Portrait of the Artist as a Grizzly Bear

This started off as a quick scribble I posted on Instagram. I've had way more rejection than I've ever had actual work and somehow I'm still here, sitting at my desk with gluey hands and bits of paper stuck to my slippers. So hip-hip-hooray for a giddy optimism, I think it's probably the main ingredient in being a freelance illustrator.

Heavenly Humblebee Yoga

I've just been on an actual, real-life yoga retreat with wonderful Humblebee Yoga. Now admittedly, my previous experience of retreating (yogic-ally speaking) was nil, but I bet this is the only retreat in the world to gift hand-knitted bees to every guest, and I can't imagine you could find a more beautiful setting, more thoughtful hosts, or a lovelier group of people to share it with.

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Last October, my downward dog was more like a lumbering, creaky-kneed yak and my brain was... well, I've talked about the state of my mind on this blog plenty of times over the last few months, so let's instead talk about the appalling state of my hamstrings: NOT GOOD. Sub-yak, in fact.

For the last six months Eden Hot Yoga in Lichfield have basically provided much-needed structure for my working day, stretched my long-suffering limbs and a been a sort of haven when life was at its most wobbly. As a result, my legs recovered from the London Marathon in about 3 days, I can check my blind spot with minimal effort, and even though my hamstrings are still definitely a work-in-progress, I have discovered I have open hips! Hooray! Although alarmingly, I've been known to burst into tears in the middle of a pigeon pose. Apparently this is normal, because hips are where we carry our emotions, and happily I'm usually face down at this point so my tears sort of blend into the sweat (hot yoga is quite a sweaty affair).

Anyway, back to Humblebee. And Devon. When I heard Rachel, one of my favourite teachers at Eden, was planning a whole long weekend of yoga at Crowborough Farm in Georgeham with Jemima, the other half of Humblebee, I couldn't wait to sign up. As it was just a couple of miles away from our favourite beach, I easily persuaded my sister to come along with me so we could relive our childhood on Puttsborough Sands in between working on our warriors.

Each day began with yoga at 8am, and while either Rachel or Jemima led us through sun salutations in the strong morning practice, the other was busy in the kitchen, whipping up a delicious vegan breakfast banquet (things I discovered on retreat include tofu scramble and the heavenly marriage of almond butter and blackcurrant jam on toast). With days spent exploring the beautiful countryside and relaxing on the beach, we returned to the house for evening yin yoga at 6.30pm, followed by another amazing vegan feast. 

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I had the most glorious time. Rachel and Jemima are both brilliant teachers and such generous hosts - I can't wait for the next one! I've been thinking a yoga retreat for illustrators would be a brilliant idea - who's with me?

Find Humblebee here, on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Marathon Highs

I kind of want to do it again. The London Marathon, I mean. I LOVED it. I think I'm still on a high, a whole week later. As soon as I finished I wanted to sign up for next year, and it's not because I'm a super runner or want to get much faster or do it in any way particularly differently, it's just that it was AMAZING.

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From Greenwich, where people stood on the steps outside their houses playing musical instruments and families still in their pyjamas cheered as we ran by, to the moment I turned past Buckingham Palace and felt like I was flying down the Mall. (I mean, obviously I was jogging very slowly, but I felt like I was sprinting.)

I had only the sketchiest idea of the route before I went to the Expo. The London Marathon Expo, for the uninitiated, is at the ExCeL centre, where you go to register, pick up your race number and if you're me, begin to think, "Help! There's so much stuff here that I don't have! I am NOT A PROPER RUNNER. I've only just discovered that we cross Tower Bridge at mile 12 and then go back east! That's the wrong way!" I was feeling so calm before, but did get a little bit nervous surrounded by hundreds of other people who clearly knew a lot more about this marathon running business than I did. Still, I just grazed on free energy bar samples until I felt better, bought a belt thing to carry supplies, and then ambled back to my sister's, proudly clutching my kitbag with race number on display. I even used it to carry all my shopping.

When I lived in London I never watched the marathon. I don't even remember it being on, which seems completely ridiculous now. Last weekend I felt as if the whole city was gearing up for the race. I'd spent the week before on holiday in Orkney and arrived back on Thursday night, mainly focussed on getting through the next couple of days without getting ill or injuring myself. I promptly tripped over a foot-high wall outside Dalston Tesco and landed oh-so-elegantly on someone's car bonnet.

Fortunately both the car and I survived, unscathed, and I made it to the start in Greenwich Park. The worst bit was between 10am when the race began and 10.29.35 when I actually crossed the start line; it takes ages. After that, I just had to keep running, and because this time I'd done a 22.5 mile training run, I had a sneaking suspicion I might just be able to do it.

Which is exactly what happened! I just pottered around very slowly (my fastest mile was 11.31 and my slowest 12.01) but I didn't walk, which was my only goal. I did stop twice to go to the loo, so that was a bit of a rest. I feel compelled to tell people this for some reason. It's like when I did the Bournemouth one I couldn't not tell everyone I walked quite a bit. A friend overheard me do this and said, "Kate, stop telling people you walked! It doesn't matter, just say I've done the Bournemouth Marathon", but I can't do it, it feels like lying. And actually the second time I stopped for the loo, I met Bryony Gordon the queue, handing out toilet paper like a superstar. I squealed "I KNOW WHO YOU ARE!" and then couldn't think of anything else to say, like "you're such an inspiration" or "I love Mental Health Mates, I wish there was a group in Staffordshire" (fortunately I was wearing my Heads Together headband, so hopefully she appreciated that). I just took the loo roll and grinned like a loon.

I spent most of the race grinning. I decided as we looped round the Cutty Sark, that I am running the actual London Marathon and I am going to enjoy every single second of this. I felt brilliant. People shouted, "COME ON KATE! YOU CAN DO IT!" (because I ironed my name in giant letters onto my top, not because all of London knows who I am) and gave me sweets and high-fived me, and I truly felt like the RUNNING QUEEN OF ALL ENGLAND, if not the British Isles. If not the world.

When it got a bit more difficult, I think around mile 19, I saw a woman holding up a big cardboard sign that said: REMEMBER WHY YOU'RE DOING THIS (I wish I'd taken a photo) and I thought about Refuge and all the women they help, about the women who've contacted me to say they've experienced a controlling relationship, about every single person who has sponsored me and cheered me on, and my heart felt so full. I just ate another energy bar and kept going. Eating is the key, I have discovered. When people talk about your brain giving up and 'hitting the wall', what they really mean is: TIME FOR AN EMERGENCY BANANA. Then you'll be ok.

My incredible sister, with the best banner ever.

My incredible sister, with the best banner ever.

And brain-giving-up is basically how I felt for a lot of last year.  Like I was just a body, existing, with zero sense of self or quite why I should bother with all this palaver of living. If I didn't have amazing friends and family who made me feel so loved, I would not have survived it. They were my emergency bananas. They were actually like whole banquets that kept me going. There are so many women out there for whom Refuge is the only thing stopping them from hitting that wall. It's the only thing which makes them believe they might be worth something on their own, that another kind of life is possible, the only place they can go for help. So this is my final call, at least for this year(!), for donations. If you have anything to spare for an incredible charity, please donate here.

Seeing my wonderful friends and family cheering at Embankment was the icing on the cake. Or the peanut butter on the emergency banana. It made the marathon feel a whole mile shorter for one thing, because I was so looking forward to seeing them, and when I had, there was only the exciting Parliament Square/Mall bit left to go! Running down the Mall was everything I hoped it would be, and as I ran through the finish arch I thought I might just have sneaked in under 5.15 - and I had! 5.14.37. I very nearly burst into tears. A lovely woman gave me my medal and a hug, and it couldn't have been better if it was presented by Prince Harry himself.

So, THANK YOU. Thank you if you sponsored me, or sent me a lovely message, or bought an Adichie print (still available!), or cheered as I ran past. A huge thank you to Refuge for all their support and the amazing post-race reception. Running this marathon for them has finally given me myself back. It gave me a way to stop grieving and start living properly in this body that can run, in this brain that knows who Kate Slater actually is.

Yep. My parents have bought the WHOLE photo package.

Yep. My parents have bought the WHOLE photo package.

I keep thinking I should stop blogging about the state of my brain and instead talk about... I dunno... illustrating, maybe? I'd better get back to it! I think it will be easier now.

PS. If you're thinking about running, YOU CAN DO IT. You should definitely listen to The Guilty Feminist podcast about Body Capability. Actually, listen to ALL of them, they're brilliant. Just to be clear, I am going to make myself stop telling everyone that I'm not a proper runner. I've been saying, "well, I'm really not a runner, I mean, I'm really slow, I just plod around at the same speed. And I'm not very good at it, and I'm running the London Marathon, but I just want to get round, really. Like, not walk. I mean, if I do walk, that's ok, because I'm really slow and I haven't trained properly... well, I've done 22.5 miles, but I haven't done much in the week so I don't think I'll be very good. I did the Bournemouth marathon last year, but I walked a lot of that so..." and so on. If possible I usually try and shoehorn how I once got a 4D in PE into the conversation and maybe that I have zero hand eye coordination. Sometimes I mime running very slowly, just to really lower people's expectations, so they know I know I am no good. Well NO MORE. I ran the bloody London Marathon. And I'm going to keep running, very slowly, for as long as I possibly can.

My Fullest Self

A couple of weeks ago, I started work on this. In case there's the tiniest chance you haven't seen one of the million times I've mentioned it on Instagram and Twitter, this is something Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said on Woman's Hour last year, in response to the question, "What is the most important thing we can teach our daughters?" Adichie replied:

"Your job is not to be likeable, your job is to be your fullest self."

Obviously, this struck a bit of a chord with me at the time. Well, more of a direct radio punch, actually. Especially when she said that women must "reject the idea of likeability". You can hear this bit of the interview here and also watch Adichie's brilliant "We Should All Be Feminists" TED talk, here.

It came to mind again, recently, when I was thinking of ways to raise more money for Refuge, alongside my London Marathon attempt! So, I'm selling prints and postcards of the finished artwork (still a work in progress, but almost done!), with all the profits going to Refuge with the rest of my London Marathon fundraising. Buy yours by 3pm on WEDNESDAY 29th MARCH, and you might even win the original artwork! In a frame and everything! Please visit my shop to have your very own bit of Adichie inspiration on your wall and support this amazing charity.

The best thing about creating this particular piece of art is that, somehow, I think Adichie's words have finally sunk in; really deep in, to my heart or gut or subconscious, or wherever it is that you have to keep things so you just know them. As though in carving out letters from paper, they've marked themselves on my bones, too.

And finally, I watched this video last week. More than anything I've heard or read, this best describes my experience of how it feels. I think because it's non-specific, it doesn't make me think, "well, of course it wasn't as bad as that", which I used to think all the time. A friend nailed it when she said to me, "no one wins any prizes for being in the most abusive relationship. It's either abusive, or it's not." So, if you're reading this and thinking, "well, things aren't that bad...",  that's already quite bad enough. There's a list here, if it helps; just ONE of these, or something similar, is bad enough. Please tell someone what you're going through. You are worth so much more.

BE YOUR FULLEST SELF. It's taken me a long time to find out who my fullest self is, but I finally feel like me again. It's the most wonderful thing.

Remember, one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, Refuge is running an amazing campaign with Avon at the moment, all about what you can do to help a friend suffering abuse. It's really worth checking out, here. That could be you in the video, holding out the umbrella.

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Running for Refuge

It is astonishing, the speed at which it's possible to go from idly browsing Refuge's website, looking for fundraising inspiration, to receiving a London Marathon running vest in the post.

Because the amazing thing about running is that even when you're completely stationary, sitting at your desk with a mug of tea, the endorphins can still get you. Like the rhythm got Gloria Estefan. Like listening to Nina Simone sing Here Comes the Sun can make it feel like the sun has come up in my heart. I only had to imagine I was running down the Mall, the crowd cheering wildly, and, before I knew what had happened, I'd not only submitted the application form but actually got a place!

I'm so proud to be running the London Marathon for Refuge. Refuge is committed to a world where domestic violence is not tolerated and where women and children can live in safety. They aim to empower women and children to rebuild their lives, free from violence and fear. They provide a range of life-saving and life-changing services, and are a voice for the voiceless. I'd be so grateful for any donation you can give, you can find my fundraising page here.

I've been running fairly regularly since the Bournemouth marathon last October (although rarely more than 10k), but I still definitely wouldn't call myself a runner. I fling my arms in the air for fun when I'm going downhill, sing/gasp along to Taylor Swift (judge me if you will) as I go, and fantasise that I'm being interviewed on Woman's Hour when I probably should be focusing on... who knows? My gait? Nutrition strategy? Instead I listen to Girl on Fire and pretend that the actual spirit of Maryland is calling me or Modern Love, which transports me to New York, where I zig-zag the streets like Frances Ha.

In reality, I'm mostly zig-zagging round horses and tractors while desperately trying to stop Gladys from dragging me into the ditch on the opposite side of the road.

So, only when I'd got my vest and sponsorship form, taped a training timetable over my desk and bought myself some jazzy new leggings did I realise how much harder this marathon business would be this time (besides the February sleet and soggy trainers), because now, I'd need to ask people to sponsor me, just for me.

I've written and re-written my fundraising blurb a MILLION times. I wake up in the middle of the night to do it. I tweak it over breakfast. I move commas at lunch. I email it to friends and family to ask them and, if someone does make a donation, I panic about which version they've seen and what they will think. I've been trying to write this blog for a whole month.

But now there are only SEVEN weeks to go til marathon day and it's time for action!

So, basically, this cause is very important to me because, like plenty of other women out there, I know how it feels when a relationship becomes abusive, no matter whether the abuser does it consciously or not. I know how hard it is to identify what is happening, how impossible it is to explain. That's why I'm doing this, because I want it all to have been useful for something. I want other women to know they aren't alone. I want to raise lots of money for this brilliant, life-saving, awareness-raising, attitude-changing charity.

Every woman should be aware of the warning signs of an abusive relationship and know when to trust her instincts. This is why the work of Refuge is so important, they can give a woman the strength and support she needs to leave an abusive partner, when she feels at her most worthless and powerless. And they'll be there to help her rebuild her life, too.

Something I'm working on, inspired by this interview. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says women must "reject the idea of likeability ... you have girls who are abused, but they're thinking about the feelings of their abuser."

Something I'm working on, inspired by this interview. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says women must "reject the idea of likeability ... you have girls who are abused, but they're thinking about the feelings of their abuser."

In their lifetime, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence (this doesn't just mean physical abuse, but controlling, manipulative behaviour too). This seems almost incredible, until you slowly start talking to people and then you begin to understand how real that statistic is. Which is really why I want to try to talk about it, because domestic abuse affects women of every age and background. Every week in England and Wales two women are killed by a current or former partner, and recent research by Refuge indicates that over half of young women (18-21) have experienced at least one violent incident from a partner.

Refuge can help. Not only do they provide safe, emergency accommodation and run the National Domestic Violence Helpline in partnership with Women’s Aid, they also offer services for children, individual and group counselling for abused women and community based outreach services. Refuge runs award winning media and advertising campaigns to raise public awareness of the issue and lobbies for better provision of services for women and children experiencing domestic violence.

So, this is why I'm giving this marathon thing another go. Please give anything you can. I have other fundraising plans too - so watch this space!

Talking

Public speaking is not my favourite thing. Another one of those universally acknowledged truths being that most illustrators choose to be illustrators because they are more comfortable huddled behind their desk, telling stories on paper, than they are speaking them out loud. Having said that, there is nothing quite like surprising yourself, so occasionally I like to throw caution to the wind, my arms up into the air and stand up in front of a room full of people (like a very enthusiastic, possibly slightly unhinged puppeteer) and TALK.

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A couple of weeks ago I went to the Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts and did just that. One of my university friends, lovely Ann Sun, is now a tutor on the illustration BA and asked me in to tell the students about my work. I had such a lovely day, it was nicely relaxed and informal, and the students asked LOADS of questions, which was really great. There's a CSVPA blog here about my visit, with a short Q&A at the end.

The Real Best Nine

I had a look at my Instagram Best Nine yesterday. It seems to show me doing quite a lot of work, which puts it at odds with my own version of events... Also, I had such a lovely response to another Instagram post (below) that part of me wanted to talk about it a little bit more. Another part thinks this blog is a stupid idea, so we'll see who wins...

I made a really big decision about 9 months ago, and for a few weeks I felt totally amazing. I strode about the fields feeling lightheaded with relief, imagining hundreds of wonderful possibilities and singing Sisters are Doin' it for Themselves at the top of my voice. But it turns out that if you've spent a few years slowly learning that your feelings aren't important and all your energy ignoring your thoughts, then even Annie and Aretha can't help you. It's quite hard to work at all when you are your work and you're fairly convinced you're rubbish at all things. I even wondered if I should give up being an illustrator and get a proper job, which considering illustrating is basically the only thing I've wanted to do since the age of about 7, was slightly out of character.

In the end, I had to give myself a break and accept that 2016 might need to be my year out. I am incredibly lucky to have brilliant friends and family, who have been endlessly kind and supportive. Other things that helped: talking, running, singing, yoga-ing. This is my personal prescription for depression, should you ever require it. Also read this piece by Isabel Hardman.

However, quite unexpectedly and really wonderfully, I've now realised that this really horrible year contains quite a lot of happy memories, and this is something to be CELEBRATED. Well, this is what I thought yesterday when I'd just got back from a run and started writing this blog, still full of the joys of exercise. Who the blog is for is a bit of a mystery to me; I suspect it might be for myself, in a cathartic sort of way, but hopefully it's also for you, if you are lost or sad or alone.

I have a sneaking suspicion that should I ever reach the grand old age of 70 (Brexit, Trump, climate change and antibiotic-resistant superbugs permitting) I'll look back on the last 12 months as some of the most important of my life, rather than the worst.

So, although I am incredibly glad to see the back of 2016, I'm also very grateful for, among other things, the following:

I've linked some of the photos to blogs I've already written, but really these are all about incredible people who've kept me from losing the plot.

THANK YOU for supporting me and my business in 2016. It's meant more to me this year than you can ever imagine.

Here's to a courageous 2017!

Pastures New

I've been incredibly lucky to call this beautiful place home for 30 years.

Even when I haven't lived here, it's always been home. I've had my studio in the old apple room since I came back to Staffordshire in 2011, and when I moved back in last March it was exactly the haven I needed it to be. Although my timing could perhaps have been a little better, as this was only a couple of months after my Dad announced he was retiring. We are, or were, tenant farmers (of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Queen is our landlady) and as neither my sister nor I wanted to farm, giving up farming means giving up our home.

I am so grateful to have been born a farmer's daughter; to have grown up in this wonderful farmhouse in this gorgeous countryside with so much freedom and peace and fun. For beautiful cows and straw castles and precarious treehouses. For armfuls of daffodils and pet hens for Christmas and feeding the calves in our pyjamas. For my dad being an altogether brilliant dairy farmer. For my mum being the sort of mum who would let us ride our bikes round the kitchen table, invite all our friends over to take part in the 'Newborough Hall Farm Olympics' (NHFO, 1996-2002) or turn the entire house into a haunted house/obstacle course with slime and cobwebs in every cupboard.

My grandparents moved here in 1951 from Shropshire/Cheshire, my Dad was actually born in the drawing room, and although part of me now wishes I'd been a farmer instead of an illustrator, I'm really glad my he can finally relax a bit (5.20am til 10 or 11pm, seven days a week, kind of takes its toll).

Grandad and Dad in the seventies (judging by dad's flowing locks!)

Grandad and Dad in the seventies (judging by dad's flowing locks!)

So we're leaving and it still doesn't feel real. The barns will be converted into houses and the entire house painted in 'skimming stone' and 'polished pebble'. In the meantime, we're all wading through decades of packing. The removal company took one look at my studio and said, "you see, this room will take a whole morning in itself"... I'd better get cracking.

My sister in the apple room, when we briefly turned it into a den (until we cleared it out you could barely open the door, it was so full of old furniture and junk).

My sister in the apple room, when we briefly turned it into a den (until we cleared it out you could barely open the door, it was so full of old furniture and junk).

My studio as it is now - although it's rarely this tidy!

My studio as it is now - although it's rarely this tidy!

I have loved being a farmer's daughter.

Magnificent Magpies at Derby Uni

Last month I visited Derby University to run collage workshops with students on the Bachelor of Education course. The workshops are the fabulous idea of an old school friend of mine, now lecturer-extraordinaire, Becky Manton, and this is the third year running we've teamed up to talk about how a picture book is made. She's always so passionate about children's literacy and the importance of reading for pleasure that by the end of the session, half of me wants to give up this illustration lark and become a teacher myself (although later I remember how exhausting it is to stand up in front of a room full of people and be that enthusiastic ALL day, every day. I am in complete awe of anyone who can do that and work a 60 hour week).

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At the beginning of the session I have to talk through the process of illustrating a picture book and explain how this all ties into a mysterious person called Doonan's list of the 'ingredients' that go into an illustration: No. 1, a scheme of colour. "So everyone... here I've used warm colours to make it look autumnal..." (I always feel like a bit of an idiot at this point, because it seems to me that Jane Doonan has given this a lot more thought than I have).

Fortunately, later comes my favourite part of the session, the collage workshop, where students create their own illustrations for Magpie's Treasure. I'm always so impressed with how great the finished collages are! Here are a few from this year:

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All SO lovely. I'm slightly obsessed with the way they've done the sky in the middle one above, and check out the beautiful magpie below! Apart from being astonished by how great the finished artwork is, the main thing I take away from the day is this: reading for pleasure has been shown to be more important for children’s educational success than their family's socio-economic status. Isn't that amazing? I love hearing the students discuss their own ideas and thoughts about how they'll encourage their future pupils to read. Really puts this whole cutting-and-sticking fandango into perspective.

On the subject of reading, my brother-in-law, Stephen Bush, wrote this gorgeous piece on "how a sugar company taught me to read", which I love.

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Shrew Love

I posted bits of my latest RSPB illustrations on social media as I worked and had such a lovely response I thought I'd blog about the whole process. The RSPB are my longest running clients and there's nothing I love better than a Wild Times commission popping up in my inbox! Even better, the latest tale starred a shrew! Shrews are absolutely my new favourite, which frankly means I'm going to have to work really hard to resist the urge to create a new range of shrew homeware. Sadly, I don't think Not on the High Street will ever include any rodents in their trend forecasts and, unlike with the orangutans, I probably shouldn't risk it...

Anyway, I've started experimenting a bit lately, and for this story I tried a slightly more mixed-media approach, using paint and charcoal to create some of the background before assembling it all in Photoshop.

Not so long ago I was such a collage-purist that even using a pen to dot the eyes of my characters felt like cheating! But slowly, over the last couple of years, I've been straying from my roots as a scissors-and-glue evangelist to branch out ever so slightly.

The great thing about illustrating the RSPB stories is that I can adapt my technique to suit the tale. I don't usually decide exactly what kind of collage I'll make until the roughs have been approved. This is how one of the shrew illustrations turned out (you can see the following page, along with more of my RSPB work, here), and below are two previous commissions in different styles. For the harvest mouse I created both illustrations as whole, flat collages, only scanning them in when they were completely assembled. For the other story, about a boy's bedtime adventure with his toy animals, I worked in a really three-dimensional way to create a series of spot illustrations, quite similar to the way made the sets for The Birthday Crown book.

I'm really lucky to have a client who allows me to experiment a bit, and I'd definitely like to carry on down the mixed media route for other projects.

Top Drawer

When I applied for a space at Spotted, Top Drawer's new talent section, I really hadn't thought it through. I recklessly decided to take part in the UK's biggest home and gift trade show on the spur of the moment, and was quite surprised when I was offered a place.

Thankfully, it's amazing what you can achieve in a couple of weeks! This summer has been a bit of a tough one, and while I kept trying to pull myself together and get stuff done, mostly I didn't do anything useful at all. Fortunately, after a restorative break in beautiful Paris, I suddenly launched into action at the end of August and managed to get most of the planning and preparation done in about a fortnight. I've always loved a deadline.

So, this is how my not-so-grand not-a-plan came together:

1. Quick! Design more cards. In an ideal world, I would have launched a brand new range of super stylish homeware and stationery to make buyers weep tears of joy. Instead I decided that all my wares would be new to Top Drawer, so I concentrated on filling a few gaps instead. I had a few new patterns ready that slotted into my existing wrapping paper collections and designed a some more cards, beginning with this gorilla (happily marrying my love of both great apes and Carole King's Tapestry album). Things were off to a good start.

2. Pick a colour. Any colour. I ignored millions of emails from the exhibition build company asking me what colour I'd like my stand painted (and would I like special flooring/shelves/plug sockets for the price of the energy bill of a small country/beautiful women to come and help me sell), then suddenly decided at the last minute that I probably should paint it, because most of my patterns have a white background and I wanted them to stand out. After seeking the advice of a friend, I plumped for panels of mustard yellow (panels because I would now have to paint it myself and didn't think I'd have time to do the whole thing).

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3. Whip up a catalogue. Thankfully, I'd already had lots of help from my friend Tina who designed my first wholesale catalogue earlier this year, so I used that as a template. It still took a lot longer than I thought to update, but, after staying up all night, I managed to get it to the printer with less than a week to go! I also had postcards printed and even concocted a press release which made everything sound a lot better planned than it was! (Although in retrospect I really didn't need the press releases, a few postcards in the press room would have been fine.)

4. Mock up my stand. I commandeered a section of the hall at home and all sorts of pieces of furniture until I had an idea of what I could fit in the space. After thoroughly combing Pinterest for ideas I stuck everything to the wall with masking tape and enlisted my family to help me with all the drilling and painting, doing as much in advance as possible to make it easy to install on the day. Mocking everything up at home was so worthwhile - I did stick to my plan, and it looked OK! The most difficult part was accepting that it wasn't possible to display every single product I have. Less is more, apparently.

Overall, I was quite pleased with how it turned out (although the mustard is difficult to photograph!). Set up day went surprisingly smoothly. My two pieces of advice would be to take someone to help you (I had my brilliant mum and sister) and a trolley to ferry everything up from the car (Olympia is ENORMOUS).

(My sister, @FelicitySlater, Instagrams like a pro; here I am, rolling mustard in my hi-vis.)

(My sister, @FelicitySlater, Instagrams like a pro; here I am, rolling mustard in my hi-vis.)

I wouldn't exactly recommend such a slap-dash approach, but I'm really glad I managed to get everything together somehow. There's so much I couldn't have learned any other way than by just being at Top Drawer. I even had one LOVELY customer on the first day who gave me lots of advice while I took her order. Here are a few tips that spring to mind:

1. Always invoice pro forma. Not just for the first order like I'd written in my catalogue T&Cs, because unless it's someone massive like John Lewis, you should always make sure you've been paid before you deliver.

2. Use a simple carbon copy order book to take orders, don't faff around with an iPad (which is what I was doing).

3. Sell everything in packs; 6 cards, 12 sheets of wrap etc. I knew this was what bigger companies would do, but as a first time exhibitor, I thought it would encourage buyers to take a chance on me if I was more flexible. I'm still not sure on this one, I've definitely had a couple of shops place orders for just 3 of one design, but I suppose there's also something to be said for acting like you're already a well established brand and perhaps inspiring more confidence that way?


The best thing about the whole experience was making friends with my Spotted neighbours. It was so good to meet other designers at a similar stage in their career and it wouldn't have been half as much fun without them. In fact, probably no fun at all.

Here are MAIRI HELENA, me, Zanna from PAPIO PRESS, KATIE KEITH, Anastassia of FOREVER FUNNY and Victoria from BOBBIE PRINT. Catherine from MOTTAINAI TEXTILES, Rachel from LITTLE WOLF and Ana from ABALON STAR were all busy with customers and missed out on the photo!


Before I went to Top Drawer, I read this Design Trust article which is full of useful advice! Patricia (everyone's favourite design business guru) says, "note that especially trade buyers will want to see you a couple of seasons or years before they actually will order from you, so don’t be too optimistic in that area", so I had very low expectations about receiving any orders at all! Happily, I have had a few as a result of exhibiting, all from lovely, independent shops. I did spot buyers from John Lewis and Harrods, but they didn't spend much time in the Spotted section! The show was actually a bit quieter than I expected; it was quite comforting when one of the big companies downstairs in the main gift area told me it had been the same for them. The downside of being in Spotted was that a lot of people didn't seem to make it upstairs to where we were; Olympia is so vast, it would be very easy to miss the whole section. On the other hand I hadn't done any networking beforehand; if I'd worked harder in advance to make contacts and build relationships with buyers, it probably have helped.

So, after three very long days and a renewed passion for caffeinated drinks, I packed up and trundled back to Staffordshire in the car. Special mention must go to wonderful Katie Keith, designer and Spotted-neighbour extraordinaire, who helped me wheel the entire contents of my stand a mile through Hammersmith on my little rusty trolley, all so I didn't have pack up, walk to fetch my car, queue to get back in etc... There's no way I could have managed it without her - thank you, Katie!

Orkney

Towards the end of July, I was fortunate enough to be whisked away to Orkney at only a few days notice! I was invited along by Alex, a good friend of my sister's, who had a spare ticket up to visit her family and knew I could do with a break.

View of Hoy from Mainland Orkney.

It turned out to be exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. Fiona and Maggie made me feel so much at home and showed me around Orkney's beautiful Mainland. There is nothing quite like being absorbed into a lovely group of people you've never met before, who make you feel like being yourself is just right. And Orkney really is the most glorious place; I only explored parts of the West Mainland, so I can't wait to go back and see more!

Alex's mum, Fiona Sanderson, is a metal worker and artist, so I even had the chance to make my own miniature aluminium bowls! Honestly, not only a spectacularly beautiful landscape, the kindest hosts, Neolithic stone circles and archeological digs, Viking runes, rhubarb ice cream, the wonder that is the Pier Arts Centre, swimming in the sea, fish and chips, and a lesson in making flat breads, but also metal working!

Fiona's garden studio.

Fiona's garden studio.

And did I mention spotting seals and Scottish primroses? And the leg of lamb gifted to me by North Ronaldsay sheep farmers which I brought back on the sleeper train, wrapped carefully in newspaper by Maggie, who drove all the way to Kirkwall the morning I left to collect it, even though she's a vegan? And the black and ochre lichen and incredible cliffs of Yesnaby, where we ate scallop rolls overlooking the sea? And driving to the Ring of Brodgar at midnight because the moon was full, even though it had disappeared behind cloud by the time we arrived (which actually made for an even more memorable visit as we hunted for Viking graffiti by the light of our phones and got a bit lost trying to find the way in)?

So many wonderful things. I should have written about this straight away but I am, if anything, an unreliable blogger. If I had any regular readers, they would certainly attest to this fact (but of course I don't post often enough to have any of those). I've been reminded that I really must write this because I recently read the brilliant Outrun by Amy Liptrott. Born on Orkney, her memoir of alcoholism and recovery describes how she leaves the islands for the thrills of London, returning age 30 to find Orkney will hold her as she pieces herself back together. It is beautifully written and has already become the book I'm urging everyone I meet to read.

You can find out more about visiting here. We took the sleeper train to Inverness*, bus to Scrabster and then Ferry to Stromness.

*Heavily asterisked because due to an ill-timed strike we were turfed of the train at Edinburgh, in the middle of the night, and had to take a taxi to Inverness. However, it really wouldn't put me off going by sleeper again; the 3 hours sleep I did manage to enjoy were very comfortable!

PS. This has to be the best blue plaque you've ever seen, right?!

PPS. I've also just returned from Top Drawer, my first ever trade show. I'll write a separate post about that SOON, but amazingly my first order of the show was from a shop in Orkney - the beautiful Longship. What are the chances of that?!

My Inner Gazelle and the Bournemouth Marathon

I'm starting off my thirties in a spectacularly non-Kate Slater fashion by running a marathon.

(I will pause while anyone who was in my PE class at school scrapes themselves off the floor.)

For everyone else, I cannot impress upon you enough how unlikely this is. When I was 10, I won the sack race and when I was 15 my PE teacher asked me to demonstrate backstroke to the rest of the class. Those are my only sporting achievements so far. (I might also be able to save you from drowning if I'm wearing my pyjamas but, let's face it, that's not a real life situation.)

When my brain isn't awash with the serotonin that swooshes round as I run, the main thing that keeps me marathon-motivated (apart from eyeing up fluorescent orange running gear online) is that I plan on raising some money for Teenage Cancer Trust while I'm at it, in memory of my lovely friend Ben.

I'm by no means the first of Ben's friends and family to run a ridiculously long way to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust, but I promise you I'm the most unlikely runner of us all, so any donation, however tiny, will definitely spur me on! You can find my Just Giving page here. We all miss Ben so much; this is just another small way to remember someone really wonderful and hopefully make things a little bit better for the next young person diagnosed with cancer.

(As you can see, the other thing I've learned to do on the cusp of this new decade is make a gif!)

(As you can see, the other thing I've learned to do on the cusp of this new decade is make a gif!)

I started running (aka, jogging, very slowly, on strictly flat surfaces) just over a year ago, after reading Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Yep, not only has Murakami written 13 novels, been translated into 50 languages and won masses of awards, he's also run at least 25 marathons AND one ultramarathon (and seems to squeeze in quite a few triathalons too).

I borrowed the memoir from my friend Sarah and, thoroughly inspired, we decided to find out what all the fuss was about and go for a jog (under the strict agreement that we wouldn't try to chat at the same time).

We had a glass of wine before we set off, a slice of cake when we got back and managed at least half a mile! I wouldn't say I caught the running bug exactly, but it was a nice way to spend time together and I even bought myself an actual pair of leggings from TK Maxx. I hadn't worn leggings since about 1993. (FYI: I've since discovered that running leggings are called tights, which is just one example of the befuddling, yet rather alluring, world of sportswear; a world where the most reliable way to identify if something is for women is that it's got pink bits on, and where you find yourself trapped in a changing cubicle, ensnared in a sports bra you don't understand, wondering how likely it is you'll need to dislocate a least one shoulder to get out of it.)

By autumn we'd reached the dizzying heights of 2 whole miles, with conversation and the odd hill thrown in for good measure (and a shared slice of millionaire's shortbread at the end). It was quite brilliant. I had a vague idea it might be nice to be able to manage 6 miles, but that was probably enough and something I might accomplish in the distant future, around the same time I finally knit enough squares to make a whole blanket or learn to make gravy.

Then Sarah suggested we sign up for the Bournemouth marathon... and I said yes.

I was slightly alarmed, but it was almost Christmas, other parts of my life were going awry and I thought running a marathon seemed like the sort of thing the Kate Slater I would like to be would do without a second thought.

And it is quite handy, really, because when the question "what on earth am I doing with my life?" pops into my brain in an inconvenient sort of way, I have a ready answer: "I know! I'm running a marathon" which appeases my inner Spanish Inquisitor a little bit.

I am a gazelle. A gazelle in running tights. But really I fear I am more like one of the cows when they're let out in spring. Full of joy, rather ungainly, and you know it won't last.

Either way, I'd be eternally grateful if you could sponsor me, here.

Making The Birthday Crown

As today's the Queen's official birthday I thought I'd share a few more progress photos from when I was in the midst of illustrating The Birthday Crown! You can find my original blog about illustrating the book here and see more illustrations in my portfolio, here.

And here's a very short (and very bad video) I made of the set a while ago...

Confessions of a Collage...er

I'd almost stopped drawing. I mean, I still took my sketchpad out to work on roughs or to plan patterns, but I didn't really draw if it wasn't the beginning of a collage. And the less I drew, the less confidence I had and the worse I felt about it, like I was only pretending to be an illustrator and, sooner or later, someone would find out. Everyone would say, "Well, she might be able to collage a fine gazelle, but did you know all her sketchbooks are actually full of lists?"

Last week I heard Eddie Mair interview artist Claire Parrish, about how she'd begun drawing again after years (it's a great story, you can listen here on PM, about 40 minutes in) and something made me stop worrying about all the other things I should be doing instead and pick up my pencil.

After that tiny beginning (and proving that Gladys is always the answer) I didn't really want to stop. I can't describe just how perfect a weekend I've had, sitting in the sunshine, in the garden or at the top of my studio steps, drawing trees and things. Not brilliantly well, it has to be said, but that is beside the point.

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I think this must be what people are talking about when they enthuse about the benefits of mindfulness; feeling there is nowhere else in the world, and no-one else in the world, you'd rather be. It's quite a revelation, as though my mind is gently rewiring itself and I'm settling back into my skin.

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If I needed another reason to fall back in love with the humble coloured pencil, it would be that they're so portable! Even if I attempt to take all my collage things outside, it takes only the lightest breeze, or a mere wag of Gladys's tail, to send everything floating off into the grass. This whole pencil and paper thing is revolutionary. And Gladys can sit as close as she likes.

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You can see more work in progress photos over on Instagram. And just in case this post is lacking collage, here are the aforementioned gazelles:

Going for Geese

This is my new philosophy for life.

I had grand plans to design myself a really nice thirtieth birthday party invitation which I could adapt and sell online (I know, I have quite a startling aptitude for business). I thought I'd create something which said, Kate is a person of style and elegance, her collage simply oozes sophistication, but I couldn't get it right. I spent a huge chunk of the day trying to make various flowery things work, and still, the sophistication wasn't oozing at all. I had the same disheartened feeling I get when I read trend forecasts all about pineapples or concrete, or whatever.

In desperation, I turned to Peter Scott's Observations of Wildlife, because a good bird book has never let me down, and I found this:

Swans! I drew them, decided the looked more like geese and, hey presto...

So this is it. I'm going for geese.

I think it's kind of how I always work; I had no idea people would buy tea towels with orangutans on, but it turns out there is a niche market out there for jungle themed kitchen textiles. Whoever would have guessed? I'm not entirely sure if this is the best way to run a business, but I expect I will find out.

And there are always concrete pineapples to fall back on, if all else fails.

 

Singing for Illustrators

In the same way you're supposed to do pilates or something to stop yourself becoming a hunchback with a slipped disc, I think every illustrator should join a choir! (I mean, ideally every human being would, there'd probably be fewer wars and more shared cakes.) Singing in Lichfield Gospel Choir is basically the exact opposite of what I do on an average day in the studio; instead of sitting at my desk, alone, covered in little bits of paper and glue, serenading my dog, I stand in a school hall and sing for two whole hours with about seventy other lovely people, led by our brilliant musical director, Themba Mvula. It's enough to make a freelance illustrator positively giddy.

I've been a member for just over two years, have finally learned all the words (quite a lot in Zulu), and can now both clap and sing at the same time without a look of extreme concentration (I think). There is nothing better than choir practice on a Tuesday evening to make the world feel like an exceptionally glorious place.

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I'm so proud to be part of this fantastic group. If you'd like to come and see us perform we're singing at Lichfield Garrick Theatre this Sunday, 24th April, and taking part in Community Spirit at Birmingham Symphony Hall on 22nd May, which is rather exciting.

The Birthday Crown

Towards the end of last year, I was contacted by the Royal Collection about illustrating a book to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday. So I popped into St James's Palace one Friday morning in my best hat, got there far too early and then walked around outside for far too long, til I was almost late, flung my sketchbooks all over the security office floor, and somehow still managed to get the job! Cue: a lot of celebratory dancing. The story is written by Davide Cali, who has won 33 awards and is, you know, a proper children's book author, so after even more celebratory dancing I sat down to wonder quite how on earth I'd got this job and practice drawing corgis.

I LOVED working on this project. The story is all about finding the Queen the perfect crown for her birthday celebrations and involves a lot of snazzy headgear, but ends simply with a perfect paper crown from made by the prince and princess. Really unusually, the story is almost entirely set in one room of the palace, and I think the book's brilliant designer, Duska Karanov, and I simultaneously had the idea that I could make a proper set!

Here are a few photos of the whole thing:

Working on this made me think a lot about my own Grandma and Gran. They would have been beside themselves with delight if they'd known I was illustrating something for the Queen's birthday. The pose the Queen's adopting on the front cover is very much how my Grandma would look if she was opening a present - or just peering over your shoulder, waiting to make sure she'd boiled you the perfect egg.

You can buy a copy here and it's also available in all good bookshops.

The rest of February and all of March

Another blog (following January and a bit of February) about my latest favourite listen, book, play and walk.

Listened

Bookclub: Judith Kerr - When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

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Judith Kerr was, unsurprisingly, completely delightful on Radio 4's Bookclub. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is based on her own family's flight from Nazi Germany and the time they spent travelling around Europe as refugees. In response to James Naughtie's observation that she's still writing (and drawing - her favourite) in her nineties, Kerr replies, "Oh I don't know, everybody does everything in their nineties now, I think". At this point in the programme I decided for absolute certain, that I want to be Judith Kerr. Perhaps in 60-odd years I'll have cracked it...

You can read James Naughtie's blog about this particular Bookclub here if you aren't able to listen and he's also picked out his favourites from over 200 editions. There are some real gems amongst them, from Donna Tartt to Maya Angelou.

Read

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

OK, this is a bit of a cheat because I think I read it in January, but it's brilliant and I don't know why I didn't include it last time. It's a collection of letters the author wrote to her sister while working as a nanny to LRB editor Mary Kay Wilmers' sons in Camden in the 1980s, surrounded by all sorts of famous literary folk, most notably Alan Bennett, who mends bicycles and regularly joins the family for dinner, often bearing a salad or rice pudding. The dialogue is wonderful and the recipes she includes are extraordinarily eighties, involving tinned fruit and a lot of turkey mince. I hardly ever even email my sister, let alone write her incredibly witty letters. I'm on the verge of buying myself a fountain pen in the hope it will spur me on to greater things. Like almost all the best books, this one was recommended to me by Sarah of The Book Barge. I urge you to read it, you will laugh a lot.

Saw

All My Sons by Arthur Miller - Birmingham Rep

I loved Michael Buffong's production with the Black-led Talawa theatre company. I studied Death of a Salesman for A level, and the experience didn't exactly instill me with a life long love of Arthur Miller, but this production of All My Sons was wonderful. The play is beautifully staged amongst tall, leafy trees on the front porch of a clapboard house (I'm a sucker for a nice set) and begins with Kate (Doña Croll) grieving over the death of her pilot son in the war, while romance blossoms between his fiance, Ann (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), and younger brother Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr). The plot takes a much darker turn as the father, Joe (Ray Shell), a small factory owner, is forced to face up to his responsibility for the deaths of 14 airmen who flew the faulty aeroplanes he sold in an attempt to protect his business. The end scene is incredibly intense, as the family is shattered and Joe has to confront his own selfish greed, realising that the lost pilots are "all my sons".

Walked

Hartington to Beresfordale (and back again)

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This is one of my very favourite Peak District ambles. It's not very far and invariably involves shopping for cheese or a nice lunch. Last month it was the latter; we walked here for our annual Mother's Day jaunt.  Usually we'd take a picnic to eat by the river but the forecast was so dreadful we opted for the Charles Cotton Hotel in Hartington instead (delicious), with Gladys (labrador, not to be repeated, she only calmed down when I sneaked my lamb bone to her under the table). We used to go camping in Beresfordale with lots of friends and our mums when I was little and this walk was a regular feature. I once complained of a headache when we'd hardly set off and was driven to Hartington by car instead (wimp). When we arrived mum bought me a Magnum which caused ructions because the others had only been allowed lemon ice lollies. I grandly promised that when my first book was published I'd buy everyone a Magnum to make up for it - campers, I owe you.

Giveaway: Win a New Concertina Copy of ABC London

Competition now closed. Thank you very much to everyone who entered! And the winner is...

No. 5: GEMMA LUKER! Hooray! Please get in touch, Gemma, and email me your address.


I've extended the closing time for this competition by a day because some people have been having problems commenting. I think I've sorted it out now so please try again if you couldn't comment before!

Competition time! (It's been TOO long.) I was thrilled to receive advance copies of ABC London back in January (originally published by Frances Lincoln in 2012, written by James Dunn and illustrated by me). The super folk at Frances Lincoln have reissued it in a new concertina format, a compact 13 x 13cm in size, all packaged in a rather lovely box! A shame then, that I completely missed it's publication earlier this month, only remembering when my sister snapped a photo of it in Foyles!

I'm so pleased with how this book has turned out (possibly because, as one of my tutors at uni observed, everything looks better when you shrink it down - and I do much prefer the simpler type), that I've decided to give a signed copy away! All you need to do is leave a comment below.

Find out what makes London one of the world’s most exciting cities in this unusual alphabet that can be unfolded to nearly a metre in length. A is for Art, B is for Brick Lane, C is for Changing of the Guard… this delightful alphabet of words and pictures looks at some of the things that give London its unique and stylish cultural identity.
— Frances Lincoln Children's Books

Please share and tweet and like and so on, it's all hugely appreciated, although do make sure you leave a comment to enter. This competition is open to anyone, anywhere in the world and will close at midday (BST) on Monday 30th April The winner will be chosen at random on Sunday afternoon.

Good luck!


PS. I've still got spaces on my collage workshops on Saturday the 11th and 18th April. Lots more info here if you fancy a relaxing day in a lovely Staffordshire farmhouse learning a bit about my collage techniques accompanied with a slice of cake or two and lunch included!