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Interview with Dawn Tan, illustrator and teacher

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by Jenni Mazaraki

One of the greatest gifts that illustrator, teacher, and soapmaker Dawn Tan gives her students is the permission to make mistakes. Having taught art since she was seventeen, as well as working as an illustrator, Dawn embraces the art process as changeable. “If you make a mistake, just go for it,” she said. “Change it up a bit. See how you can do something new out of that mistake that you’ve made.”

Dawn’s “Making Space”
Dawn welcomes me into her Yarraville home in Melbourne’s inner west. We can feel it is going to be a warm day, but for the moment we are both thankful for the coolness of her kitchen and dining room.

Dawn’s studio space has a gentle filtered light. The Victorian terrace she shares with her husband, Darren, is filled with art by friends and by artists she admires—such as good friend Madeline Stamer—as well as objects collected on the couple’s travels. A recent trip to the U.S. and India has prompted new designs featuring images and patterns inspired by the American desert and India’s magical colours and spices.

The long wooden table in her dining room is where Dawn creates her illustrations. On the day I visit, the table is neatly arranged with resources for a work in progress. The watercolour painting she shows me is of her client’s grandparent’s home, which Dawn carefully paints with fine detail as a precious memory for her client.

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One of Dawn’s detailed custom house portraits

A Creative Life
Along with working as a freelance illustrator and having her work published by such clients as Frankie and Hooray magazines, Dawn teaches workshops for adults in her home, and for children as a school art teacher.

In the last six months, Dawn has also discovered a love of making handmade soaps—enticing in both looks and aroma. The packaging for her soaps bears Dawn’s signature watercolour drawings, and the scents include apple cider, Joshua tree cactus, and chai milk tea. “I started making soaps not only because I wanted soap for myself, but because I was going through quite a rough patch when I was teaching and working in my previous school,” she explained. “I found that I needed a way to relax and not think about anything else, to do something different for a change.”

In high school, Dawn had great support from teachers who recognised her natural artistic ability and encouraged her to pursue an artistic career. Her friends and family have also encouraged her to keep going with her art, in part by ordering prints and custom house portraits, buying soaps, and sharing her posts on social media. “A lot of my colleagues were amazing, super troopers, cheering me on,” said Dawn.

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Dawn in her living room

The Little Art Yurt
In June 2017, Dawn will fulfill her dream of opening her very own art school: The Little Art Yurt. “I’ve always known that I wanted to teach,” she said.

As Dawn awaits delivery of a large round tent, which will fill the entire outdoor space in her courtyard, she prepares for the school—planning, designing brochures, and adding students’ names to the ever-growing waitlist. She already has the most elegantly made aprons ready and waiting for the first class, hung on a plywood rack made by her father-in-law. The Hedley & Bennett aprons are examples of Dawn’s attention to detail: she is sensitive not only to the ways children engage with art, but also to how they feel physically while creating art. The aprons let children move freely without being hampered by stiff, bulky art smocks.

Dawn possesses a true joy of teaching, describing it as something that feeds her creativity. “I find that, especially working with children, they have this sort of crazy, fun energy about them. It makes you learn how to let go and just relax,” she said. “I see it as an exchange of knowledge. I see kids as teachers as well.”

Dawn comes from a family of teachers. “Being able to share what I love—which is art—helps me be inspired. I enjoy having conversations with people, sharing experiences, food, laughs. All these things help me create better as a maker.”

Being an Artist
At the end of each day, Dawn makes a deliberate effort to pack all of her work away onto her shelves, a method she has recently adopted. “I used to leave everything out lying on the table,” she said. “I used to have a separate table in a little corner, but then we bought this bigger table and I realised that having this big kitchen table forces me to put everything away. It actually helps me think better and work better because every day is a new fresh start.”

Dawn’s watercolour illustrations are distinctive, with their use of fineliner and watercolour. Layers of watercolour in elegant tones capture doughnuts, cakes, food, plants, houses, and packaged goods. Dawn decided a while ago that drawing people was not for her, preferring to draw inanimate objects. Her style brings the subjects she paints to life, as if we are experiencing them through her eyes. “One word that’s kept coming up over the years is ‘raw’: how my work is so raw, almost like reading through someone’s journal. I like that,” she said.

Dawn is open and honest in the way she shares her life and work online. “When you have a very personal voice—when you’re just you and when you don’t hide, when you don’t make it all look nice and fancy—I find that people actually appreciate it more,” she said. “I always wanted to be the sort of artist where there’s no hiding, so, yeah, I think I’ve achieved that.”

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A favourite quote

Dawn’s Tip
Dawn encourages women who want to start their own creative business, or who struggle to juggle their business with other demands, to believe in themselves. “Don’t doubt yourself,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years that if you’re going to sit there and hesitate and doubt yourself and think, ‘What if? What if?’ then it’s never going to happen. Just do it. If you fail, you fail. Dream big; go do it. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

To find out more about Dawn and her work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram (@handmadelove).

Photos and podcast audio production by Jenni Mazaraki

Jenni Mazaraki is an artist, designer, writer, and podcaster who helps women tell their stories. She is particularly interested in the ways women make time and space for creativity. You can see more of Jenni’s work at localstoryspace.com, on Instagram (@localstoryspace), or on Facebook.

Studio visit: Anna Walker, picture book author and illustrator

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by Jo Watson

Anna Walker is one of Australia’s most established and beloved picture book creators. She has published twenty-five books in a career spanning twenty years. Her newest book, Florette, has just landed in bookstores and is a beautiful meditation on how to become comfortable with change.

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The cover of Florette, published by Penguin Random House

I met Anna in her studio, a converted shirt factory she shares with a printmaker, an interior designer, a tea importer, and a book designer. You know you’re talking to a visual thinker when she says, “I wish I could respond to your questions with a painting instead of with words.” But as you read on, I think you’ll agree that Anna’s words more than suffice!

Starting out
Anna had the good fortune of knowing what she wanted, right from the get go. “I remember looking at the illustrations in a book of fairy tales and thinking, ‘Those are so beautiful; that’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” she said. How did she turn that early inclination into a rewarding career? It was hard, she explains, and there were obstacles, but she would “try to find ways of overcoming them.” Anna is petite but possesses a stubborn determination, to which she largely credits her success.

After studying graphic design at Swinburne University (where “there were no illustration courses,” she said), Anna set up shop straight out of school. Her parents ran their own business, so working for herself felt more like a natural step than a leap of faith. Besides, she says, “I had nothing to lose.” At first, it was all design work. Whenever there wasn’t enough work, she would invent briefs for herself and treat them as real commissions. After a few years, all of her work was illustration-based. Gradually, picture-book illustration became the foundation of her business.

The importance of presentation
For illustrators still building their businesses, Anna stresses the importance of presentation and attention to detail. Small details—like a visual link between your website and your business card—matter. She also suggests finding ways to put your work in front of potential clients, both online and in hard copy. This might mean incorporating an illustrated element into your email signature, or sending out postcards, bespoke holiday cards, or, occasionally, original artworks. “People don’t get that kind of thing very often,” she said, “and they appreciate it.”

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The studio lounge area

Giving work space and time
Anna and her character Mae in Florette have something in common. They like to be immersed in an environment that is beautiful and familiar. While Anna’s studio retains the exposed brick and pipework of its industrial heritage, she has transformed it into a bright, welcoming space. It feels like a loft, though it is actually a basement.

Anna at her desk

Anna at her desk

Her desk looks out through an arched window at street level. She enjoys watching the passing foot traffic, including a Greek neighbor who always bends down to wave hello and children who look through her window.

“I’ve always shared a studio,” she said. “I go a bit crazy working by myself at home.” Having others around provides moral support and an exchange of ideas, both vital to a happy work life. And from a business perspective, having to meet an overhead (rent) pushes you to find work.

Just as important as environment is time. Anna devotes a year to each book, a pace that allows her to let the work develop fully, take on select commissions to subsidize her picture-book work, and be present for her three teenage children.

Personal style
Anna uses a variety of techniques in her work, including collage, woodblock printing, etching, watercolour, and ink. She’ll sometimes redo an illustration twelve times before she feels it’s right. Regardless of the method, her illustrations always seem to strike the perfect harmony between detail and simplicity.

Anna suggests not worrying too much about developing a personal style.  “It was years before people started saying, ‘I recognize your work,’” she said. “You can’t have a style until you’ve got a volume of work behind you. Just do the work.”

The power of knitting
Like many creatives, Anna references self-doubt as one of her biggest challenges. She tempers those unhelpful thoughts by running three times a week, sharing a studio, keeping in touch with other illustrators, and…knitting. Anna knows she’s bringing too much work anxiety home when her husband says, “Now, where’s your knitting?”

Visual Diary

Anna collects her ideas in a (tiny) visual diary.

I asked Anna what she does with her ideas-in-waiting: ideas she’s had but hasn’t had the chance to use. Her response was golden. She thinks of ideas as little scraps of fabric. A book is like a sewing project: you assemble the bits you need, make a start, and keep going until it’s finished. “You don’t need to feel badly [about the ideas that] haven’t been used yet,” she said. “They’re just waiting there, ready to make the next thing.”

Meeting business challenges
For many illustrators, the biggest challenge is making a living. “Getting your folio out there and meeting with publishers is important,” she said. “When things are quiet, you worry about when the next job will come in. But that’s when it comes back to sending out postcards, freshening up your website, reminding people you’re here. If your focus is book illustration, joining the Australian Society of Authors is a must.”

Certain things, like cold calling and quoting, never get easier. Anna doesn’t have to do the former as much these days, but her motto when something’s difficult is: do it anyway. She suggests viewing cold calling, networking, or whatever “thing” you find difficult as just one part of your business.

If you’re not sure how much to charge for a job, Anna suggests talking to other illustrators. Take into consideration how the artwork is going to be used. Is it for one product, or multiple products? Will it be used locally, or globally? Also consider the duration of the usage license. Is it for one month? One year? In perpetuity?  “I don’t part with copyright for anybody,” she said. There’s a way to give the client what they need and protect yourself. As she explains, “An exclusive license has just as much weight as copyright.” Don’t be afraid to request amendments to your contract.

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Cut-paper backdrop to be used an animated book trailer for Florette

What’s next?
“I’m working on a book with Janie [Godwin, a long-time collaborator],” Anna explained, “and I’m also working on my own story about a walrus.” Anna often starts a project by crafting her character in toy form. She showed me a loosely stitched walrus plushy. “So far, that’s what I’ve got,” she laughed. Recently, the final step on her projects has become creating a book trailer using stop-motion animation.

“I’ve always believed in the picture book as an art form,” she said. “It’s important to me that every aspect is crafted to be the best it can be.”

For more about Anna Walker, visit annawalker.com.au.

 Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diaryofapicturebookmaker).

 Photos by Jo Watson

 

Interview with creative women: Renae Handy, Wallflower Floral Design

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by Kate Shannon

Based in the seaside suburb of Sandgate in north Brisbane, Wallflower Floral Design is the brainchild of Renae Handy, florist and all-round creative lady. Wallflower has had a steady rise since it started in 2015, and Renae and her four staff are kept on their toes arranging and delivering flower orders, creating floral bouquets and installations for weddings, and being part of events and photo shoots.

How did you come to being a florist?

My parents own a wholesale nursery and I grew up surrounded by plants. My first job was putting things in pots when I was six years old, working in the nursery. So it’s in my blood, the horticultural thing.

It all really started when I did the flowers for a friend’s wedding. I cut a whole lot of sunflowers from my dad’s neighbour’s farm and just arranged them. People loved it and I really liked doing it. So I started doing flowers for friends’ weddings for free and for fun… using Woolworths flowers!

Then I thought, maybe I could make this into a business. I registered the name and created an Instagram page. I did a cert II and cert III at a flower school after I opened the business. I didn’t write a business plan; I’ve just been following the tumbleweed!

I was that person who was always chopping and changing jobs. I went to see a career counsellor and said, “Look, I don’t know what to do with my life. I want to start a café, be a real estate agent, or be a florist.”

And she said, “If you want to start a café, you need money and a business degree. You’re too nice to be a real estate agent; that whole industry will destroy you. And florists, they don’t make money so don’t be a florist.”

For so many years I tried many different things, which has meant that this business has a really solid grounding.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I go to the market on Mondays and Thursdays and pick up whatever we need for our week’s orders and for the shop. On market days, I get up at four am—so if someone wants to be a florist and she’s not a morning person, it’s not the job for her!Bunch colourful

While I’m at the market, I’m thinking on my feet, making decisions about what is going to work. If I’m buying for a wedding, I try to imagine the bride, which colours she looks good in, and what her vision is. When I’m buying for the shop, I have to think about what’s going to look good, what’s going to sell, and what’s going to last.

If you don’t make quick decisions, the florist behind you will probably snatch up the flowers. It’s a bit of a scramble in the mornings! It can be stressful, but also fun.

At around seven am., I bring back the boxes of flowers. Then the girls and I spend time preparing them. We use tools to take the foliage off the stems, then cut the stems and put them in water. That takes a long time. We do a lot of work to ensure the flowers last as long as possible. We then do all the orders, talk to customers, and make up arrangements. We get a lot of walk-in enquiries. I also do bride consultations, so I’ll talk with brides and do up quotes. We often get stylists and photographers coming in, too.

Then we might do some deliveries and close up around four or five pm. It’s a pretty busy day.

Describe your floral philosophy. What does a Wallflower arrangement look like?

Our arrangements are whimsical, textural, eclectic, and natural. We pride ourselves on not being predictable.

Traditionally, florists are trained to have a hero flower, like a big rose or lily, then a complementary flower, a filler flower, and some greenery. That’s the basic recipe; florists have used it for so long, over and over again. I think that’s one reason I was so passionate about starting this shop—because of that recipe and tradition. Flowers are so beautiful, but because they were being presented in such a bland structure, people lost appreciation for their natural beauty. I’m passionate about showcasing flowers in their natural form.

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What are the challenges of being a creative and an owner of a small business?

Some people think being a florist is a fairytale job, which sometimes it is because we do get to play with flowers. But sometimes it can be high pressure; it’s stressful to come up with something creative when you don’t have enough time.

Renae and flowers.cropIt’s hard to be a creative and a businessperson at the same time. I’m split down the middle. There’s the voice saying, “You’ve got to protect your brand. You’ve got to make money.” But then there’s the other side saying, “Stick to your true self, do what you love.” As an artist, you’re emotionally attached, and you take time to make something beautiful, but as a businessperson, time is money… It’s such a battle.

Another challenge is to ensure my staff are happy. I want to encourage them personally and to help them find their place in Wallflowe. If my staff isn’t happy, nothing works.

In my family, my dad’s the businessman and my mum’s the creative. My dad is my business mentor. Every Thursday, we have a family dinner and I talk to him about my business challenges. He gives me great advice.

What does the future hold for you and Wallflower?

It’s important to keep learning, so I’ve got my eye on some courses I’d like to do to challenge myself.

For Wallflower, I’d like to increase the scale of the work we do, and do more installations, events, and weddings. More connections and collaborations. I want us to stretch ourselves and what we can do. It’s an exciting time.

Renae’s floral creations can be viewed on the Wallflower Floral Design websiteFacebook page, and on Instagram (@wallflower.floral.design).

Kate Shannon is a freelance writer based in Brisbane after many years living in Darwin. She spends a lot of her time in the garden with her two little girls, and loves writing and learning about creative people, flowers, and plants.    

Photos by Renae Handy (top, middle) and Kate Shannon (bottom).

Making space: Freya Bennett, co-director, Ramona magazine for girls

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by Jenni Mazaraki


This interview features our very first CWC Making Spaces podcast – have a listen and let us know what you think!

Freya Bennett loves the smell of rainforests. So she’s captured the smell in terrariums, which live all around her house.

It is warm and sunny on the day I visit Freya, the co-director of Ramona magazine, at her new home in Melbourne’s north. As she gives me a tour of the house, her curious cat, Phoenix, follows us from room to room. The space is open, with polished wooden floors and crisp white walls. Freya’s favourite print, of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks, sits on the floor waiting to be hung when she has a spare moment.

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Freya’s piano sits in the corner of the room and has been in her family for generations. It is a place where Freya can play music and relax without an end goal. As a musician, Freya has performed locally as well as produced music in collaboration with other artists. In 2013, she released The Marvellous Reject Girl, and the album’s single was played on Triple J Unearthed.

When Freya speaks, she is calm with a strong sense of self, a role model to women and girls. As a speaker at last year’s Breakthrough conference, she spoke openly about growing up in a culture that commonly objectifies women and girls, and her desire to challenge it.

Ramona magazine
Freya runs Ramona from her home. Along with her co-director, Sophie Pellegrini, she has created a platform that celebrates diversity, where girls can see a range of perspectives. Assisting Freya and Sophie is a team of interns, Creative Writing Editor Stephanie Markidis, and Music Editor Rose Sejean. “The magazine is quite girly,” said Freya. “It reflects Sophie and I. You don’t have to not be girly to be super feminist and strong.”

Ramona is a safe space for girls to challenge what they see, to question and express their inner worlds and dialogues through art and writing. The print and online magazine has a gentle aesthetic but doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, as Freya is keen to bring to light issues that may be considered taboo. More than 500 writers from around the world contribute articles about, among other things, body image, periods, breakups, mental health, self-care, sexual assault, and miscarriage. Ramona encourages girls to develop healthy relationships with themselves, their bodies, and others.

Ramona eschews sections on beauty and fashion, focusing instead on interviews with inspiring girls and women. Its focus is to create a forum where girls can see lives that are real, relatable, and achievable.

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Discovering a different perspective
Freya’s mum sounds like the kind of cool, progressive mum you see in movies. When Freya was young, her mum introduced her to New Moon magazine, opening her eyes to content with an empowering feminist perspective. Freya became aware early of the negative messaging she received because of her gender. “I had boys constantly telling me I couldn’t do things because I was a girl,” she said. New Moon encouraged her by showing her the lives of strong, intelligent girls.

When Freya was twelve and outgrew New Moon, all she found available to her were mainstream magazines focusing on looks and fashion. She noticed how the lack of diversity in the magazines excluded her and anyone who wasn’t a tall white girl. “I realised that it’s such a broken system,” she said. “It’s teaching us to hate ourselves and hate our bodies.”

Starting Ramona magazine
Two and a half years ago, Freya and Sophie started Ramona as an alternative to mainstream media for girls. “I started seeing sexual objectification all over the place,” she said. “And once you start noticing it, it’s just everywhere.”

Turning her feelings into action was key to Freya’s motivation. She hoped that by expressing her thoughts, she could help others feel less alone. “It came from a place of ‘I need to do something, because otherwise I’m going to feel so stressed and sick and angry,’” she said.

A space to create a magazine
Upstairs, the house is filled with light. The study is home to two wooden desks. A large poster of Tara Presnell’s front cover illustration from the latest issue of Ramona hangs in pride of place on the wall. Freya’s paints and brushes are out on her desk with a work in progress waiting to be finished. Hanging above the desk is a painting of a sweet girl, by illustrator Jordyn McGeachin, who contributed work to volume two of the magazine.

Against one wall sits a low bookshelf filled with books, photos, and artwork. Framed typography by Erandhi Mendis rests on the top shelf above a colourful floral box in which Freya keeps her treasured old copies of New Moon.

Though she mostly works on her own, Freya sometimes has a friend work alongside her, which she finds helps motivate her. At other times, she takes her laptop and works in the local café. Given that her work is largely online, her job is portable.

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The future of Ramona
In December 2016, Ramona celebrated its second print edition with an artist market and performances from musicians Charm of Finches, Georgia Fields, and Sandy Hsu.

Freya is hopeful for the future of the magazine, with plans to branch out into more projects, including mentoring to girls.

Contributors are encouraged to submit their work, even if they are unsure whether it’s ready for publication. “We love hearing from people and everyone is welcome,” said Freya, “We often work with you, so if you’ve got an article that you’re not sure about, we can help you with it.”

Freya and Sophie currently invest their own money into the publication, but hope the magazine will grow and earn enough revenue to support itself.

For Freya, the magazine reminds her that she is brave. “I feel like I’ve got this force of five hundred girls and women behind me,” she said. “It feels really nice.”

Jenni Mazaraki is an artist, designer, and writer who helps women tell their stories. She is particularly interested in the ways that women make time and space for creativity.

Photos and podcast audio production by Jenni Mazaraki