Postcards Home

This afternoon I got a postcard … from myself.

About seven weeks ago, I was embarking on the four days of heady alternative reality that was Greenbelt 2011. The good folk of the Feig community based at Gloucester Cathedral held a Communion service in the midst of a lavish feast for what looked like about 200 of the contributors on the Thursday night prior to the start of the festival.

It was special… for me, there was a strange circularity about being in Gloucester Cathedral for the second time in my life. The first time I was there was nearly 20 years ago as part of a primary school residential trip, many miles away from my home in the Thames Valley – probably the first time I had been away from my parentals for more than a couple of nights. I saw the shadow of my thirteen year-old self admiring the cloisters, innocently unaware that life would bring me back there two decades later as a very much more grown person who was wondering (as I often do) what happened to the little boy in me.

These were the things turning over in my mind as I broke bread with many others I had never met before, that night. As part of the service, we were encouraged to choose one from the hundreds of postcards scattered about the interior of the Cathedral where the hard pews had been stripped away to restore it to its original medieval awe-spaciousness. We then wrote on the cards and addressed them to ourselves and “posted” them. I was delighted to come across a fragment of a favourite artist: Breughel.

Wedding Feast (detail) from P. Breughel the Younger (1564-1638)

Of course, for me, it is a picture of heaven/home – a place that has very much been on my mind as since a recent post from This | Liminality stirred my thoughts again on the matter and meaning of “Home”. But here is what I wrote to myself:

Hey, Seymour, I just want to say two things. Firstly, take some time to really look at this picture and notice the detail. Those guys are using a door to carry food! And check out the dog! I think you’ll like this – you should be the guy with the spoon in his hat – he’s giving it away but he’s ready to enjoy some of it himself, too. Secondly, that openess and laughter you had inside you this morning … I just want to remind you that where that came from was real. Don’t lose that 🙂

Yes, my eye was drawn to the chap with a spoon in his hat. He reminded me of a couple of lines from Mevlana:

“The people here want to put me in charge. They want me to be judge, magistrate, and interpreter of all the texts. The knowing I have doesn’t want that.  It wants to enjoy itself. I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time I’m eating the sweetness.” (Tr. Coleman Barks)

Scientists demonstrate that when a string of certain length is sounded in the vicinity of other strings of differing lengths, all those strings that are the same length or other specific mathematical variations in length will begin to vibrate in harmony. This is a picture that plays a very full chord for me as I look at it afresh today. The people who, in my experience, give the most life to others are those who really know how to enjoy its sweetness themselves.

From the nobleman on the right to the cardinal on the left, the dog under the table, the cook, the bride, everyone is welcome. Let’s tear the doors off, bake bread and stir lentils until we are truly home!

To anyone at Feig who reads this: “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.

To myself: send yourself a postcard every once in a while …

To everyone else: Which of these revellers are you?

Creative Entrepreneur of the Month: Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps

Confucius say, “Make a living from what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and although this sounds lovely and has become something of a mantra for our times, anyone who has succeeded in making a living from something they love will be able to tell you there is a lot of hard work involved.

One of the effects of the instability of our economic system seems to have been to loosen the concept of career and employment as many people seek to meet their circumstances creatively, develop alternative streams of income, and question why they do what they do and how much it matters anyway. There is a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who have stopped waiting for someone to employ them and given themselves a job instead. They have said, “The future is so uncertain I might as well take things into my own hands and do something I love instead of waiting for the next round of redundancies.”

These are really exciting times and, once a month, over the next year, I will be profiling some of the creative entrepreneurs who have inspired me and continue to offer the companionable reassurance that we are not alone on the hard road to doing what we love for a living.

I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps (she provides the artwork for Stories from the Borders of Sleep) and being part of her journey over the last year. She kindly agreed to be my first interviewee for the Creative Entrepreneur of the Month series.

Robyn is a mathematics graduate from Durham who got in the habit of sidestepping the geek label by telling people that she wanted to be a florist one day. She is married to Phil and exercised by a mischievous but adorable spaniel called Samuel. In April 2011, Robyn left her full time job at the Ethical Superstore to give herself fully to her floristry, illustration and photography business, Floral Footsteps. To fully understand how these three strands link together into her unique brand, you really need to see examples of her work and style as displayed on the Floral Footsteps Website.

Robyn says that the combination of three creative practices bounce off one another and although she has a distinctive style that is somehow recognizable in all her work she gets special satisfaction out of creating exactly what a customer wants.

“My work is entirely personal in that each order I create, either a floral arrangement or a bespoke illustration, is unique and designed according to the individual.”

Of course, there is a fourth strand to Robyn’s work, the all-essential business side of things. As anyone who has watched “Dragon’s Den” will know, being outstandingly creative and having business acumen is a very rare combination. Robyn certainly has both, and I dare say the maths comes in handy here, too.

I asked Robyn to give us an insight into her business and offer some thoughts and advice on creative entrepreneurship.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s on the “to do list” this week?

There are plenty of things going on! I’m hoping that my brand new website will be launched either today or tomorrow, which is rather exciting. Samuel the Spaniel (my naughty/adventurous dog) has his very own blog, which started this week. I’m working on a “Celebrations!” Greetings Cards range and a Christmas card range and I’ve wedding flowers to do next week, amongst other things!

So you are thinking about Christmas already! And you have involved the dog in the enterprise!

Samuel the Spaniel is too inspiring to not involve him in the business, and yes, sadly I’m thinking about Christmas already. Where I used to work, Christmas tunes began playing in the beginning of July… I’m not kidding!

How does a typical day look for you as a self-employed person? Do you have any routines you depend on?

I think the only routine I have is: start early, finish late! As I haven’t been trading for long, my work really varies, from building websites, through planning financial forecasts, to actually doing the work of illustrating, designing, working with flowers and meeting with clients. In a year’s time, I’m sure my answer will be different, but for now, each day is very varied.

How many hours a week would you say you are working at the moment?

Probably about 40 – 45?

Do you ever wish for a steady office job?

Not at the moment. Having had one of those, it’s great for stability and regular income, but I found myself longing to do something else. That longing has gone now because I’m actually doing it.

Do you think that you’ll need to have another strand of income while the business grows or is it a case of succeed or bust?

I initially thought that I would, but decided to do the summer season full time. I’m really glad I made this decision. I am considering taking on another strand of income in the autumn, but I’m seeing how that goes. Setting up business is quite hard; it does take quite a lot of investment to begin with.

What made you decide to start Floral Footsteps? Was it a slow burning idea or did you have a moment of epiphany?

I studied Maths at University, but always said “I’m going to become a Florist”. When I finished University, I thought I should really study it and become qualified, to see if I like it and want to take it further. I loved it, and was asked to do a friend’s wedding at the end of the year, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. So from there, working as a florist became something I definitely wanted to do. With regards to the other strands, illustration and photography – these are things I’ve always done and have slowly improved over the years, so it seemed natural to me to incorporate them into a business as a florist. So I’d say it was a slow burning idea.

How did friends and family respond to your decision to go for it?

My parents have been very supportive, but not without their “warnings” about “financial safety”. My husband has been really encouraging along every step of the way and helps me in making some of the bigger decisions and logistics (although he keeps well clear of any actual floristry or illustration! the wiring scares him…) and my friends have been wonderfully supportive by finding ways to involve me, and being my advertisers, giving me cause to start Floral Footsteps officially.

Some people would say you are crazy to try a venture like this in today’s economic climate. What would you say to them?

I’d say that I think one of the main ways in which we can improve our economy is through local business, by supporting one another in their employment. Yes, it is a difficult time to start a business, but I do believe that working with local trades instead of outsourcing to larger companies is the way forward.

So would you say that Floral Footsteps has a socially conscious edge to it?

Yes I would. I’m keen to work more closely with local growers of flowers, foliage and herbs (although that’s not easy in the North East!) and to recycle, reuse and reduce my waste as a business. I’m also keen to support other businesses that are local and eco-friendly in what I do and what stock I buy. I was shocked when I did my floristry course that some florists throw away leftover cellophane, ribbon and non-compostable rubbish with organic waste (loads of it!) in the same bin bag and put it out for collection. Some don’t recycle or compost anything! It’s madness!

How important is blogging to your business?

Very important for me personally, and I think for those closest to me, and for those just dipping their toe in. It provides a pretty unique insight into the person behind the business, as well as the business itself. It also shows you are interested in more than just “making money”…

I guess in these days of social media, people are not so comfortable dealing with “faceless corporations”; they want to know the people they are dealing with and what the story is.

I agree. It’s funny how just communicating over a computer can change the way we feel about someone and give a sense of ownership in what they’re up to and your relationship with them (however virtual or real that may be!)

What is your most important source of referrals?

I think most referrals come from word of mouth. From people telling one another about Floral Footsteps and what I do, and passing on that information. If someone chooses to contact me, I will reply as soon as I can to find out how I can help and be of service

Are there any websites that have been useful to you in your work either for networking or information, or support or anything else?

Well, I keep an eye on lots of different blogs and websites to see what others are up to and support them. I have a profile on lots of different networking platforms and websites including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Pinterest, Google+ and more to build up an online profile and I also have a shop on Etsy, which I link people to. In terms of specific websites, there are a few wedding blogs which are good to read to check out trends, and twitter is always fantastic for keeping up with the latest news in your business sector.

What are your thoughts about using online markets, like Etsy, versus setting up your own website?

Hmm I’m not sure yet. I have my own website and I have a shop on Etsy, but have chosen to sell goods through Etsy because of the community already established there. It’s easier for people to find you through Etsy than it is through a standalone website.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to strike out as a creative entrepreneur?

I think they need to assess 1) Is there a need for your business? I.e. – is there a market for it? Will people buy your service or product? And try to think objectively. Will your business make money or is it better as a hobby? 2) Is now the right time for you to financially go for a creative business? It takes time to earn money in setting up a business and the business takes investment, do you need to wait a while until you can afford to set up? 3) Ask your family and friends for advice and support. They know you best. Ask them to be truthful and guiding, as I can say this has been one of the most influential things for me.

Three quite hard things, but you have to ask yourself the difficult questions!

So now another hard question for you: What was the lowest point in the last few months?

Oh, that is a hard question! So often my lowest points are to do with my own confidence, rather than specific events. If I lose confidence in my ability to run a business or in my work, I can fall quite low. It’s then that the support of others really lifts me – in having people who I am accountable to with the business.

On a happier note: Can you put your finger on your favourite project or your highest moment so far?

There have been lots of great moments! Every time I make a bridal bouquet I get a little quiver of excitement and say to myself, “this is actually a bouquet for the bride!” (Yep, geek!) When you see your completed work being appreciated by others, that’s a fantastic moment. I can’t name one in particular really, as each event feels very different! Perhaps handing in my resignation at my old job was a highlight…

Could you describe to me where you hope to be in a year’s time?

In a year’s time, I hope to have full weeks of hands-on floral designs, illustrations and more, keeping busy with clients, fulfilling regular and special orders. Perhaps I’ll be in a slightly more comfortable workspace, too!

That sounds achievable.

I hope so!

And so do I. To find out more about Robyn’s work, check out her website: http://www.floralfootsteps.com or her Etsy shop at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/FloralFootsteps
I am sure she would be happy to answer any more questions. All images in this post are the property of Robyn Trainer.

Old Postcards

My mother began collecting postcards when she was au-pairing in Italy in the early 1970s. Her parents kept all the cards she sent home from her travels, including pictures of many Roman antiquities. These then formed the core of a substantial collection that has grown over the last 40 years as my mother passed the collection on to me and continues to supply me with any that she receives.

Now, just shy of some 700 cards, this collection is a fascinating documentary of where our family has lived and who our friends are and where they have travelled to. I can easily spend an hour gazing at the pictures and reading through the legends and feeling wistful about the days before email and instagram.

Since I have got in the habit of uploading something more visual at the weekends and, inspired by another blogger (Rosalilium),  I thought I’d share a few randoms from this collection:

Somewhere near Rome Circa 1970

There are no clues on this card, the reverse is blank but it is one of many my mother acquired in Italy.

Crab and Lobster Inn, Bembridge, Isle of Wight. Dated 2/3/70

My mother’s family has connections with the Isle of Wight and my grandfather kept a boat on the Solent. This was a favourite spot.

Mudmen of Asaro River area, Papua New Guinea. Postmark 1977.

This one is great, sent to my parents in Zimbabwe from a New-Zealand Uncle who was scouting new business opportunities in the province. Actually the back is worth a look, too:

Check that Silver Jubilee PNG Stamp!

I think the irony of the mudmen picture was calculated by the soap salesman.

C.E.G.B. Didcot Power Station, Oxfordshire. Circa 1987

I acquired this on a school trip to the power station, maybe one of the most uninspiring cards in my entire collection. Several years later I wrote on in but clearly never actually posted it to my best friend at senior school:

Dear Tom,
Congratulations on your A in media studies; I bet you’re pleased. I am very relieved to have got an A in maths. Sorry I did not write earlier to tell you what I have been up to. I want to start up a sort of journal publishing young people’s writing from all around the country. Tell you more when I see you at school.
From Seymour.
What a dull postcard!!?

Tom is a successful journalist now. I’ve been involved in a couple of unsuccessful magazine start-ups and have eventually resorted to blogging and podcasting.

September 2002. Made for the Art Show on Channel 4.

When I picked this up (I think it may have been at a cinema) I thought it might be worth something one day. I have no idea, it’s probably worth diddly-squat but it’s definitely one of the more curious cards in the collection.

Here’s a link to Rosalilium’s Vintage Postcards post.