Friday, 28 August 2009

The Most Inspiring Thing In The World

So here it is.  The thing that inspires me more than anything else in the world.

It gives me a routine and responsibility.  It makes me laugh and gasp and go all squidgy inside.  It makes sure I get some fresh air every day, even when I'd just rather shut myself inside with a double bill of Jeremy Kyle (damn you, ITV2!)  It gets me looking and thinking and dreaming and learning.  I'll literally spend my last penny on it.

*Cue imaginary drum roll.*

(Although, actually, if you don't need to scroll down past this bit you'll have already seen what it is.)

Teatime at Café Val

My bird table.

I've always loved animals.  Even the little ikky ones no-one else likes.  Although I draw the line at headlice, tapeworms and anything else that would want to use me as a hotel.  I'm not able to keep pets for various reasons, so my bird table's the next best thing.

As you can see, there are dozens of different birds that come and use our garden.  We get house sparrows, starlings, collared doves, woodpigeons, blackbirds, magpies and a robin.  About 6 weeks ago, I noticed that 2 birds which I thought were female sparrows actually weren't.  They were plainer and behaved quite differently.  Thanks to the good folk at the British Garden Birds website, I was able to find out that they were called dunnocks (hedge sparrows) - a bird I'd never even heard of before!

I'm no twitcher, I don't know much about the birds but I love watching how they relate to each other.  There's a definite hierarchy in the garden - they don't call it a pecking order for nothing.

If anyone tries telling you house sparrows are dying out, they're wrong.  They've just all moved up to live by me.  We must have about 50 of them, at least it's very common to have over 20 in our garden at any one time.  They always hang around in large flocks and are very skittish.  At the slightest disturbance they all fly back to the tree, but then they'll come back to the table after just a few seconds.  I'm sure they use up more calories than they eat doing that!

Woodpigeons have a strange idea of tolerance.  If, say, there were 6 of them, pigeon A won't put up with pigeon B.  Pigeon C won't put up with pigeon D.  Pigeon E won't put up with pigeon F.  But they're always one-on-one disagreements, they never get involved in each other's arguments.

Pigeon and dove mating behaviour is hilarious.  The males will puff their chests out, strut after the females, do elaborate bowing and chase their competitors off.  The females don't take a blind bit of notice of them and just carry on eating.  You go girl!

The starlings are like a football mob.  They flock down in their dozens, squawk their heads off and completely take over the garden.  They're one of my favourites though, their seemingly drab feathers glint with iridescent flashes of purple, green, blue and gold.  They also give me my favourite sight in the garden (sadly not easy to photograph)...

Shake a tailfeather, baby

There's nothing more enthusiastic than a starling in a birdbath.  It gets its head and wings right in and splashes water everywhere (as above, you can see all the spray in the top right hand corner of the picture).  Then it puts its bum in and gives its tail a darn good shake.  Then its head, then its tail, then its head, then its tail.  Repeat for minutes on end until there's no more water in the birdbath or the poor sparrow standing underneath the table has drowned.

There are other birds who don't like coming into the garden but still bring their wonderful characters into our lives.  The crows who test the breaking strain of everybody's TV aerials.  The white lovebirds who may still be someone's pets or who may have escaped, sitting on the corner of next door's roof watching what I'm putting on the table but never coming to get any.  All the different types of seagull who've made their home as far inland as you can get in the UK, scavenging off the bits of junk food the kids drop on their way to and from school.  The pied wagtail risking death by dashing into the road for squashed bugs.  The swifts darting about acrobatically through the sky chasing flies, making their "scree scree" call that's like a soundtrack to the summer.

Then there are the other supporting characters.  We have solid fencing or walls all round our garden, so we don't get things like hedgehogs or foxes (although I did find a frog last year and that was the first one I've seen in there since about 1990!)  Underneath the bird table lurk various different types of slugs, snails and worms, polishing off the husks and nut skins the birds leave behind.  I don't mind the insects, if they're at my table or in my compost bin they're doing a useful job and it keeps them away from the important plants.

There's one animal I DON'T tolerate though.  A skanky bird-murdering cat that lurks behind the ornamental planters and pounces on anything having a nice quiet feed at the table.  It's all black, so it's well camouflaged under there, but if I see it I walk into the garden and it jumps over the fence.  It actually got a woodpigeon the other week, I only noticed because there were loads of feathers on the grass.  My mum and I went and had a look and found it behind the planter with blood all round its neck, freshly killed.  It was well hidden from view and if we hadn't noticed it there and then it would have soon attracted rats and maggots - yuk!

Last, but by no means least, the bird table attracts this little lady...

Friendly neighbourhood nut thief

She lives in the tall tree a few houses down the road.  She has a boyfriend who lives across the road who also occasionally visits.  She tolerates him sometimes (i.e. when she wants babies) but normally she chases him off.

It's a real battle of wits between me and my squirrel, but I can't help but love her.  Suet balls have to go in a holder or she'd just nick a whole one.  Peanut holders have to be all metal and this one had to have the perch reinforced because she soon bit off the original plastic stoppers, pulled out the perch, making the bottom fall off and unleashing the peanuts.  My brother had to take the holder to work and make two special metal stoppers which she can't get off.  The coconut is a distraction for her, I spoon in some suet treat and stick peanuts to it.  If you want to buy a filled coconut and you have a squirrel, WHATEVER YOU DO MAKE SURE THE COCONUT HAS A SOFT FILLING!  I've made the mistake of buying ones with hard fillings and within a couple of days she's managed to work out how to get the whole thing out in one go!  So I'm there shouting "I hope you get a belly ache from it," but I can't help laughing at her cleverness.  It's just up to me to do better next time.

When I see really interesting behaviour from the birds or other garden visitors, I take a mental "snapshot" of it.  It's a big ambition of mine to be able to get all these ideas down on paper some day, I could probably have enough to make an exhibition.  They wouldn't be cute, either, they'd be tales of life and death, sex and power, a feathery soap opera being acted out in our gardens every day.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Stuff That Inspires Me

I should point out that stuff that inspires me isn't necessarily the same as stuff I like.  I'm sure various people who know me would say, "why haven't you mentioned such and such?"  Well that's because it's something I like, love or heart wrenchingly adore, but it doesn't inspire me to create a masterpiece.  This section of my blog is about what makes me do what I do.

So the things that most inspire me are...

1. Bright Colours

Death to pastels!  Some of my work has been described as migraine-inducing, but I don't care.  I like stuff that stands out from the crowd and yells "oi, look at me!"

I'd say my favourite colour's orange, because it's warm and cuddly, but professionally I've been using the colour scheme of yellow, cerise and black, as seen on this page, for many years.  I think it sums up the different sides of my personality that I like to project in my working life.  The yellow is the warm, happy, friendly side that's dominant.  I don't like girly pink but the cerise is hot-blooded, determined and ambitious (although not as cut-throat as red).  The hint of black could represent my bizarre sense of humour, or maybe reflect that things in my life haven't always gone to plan.

2. Geometry

I mentioned in my last post that my freehand drawing's a bit rusty.  So a lot of my designs are based around simple geometry.  2 ovals, 2 triangles, 5 lines et voila!  Any mammal of your choice.  Rotations, reflections and symmetry often feature quite heavily.  For an artist I have quite a mathematical mind, so a ruler, compass and protractor are as much a vital part of my art box as paint brushes and pencils.

3. Flags

They're brightly coloured AND geometric!  Flags inspire me because they're the ultimate kind of branding, they bind whole nations together under one logo.  The Union Jack, in particular, fascinates me, as it was created by combining the flags of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland yet each of these nations still keeps their individual flag too.  (Interesting fact: at the time of the Union Jack's design, the English flag was assumed to include the Welsh nation, which is why there's no separate representation for Wales on the Union Jack.)  Then there's the debate about how the Union Jack got hijacked for extreme right wing purposes and whether it's more jingoistic than patriotic.  A fascinating topic and one I may come back to when I'm in a reflective mood with naff all else to say.

4. Mugs

Here's a confession.  Art galleries leave me a bit cold.  I don't mind them but I don't rush to see all the new exhibitions.  Instead, I prefer to look at all the art that's around us every day, the stuff that nay-sayers don't even think of as art.  That's why I studied graphics and not fine art.  I love classic adverts and wallpaper and T shirts and greetings cards.  But most of all I love mugs.

The 4 Coffee Mugs of the Apocalypse

Here are my 4 favourite mugs.  Each one is a different size and each one is for a specific type of drink.  I have 4 other mugs, plus the general household ones, but these are the ones I use every day.  Winnie the Pooh was a present, the beige speckly one was a household mug that I never bothered to put back on the rack and I bought the other 2 myself.  I chose Spring Chicken because it's orange and I was born in the spring.  The blue apple mug appealed to me because it's a rare day when I don't munch my way through my 5 portions of fruit and veg!

So mugs inspire me because they're little bits of artwork that people buy or have given to them to reflect something of their personality.  Then they get loyal to them, use them several times a day and even mourn them when the handle drops off.  They bring people joy and relief, warm them up, cool them down and contain pools of liquid yumminess.  Mugs are happy art.

5. Words

Words are beautiful things.  What they can express, how they look, how they sound, what they can make you feel.  Funny words, angry words, inspiring words, friendly words.  Not rude words if my Mum's in earshot.  Definitely not incomprehensible grunts.

I hate lazy spelling (although the odd "gonna" or something can be used to good effect from time to time) and I'm an unapologetic apostrophe Nazi.

Text speak is evil and must be stamped on from a great height before it irreparably destroys the English language.  Anyone writing the expression "should of", "would of", etc should be sentenced to 5 years' hard labour.

Oof, I'm a bit passionate about this, aren't I?

There's one other thing that inspires me more than anything else, but you'll have to read the next entry to see what that is.

Friday, 14 August 2009

College Was An Education

Having spent over 10 years doing freelance desk top publishing, I thought that would be my niche on the Graphic Design course.  As it turned out, I found that my DTP was actually hampered by various bad habits I'd picked up over the years.  To my surprise, I mostly enjoyed doing the more illustrative briefs.  I tackled a lot of different techniques and, although I wouldn't say I have a signature style, I do like stuff that's brightly coloured and geometric or uses creative typography.  I have a quirky sense of humour which I like to shoehorn in as much as possible, but I also enjoy projects that tackle hard-hitting messages.

I'd already been using Adobe PhotoShop since 1994, so I'm really proficient in that.  At college I got introduced to Adobe Illustrator and now I find that's my software of choice.  During my desk top publishing career I used Quark XPress but their licences were too expensive for the college, so they used Adobe InDesign.  It may have been more convenient, but I don't think it equipped us well enough, as most job advertisements specify Quark.  My knowledge of Quark is rusty, having used nothing more advanced than version 5, but I'm confident that I could get back up to speed with it pretty quickly if required.

We did an introduction to web design, so I know the basics of Dreamweaver, Flash and ImageReady.  We didn't really get into HTML though, or look at anything more complex, so I don't feel well equipped to go into a job in that field, unless it was something pretty junior that I could learn the rest of the process from.  I'd still like to do some web work of my own, such as an online portfolio and shop.

If I had to pick a weak spot I'd say it was 3D.  It always has been.  I could never get the hang of woodwork and metalwork during the brief introduction we got of them during my 1st year at senior school ("There you are girlies, that's a chisel.  Now get back to the kitchen and don't call us sexist.")  At college we did one 3D packaging project.  I had a great idea but it kept dropping to bits so don't expect to find that in my portfolio.

My freehand drawing's also a bit too rusty.  Surprisingly for an arts course they didn't actually teach traditional art techniques, they just expected us to know them (although the younger students who came up through the National Diploma course did get that training).  I'd like to get back up to speed with my drawing and painting, because I've got some ideas that will require it.  For now, though, I find I have to prioritise my digital work because it's quicker to do and I can easily upload it to whichever site it's aimed at.

I'm also dabbling in a bit of sewing.  Again I'm no expert but I do enjoy the tactile nature of fixing on a button or doing various embroidery stitches.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Val's On The Blog (OK that's the lame joke out of my system)

Hello and welcome to my shiny new blog.  A place of creativity, positive thinking, ambition and hope for the future.

Which is why I'm going to start off with a bloomin' good rant.

I'm good, dammit.

Talented, creative, hardworking, likeable, reliable, witty, intelligent, articulate, sympathetic, a quick learner, an all round good egg and the most gobsmackingly beautiful female never to have won Miss World.

Okay, one of the above is a lie.  But all the rest hold true.

So why is it that I haven't had any work for over 12 months?  (I'm not going to count that crummy typing job that expected me to be on call 24 hours a day and have the speed of some sort of Typomatic 3000 robot.)

Cue wibbly-wobbly effect as I take you back to the start of the story...

"Val, you're a good typist, fancy helping me out with a job?"

Back in 1991, those were the fateful words from my friend that started me out on my love affair with desk top publishing on the Apple Mac.  The job happened to be a monthly circular for the local council that my friend had ended up doing as part of his community arts work,  but he wasn't very fond of it and was keen to pass it on.  I liked the smell of his money, managed to perfect the job within a couple of tries and very soon found myself handling the whole account.

I got on brilliantly with my client.  He got me more work from his own team and also passed me on to another department who gave me a welcome couple of months' work every year.

So that's how the 90's passed.  A small but loyal band of clients, keeping me busy enough for my liking and really appreciating what I did.  It wasn't a spectacular career, but I made a reasonable living.  The wolf always kept well away from the door.

I can hold my hands up now and admit I got complacent.  I should have spent more time advertising for new customers, but I didn't.  So when all my word-of-mouth work dried up around the same time I struggled to get anything else because I'd learned all my skills on the job and hadn't got the bit of paper to say I was qualified to do it.

Bills needed to be paid so, when my last client did the dirty on me in quite spectacular fashion, I couldn't afford to carry on and I turned to the good old world of office temping.

Again, I didn't have qualifications for the job, just loads of typing practice, the ability to pick up new skills quickly and a massive dollop of common sense.  Soon I was one of the most in-demand temps in town.  Someone who could turn up, get the hang of what was being asked and get on with it.  For one job, I got hired for a day and ended up staying 15 months.  For another, I was the only temp who didn't quit after a couple of days.

Temping was a nice compromise.  When I wasn't earning the corporate buck, I could stay at home, do arty things and plan to get back into the world I really loved.  Eventually, though, family difficulties meant I had to get something more reliable and I found myself in a permanent part time job with The Government Department That Shall Remain Nameless.

The job itself was fine... when I was allowed to do it.  In the 13 long months I was there, it changed completely, to the point where we were expected to sign new job descriptions.  Life was one long diktat passed down from On High, the staff turnover rate was astronomical and any sign of initiative from an underling like me was stamped on like a bug.

When it got to the point where Those On High told over 20 of us they couldn't guarantee where we were going to be working or what job we'd be doing in a couple of months' time, more than half of us put in our resignations.

I'd always planned to leave at that point, anyway.  I wasn't enjoying the job, I desperately wanted to go back to college and I'd saved up enough money to cushion me a bit through the course.  It was August and I wouldn't get another chance for 12 months so I took the plunge and enrolled at my local college for a HND Graphic Design course.

Going back to full time education was a daunting prospect.  How would I get on with all those youngsters?  I'd come from a workplace where I was considered something of an outsider, the arty one who didn't have a lot in common with anyone else so they didn't exactly bust a gut to find ways to relate to me.

I'm glad to say that, very quickly, I realised going on this course was the best thing I could have ever done.  It was a brilliant group to work with, everyone was really accepting and I wasn't even the only mature student.  I loved all the projects and considered myself to be a pretty good all-rounder.  It was so liberating to get my creative juices flowing properly again!

I'll skim over what I learnt for now as I think that deserves a chapter in itself.  Let's just say that, 2 years later I emerged, armed with a HND in Graphic Design, sharper, more confident, totally clued up, inspired and ready to take on the world.

Meanwhile, over in America...

A bunch of greedy bankers (in both the literal and rhyming slang senses of the word) were busy lending money they couldn't afford to people they knew wouldn't be able to pay it back.

The credit crunch (and which smart alec thought of THAT name?  It doesn't soften the blow if you make it sound like a biscuit) had well and truly taken hold.  Jobs like Graphic Design were now seen as a luxury and it was totally an employer's market.  They could pick and choose who they wanted and the one thing they could insist on was experience.  So how, pray, are you supposed to get that precious 2 years' studio experience if you can't find anyone willing to take on someone straight out of college?

I always had the feeling I was going to find it an ageist industry so I never really set my heart on getting into some swanky top-end design agency.  I now get the feeling I fall between two stools, having done both design and admin.  If I apply for a design job, they could be thinking, "if she was THAT good she wouldn't have had to spend time office temping and going back to college in her 40s."  If I apply for an admin job, they could be thinking, "her heart won't be in it, she'd rather be designing."

The truth is, the one thing I've NEVER lost faith in is my ability as an artist.  I go back to my opening statement.  I'm good, dammit.  I'm not arrogant when I say that, I'm confident.  I know I could walk into any of those jobs and do them brilliantly.  I can say with 100% certainty if only someone would show a little bit of faith in me, they would never regret it.

So whenever I send off an application and never hear back about an interview (because companies are so rude these days - if I've taken time to craft you my best letter, it's the least you could do to mail-merge a standard "thanks but no thanks" rejection to allow me to move on), all I can do is chant out the mantra...'s...



I don't want to be sitting here waiting for someone to embrace me to their corporate bosom.  I want to be DOING something.  I've been self employed before, I'd love to do it again.  The thing is, I've a debt the size of a small African country so it's impossible for me to get a loan or take too many gambles.

So that's why I'm here.  This is me doing something.  This is where I'll be telling you what I'm doing and you, hopefully, will respond with encouragement and suggestions and cold hard cash.

Next time I'll tell you a bit more about what I can do, and in the top left hand corner of this page you'll find details of where you can see and buy some stuff already.  For now, I've taken up enough of your precious time.

Rant over.  Thank you for reading.  Have a nice day.