I grew up in an age and place where nurseries were places that raised begonias and pre-school care was being tied to the clothesline to stop me wandering off. As a result my early learning was somewhat legoless. Access to play-doh was limited (my house-proud mother didn’t like it because it got in the carpet), and paints were considered the messy anti-Christ. Generally in our house, artistic expression was a euphemism for a tantrum – or being gay - and art was a photographic mural of Loch Lomond on the sitting room wall.
I attribute this lack of kindergarten finger-painting in my formative years to my fascination in later life with all things even vaguely crafty. Give me a Prit Stick and point me in the direction of a toilet roll, and I immediately come over all Blue Peter. In the seventies I batiked, in the eighties I rag-rolled, in the nineties I papier-mached. With my own children I built cereal box forts and won the Art Prize at several different schools. When my youngest was born I decided to study fine art full time in the evening, only to have my work was labelled, ‘illustrative’ (meant as an insult) and, even more cringingly heinous, ‘decorative’. So I changed to design. When life makes you a lemon, then produce, lovely figurative, illustrated lemonade. I wasn’t going to wait for art snobs to validate me. Bring on the decoration.
I’ve always been a joiner. Classes for Italian; classes for cookery; A level history, a part time degree in Arabic; Photoshop for Dummies. But it wasn’t until I took a short course in Book Binding that time stood still and I fell totally and utterly in love. I discovered that just like love – craft, the making and perfecting of something ; be it the icing on a cake, the seam on a dress, or in my case, the spine of a book - makes you feel like your best, most alive, and most essential self. In short, Craft is good for the soul.
‘Oh but I’m not creative,’ I hear friends say. Of course you are. All children draw pictures and all children paint. They’re given crayons and modelling clay as toys, told to draw’ whenever you need them to amuse themselves, and sticking things with glue is an integral part of the nursery school day. So why is it that when we grow up so many of us think we’re ‘not artistic’? Who says? Few kids turn out a Hockney in the painting corner (though most can manage a Pollock), but it doesn’t stop them being enjoyably immersed and proud of their works of art.
Too often dismissed as the ugly, fat sister of ‘Art’, Craft serves the dual purpose of letting you explore the world of creativity at the same time as developing a skill. You produce something useful, something beautiful, something that is unique and exists only as a result of your efforts. A baby without the breast-feeding and the sleepless nights.
What’s more is that, unlike love, where the ideal is to fall only once, faithfully and for life, with craft you can be as promiscuous as you like, and rather than harming you, it actually enhances your life.
From bookbinding – the creation of a lovely, hand-made book with nothing more than card, paper, flour and water paste and a needle and thread – the most prosaic things that everyone has lying around in their house, I got rather carried away with the wrapping paper we used to bind the book. Why stop at a book cover, I thought? Then it was box making. Then I began covering chairs, cupboards and chest of drawers until my children joked that they were afraid to sit down lest they found themselves covered with Paperchase wrap, and sealed with a coat of varnish.
I love colour, though I accept that I may not know how to use it. I have an eclectic, some would say, eccentric house, but note the important pronoun here. I. When my marriage broke down and I was left in the family home, a shrine to all things ‘us’ it broke my heart. I was surrounded by the things we’d chosen together, the relics of the shared life that I could no longer share. But then I realised that the house could be a blank canvas for my own taste, my own expression, my own ideas and slowly I began to change it.
After I’d wrapped up all the furniture – I did a course at the Phoenix on Goldborne Road in London, a stockist of Annie Sloane Paints – dear Annie, the patron saint of the lazy decorator. No sanding, no rubbing down, no prep at all, just whack it on and the ugliest table becomes a canvas. It’s a fact known to few people that I discovered Shabby Chic back in the day when it was just shabby. My home is a shrine to the battered furniture that nobody else wants, the slightly tatty, the outright wonky Ikea. But with a wash of colour, a pot of paint and a bit of footballer’s wife – fake gold leaf – bob’s your uncle and Annie’s your aunt. I painted the stairs with a pink stripe down the middle and from a place of sorrow, my home has become my solace, my joy, my playground.
My latest venture has been into mosaics. Catherine Parkinson, an artist from my other food-for-the-soul-venture, my choir, is one of the few people to teach Mosaics in London. I became instantly addicted. Not only is mosaic a metaphor for life – just think, you take a lot of broken pieces and reassemble them in a different form, for a different purpose, that is a pleasure to behold (at least I think so). If you break a plate – worry not, it has a new lif e in your mosaic. In addition there’s the sheer, unbridled sense of belonging that comes from sitting in a studio with five other, very different women (yes it has to be said, craft is often a women’s thing) each creating, working, making, while talking gently as the mood takes them. It’s almost religious. A quaker meeting with embelishments. It’s a quilt circle, a knitting bee, a song, - the sort of elemental thing women have done together down through the ages where you’re not a mother or a wife, just a fellow crafter. More than a pastime, more than a hobby, craft is something totally life affirming. Even if you can’t draw or paint in the traditional sense, if you can cut and paste, hold a paintbrush, you can beautify your life.