Barefoot Colleges

In spite of the fact that we risk information fatigue as we are overloaded with data from the web and other media, I can’t help noticing that sometimes something I see among the hundreds of pages and pictures and clips that I view every week “sticks” and begins to embed itself on another level. This TED talk from Bunker Roy is one such sticky thing. It fed my soul, reawakened something, pulled some threads together. I’ll let it speak for itself for this is one of the most inspiring and heartening things I have seen for a long time:

 

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.

Personal Experiment: Going Soap Free (it’s the new “clean”)

Soap
Soap? N.I.M.B. (Not In My Bathroom).

I’m trying this as an experiment. I am on day 5 of using no soap or shampoo, just water, to wash and shave with. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows how fond I am of natural plant-based and homemade soaps.

Why give up soap?

From the top of my head, I think people might want to give up soap for two reasons, which they might place in a different order of importance. For me, it is primarily the first reason and the second reason is like the icing on the cake.

Firstly, people give up soap because it might not be necessary and, therefore it is one less thing to consume. It is like another area of my life that I can take back from the powers of consumerism that want to convince me that “you have to buy this” otherwise you are going to stink and have no friends. It never occurred to me that soap might not be absolutely necessary, although I discarded shaving foam and shampoo a couple of years ago when I figured out that they are basically soap that is given a fancy name so you think you need to buy it to do a job that soap does very well. But does it really …

The second reason is that it is probably much better for your skin. The bare naked truth is that soap dries out your skin. We all know this. This gives the cosmetics companies the chance to sell us moisturisers to undo the damage that their soap did. Some soap bars and products now have moisturiser added in to counteract the effect. But what if our skin is never getting the chance to establish its own balance and all the time we are rushing to buy another product to try and replace the natural functions and qualities of our skin that took millions of years to evolve. Cosmetic products create a need for themselves when they interfere with the body’s normal way of providing for itself.

But don’t you stink and have no friends?

No … and nor do the numerous other people who have also gone soap-free, including:

Paleoblogger, Richard Nikoley of Free theAnimal, all-round-lifehacker, Sean Bonner from BoingBoing, and the two vegan tweeple who woke me up to this in the first place, Ronda Vanderzanden (@funerealwaif303030) and Kristiina Stromness (@MsKristiina282828).

How do you get clean?

With water, the most glorious element on the planet, also known by chemists as “The Universal Solvent”. I get clean using water and scrubbing.

Scrubbing brush and flannel have made a triumphant return to my cleansing arsenal. Finally, the annual flannel, that appears halfway down the Christmas stocking, is getting a regular outing.

One of the ways soap functions is by leaving a dirt-repellent layer on the skin that supposedly means you stay cleaner for longer. This may mean that being soap-free requires that washing/bathing is more frequent.  I can easily get away with missing a wash for a day or two when I have a layer of soap on my skin and I can use various other products to smell sweet – but being soap-free does give an excuse to indulge in getting wet more often (that being once a day).

Basically, to get clean, I have found I have developed a ritual that makes sure all of me is scrubbed in a certain order, starting with a flannel on the face.

Actually, I was shocked, when I took my first “soap-free” bath, how much gunk was left in the water. It was as if I had had a proper wash for the first time although this may have been more to do with the very thorough scrubbing that the lack of soap.

What about hair?

Yep, hair can do fine without keratin enhancing super shining shampoos with “advanced molecular science” (oh, may we be delivered from shampoos with “science” in them). I guess I can’t speak for people with long hair but I have it on good authority that it is a bit odd to start with until everything settles down.

Received wisdom from those who have gone before also advises that it may take a couple of weeks for the body to balance out generally. So a little perseverance is required.

Complimentary practices for soap-free hygiene.

I think that going soap-free is not just a case of giving up soap. There is a more conscious approach to hygiene that can be explored here as to give up soap is to give up one of the crutches that has helped us to “feel” clean for years.

Firstly, diet plays a massive part in what is secreted on the surface of our skin and how we smell. I am not a physiologist but anyone can wake up to how true this is with the help of their own nose. We all know garlic comes out in the sweat but since giving up dairy products I have become sensitised to the fact that everyone else smells of cheese – literally – because of the dairy they consume. However, raw vegans (people who only eat uncooked plant matter) consistently report that they can discard with deodorants because their sweat is virtually odourless. I am monitoring this at the moment, subsisting on a plant diet as I do, I have almost entirely discarded deodorant products although I do occasionally use essential oils (tea tree, sandalwood, lavender).

Drinking lots of water also becomes much more important, the idea being that a well-hydrated body will be better at eliminating toxins and sweat will be less concentrated.

Secondly … re-think clothing. Feet are not smelly; it’s socks and shoes that are the problem. Some of the clothing we wear, shoes being the best example, provide a close moist environment for bacteria to grow so it is little wonder that feet smell. Going barefoot as much as possible will actually lead to hygienically cleaner feet. Wearing looser clothing made from natural, breathable fabric also makes hygienic sense.

Other plus points to giving up soap

Apart from sticking up two fingers to The Man and making a bid for healthier skin and hair, there are a few other advantages to giving up soap:

  • No more “soap scum” on the side of the bath or shower
  • Saves a few quid a year
  • Contributes to a reduced demand for weird toxic chemicals and the industrial processes that make them
  • Burn more calories by washing/scrubbing
  • Declutter your bathroom from a whole lot of junk

Current Creative Projects

The next couple of months is looking exciting, here’s what I am up to:

Illustration by Robyn Trainer

Stories from the Borders of Sleep

This is my personal pet project that is delightfully growing a life of its own. For a number of years I have been keeping a dream diary and also a record of some of the tales that unfold in my mind whenever I close my eyes and let my imagination go. The process has simply been one of observing and recording stuff that doesn’t seem to take any particular effort to invent or formulate and I have ended up with a growing stock of fantastical stories that seem to happen in another realm where reality and fantasy coincide.

Having enlisted the help of a phenomenally gifted illustrator, Robyn Trainer, and a brilliant sound recordist, Tim Wiles, these stories are now finding their way into the world. At the moment, I am podcasting the stories every fortnight at www.bordersofsleep.com but also hoping to develop some spin offs such as a series of books and CDs and marketing myself as a storyteller. My real hope is that this project will develop into something that will enable me to blend my writing with performance and to tell my stories to live audiences.

iMass: a digital eucharist

iMass at Greenbelt 2011

My good fortune in knowing the tirelessly creative and innovative James Robinson (AKA noahsapprentice4747) has lead to a few crazy collaborations, the latest of which is developing the iMass for this year’s Greenbelt Festival, which will run from the 26th to the 29th of August this year at Cheltenham Racecourse. The Rev. Jim Craig (the community arts chaplain for Gateshead) and James are heading up this event that will explore the innovative use of digital media with on and offline aspects contributing to a service of eucharist.

My small contribution will be working with digital tools and musician and graphic artist Mark McKnight on the soundscape for the event. it should be a blast! We have also been given the job of decorating a tent on the theme of “Dreams of Home”.

Kronheim's Baxter process illustration of Reve...
Revelation

The Apocalypse of St John

Following the success of Bible on a Washing Line, it is looking more and more likely that the next creative endeavour from Noah’s Nanny Goat Productions (another brainchild of noahsapprentice) is a performance of the entire Book of Revelation in the King James Version.

For the last ten years I have harboured a dream to present the vision St. John received on the Isle of Patmos a couple of thousand years ago as a monologue. When I spoke to James about this, he basically said, “right, when are we doing it then?”

It seems like the 400th anniversary of the King James translation and the apocalyptic natural events of 2011 pointed to this year being the perfect moment to realise this dream. James is bringing all his expertise as a visual and digital creative to compliment the monologue with sound and video and I’m trying to memorise 22 chapters at a rate of ten verses a day.

All being well, we are hoping to rock this in time for Advent.

Somewhere in the midst of this I’m trying to stay on top of the laundry and a handful of freelance writing and editing assignments. Life is never dull.

Google Contextual Ads Bring a Tinge of Irony to Apocalyptic Predictions

So I only just found out about the end of the world, too. So I checked in to judgementday2011.com – it was hard to focus on the facts with all those adverts offering me one last bite at life on earth:

Errr ….

Thank you, how very welcoming!

Salvation or sushi? The choice is yours!

Whatever happens tomorrow some people are going to be quids in. I predict that making predictions could become a big business in the future.

Review: One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko

One Soldier's WarOne Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hell of book, a first hand account of an 18 year old conscript in the Chechen war of 1996, torn from his mother’s apron strings and brutalised beyond belief by both the training and the fighting. The most telling effect of the horror is that Babchenko chooses to return to the battlefield as a contract soldier to fight in the second conflict, not because he believes in the war but because it has become part of him and he cannot stay away. Later, still, he goes back as a journalist and still fails to make any sense of it. “Maybe war is the strongest narcotic in the world.”

I urge that this work should become a classic. Not only does it document one of the most horrific and under-reported conflicts of our time, but its unsentimental, visceral prose simultaneously spans the great Russian tradition of Solzhenitsyn‘s Ivan Denisovich and the burning reportage of Herr’s Dispatches in a shrapnel burst of imagery that is also evocative of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. On the jacket, it is rightly ranked with Catch 22 and All Quiet on the Western Front.

Not originally intending to write a book but compelled to somehow purge and process his experiences on the page, Arkady Babechenko pieces together fragments of memory into three or four long chapters covering specific campaigns, interspersed with shorter vignettes. There is not strong sense of an unfolding chronology and there are wide gaps, alluded to, where there is a sense that whatever lies in them is too agonising to express; the author’s stint in a penal battalion and loss of a comrade called Igor may have been the most awful scenes of all if they were written with the same unflinching illumination as some of the other memories. Some of the scenes, however, will haunt the reader like a nightmare.

The first section of the book contains accounts of the first conflict, and Babchenko’s initiation into the senseless violence and hatred of the conflict by the fists and boots of other soldiers in the barracks, long before he comes under fire from the Chechens.

The second section documents some of his experiences in the second war, having completed a law degree and volunteering to go back into a place that the reader, by then, would rather not be reminded of in spite of being compelled to carry on turning the pages. Babchenko describes real people and real events with only minimal adaptations to accommodate to the style of literary fiction and keep things coherent for the reader.

In the final section, having returned to “normal” life and working as a journalist, the author returns to the same landing strip at Mozdok where he had arrived as a recruit some seven years earlier. He finds very little has changed in the atmosphere of the place and in the tormented eyes of the next generation of soldiers, even though the war is essentially “over”.There is an attempt to explain the brutality of the daily beatings at the barracks that no soldier escapes,”a male collective in a confined space inevitably assumes a prison’s model of existence.” However, he cannot find an explanation for the insanity maintains ascendancy in the region, “still they send huge bundles of rifle rounds to Grozny, and the constant gnashing of teeth is eased with litres of vodka, and there is a non stop supply of torn human flesh to the hospitals. Fear and hatred still rule this land.”

A phenomenal and impassable gulf will separate most readers from the author, “You can’t explain what war is to someone who has never been there, just as you can’t explain green to a blind person…” but I found the prose insidious enough to give me at least one sleepless night with broken dreams of lying in frozen trenches and there will ever more be a great deal more flesh and blood behind those sanitised newsreel clips on television.

View all my reviews