A story about trying something new, getting stuck, and moving on again.

“Nothing happens until something moves” Albert Einstein.

In April 2018 I made my first tentative steps into stencil cutting and spray painting. I used Record Store Day as the spark to cut and spray some simple lettering designs onto old LP records. The response to these initial pieces was positive, so I kept making, and the vinyl junkie project was born.

Record Store Day 2018. The Happy Talk art is sprayed on to a copy of South Pacific.

I began to develop my own lettering styles and experiment with different paint effects, and then I received my first vinyl junkie commission. I was learning lots about how painful on the fingers stencil cutting is, and how fiddly spray paint can sometimes be. I was enjoying the project, things were going well.

Developing the project
My first vinyl junkie commission

A couple of months later, while showing my work at the 2018 Carshalton Artists Open Studios, I received some unsolicited feedback on the vinyl junkie project. ‘It’s a bit A-level, a bit student. These aren’t very good, I think you should stop doing them’.

One of the things I experienced when I was at my lowest with stress and burnout, was a tendency to focus on the negative, and I took this feedback to heart. The open studios event was a success, but in the aftermath, I put the vinyl to one side, and stopped making. Every day I walked past a small stack of vinyl leaning in the studio doorway, and every day I did nothing about it. The vinyl shifted from something I really enjoyed using, to becoming an obstacle around which I skirted every time I passed through the doorway.

This went on for a while, until one day I accidentally kicked the pile, and some of the vinyl scattered on the floor. I restacked the pieces and carried on. Two days later, during my weekly counselling, I talked about this story, and concluded it was time to either restart the vinyl junkie project, or put it away and move on.

“Nothing happens until something moves” Albert Einstein

I decided to go again, and almost immediately after making the decision, a commission enquiry arrived, and that enquiry turned into this.

I was asked by some good friends to make something with a nod to the city of Cleveland where they live. I experimented with a few stencil cuts before settling on the one you see here, laid onto a starry night sky background. The piece on the right was a surprise thank you for my friends, incorporating letters of their names into a heart shape. Shortly after making these, I was approached by someone wanting a black cat vinyl. This black cat commission marked my first move into multi layered stencil cutting, and I am continuing to develop my practice with more layers, and different paint effects.

I’ve learned a few things from this experience:

  • Whilst I can’t stop unsolicited feedback – I don’t have to pay it any attention.
  • When giving feedback, I should ask if it is wanted first.
  • Getting stuck isn’t great, but it happens. When it does, remember that nothing happens until something moves.
  • Show your work.
  • Keep experimenting.

What’s next for the vinyl junkie project? I don’t know, and I am open to commission enquiries so if you have any ideas, drop me a line and let’s talk.

The Art of The Possible : Working Out Loud

A story about showing your work, adapting your work, and being open to the possibilities.

I recently wrote about the art of the possible, and how analog tools (pencils, paintbrushes etc) still have powerful relevance in a digital world. I wasn’t suggesting that one is somehow better than the other, rather that both matter. An analog, artistic inquiry of our work can be a very powerful thing. Equally, lots of the work I love to do is generated through connections initially made online, and then nurtured in real life, and the idea of working out loud, something I love to practice, is made simpler thanks to the digital spaces we inhabit. Analog and digital. Both matter.

Last year, my friend Neil Usher kindly agreed to give me some feedback when I was compiling some information about my work to share with people interested in hiring me. Part of this work was a series of visual images, which I gathered together using the haikudeck presentation tool.

What Goes Around – Principles of Work 

The simplicity of the deck worked well enough, and Neil suggested that I could make it stand out more by creating another version. ‘Use your own stuff – not stock photo type images’, Neil offered. I took the idea on board and began what became a long process of drawing, tracing, and colouring my own version of the slides.

Though the general idea remains the same – there is a big difference between the two pieces of work. The second one is better. It’s me, showing my work, and what you can expect of me. I’m grateful to Neil for the suggestion.

I figured that was it. The work was done, things move on, and I was wrong. Crystal Miller, another friend in my network spotted my hand made slides and asked if I would consider drawing a set for one of her clients, who was seeking a visual representation for some values/principles. We talked, agreed the creative basis of the project, and some general terms, then I got on with it. Part of the deal was that I could represent these ideas as I saw fit. At first, I struggled to get going with such an open remit. Would the work be liked? That question quickly took me to all the usual ‘I’m not good enough’ places we experience, particularly when doing something new. My client was very supportive and though I wobbled a few times – the work began to flow. In time, a series of 16 images emerged.

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I learned a lot from this process. Some days the pens moved freely, some days not. At times when I got stuck, I asked for help, and I got it. Ideas, nudges, confidence – many things came from asking. At times I practiced the art of ‘it’s good enough, move on’. And at times, I redid images completely. Trying to balance satisfaction with deadlines can become an interesting tangle, and what emerged is a body of work the client is really pleased with. So am I.

Importantly, if I hadn’t responded to Neil’s suggestion, if I hadn’t been open to the possibilities, and if I hadn’t worked out loud, we wouldn’t be looking at these pictures now. And if I can work like this, you can too.

I Need You To Know Who I Am

Staff surveys, and why forced anonymity sucks.

In a previous life working for Megacorp Inc., I shared some responsibility for surveying staff on how they felt about working there. In common with most employee surveys, we forced anonymity on our people. Apparently this was done so that staff could speak up, and feedback honestly and openly, without fear of retribution.

What this enforced anonymity indicated to me is that the business has a deeper problem, a lack of trust. I took a look at some of the data from the previous five years surveys, which showed me there was growing, strong disagreement to statements such as:

  • It is safe to speak up
  • Change is managed well here
  • Megacorp Inc. keeps things simple

Conversely – the number of people strongly agreeing with these statements had flatlined over the same period of time.

I’m no expert, but I’m seeing things here that make me think enforced anonymity maybe isn’t the key to unlocking open honest feedback.

I showed my findings to the divisional Managing Director who agreed to meet with me and talk about what I was seeing. He never showed up for the meeting, then cancelled a rearranged meeting before telling me I should take the information to HR. ‘People stuff – that’s their job’. In this case, I think you can add a total lack of interest to the lack of trust I mentioned earlier.

This data shows me there are people at work who do not feel they can speak up for fear of retribution, and I have experienced that myself too. However I’m no fan of anonymity, and I believe this fear is something we need to help people through. Forcing anonymity on people is not helping. In it’s own way – this simple act reinforces the kind of behavior we are saying that we don’t want.

When I worked on the survey team, I always asked if we could make anonymity optional, so that those who choose to stand by their comments can do so. My request was always refused, though never with a satisfactory explanation.

When I completed the survey myself, I used to frig the system by adding my name in every open comment box I could, knowing that colleagues would go in behind the scenes and redact my name, and the name of anyone else trying to be heard. My reason for doing this was not purely mischievous, more importantly it was driven by a desire to be engaged in making our work better.

If I have ideas about how we might work differently and you really want my opinion, then you need to know who I am so we can act together. In these circumstances, anonymity is completely disempowering. What your enforced anonymity says to me is that you don’t really want to work coactively with me and with others; you are just using the opportunity to survey our feelings and attitudes as a means of satisfying yourself.

I often spent time on the road, visiting colleagues in offices all over the country. When I asked how they felt about the surveying process, two things regularly came up:

We don’t trust that the survey is anonymous

Nothing changes as a result of what we say

Pretty much says it all, huh.

The next time you are tasked with surveying the attitude of your staff, or asked to complete the survey, consider this: I need you to know who I am; otherwise, what’s the point?

Note: A version of this post first appeared on HRExaminer in January 2015.