese etiquette in time to prevent my kind hosts from discovering that the freckled giant they’ve agreed to teach is not only hopeless at kneeling, but also a savage. I do know that I mustn’t blow my nose in public or leave chopsticks upright in rice, that my business card must be presented with both hands and that (this from an American site) I must never say ‘your mom is pretty’ which is a bit counter to the English reserve anyway.

I do know I have to give gifts and that they must be nicely wrapped. In my lengthy career as a Brownie (I lingered long enough for Brown Owl to tell me I’d outstayed my welcome) I only ever had two badges: fire starting (you can bet health and safety have outlawed that one) and present wrapping. So you’d think that a few tins of tea, a split of whisky and five pots of Gentleman’s Relish would present few problems to the former Sixer of the Sprites, but I’m not that happy. Especially now I’ve read that ‘pastel is the “safest” choice for presents’ – is my retro fifties colour scheme unsafe and if so, in what way? All this and I haven’t even started to pack yet.

I was distracted briefly by an amusing list of dos and don’ts for visiting Britain, again written by Americans. I learn that ‘the British generally avoid eye contact with each other’ and that when eating peas ‘you must first crush them under your fork’. Dead right we avoid eye contact with each other: how else will we keep straight faces while our extraordinary foreign visitor is carefully making their own transatlantic version of mushy peas?

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Feet and Inches

Last week I had a mail from the Japanese Art Institute at Nagasawa asking me to fill in a questionnaire prior my residency. Mostly it was fairly standard stuff about flights, insurance and medical documents to ensure I was fit to complete the course (I’m guessing that on the medical front they want to make sure that my hands will scab over fast and that I can endure kneeling for hours at a time – not good for someone who had a note for school from their mum to be allowed off kneeling, fortunately not copied across to my medical records). The interesting question was ‘Are you of extra height?’ Am I of extra height and by whose standards? Is that extra height amongst the Japanese, in which case the answer is oh yes? Or is it extra height among our local teenage school children? In which case the answer that I am not only average, but totally invisible.

In the end I gave my height in centimetres and said I didn’t know if that was ‘extra’. One thing I am sure about is that I have extra big feet compared to the Japanese. I have been out to buy the sort of trainers that have no laces in anticipation of having to leave them outside every building and also in anticipation that there will be no shoe buying once I arrive. My son pointed out that I could just leave the laces tied and force the shoes on and off like he does, but I belong to the start right generation who were smacked on the legs for that kind of thing.

These are the second pair of shoes I have bought recently, the others being their sartorial opposite: an impossible, beautiful, impractical pair of silver and grey stilettos by Ted Baker with four and a half inch heels. Known in the family as ‘TRT’ shoes (taxi, restaurant, taxi) they are a perfect fit: Ted may as well be cradling my feet in his very hands. The physics of balancing my height onto such high spindles had two unexpected results. The first was that they put me eye to eye with Jools Holland when I wore them to a charity event (he was standing on stage). The second was that they sent my calves into spasm, leaving me with Barbie’s strange tip toe stance. I won’t be taking them to Nagasawa: it takes time to lace myself into them and the last thing I want there is to be extra extra plus height…

Monday, 13 July 2009

Writer's Block

Normally I consider myself to be pretty good at multitasking. Stuff like cooking dinner while yelling considered responses to politicians on Radio Four and sorting the laundry comes naturally to me, but I have fallen down badly when it comes to writing a book and a blog at the same time. I’m finding it near impossible to balance the two. Safe to say that, if this was life in the wild, David Attenborough would be commenting sadly on the inevitable neglect of the blog in favour of the dominance of the bigger work.

I have the amazing opportunity to work on a book which will document the time I spent down at AJ Wells and Sons creating my first public art work. I’m working with Phil who is an extraordinarily talented letter press printer ( and his publisher Brian. The book will be a beauty, with hand set type and linocut illustrations. Phil is a sort of relative, though not actually by blood. He tells me that I qualify as step niece-in-law which, though a tenuous connection, is nice: I don’t have any uncles left and it is always good to think there’s one on hand for trips to the zoo and ice cream. To be serious, I am hoping that working with Phil will be a bit like printer’s boot camp: a chance for me to get my act together and clean up my technique.

For the purposes of illustration, I went back to Wells for a flying visit to gather images. This caused huge amusement on the shop floor, though everyone was very cooperative. It was good to see my mates again and to be accepted back without question. The only stipulation from Wells so far has been that I don’t reveal any enamelling trade secrets. Best if I do that here then. As far as I can see, you put it on wet, you dry it out and then you bake it in a high oven until it’s done.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

To Have and Have Not

While I have a new studio, as yet I have not moved the contents down the garden to fill it. It’ll be an exhibition gallery for the visiting public over the next three weeks, though I will be doing printing demonstrations in there as well. I have however started to clear out the old studio ready for departure.

I stripped out the contents of my plan chest yesterday. I was lucky enough to inherit this from Ben’s grandfather via Ben’s parents who, in defiance of every in-law cliché going, support and help me with amazing kindness and generosity. The plan chest was full, now it is almost empty and I am filled with righteous pleasure. I think there are two sorts of people: the keepers and the keep-nots. Like my dad, I love getting shot of things. Out went my college work (though we have a definitive copy of every print. At the risk of showing off, so does the National Library of Wales Print Collection who acquired a set of my final project work) and lots of grubby paper, acetate and card in what I can only describe as groovy colours. This came with the chest and dated back to Ben’s parent’s art careers in the sixties and seventies. Casualties included dead beetles and a lot of fluff, probably from the thirties; beneficiaries included the men at the dump who were cheered considerably by my huge life drawings of naked ladies.

I have kept a few things including a Pirelli Calendar by Terence Donovan which is filled with African women, curvy and unimplanted, from the days when it was OK for models to be naturally beautiful. I also kept my pen and ink drawings from the streets of Soho. I spent a lot of time sitting, dressed in practical army surplus, on the pavement there in the early eighties and the drawings are a splotchy record of the days when Soho was a cheerfully smutty and run down law unto itself, far removed from the smart streets of today.

Friday, 29 May 2009

What's in a Name?

The three weekends when I open my studio to the public are fast approaching (do come if you can, just go to the Open Studios link on my website for times and a map, though I excuse my faithful internet visitor from Guatemala who appears so gratifyingly on Google analytics) and this means a frenzy of framing, sign painting, packing of greetings cards and last minute printing. In among all this frantic activity I have to think of titles for my pictures to be printed onto little bits of card along with prices for the exhibition.

Most of my landscapes are an unravelling of reality, patched together and sewn back into a satisfying shape by me, usually in a mess of pencils and old fanfold computer paper. I would love to say that my considered drawings are complied in a series of dated and numbered sketch books, but we’re mostly talking about a couple of wonky lines on the back of a till receipt (the tax office will have an archive of my early work if they ever audit me). The upshot of the way I work is that it’s usually impossible just to title a print by location; not unless I wanted to combine a variety of place names and arrive at a new one in the manner popular with house names in the seventies and still so with beach huts (you should see the ones at Sandown). The upshot is that my work mostly appears under titles like ‘Winter hedge’ and ‘Fen Sunset’ – not very exciting, but honest.

The honourable exceptions and almost my favourite prints to make are those attributed to friends and family. You’ll see ‘Andy’s beach’ along with ‘Vicky, Kev and Ben’s landscapes’ on my site. These are a result of my pinching landscapes from other people’s descriptions of places they love. I never ask for these: that would kill the images stone dead in a welter of self consciousness. To take ‘Andy’s Beach’ as an example (, it is a very simple print and a direct reflection of Andy’s pleasure in walking with his family along the beaches on the Isle of Wight on weekends. I was aiming at catching his very British ability to relish a bit of sunshine, the possibility of brewing some tea in a beach hut and maybe pushing the boat out later with an ice cream…

Thursday, 21 May 2009

First Impressions

The new press arrived yesterday in the care of Jeremy and Giles. Jeremy owns a company called Antique Machinery Removal and together with old school friend Giles, he travels the country ferrying all sorts of printing presses to and fro with no fuss and a lot of love and care. We were agitated, to say the least, about the logistics of getting more than a tonne of press out of an upper story art room in Barnet and across a long garden in Buckinghamshire. We shouldn’t have worried. I’ve seen more bother caused unloading a week’s worth of shopping than AMR made delivering my Albion.

Getting the bulk of the press into the studio was really only the start. The men then sat in the garden and carefully cleaned and oiled (not greased, we know now that grease is a big mistake) every component part before reassembling everything. Then we started on an extensive round of test prints to check the press was correctly adjusted. The testing was, well, testing to say the least: both Jeremy and Giles being expert printers. I began to feel like a mum caught by social services raising a child on turkey twizzlers and the odd nip of gin, my inks and rollers being bad enough to distress both men considerably. They were far too kind to be cross about it, but Jeremy urged me to ‘treat yourself to a couple of good rollers and replace that ink’ in a way that suggested ‘for the love of God woman, get a grip!’ would have been more in line with his feelings.

Having sorted out my new press, they cheerfully set about my old one ‘as we’re here’ and rebalanced and repacked it beautifully, managing to teach me more about printing in a couple of hours than I learnt in four years at art school. They cost a third less than our original quote and I would urge anyone who wants to buy or move a press to use them (there’s a link on my web site). Apart from anything else, I can’t imagine there are many people like Giles; a man prepared to buff a whole press to gleaming with baby oil, just to do it justice.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Poor Little Rich Girl

I always knew there would be some sort of trouble over the enamels for Great Western Street. It’s a perfectly correct saying that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and I never had any expectations of being a universal success. What I hadn’t expected was that my local newspaper would rocket me to dubious fame for charging the best part of half a million for my artwork. Oh Bucks Press, I wish it were true…

It’s a pity the journalists didn’t come and ask me, but I’m guessing they thought I was away on my yacht playing drinking games with Damien and Tracy. I could have given them the straight truth: I came pretty cheap (less than one of the street’s several bus shelters) and we worked out a way of producing the landscapes in a fantastically cost effective manner. To forget the aesthetics for a moment, I cost a lot less than a team of blokes power washing graffiti off blank white enamel every few weeks. This wasn’t art for art’s sake: it was a witty and engaging exercise in cladding a public space and I’m more than happy to stand by the superb practicality of the product and my added je ne sais quoi.

There have been lots and lots of ‘why oh why’ angry letters as a result of the article; understandable given the misunderstanding over cost and the implication that I’d whipped bread from the mouths of local orphans and shelter from the aged. My favourite was a lady who said ‘I honestly thought it was a temporary hoarding’. Now I said I’d be happy to do it all again like a shot, but even I wouldn’t throw quite so much energy into something so ephemeral. Though I would be enchanted to paint a landscape onto a hoarding in real time so the passersby could see an artist at work – anybody need one doing?

Sunday, 3 May 2009


A week or so ago we had the official launch for the Great Western Street enamels. It was organised on my behalf by AJ Wells and Sons and Aylesbury Vale District Council who between them did me proud and managed to pick a day of glorious sunshine.

I'm not really very good at doing stuff like that to be honest, give me an early start in an unseen corner of a factory any time, but I think it went well. Accounts manager Andy has since scarily told me that he filmed my speech. I sincerely hope he was joking. My dear husband made an animated gif out of photographs of the event, making me look like a recently escaped and soon to be recaptured maniac. The best things really were the commemorative coasters organised by Ced Wells which have one of my decorative trees on the front and are each signed as a numbered edition. They are brilliant and were a smash hit - the council cabinet member left with ten for the Aylesbury Vale Council board room (so he said, though I'll be watching Ebay) and the rest have been snapped up.

In an effort to prepare for the big day I went and had my nails done. A first for me and a bit of a disappointment I think for the nail technician as all I wanted was 'something that doesn't show much'. She improved my hands to a degree amazing enough for me to wave them excitedly at Andy before the launch. He handled this with the kind of urbane charm that suggests interestingly to me that admiring a subcontractor’s choice of nail polish is all in a day's work for accounts management at AJ Wells. I'm afraid it didn't last long as I've since broken two nails in a badger related incident (and there's not many women can say that of their first manicure). Our local badgers have been digging up our lawn in their annual hunt for cockchafer grubs and I tripped in a hole, flung out my hands and promptly smashed both thumbnails on our Worcester Pearmain. Like the enamels - nice while they lasted, but over with far too fast!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Collateral Damage

I'm pleased to report dramatic progress on the studio: as I type my husband and my long suffering brother-in-law, Simon, are up ladders nailing on roofing felt. I missed the studio 'raising' as I was out at work, leaving the two of them to lift and connect the walls alone without any help from Amish farmers or even a young Harrison Ford. I'm frankly glad I missed it: we built a big shed along similar lines a few years ago and I have never come quite so close to being squashed flat. It was also the only time I have ever enjoyed whiskey and it was too high a price to pay for the pleasure. Quite why Simon is willing to give up comfortable weekends in town to come out to the country for the sort of activities forced on intellectuals by Chairman Mao is beyond me, but I'm dead grateful that he does it.

One casualty I am sad to report has been my padded lumberjack shirt. After seeing me through many dawns at the enamel factory (the place has no heating and it takes a while for the furnaces and drying sheds to warm things up) I'm afraid I have ruined it. Concrete, unlike my lovely enamel, doesn't wash off and I've sort of pebble dashed the front. I realised I'd gone too far when I wore it to the builders merchants to buy roofing felt and a kilo of flat head nails and the other builders looked like they thought I could have made more of an effort.

Later this week we are having a launch for the enamels. They are looking just great now that Shouty Derek has finished installation. I hope he will forgive me for the nickname. He is a lovely guy and has overseen the building end of the project with great skill and care, but obviously spends his days competing vocally with pneumatic drills and heavy plant machinery. When it comes to volume and force of opinion, my money's on him. You can see the fruits of his labours on my website and if you look at the last picture up you can also see me wearing my lumberjack shirt for the final time complete with concrete.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Long Good Friday

We’ve started to build me a new studio, though at the moment Ben is insisting on referring to it as a shed. The purpose of this is to house my new and bigger printing press and also to give me a warmer, drier place for my papers and inks.

Easter is our traditional time for large and difficult outdoor projects and it is also traditional that the weather should be as vile as possible. Appropriately we spent yesterday and this morning in miserable drizzle enlivened by bouts of heavy downpour. The studio will be at the bottom of our garden and on a patch of ground that slopes away fairly steeply. This means that the base frame is on the ground at one corner and the rest of it, like the fairground rides of my youth, is balanced level on bits of plank and shims. To my eye it looks totally off kilter, though the spirit levels tell it differently. Either way it’s a done deal as we have just finished filling the shuttering with concrete where the press will stand.

The experts told us that we needed a pad about 10cm deep for stability. Thanks to our sloping garden and the fact that the press has to go at the low corner, we have a pad 50cm deep by 1.2m wide by 2.2m long. That’s an awful lot of stuff to shovel, mix and pour. By mid afternoon yesterday I was beginning to have a grudging admiration for anyone prepared to hide a body in concrete. By late afternoon I was thinking of calling the police and confessing anyway in the hopes of a nice sit down in a warm incident room. Now it is done and I suggested to Ben that we add our initials ‘Better not’ he said ‘I don’t want anyone to know it was us…’

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


These blogs have always been intended as a sort of journal to keep you readers informed and entertained about my enamel project. This bit is different: it's a thank you letter and I make no apology for the fact that it may only make sense to those thanked. If you want to jolly it up a bit, think of it as a sort of speech from the Oscars - all arc lamps and red carpet. I'll have clean hair and a long gown (as opposed to a mere dress) to replace the jeans and enamel dust combo while you're at it...

There are lots of official thank yous to say now that I have painted my last panel and everything is being installed. That I will do at the proper launch party on 23rd April. This is the personal thanks to the men on the shop floor at Wells who made it all fun rather than work and made me feel an insider rather than a visitor.

Thank you to Ian, Michael and the team of printers who mixed my inks and handed out the many, many miles of masking tape, who kept me in propane gas for my drying shed and never seemed to mind that I couldn't get my head around how to change cylinders (a quick thanks here too for maintenance who checked the workings of the shed, and possibly me, out regularly and fixed my slack electrodes). Thanks to Paul and Andy for thinking of using clamps to hold up curved panels for me -pity we only came up with that idea at the eleventh hour eh?

Thank you to Guy and Darren who worked out schedules for firing and fitted me in among the many demands for furnace time. Darren especially for smiling at me and accommodating my needs when I am sure he'd rather have given me a smack!

Thank you to Greg, Dave, Julian and the team in metal work who cut and folded the mild steel into panels and pulled several stops out along the way to get me panels at short notice. Also for doing such a fabulous job on the ventilation panels, turning my artwork into cut screens which look wonderful. These guys were my climate control and opened or closed their delivery bay doors to keep me cool/warm as required - a kind thought that was much needed and appreciated.

Thank you to Dave, Colin, Kiran and Edward in dispatch who were responsible for making sense of my panel numbers, backing them with heavy concrete based board and packing them onto pallets for delivery in the right order. Given that they had to work with my numbers and two changing sets of factory panel numbers, which I in turn had to remember to scratch onto the side of my enamels daily, they did a fantastic job. Though I could have done without Andrew telling me I'd got section D's doors the wrong way around an hour before I was leaving for the final time (I hadn't). I should also thank Kiran for referring to my husband of over twenty years as my boyfriend which made us both feel all young again!

Thank you to Richard and Dangerous Dave who are two of life's real gentlemen. I'm not sure why Dave has that nickname though I did put him in considerable danger once by cutting the wrong set of cable ties holding two panels upright and nearly squashing him. Dave also kitted me out in Well's capsule collection of fashion for the discerning enameller which made me feel like one of the guys (literally).

Thank you to all the guys who sprayed the panels for me. This is a scarily demanding process involving spraying on ground coat and then top coat in smooth and accurate layers to provide me with a pure 'canvas' for my work. I hadn't realised how demanding until I watched the furnace man checking for consistent thickness with a digital device. Interestingly different sprayers prefer different consistencies of enamel for their work and so have it mixed individually - to me it all looks like pancake batter.

Thank you to George and Dave Staff who were generally around and good mates. George mixes colour to match a client's requirements. If you want a bespoke Aga in the same blue as your great aunt's Staffordshire tea service, George is the guy who'll write the pigment recipe for you and by eye alone. Dave has been an all round star, endlessly helpful and kind even though he works terrifying shifts and never seems to sleep. I have just about forgiven him for producing pictures of himself and his family whooping it up in Cuba to taunt me in the pre-dawn of a freezing, raining January day...

Lastly my thanks to Colin and Kevin. I think in one of my first blogs I referred to them as my new best friends. I hadn't realised it at the time, but that is exactly what they turned out to be. Between them both they made me feel that anything was pretty much possible. They made me laugh when things were bad, assumed I would triumph on mornings when I couldn't think how to manage, picked me up, dusted me off and set me going again more times than I care to remember. Colin is an absolute expert in enamel and always took the time to take my questions seriously, getting me out of several technical holes and saving us all the bother of making new panels by fixing various glitches as we went along. Kev was my furnace man, firing all of my work with meticulous care, seeing to it that no panel went into the furnace until it was cleared of my numerous and grubby finger prints, splashes and splots, building improvised jigs for the successful firing of tricky curved panels and generally working miracles.

I hope I haven't forgotten anyone or messed the names up - I was tempted just to refer to everyone as 'Dave' as that seems universal. Either way I am very grateful. It was a privilege and pleasure to work with everyone and I'd do it all again like a shot.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Let them eat cake

I suddenly find that I am returning to the factory tomorrow for my last week of the project. The short notice was a result of the sudden end of a long saga concerning the making of various sets of doors. These are intended to fit seamlessly into the enamel landscapes without so much as a wobble in the plough lines and their creation has been tense and complicated. For my part I have left door sized cardboard patterns at Wells with aligned drawings waiting to be transferred across, let's hope everyone's read the 'Do not throw away!!!' messages.

Short notice when you have two jobs means a fast bit of juggling and the calling in of favours along the lines of the Godfather. Fortunately, like most women, I worked through my son's infancy so have had the practice. The difficult bit is the cake issue. This is the last visit, ergo I must give everybody cake on the Thursday before I leave. I've learnt enough about factory life to know that milestone events are marked in simple carbohydrate and I have no intention of disrupting the pattern. The only answer is to pack up a kit like I used to for school domestic science, but on a big scale and bake on the island having first done the egg, flour, butter maths.

It's a bit of treat really: I like baking cakes, but don't do it often. The dispiriting problem is that my son finally confessed that he 'doesn't really like cake much' and there's no point being a domestic goddess when your audience consists of a confirmed atheist. In fact I now know that he used to sell my cake when he was at school (banana bread made the best profit at £1 a slice which seems extortionate since he wasn't providing a squashy leather sofa and caramel latte on the side). So now I will flex my baker's muscles and set off tomorrow with the cake tins and vanilla along with projector and templates.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Since this enamel project began I have been promising myself a holiday at the end of it and now, like Jack with his Beanstalk, I have just swapped Nirvana for hard work. While I may not have to fight vertigo and a cross giant, I will have to forgo two weeks of drifting about Sicily wearing Ray-Bans and a series of flimsy dresses for digging footings and shifting hard core.

We went to a party where a friend of a friend idly mentioned that she worked in a school with a printing press and they were toying with the idea of selling it, but that it was 'a bit big'. We did some swift research and discovered that the press was a) an Albion made in 1851 b) perfect apart from needing a duster and c) affordable. The chances of this happening in the real world are about the same as being paid good money by a County Council to create a landmark artwork when they, you and the manufacturers have no idea how, or even if, it will work: ridiculous even to imagine.

So we bought it and that was the cheap part. Moving it from Barnet to Buckinghamshire involves hiring the services of experts in moving printing presses. The good bit is that they too are based in Barnet, the bad bit is the cost. Looking at their quote I can only assume that they will be flying in the brightest and the best of the Sherpas from Everest Base Camp, wrapping our press in several protective layers of hand beaten gold and conveying the whole thing to Buckinghamshire with a full military escort. To be fair, the press is about 2m high and must weigh well over a ton, is made of cast iron and will smash like an irreplaceable dry biscuit if dropped. It will also need to be installed, aligned and made to work in mysterious ways before I can use it.

Oh and we have to build a new studio big enough to house it...

So the holiday plans went early on and probably the holiday after that too. But it really is OK as the press is a far better thing than a suntan and I'll find time to paddle on the beach at Sandown - the holiday equivalent of a power nap - when I go to the factory for my final few days.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Hard Day's Night

Last week at the factory I did a few 5am starts. People were impressed to varying degrees about this: my teenage son refused to believe that it was possible to get up at 4am with the intention of working, though obviously it's fine for him to come home at 4am with the intention of sleeping. My London friends were all horrified and obviously have visions of Wells as some sort of throwback to the early industrial revolution - all soot and brimstone with small children forced to shovel coal into furnace mouths through the night. To the guys at Wells it's no big deal: 3am is the early start. The only person who seemed in any doubt there was Lucy the printer who confessed to me in low voice that she didn't think it was entirely 'normal' to get up and still have the moon in the sky. Having done the five until five shift I have to say that I prefer the moon to be at one end of the day or the other, both is a bit much.

I'm not bad at getting up, but the switch from a 6am start to a 4am one did call for an alarm. Fortunately I had the inspired idea of setting my phone to a ring tone so banal and offensive that I was awake in a psychotic rage before I knew it, neatly combining early rising with a full cardio workout. Also fortunately in the quiet factory I was able to work my way down from vile to bad tempered to slightly ratty before anyone much arrived.

The early starts also meant bringing food in with me for various meals. Some people, Colin is a shining example, had things really sussed with stacking tupperware like Japanese bento, taking them through the day in neat courses. I had microwave porridge and an uneasy relationship with the chocolate machine. I work next to the vending machines and there is a steady stream of men who have an entirely guilt free approach: if they want three Mars bars and a packet of Monster Munch for breakfast, they do. I sat around like a large and grubby Miss Muffet with my bowl of porridge wondering if extreme weariness was enough justification for a kitkat. I need to either get over that or get some tupperware: my final week will certainly be more of the same.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Mini and Me

Before I head down the A34 to the ferry, as I will be doing shortly, I do a sort of vehicle check on my mini. As I refuse to devote more than two neuron's worth of in-brain space to car maintenance, it does mean learning how to open the bonnet all over again and a few minutes matching the pictures in the manual to the stuff under the hood. This time I'm low on a liquid in a white Tupperware box that balances on the top of the engine which means a trip to buy brake fluid top up apparently. Hopefully insertion will mean nothing more than prising off the snap tight lid and pouring the stuff in. Need someone to develop the necessary processes for getting a landscape off the back of an envelope and onto about 600 square meters of enamel and I'm your woman, but anything car related beyond slopping liquid into various tubes is further than I want to go.

Last time I was down at Wells the furnace man informed me that my car was rubbish* and that all minis have in fact been rubbish since they were made by BMW. This was news to me on several fronts. I should have known about BMW: the fact that I bought the car from a BMW garage could indeed have been a hint, but in the fairyland of my imagination I like to think that the Issigonis grandchildren are overseeing production in a workshop somewhere British and rural. The rubbish bit seems unfair to me, though I agree it would be nice if the boot were designed to hold more than a slim volume of poetry and a lamb cutlet. In its defence, the car is a lovely shade of true red which is rare in car paint, the inside is as pretty and practical as Barbarella's spaceship and, since the car is very short and I am very tall, it fosters the brief illusion that I have the legs of a Thompson gazelle every time I climb out of the driving seat. What mortal woman could ask for more? Well, except for the keys to an eight litre Veyron of course. The minute I have diplomatic immunity and £800,000 to spare that's what I'll be driving.

In the meantime I'll top up my rubbish car's brake fluid, fill up its rubbish boot (and I must agree with you on that one Kev, it is a rubbish boot) along with its rubbish interior and hope that it's rubbish brakes work on the way over to the factory this weekend.

*words have been changed to protect reader's sensibilities.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Show Time

I can announce that the first of my panels went up in Aylesbury's Great Western Street last week. I went down at the weekend to have a look. My reaction to seeing a piece of my work slapped five metres high and about thirty six metres long across a public space was essentially English: I found myself doing a sort of dance. You have to understand that this wasn't an American-style high-five air-punching victory dance, it was a sort of hopping shuffle on and off the kerb born of the profound desire for there not to be a fuss. I was pleased; it did and indeed does look pretty damn good (you can check it out on my web site), but it was all a bit much really and could I now be excused to have a cup of tea and a sit down? It turned out that I wasn't to be excused until my husband had taken many, many photographs. It was minus five that day and my embarrassed squirming had turned into a hypothermia avoiding jig before he'd finally finished.

I've been back a few times for a better look and have reached the point of being able to flirt with the idea that it's a fairly big achievement. It's a bit hard to see the art at the moment to be honest: the panels have a blue protective film over their surface and the whole thing is surrounded by scaffolding and a fence covered in strict warnings about hard hats, steel toecaps and who to call with the remaining digits of your right hand in the event of an accident.

It's great to see a whole section in one piece. Anyone who has, like me, spent happy hours with Airfix kits will understand that there's magic in the moment when seemingly entirely unconnected parts of a model all come together (for some reason I had a thing about making bi-planes when I was young, I made lots extremely badly and never painted any, littering my bedroom with pale blue-grey plastic debris). However, there are still gaps and an unfinished section to complete. I met the site manager Derek who is responsible for overseeing the installation of all my panels in Aylesbury and he was extremely keen for the work to progress. He was very nice about it, but I get the message: there's a few dozen men in reflective vests awaiting my finished work and sooner would be better than later love!