Tuesday, November 03, 2015

My Brilliant Career

puppets in progress!
It's amazing how a blog can get away on you when you are busy. I started this one some years ago and over time it has gone from a sometimes twice weekly post to once a month if I'm lucky. I put all my current news on my facebook page and there's been lots going on this year; from a huge commission of a giant waffle costume, to book awards (I was a finalist), story tours, World of WearableArt, creation of an historic replica Treaty Flag, helping deliver a conference and puppets. All of the work incredibly varied and all of it wonderful. I can only say a huge thankyou to all the companies and organisations that this year said 'Ah that Fifi Colston, yes she is the one.' I and my bank account are eternally grateful.

And I am also grateful because sometimes it feels like you are never 'The One'- easy to go down a hole when you see someone has had 12k likes and as many shares for a clever little thing they crafted (I could have done that and actually have...), or got published at the age of 23 with a blockbuster novel (my novel was awesome too...) or landed some fabulous funded opportunity that involves attending international festivals (I wanna go and be special...) Or sold 800,000 of their picture books with no apparent effort  (my royalty statements are dismal after 30 plus years at this...) It's hard you know living up to other people. The reality is that most of us don't; we are viewers of seductive spin.

I, for instance, would only ever show you my good fortune, never my failures. I would not tell you here if my family was falling apart (whose family isn't at some stage?) or if I had serious health issues (there but for the grace of God), or that the bailiff was at the door (not this week anyway). I think it's important to remember that when you read anything out there in the public space; that people are not so much liars as ommitters of the truth. And that's okay, sometimes it's good to keep the bad stuff ringfenced and not let it out of the yard. You never know what people will do with a stray thought.

Ha! I planned to post a whole heap of pictures here of the results of my year's labours, so that anyone trawling the internet would see how successful I am. Funny how once you get writing, other thoughts occur isn't it?

Peg Bag: Fifi Colston

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Your 8 year old self

I was going to write a blog post about the amazing Storylines Festival that I've been part of and touring with for the last week. It was going to be about all the schools we visited and the fabulous kids I dressed up in costumes from my book and the two festival days and how it was a blast (and it was) but then, someone posted this thing on facebook:

I thought back to when I was 8 years old, writing, drawing and making stuff- which is what I do now and I adore my adult life's work. When I was eight, I idolised the likes of Valerie Singleton from the BBC's BluePeter, and Vision On with Tony Hart. These were art heros for me and I never thought back then, that I'd end up as all the arty things I am. I would have, back then, look at me now and say 'I want to be you!' 

It's useful to do that, look at yourself from a kids point of view, especially when the creative industry is full of unfulfilled expectations and bitter disappointments. These mostly arise from a need to be acknowledged and recognised (and paid) and it's like a drug. The more you get, the more you need until you can't see what you've done that was so good anymore. All you can see is what you failed to be (in your head!).

I immediately loved this idea of a young self perspective, and reposted it on my public page, which drew a wistful verging on regretful response. I wasn't quite prepared for that. I realised then that the my post wouldn't actually make anyone happy and might highlight where they thought they had dropped the 8 ball and 'damn that chipper flippin' Fifi for pointing that out. Thanks a lot!' (and lose a few hard won followers).

So let's get real here.
When you were 8, what was life like? This is how it was for me. 

I was in transition from Pom to Kiwi. We had moved- a family of 5 with a father who had his career pulled out from underneath him and no tangible means of supporting us all. We ran away. We were migrants but mercifully not stuck in a container crate and left to die whilst politicians postured and ignored us. We stayed with the only people we knew in New Zealand for the whole of the summer until we were all sick of each other. My parents found a tiny flat. Dad found a job on Christmas Eve and our mother worked for the first time since she had got married at 21 (yes, women mostly gave up their jobs back then and got pregnant on their wedding night). 

We spoke funny, I didn't know what togs and lollies were. I may as well have spoken Greek. I came home from school by myself and wondered if I'd ever fit in. My school report said:
"She is a cooperative pupil and is generally accepted by the other children. She has a sensible outlook but is sometimes disturbed by apparently trivial incidents."
We could re read that to say what was really going on:
"She does what she is told and behind my back the other students ridicule her and when the chance arises do her physical harm. She is terribly lonely and has no clue what to do here."

So, at 8, all I wanted was not to be a roaring success in the art world, all I wanted was acceptance and a friend. At 55 I have it. I have worked hard to get there and when I annoy or upset people and realise it, I try hard to put that right. I don't always succeed, and this is why I don't engage in any kind of way other than very peripherally with Twitter. That's a place that's very hard to put things right once it's out of your mouth- and I have a big mouth!

Child me would be amazed that I have not one community but several- in publishing, wearable art, illustration, craft, walking, old high school friends and of course my family. I love them all. She would be very happy that I had got there (and had she known would have spent less time being miserable and crying into her pillow).

So, look not at what you are doing for a job, but who you are being in the world to the people in your life. And if you are being an asshat (my fav new American expression!) then stop it. Make your 8 year old self proud.

Oh, and Storylines is awesome- I get to meet a lot of kids who I once was.

Photo Credit- Clare Scott

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Selected/Unselected WearableArt and does it matter?

Wing detail

So the results have been rolling in by email for Selected/Unselected and we have been as a group on facebook on the edge of our creative seats to see if we have made the cut for the 2015 World of WearableArt Show. As one put it: 'I have wine ready either way and my husband has half packed his bags just in case he has to keep his distance for a few days lol'. And it's like that. People all over New Zealand and the world have been feverishly working away for months to get into this now very prestigious international show. It can be stress inducing and we have all been in high states of anxiety.

I tell a lie; I haven't been very anxious at all. Not this year.I've have been in the past- and burst into tears on the one time I didn't get into show. Out of 22 entries, that's a pretty good run. I made it mean all sorts of things but mostly I was just embarrassed that ME the stalwart and veteran of the show did something the judges didn't click with. Quel horreur! Sacre Bleu and all the other less printable epithets.

I put myself in the firing line each year with books and awards and Wearable Art shows You can go down a hole with both. You don't start out making your art to win awards and you know, none of them matter really. This is why:

I attended both my father's funeral last year (he died during the wow season and I attended the award show with my phone down my bra waiting for the call to say he had passed, whilst my sister held his hand), and my brother in law's funeral this past week (46, a car accident). One death was expected but no less painful to those left than the other unexpected one.

Not getting your 'baby' into the show or book into a national award can feel like a death. That's only because it seems like the end of possibility; recieving congratulations, the dressing up for the show, the frisson of excitement that you might actually get to walk up on that stage and recive an award = fame = money. But it's not a death. It's not final. In the same way that my father and brother in law have gone from this world, but they live on through their children. The things learned carry on.

I learned about appreciating who my father had been in this world. I also learned making wood grain patterns on EVA foam, using latex to stabilise paint, getting custom printed fabric from Spoonflower (I cannot love this site more if I tried). I had fun dressing up my models, getting photos done and sending it off. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to convey, and I conveyed it. It was a homage to my father who was a fighter pilot in his day. He loved flying more than anything (except his family perhaps). When Peg & Dolly come home to me, I will send the dress to my little grand niece for dress ups, and take the rest of it apart. The fabric will become cushions for my mum and my sisters and I shall mount the wings on the wall in a frame- they were replicas of my fathers RAF ones.

Here it is- starts off as a girl (Peg) and her peg doll (Dolly) who she helps transform into a plane with her head being the engine and propellor and her legs forming the wings- together they can fly!

And...it didn't get in. But that's o.k, because my father's spirit lives on :)

Late breaking news: another garment that I have worked on collaboratively with Josiene Van Maarseeven HAS got in. In the Weta Section, so we are thrilled. Can't show you pictures until after opening night though. This is her first time and I loved working with her- in fact, we are carrying on and doing some commercial projects together. She is an amazing pattern maker and sewer with superb attention to detail. Gotta love a team!


Back of Dolly

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

New Zealand Childrens and Young Adults Book Award Finalist...drum roll...Ghoulish Get Ups!

A happy happy day for quite a few writers and illustrators including myself!

Ghoulish Get Ups has been shortlisted as a non fiction finalist for this year's New Zealand Childrens' and Young Adult Book Awards!

I am so proud to be there, most particularly with The Book of Hat, by Harriet Rowland and published by Makaro Press. This book is very special to me- 20 year old Harriet was the daughter of friends Jan Kelly and John Rowland and sister of Tom.  Jan and I went to school together back in the day. We even did a stint berry picking in Nelson one summer holiday. They are as nice a family as you can get, and, sadly (barely describes it), Harriet passed away from cancer after writing an inspirational blog which the wonderful Mary McCallum (also an old school mate) from Makaro Press turned into a book. It was a team effort and Harriet rallied for the book launch at Park Road Post in a stunning dress. She went back into the hospice the next day. You can read Harriet's blog here: My Experience of Walking the Dog. Absurdly it might seem, I'm more excited about Harriet's book making the list than my own. I guess thats because when people touch your heart, you forget about your own concerns for a time.

So I'm looking forward to the award ceremony with her parents, my colleagues and friends, to be held at Government House on the 13th August 2015. That we have a book award at all is pretty amazing. The long term benefactor, New Zealand Post, pulled out of sponsorship this year and left Booksellers and publishers scrabbling about to find a way to honour the authors and illustrators who work so hard in this industry for so little return. We are grateful that they have found a way to pull it together- pared back to the bone but still a celebration of what we do and the excitement of maybe a gong at the end of the evening, and if not, a lovely certificate to frame and something to put on the CV. And then we'll all go out for dinner. If you see a huge group of slightly mad people at a restaurant in Wellington that night all talking ten to the dozen, and some drinking far too much, that's us (and the too much is me).

Harriet said: 'Life can change in an instant so appreciate everyone. You never know what's around the corner.'  And I appreciate my publishers, Scholastic who keep soldiering on in these uncertain times to produce quality books for kids and who have faith in my work. 

Speaking of soldiering and work, I'm starting on illustrating a new ANZAC book- written by the talented Jennifer Beck. It has a tortoise in it and I am channelling the one I had in England as a kid- Sooty (named after Sooty and Sweep a teddy bear glove puppet that looks nothing like a tortoise). We couldn't bring him to New Zealand with us - though if it had been 1915, we could possibly have stowed a hibernating one in our kit bag...

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cake and Craft!

I've been head down and tail up creating Wearable Art- yes it's that time again when the studio and also every corner of my house gets filled up with inexplicable things- really, until it's on a model and walking around a stage, the work in progress will make no sense to the casual observer! This year I have done two entries- one with a friend and one by myself- which is quite a personal piece; a tribute to my lovely old Dad who passed away last year during the WOW show season. I think he'd find my entry quite amusing and I hope it would bring a wee bitty pride to his dear Scottish heart that I thought of him in my art.

The photography and dressing instructions are done and I've only the packing up to do and that will happen when I come back from New Plymouth tomorrow after Queeens Birthday weekend. I'm doing a Wearable Art demo at The Cake and Craft Show there! I'm really looking forward to sharing some WOW with everyone and of course my books will be along for the ride with a special Cake and Craft Show discount for buying both copies. I'll even sign them! I may well have a few cake crumbs down my dress too ;)

Hope to see you there and if you aren't in New Plymouth, then the show is travelling the country and I'll be trying to make most of them with a bag of bits and a demo for free!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

A little Faith

Copyright Faith Butt-Lyons

In 2001, we packed up the kids and went to England.
It was an adventure- a kind of geographical shake up for us, to try out those long unused British passports which were ours as birthright, and see what we could rustle up on the work and sightseeing front. We found ourselves after some weeks in Bristol; kids finally in school, husband with a job in Bath and me, in a basement flat keening for the light and freedom of New Zealand and to feel usefully employed. 

I tried every avenue to find work in the arts; applying for gallery hosting jobs (nil response to my CV)  volunteering ('sorry, our volunteer list is full, we can put you on the waiting list') and finally refusing to budge from places until they  gave me the time of day or a lead to something I could do. Stroppy sorts, these Kiwis abroad.

My persistence paid off and I was given a titbit- The Bristol City Council were employing people in the arts on a casual basis to work in low decile primary schools. Taking music, painting, sculpture and dance to kids who didn't get to go to all of these things as after school activities, because there was no spare fat in the budget for families to provide these luxuries.
I applied and got the work, and so, as my husband went off to Jane Austin territory to work in an advertising agency surrounded by beautiful things and cobbled mews, I drove into the deepest parts of Bristol, to schools surrounded by barbed wire, keypad security on the gates. After the Dunblane Massacre of '96, no one was taking any chances.

I worked at four different schools delivering a curriculum of art which I devised, to groups of kids who were sometimes baffled as to why they were there. Three of the schools dumped the strays and mischief makers on me. I was a beleaguered babysitter with paint. I can't even remember what the schools names were; they stood out only for their lack of interest, grey walls and even greyer worn down teaching staff.

The fourth one was different; Cheddar Grove Primary School. It was led by a principal who cared and had vision. The school felt different walking in, the kids were happy, the parents smiled, the place was cheery, with lots of art on the walls. It didn't feel like a prison.
The head teacher had selected the students with care; kids who had a love of art. He also let me know that some of the students had experienced very difficult lives to date for various reasons. He didn't let me know who or what in particular- careful not to single anyone out for some kind of misplaced sympathy oozing from well meant intention. But he did want me to be aware that some might not turn up at some times for various reasons that had nothing to do with me or the programme. What he wanted was for the kids abilities to blossom and for all of us to have fun.

And we did. I looked forward to my lovely class of kids every week; it was my reward for having to deal with the grim ones. One little girl stood out for me. She was slight and shy with huge eyes. I struggled to hear what she had to say, and sometimes she bolted from the room minutes after arriving 'I can't be here today Miss.' I never asked why,  and when she was there, she concentrated furiously and tried all the techniques I showed the class with studied intent.

One day when I was talking about art I'd seen in different places, a boy said 'Is that what you do Miss?' (they wouldn't call me Fifi, and you have to read this with a West Country accent) 'you go around the world like, and do art?' In that moment I realised how my life must look- glamorous and exciting; and relatively speaking to the barbed wire, it was. I felt ashamed of my moaning about the basement flat. It was in Clifton- the very poshest part of Bristol. That it was mouldy and dark and nothing like home was irrelevant.

Eventually the classes came to an end and said goodbye with sadness to my Cheddar Grove art babies. I loved them all and they had taught me that I could teach. Faith came up to me and gave me a card made up of some of her best work and whispered 'Thank you Miss for showing us art.' A year later we left Britain and I wondered for years how she was and what had happened to that shy little girl.

One day a message popped up in Facebook asking me if I was the same Fifi who taught art at Cheddar Grove. Faith! Not only is she all grown up, fully blossomed into a strong, confident, gorgeous gal, but she is studying art. 'I'm doing it, I'm at art school!'

Faith Butt-Lyons is finishing her BA Honours degree in Drawing and Applied Art, UWE, Bristol. She's sent me her website with her work; on the 'About' page, she explains her exploration through different media of her sadness and the family tragedy that underpins it. The images are strong and abstracted and, I found, very moving knowing the context.

I am so humbled to have been a part of Faith's early journey in art and so proud she has followed her heart. Sometimes, someone just has to open the door to let it through. That headteacher, he knew a thing or two :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Curious Story

Nearly a year has gone past so I thought I could share this; because art is meant to be viewed not lie idle on a hard drive or stuck deep in the drawers of a plan file (yes I still have one!) It was commissioned for The Curioseum  as a last minute ring in, but as last minute panic commissions are wont to be, it didn't quite fit with the overall look of the book. I have this in my life as a repeating motif- nearly there with the famous, but not quite! So here it is for free...after my communing with the dung beetles in Te Papa's insect collection...I still like it :)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Save me now Neil Gaiman!

I saw a tweet today that said 'I've written a post, does anyone even read blogs anymore? But here it is'. It was retweeted by Neil Gaiman, so I'm guessing, yeah, some will be reading it.
Christmas, New Year and the summer (such glorious weather finally!) has had me nowhere near posting on my blog, so I guess Neil won't be following me at all but if he contacted me for any reason I'd be saying 'Why hellooooo!' with all due deference to his talented wife Amanda Palmer, whose book 'The Art of Asking' I've been reading all week (most excellent I might add- I'm one of those annoying people who insist on reading out bits of it to you when you'd really rather be digesting your facebook feed, or old school newspaper).

I think others have been reading it too because with January not even cold in the calendar (except in the northern hemisphere), I've been getting requests. Some are for commissions all of which earn me a living (I love those!) but others that popped into my messages and inbox just made me want to reach down the internet and throttle the sender I was so frustrated.

In fact, if I was Chuck Wendig I'd probably say something like this:

So, you always wanted to be a picture book writer? I mean you're a writer yeah? You've edited the Badminton Club newsletter and got three half assed short stories on the subject of Finding Your Lost Chakra nominated for awards no-one ever heard of except for the website which you paid $10 to enter their writing competition. You put it on your literary CV. Good on you. Right above your junior school swimming certificate and award for being a great maths monitor. Awesome dude!

You have this idea for a series of picture books and you just need an illustrator. It's the first time you've ever tried your hand at this but your stories about a kitten and duckling are so unique, if Golden Books had ever thought of publishing anything like that they'd have made millions. Imagine! AND you wrote it in verse! O.K some of the words didn't rhyme unless you pronounced them in a Canadian accent, and in the second verse, a Scottish one, but essentially, if you hold your head on one side and sort of force it to fit, it's brilliant. And your nieces LOVED it. Especially with the candy you got them to suck on whilst you read it out loud.

And you thought that it would really come to life (because it's barely got a pulse right now) with some incredible illustrations. And you thought that we could like, partner up and I could spend like 6 months creating the stunning pictures and then you'd submit it to a publisher and we'd all get rich and famous. Just....like....that.  I thought once that I'd quite like to be a surgeon because I cut up gravy beef for the dog real well. Give me your leg and I'll practice on you!

Sorry who the f*ck are you again?

And so on. I do Chuck a great disservice- he writes a whole lot pithier than this and uses a huge amount of epithets which I totally adore. Some of you right now might be thinking I'm a bit harsh, and a bit up myself and a bit like some Tall Poppy literary chick that has got too big for her award winning boots. Who on earth does she think she is, speaking her mind? Has she lost it? You might wonder. 

Well now that I have your bristly attention I want to explain a few things. Us writers and illustrators try to educate others (for free) in our art, but it seems everyone with a notion of becoming a children's book writer never thinks to do any kind of research on the topic. Melinda Syzmanik's blog is a great resource for learning about this stuff. She is very patient; much more so than I. I'm all squawk and feathers whilst she is a quiet fox. And both of us know that seriously playing at being a writer is a long game, and it helps to know a few of the rules and strategies, otherwise you'll end up on the Monopoly Board with 2 utilities, mortgagee sales and no cash to pay the exorbitant rent being extracted by the hotels on each corner.

I have written novels, columns and blogs. Picture books are harder to write than most forms of fiction. No room for waffle, no exposition, no sermonising, no patronising, NO SPARE WORDS. Just a few good ones. And preferably not in rhyme unless you are a genius at scansion. I had a verse column in a major magazine for 8 years and know quite a bit about rhyme, but I don't do it for picture books. In fact I don't write them at all. The thing is...I can't think of one story that would delight and enthral a kid (or me and my inner kid) the way that a good picture book will do, so I leave that to the ones who are good at it and I do the illustrations.

On with the illustrators hat...

These are the things to know when asking an illustrator if they will do some pictures to resuscitate that dead duckling you've been carrying about with you for the last few years (or dashed off over a glass of pinot one Christmas evening after watching too many reruns of Home Alone).

A picture book takes 3-6 months to illustrate depending on the complexity of the pics. If it's a book about 10 different animals at 20 different parties, many of which include bicycles and differing sizes of dystopian cities, then yeah, that's probably the six monther. Maybe a year.

What do you earn in your capacity as something other than a hobby writer? Anything I'm picking from between $25,000 (low wage hospitality) to $100,000 (business analyst ) a year. An illustrator has usually spent 4 years in training at a design school and amassed probably around the same loan as you did for your commerce/other degree. Then gone out and interned for free, built up a portfolio of clients over the years by writing proposals, marketing themselves and  pitching for the work. They also pay studio rent, buy their own stationery, materials and coffee. They go through a lot of coffee. The real stuff. That's not cheap (nothing good ever came out of instant).

So you'd expect that an established illustrator who can come up with the right solutions might reasonably need between $15,000 (living on lentils in a scummy flat) and $50,000 (can afford a holiday and pay mortgage) income for six months work. 

And here you are with your badly written manuscript, no credentials, offering to give the artist 50% of the royalties, after they've done the illustrations and after you've found a major publisher who has never seen a rhyming book about ducks before in their life, and likes the style that the illustrator has come up with. Too bad the artist has only ever drawn tractor and never animals, they can draw right?
O.K, I'm being freakin' brutal with you, but someone has to be because you just have to stop right there!

Royalties pay 10% on the retail price of a book, so you'll get around $2 per copy which you'll split with the illustrator (remember they spent 6 months on your masterpiece that you did in that weekend writing course).

The average first print run for an unkown author by a well known publishing company is 3000 copies. Not all copies sell and not all sales pay out the full 10% (book clubs, promos etc). So you are offering the illustrator a MAXIMUM of $3000 should the book ever get into the bookshop and sell any copies. Most books are remaindered.

Forgive me if we seem a little rude in our super polite replies.
Forgive us if we are crass enough to say we would certainly illustrate your book for $15,000 up front. No problemo. In fact, we'd put down our own manuscripts and start yours tomorrow. True.

There are always exceptions to the rule though. If Neil Gaiman emailed me and said, 'I have this great idea for a picture book, would you do a couple of sample illustrations for me to show to my publisher?' why, I'd be there and panting. Because he's Neil Gaiman, and he's a talented writery god and because of that, doing a book for such a person is money in the bank. And at the end of the day, however much we love our paintbrushes, the bank loves our payments more.

My next post will be about the much safer and less contraversial subject of fracking.
Over and out.