It turns out that 2016 was the year of studio swaps…
For the past 2 years I have flitted between 4 different studios and I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on the journey, the reasons why I moved each time and where I’ve finally ended up!
Once I decided that working off the dining table (and kitchen units, and spare bedroom, and living room floor….) wasn’t really working with a young family and a husband who does not like clutter I thought I’d better search for somewhere to work outside of the family home.
I considered a garden studio and also looked at various office/studio spaces, finally settling on a small office space at Craggs Country Business Park near Mytholmroyd. I wanted somewhere where I could work but also where I could display work should people visit. The first space was quite small – about 3 x 6m and I crammed myself, all my stand furniture for events and sometimes my mum who helps into it. It was lovely but we soon decided we needed more room!
My second space at Craggs was fantastic. A lovely square shape with plenty of windows (so great light) and room for a big work table in the middle as well as display space all around the room. It was right next to the internal post boxes and the door (for when I was loading and unloading for events and for when parcels arrived) and close to the shared kitchen and toilets. I was also fortunate that I had wonderful neighbours so an odd chat in the communal kitchen area was always enjoyed.
Both these offices were serviced offices – meaning the kitchen, toilets and communal corridors etc were cleaned for us and that internet, electricity, heating and the like were all included in a monthly or annual rent. This was useful as I knew exactly how much I needed to find each month. It was also really good to be in offices alongside people from lots of other business sectors instead of just other artists. I got paid work off some of my fellow tenants and I know there were things I helped them with. The downsides to these offices (especially the second one) were the proximity to the door, as well as all my own parcels I was often asked to take in post for the other offices (not good when your hands are covered in clay), and the windows. A lot of light is a wonderful thing, but with floor to ceiling windows on 2 sides of the 2nd office it was like an oven and this is not a good environment for clay! Everything dried out far too quickly meaning lots of work was lost at the production stage. But I really loved this space and was quite loath to leave it…
And then, the opportunity to move again within the Business Park was presented to me. This space would be created to match my needs exactly! It was another barn on the site that was being converted for business space that could combine work space with storage, a retail area and would have my own kitchen area (with microwave and dishwasher – not that I needed these) and an en-suite. I was a bit concerned about the costs but we thought it wouldn’t be any more expensive than my old space and it would give me the chance to sell on site. This would mean money from any sales went straight into my pocket and I could also consider running workshops.
I was so excited! Everyone at Craggs was (and continues to be so to this day) supportive and my dream studio started to take shape.
I moved in just in time for Hebden Bridge Open Studios in May 2015. I was the only tenant in this block at the time but as the year went on other people moved in around me, including the fabulous Craggies deli and cafe (I’m now on a much needed diet). In some ways that’s when it started to go a bit wrong for me. I had been swept up in the whole idea of this space. It was a big, glamorous, clean, beautiful space and I’d always wanted somewhere where I could design, make and sell, but the reality just wasn’t my cup of tea.
I love to chat and I think it’s rude to ignore people who take the time to visit you! This meant that pretty much everyone that came into the space resulted in a long conversation and I found I was getting less and less actual work done. I started to keep the door locked on certain days to try and catch up, but because the other spaces around me were now predominantly retail, people visiting thought I should be open (rightly so) and would either knock or stand looking through the windows (or shouting through the window) so I ended up opening the door and chatting anyway.
I started to work in the space with the doors and windows locked, the blinds shut and the door curtain closed. So now I was in a very expensive retail unit with no customers, behind on my work and no beautiful view. The space was costing more than we had initially thought because this one wasn’t serviced (we had to pay for electricity, cleaning equipment etc and they had been estimated when I moved in) and then the final straw – the flooding in winter 2015. I was so lucky, we had quite extensive wind damage to our house because of the weather but we weren’t flooded at home or work. I went to help with people’s houses in Mytholmroyd the day after Boxing day and it was heartbreaking, Keswick was an absolute state and places like Glen Ridding were almost washed away. We all worked so hard to get things up and running and the community spirit was tremendous, now you almost wouldn’t know anything had happened. What I naively hadn’t thought about, and what many people won’t be aware of, is the effect that this kind of devastation has on a wider basis. I’m sure this next bit affected many businesses, retail staff etc. Shops and galleries were shut (some for nearly 12 months), roads had been washed away (so people couldn’t get to the shops and galleries that were open) and the news coverage that raised people’s plight also turned tourists away from areas where tourists pay the bills. The local milk lady couldn’t deliver her milk because of the roads but there were so may houses empty because of the flooding in the Calderdale area that she didn’t have anyone to deliver to anyway. Ten of my most supportive and successful retail outlets were affected over Christmas 2015 season and early 2016 which meant I wasn’t earning enough money to keep myself afloat because they weren’t getting customers. For the first time I really questioned whether Helen Russell Creations was going to continue!
But, I’m usually a glass half full type person so after quite a lot of headless chickening and feeling guilty for feeling worried about our family life when lots of people had it worse I decided I needed to turn this into a positive thing. So, I started to assess my life and my business. I decided that I needed to make sure I had other (potential) sources of income other than just selling through my stockists (hence getting my website shop improved) that I really didn’t want a retail space (because I can’t multi-task) and that actually I did most of my work in a tiny amount of space so really didn’t need the large space. I did some training in surface pattern design with Make it in Design and started to widen my horizons (ongoing). I began to explore illustration properly, which I love, but have never addressed properly (also ongoing). I structured my homeware ranges differently and began to invest in different production techniques and I decided running workshops was not going to be for me because I’m not good at setting boundaries with people so probably wouldn’t make money from them because (you guessed it) I’d socialise too much. I pushed myself to really focus on where I was going and what I wanted to do and I made lots of lists! The outcome is I went full circle. Decided I needed to move back home (where my kilns are), work with more UK family firms to help me at busy times and with things I wouldn’t have the space for if I moved to a smaller space, have separate storage for my stand furniture (again at home so I didn’t need to pay for a storage unit) and stop worrying about having to find studio rent in the belief that over time I would catch up on myself both work wise and financially. I felt like a mill stone had been lifted from round my neck!
I also knew that I couldn’t actually work in the house again. I love what I do and am guilty of working all hours given half the chance. So in January 2017 I officially moved into Betty the Wondershed…
She is fantastic! Six square metres of coziness where I have to be organised, concise and not frivolous with my material buying because there’s no room. I can lock her up at the end of the day and commute the 10 steps to my house. I’m saving petrol and am 10 minutes away from my little mates school so I can get to family assemblies and school events. I miss the people at Craggs very much but I do not miss that big, wonderful space I had there. I’m happy to let someone else enjoy it. I keep in touch with the Craggs team through a postbox service I have with them as I didn’t want my home address on my website (it’s one of the reasons I got an office in the first place). I make an effort to visit other artists and creative friends and go and see exhibitions because otherwise I’m on my own a lot, which I’m happy with but I also know I need people. This is a good thing, it keeps me fresh and in touch with what’s happening in the world and also keeps my social gene happy. It’s early days yet but I feel so much happier and the future looks much rosier.
I wanted to write this because I think we all have aspirations for ourselves but I sometimes think those aspirations come from what we think others perceive as successful. I would argue I’m on my way to being more successful now than when I had that massive unit (mainly because I’m looking after myself better and I’m not stressed, and that means I’m better for those around me). I’m glad I’ve been on this journey, the desire for a retail space would have always been there and now it’s been put to bed. If you run your own business, or are thinking of doing, and see people in what you think is a bigger and better position make yourself really stop and think. Give yourself permission to really question what you want, not what you think might look best to the outside world, or worse what you think will be better for other people. Don’t do anything because you think that should be the next step. Really look at what your priorities are, what you want your business to be and what you’d actually benefit from. Equally don’t be afraid to throw yourself in at the deep end, and if you have an ongoing itch scratch it, it’s not often things can’t be undone if it doesn’t work. I have learnt so much about myself and my business over the last 12 months even though it has been exceptionally tough at times. Follow your dreams, but only if they are YOUR dreams. We’re artists and creatives, we’re supposed to be different!