I’ve been making art. I have just started an MA in Illustration. I used to work as an illustrator about twenty something years ago. I did a course, and because I was so young, using the simple tools I was given, I made an advertisement which I put into newsagent’s windows, saying I would take jobs large and small. This was in south London, and yes, jobs large and small came. I was asked to design a menu for a Mexican restaurant. I designed letterheads for nurseries – children and gardens. Once, I was asked to pick up some work from a flat in a high rise, and was made to wait outside while they got their Somalian passport, and the visa stamp they wanted me to draw…I ran, when they went back inside because they’d brought the wrong piece of paper out. I got regular work designing labels for a clothing manufacturer who tore designs out of Vogue and taped them onto workbenches in the East End, in order to sell the knock offs in Deptford market. I plagiarised his plagiarism, and used motifs from Aubrey Beardsley, every damn time. They were pretty good, my clothing labels.
And it’s this that I’ve been marvelling at. This idea that when you’re young, you do anything, really anything, to move ahead in your life. I stole Beardsley’s motifs. But when I look at Beardsley’s motifs, they are classical, in the vein of Dulac or Rackham, so perhaps he was simply plagiarising a little too. I read a book a while ago – ‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon. It was good – I remember little, apart from taking on board the precept of the title: he helped me let go of the guilt. If we open ourselves up to the idea that everything in the world can be taped up above our mental workbench, then aren’t we allowing ourselves to move forward, like we did when we were young?
It is this idea that is startling me: not the fact that ideas must come from somewhere, but the fact that when we were first starting out, we woke up every day and jumped to it. We had to make money. We had to be something or someone. There were no arguments against this huge push into the world. Just out of education, just coming to the end of the first dead end job, I knew that I had to make myself the person I wanted to be. Strain forward, surge ahead of everyone else, work work work. It was the natural instinct of a baby needing to be born. I try to remember how I did the normal every day things then: I had two children under three, a two up two down house in south London, a day job, and a husband training and taking exams. I illustrated in the evening, while writing short stories and novels and a weekly column – the letter from London – for a newspaper in Sri Lanka. I don’t know…I think I just did things fast.
There was no internet. There was little on the TV. Research was done in libraries, in between reading interminable amounts of Thomas the Tank stories to the three year old. We walked everywhere and I wore a pram out – a wheel actually came off, in the rain – getting to illustration jobs. I paid through the nose to have things colour photocopied in print shops. We owned a computer, but it would be another ten years before anything I did artistically would be put onto a computer.
Now, I am going back to basics. I am starting illustration from first principles. I am in a class with people younger then my children, and I am so excited at the prospect of working in this new way – where the ideas are prompted by my life and my work. It is a different, more measured approach. I can take time, and am working slowly and steadily, exploring concepts and thinking philosophically. The impetus is the same though. I am trying to be something or someone, using pictures. I am painting and drawing, and the push to be born, yet again, is still a natural instinct – it is still there. But I’m going to take my time.