It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these interviews, but I really do love doing them so I’m hoping I will be able to go back to posting one a month. We’ll see how that goes. As always I’m always looking for volunteers to take part. If you would like to just get in touch.
Let’s start with introductions. Who are you?
Hi, I’m Helen Jones, but you’ll find me at UnlockingWords as well as over on Etsy at UnlockingImages. I’m 29 years old and love crafting despite having incredibly bad hand pain. However, if I can do this, then most people have no excuses. I don’t believe that people aren’t creative. I believe that people aren’t given a chance, by society or themselves, to play and learn and experiment but there’s something creative for everyone.
I don’t have an art background (I did a masters in mathematics…) and at school I was never considered creative by teachers because I’m not great at drawing accurately and that was what they focused on…
What crafts do you do?
What crafts do I do… how long is a piece of string?! Predominately, I guess I’m a mixed media artist and photographer (film and digital) and I use those skills to make cards, to art journal etc. But I’ve dabbled in many, many things over the years and have had to adapt or move on as my illness has stopped me from doing particular things. For example, there was a year when I was a prolific knitter, I could only do straight lines, but I made a lot of blankets! Then my hand pain got too much and I was unable to do even a little bit of knitting. I’ve also done sewing, cross stitch, embroidery, candle making…
What illness/es do you have?
I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) which means that my joints are all bendier than they should be which causes full or partial dislocations, joint and muscle pain as well as exhaustion and other fun stuff! I also have a long history of severe depression and anorexia.
In terms of crafting, my EDS probably has the most impact – I struggle to do a lot of things with my hands, for example, I can no longer write by hand (I can manage the odd word with a chunky pen on the odd occasion so there are words in my art still but it’s very limited). This obviously has a huge impact on my ability to create as does the exhaustion. The depression and anorexia can result in a lack of motivation but on the flip side, being creative does really help my mental health.
What are your favourite pieces of craft equipment?
Hmm… it’s a bit like choosing your favourite child! I love my cameras, all of them, and probably my other must have is a notebook with thick pages.
Once you have the notebook, you really can use anything to journal and create in it. But I guess my most used bits and pieces for mixed media are probably…
- Gesso – I love getting texture in my work and covering a page in gesso is a great way to do it
- Acrylic paints – any. I’m not precious. I have £1 ones from the kids section and lovely dylusions ones and I use them all.
- Chunky paintbrushes – these are the only kind I can hold and cos I can only hold them for a few minutes, it means you get a good amount of coverage for your time
- Stencils – because I can’t really draw!
- Tim Holtz ink blending tools – I use them to apply paint, ink etc to the paper through the stencil, I’ve found this is the best way for me
- Paint marker pens – they flow easily, tend to be chunkier and sit on top of most surfaces so great for final details
- Soft pastels – again, a good way to get a lot of colour for your effort and they smudge really easily. NB, oil pastels are much harder to use in my experience from a hand pain perspective.
Why did you start crafting?
I’ve always crafted… But when my most recent episode of depression started about three years ago, I started to art journal as a way of achieving something most days. I’m really pleased that I’ve kept this up and it really does help my mental health.
What adaptations or changes have you had to make to craft because of your illness(es)?
I want to mention knitting again even though I can’t do it anymore. Knitting with chunky wool and chunky (non metal) needles is so much easier than starting out with standard sized stuff. It’s so much easier on your hands and you’ll get a lot more done more quickly. Knitting is also quite good for teaching yourself pacing. If you find the row length you can do easily, make a piece that wide, then every time you get to the end of the row, put it down for a minute, reposition yourself, stretch etc, then pick it back up again.
Coming back to what I can do, with photography, I’ve had to buy a new camera with a flip out live view screen so that I can take pictures from angles I can’t really get to. I’ve also had to redevelop my style of photography. Until a couple of years ago, you’d have found me crawling round on the floor for the perfect shot but now I’d get stuck down there! So a new viewpoint has been forced upon me but I’m considering it a creative challenge. In my mixed media work, I’ve often found that limitations create better work because you have to think and experiment. I’m also unable to take as many photos as I used to because I find the buttons difficult and the camera hard to hold. I’m hoping when I get my new wheelchair, I’ll be able to find a way of mounting the camera on the chair to try and overcome some of these difficulties. If you’re interested in photography and have a disability, you might want to check out The Disabled Photographers Society.Mixed media wise, this is such a huge area that I believe almost everyone can find a way to participate. I use chunky paintbrushes, my fingers, chunky pens etc. It’s a lot of trial and error to find the tools that work for you. For example I had expected that stamping would be an easy way to get a lot of colour and imagery down on paper but it turns out it really hurts my hands. I also struggle with spray inks etc. I think you also need to be creative about how you use things. I’ve got a lot of tools that I use regularly which I’ve just picked up from round the house – instead of drawing circles I dip toilet rolls, clingfilm rolls etc into paint. I frequently use the paper that’s under my art journal to catch drips as collage paper; again it’s a really easy way of adding colour. Cut out words from magazines if you struggle to write (or in my case, more frequently I’m getting my carers to cut them out). Actually, that’s probably a big thing, not being afraid to get help. I had a really bad pain period earlier this year and I hadn’t been able to do my art journal for a couple of weeks and it was getting really frustrating. In the end, I gave my carer very specific instructions and we created a page between us. It’s still my work, she’s just acting as my hands.
I think for me, the two big things to consider with craft and chronic illness is pacing and adjusting your mindset. I work a lot in layers so I can do a bit, let it dry, then come back later. That way I don’t overdo it and I can be doing little bits throughout the day. I also no longer expect myself to do something every day or to do huge pieces of art work. That’s not to say I won’t but my expectation is that I will do something small, most days. Then anything on top is a bonus.
Ooh, what a question! I love my art journals and am particular proud because I’ve been filling them regularly since early 2013 I think. It’s great to see the changes in style and the progression and experimentation of my art. And on a day to day basis, it means that often when I’m crawling into bed, I know I’ve completed, or at least started, something creative.
Like many spoonies I guess, my days have a tendency to blend into each other and before you know it a month has passed and all you’ve done is catch up on Netflix. Art journaling helps to anchor me more in the day and has changed the way I look at things. I’m always looking for inspiration, be it a quote or an image or a feeling, and that makes you tune into your surroundings in a deeper way. I don’t just skim read a book, I read it more carefully looking for words to reuse. I don’t just stare out the window, I notice the birds hopping around and see a feather I might want to use in my journal.
That said, I don’t think I could chose just one page so I’ve included a few.
How expensive is your craft/ how much do you spend on crafting?
Both photography and mixed media art are as expensive as you want them to be. You can spend an absolute fortune on tools and paint and lenses and books but you can also get started with a camera phone and a bit of paint and paper.
Advice for someone with a chronic illness starting off in your craft(/s)?
I think for the basics for photography you obviously need some kind of camera but to start with you don’t need anything fancy. A good photographer is someone who can frame a shot rather than someone who has expensive cameras and 101 lenses. If you can’t frame a shot, your photos will be essentially the same on any camera. Look at training your eye. There’s lots of online tutorials and information about ‘rules’. But get out there, take lots of photos, look at them all and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. Look at other people’s photographs and again, try and unpick why something works. Flickr is probably better than Instagram if you’re looking to do that – fancy filters can distract from a badly taken photo…
For mixed media work and art journaling… to start out with you need some paper or card or a notebook – something to use as your base. You will also need some way of applying colour or lines to that base. It doesn’t matter if all you have to hand is your child’s crayons – go with it. There’s a lot of very expensive fancy stuff out there but you really don’t need it all. As you get to grips with what you’re doing, then start looking at the fancy stuff. Otherwise you’ll buy it and then not want to use it because it looks too nice!
For both, look online at other people’s work, there’s a lot of tutorials out there. But at some stage, turn the computer off, stop looking at other people’s work for a while and actually make something yourself. It can be really easy to just spend all your time looking at other people’s work but the only way that you’ll develop your skills is if you actually try it. And be prepared for some dud work to start with, you’re learning something new and trying to find your own style includes making mistakes. Think about how you came to your clothing style, I’m betting there was at least one piece of clothing from your teenage wardrobe that makes you cringe now but without it, you’d not be where you are today!
You don’t have to show anyone what you’re doing. If you’re art journaling in particular, you might find that you start to touch on issues you don’t want sharing and there is absolutely no need to. The reason you’re doing this is to create, not to please an audience. Let go of the end piece and focus on the process of creating instead.
I want to thank Helen for taking part. I love the work you’ve been kind enough to share with us too. You should check out her blog and, as I said at the start, if you want to do an interview for my blog yourself then just get in tough with me using any of the ways below or my email which should be in the sidebar (or below if you are viewing from mobile).