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Artist Stories No 5 Philippa Johnston

Philippa Johnston is a metalsmith and textile artist who works with recycled tin, wire, wood, textiles, paper, mosaic and found objects to create 2D and 3D pieces for exhibition, commission and to sell. Her work draws inspiration from folk and outsider art and is mostly inspired by her love of animals and birds. Below she shares with us the different initiatives that have been keeping her busy and inspired!

Challenging these challenging times

Ironically, given the ‘challenging and unprecedented’ times we’ve all been living through since March, it’s actively seeking out challenges that has helped keep me sane and creative during the lockdown.

I have to admit, I’ve been finding this not only a difficult time but also a confusing one because, to all intents and purposes, my life and work have remained much the same. I’m lucky to be in good health, to have a home-based day job and a home workshop, and to live in a wonderful part of North East Fife with great friends and neighbours. So why do I feel anxious? Having family and friends who are being super positive and creative doesn’t really help – if anything, it just adds another kind of pressure!

At the start of the lockdown, I was the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights, dazzled by all the wonderful (and free!) arts activities on offer. I signed up to loads and then realised that I didn’t have time to do half of them. More pressure! 

But… I was looking at a year stretching ahead of me with not a deadline in sight. I needed a challenge – something that would give me a reason for making, a focus, a chance to share my work and perhaps get some feedback, but, most importantly, a deadline.

My wire menagerie

#The100dayproject on Instagram had been on my radar for a while but I wasn’t sure I had a project that I could sustain for 100 days and I find Instagram scary! Then I had it – I would create a wire menagerie based on sketches done while helping out on the art school for youngsters run by Damian Callan in Edinburgh every year. This has involved lots of drawing at the zoo and at other locations and over the years I‘ve amassed quite a collection of sketches.

I ended up starting the challenge over a month late but as it says on the project website, ‘Any day is a good day to start your own #The100DayProject.’ It’s given me the focus I was looking for. Having  already organised all my drawings in a portfolio, the only decision I’m faced with each day is deciding what I want to make next. A flamingo or a tiger?  

Early on, I realised that I couldn’t post something every single day. I work with soft black iron wire, using pliers and hand-binding techniques which, depending on the complexity of the piece, can be time-consuming. I didn’t want to compromise a piece just to hit the deadline so have reconciled myself to the fact that it’s going to take me some time to get to the end. So far, I’m up to day 21 so a way to go yet!

A chance to hone skills and explore new ways of working

What I’m getting from this challenge is a chance to hone my skills, explore new ways of working and introduce other materials and colour (still to come!) and see which pieces garner most likes and comments. ‘Drawing’ with wire is exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure – it doesn’t always do what you want it to do – but committing to this challenge has taken me into the workshop on those days when the news has been especially grim and it’s been hard to get motivated. Most of all though, it’s helped me to feel connected. 

A tonic for frayed nerves

There have also been the weekly lockdown challenges from Frayed Edges, the creative group that I belong to. They have offered something specific to respond to, the prompts all wonderfully random – evil eye, tiara, circles, recycling bin animal, we’ve had them all. It took me a little time to understand that everyone would approach the challenges differently – some responses were very jokey and throwaway – but once over this, I could just enjoy their absurdity while responding in my own way. It’s been interesting to see how my interest in folk and outsider art has been coming through in some of the talismanic pieces I’ve made. I’ve obviously been feeling the need to protect myself from evil spirits!

Stitching experiences together

My third challenge has been to take part in ‘Same Sea, Different Boat’, a collaborative project organised by The yard:ARTspace, Hope & Elvis and Littleheath Barn Studio. We were asked to express our lockdown experience, figuratively or as an abstract, in a 10cm printed and/or stitched fabric square which then becomes part of a communal quilt. It’s been great being part of something bigger than me and seeing all the different squares and I’ve made my first collagraph plate! The plan is for the final piece to go on public display. Who knows, it might even make it into Grayson Perry’s Art Club exhibition! In the meantime, you can see the individual squares on Instagram – just search #sameseadifferentboat

More than anything, taking part in these challenges has helped me overcome that sense of feeling overwhelmed and in limbo and to keep making. I still have one more challenge to complete though – updating my website! In the meantime, you’ll find my most recent work on Instagram at @philippajohnston257

Thanks Phillipa for inspiring me to embark on an ever growing list of creative projects I have been saving since the start of lockdown. Its been really great to have a glimpse of the work that has been produced and inspired by our experiences during these difficult times. Please do continue to send us your stories and artworks that have kept you creative and busy.

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