The Refuge Tree

It’s that time of year again! When I don trainers and a variety of clashing neon sportswear bargains and ask you to support my London Marathon fundraising efforts for Refuge, a brilliant charity which helps women living with domestic violence. Except this time, instead of just asking you to sponsor me, I have bigger and more exciting plans afoot! Mainly, this:

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A glorious collaboration between lots of amazing women artists and illustrators and all round good eggs which has had me positively skipping with delight the last few weeks, as my vague idea has taken root into something bigger than I could have imagined possible.

I’ve collaged the silhouetted branches of a tree (currently 90cm wide x 115.5cm tall, and growing), cut it up into over 70 postcards and sent these out to the aforementioned wonderful, all-female crew who are going to draw anything they like on their own section. The tree will be reassembled for International Women’s Day on the 8th March (I am still on the hunt for a venue - keep your eyes peeled) and the individual postcards auctioned off on Ebay, with all proceeds going to Refuge.

This charity is so important to me. One in four women in the UK will experience an abusive relationship in their lifetime. I didn’t realise how real this statistic was until I started talking more openly about my own experience, which makes me all the more determined to continue raising awareness. You can read a bit more on my fundraising page here. Helping those who have experienced violence and abuse is at the core of everything Refuge does, and their work includes aiding women experiencing domestic violence, sexual violence, ‘honour’ based violence, forced marriage, FGM, human trafficking and modern slavery.

I really want to raise as much money as possible and hopefully this tree will give my marathon fundraising a fantastic start!

So I’m very excited to reveal the names of the artists taking part (so far!) -

Alice Kiteley / Alice Lickens / Anke Weckmann / Ann Sun / Bethany Christou / Bobbie Print / Caroline Pedler / Caroline Uff / Cat O’Neil / Catherine Rayner / Charlotte Cooke / Charlotte Filshie / Christiane Engel / Debbie Greenaway / Elissa Elwick / Ella Beech / Ellie Sandall / Emily Mackenzie / Emma Block / Emma Carlisle / Emma Reynolds / Emmeline Pidgen / Emily Hogarth / Fiona Purves / Flora Jamieson / Gemma O'Neill / Grace Sanford / Hannah Madden / Hannah Rollings / Harriet Sullivan / Helen Entwisle / Helen Friel / Holly Surplice / Jane Cabrera / Jane Foster / Jeff Josephine / Jenni Colquhoun / Jennie Vallis / Jenny Lovlie / Jo Empson / Joy Gosney / Kate McLelland / Kate Sutton / Katharine McEwen / Kathryn Boyt / Katie Cleminson / Katriona Chapman / Kerry Hyndman / Kirtsy Elson / Laura Ellen Anderson / Laura McKendry / Leonie Lord / Lesley Barnes / Lisa Stubbs / Livi Gosling / Lizzy Stewart / Lucy Volpin / Lorna Scobie / Lotti Rawle / Louise Pigott / Maggie Li / Marta Altes / Marta Kissi / Nicola Killen / Nikki Pontin / Nozomi Inoue Olivia Villet / One Owl Please / Paula Bowles / Rebecca Cobb / Rosalind Beardshaw / Rose Blake / Sally Thompson / Sophy Henn / Suzanna Hubbard / Tabitha Macbeth / Thereza Rowe / Tor Freeman / Vicki Gausden

I’ve been so overwhelmed by the positive response. Thank you so much everyone for your support! You can follow the tree’s progress by searching #RefugeTree on Instagram and Twitter. I cannot wait to see it take shape!

Sri Lanka

Deciding to go to Sri Lanka in January is probably in my top ten life decisions. On about Monday, I realised that I’d just spent a whole day in which I’d managed to do every single one of my favourite things except singing - and then the following day my friend Gem found a guitar and happiness was complete.

I spent the first week on a yoga retreat with Humblebee Yoga in this amazing villa in Dondra, right down in the very south of Sri Lanka, and the second week exploring Ella and Kandy. We were completely spoiled in Dondra; a kind of magic, jungl-y idyll, with the most delicious food and wonderful people and trips to see elephants in Udawalawe and to watch whales in Mirissa.

Ella was much busier, a mini-town made up almost entirely of backpackers, but absolutely breathtaking once we climbed up into the mountains and tea plantations. Hiking to the Diyaluma falls for a swim was definitely a highlight! Such a tough climb in the sun, but when we finally crept into the chilly water it was absolute heaven.

We travelled by train from Ella to Kandy, which is said to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world, and it certainly did not disappoint - although elbowing your way off the train in Kandy is not for the faint-hearted. Hanging out of the train, however, or sitting in the doorway with your legs hanging out, is glorious (the video below is at double speed! I did it for instagram, so it’s not the best quality, but you get the idea).

I loved Kandy too; it’s Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, with a peaceful lake in the middle of all the bustle and home to the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which was eye-gogglingly beautiful inside. By this point my friend Lia and I were on a crusade to find salad (having had our fill of delicious Sri Lankan curries) and thus mostly navigated Kandy via TripAdvisor-recommended cafés, where we sat and read our books and ate avocado in all its forms (Buono was especially good), and a lovely tuk tuk driver who took us to visit gorgeous Gunatilake Batiks and bought us red bananas and mangoes for the journey (devoured at high speed, with juice running up our sleeves). We also travelled a couple of hours north of Kandy, early one morning, to climb Sigiriya Rock, where King Kasyapa built his palace in the 5th century - it’s quite breathtaking. There is SO much to see and do, I would jump at the chance to go back (this hotel, is now on my dream holiday destination list!).

100 Years, 100 Days

I'm very happy to be able to reveal a really exciting project I have coming up in beautiful Wiltshire. The commission has several parts to it and I'm creating very different work for two separate churches, St Laurence's in Hilmarton and Christ Church in Broad Town. The Broad Town project is a whole other kettle of fish, so I'll save that for a later blog and begin with Hilmarton.

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This year, Remembrance Day will mark 100 years since the end of the First World War. All over the country, communities will be marking the centenary of Armistice on the 11th November, but at St Laurence's Church in Hilmarton, they're starting early - 100 days early.

I was really inspired by their decision to hold an Act of Remembrance in the church, every day for 100 days until Remembrance Day: 100 Years, 100 Days. So inspired, in fact, that I enthusiastically decided to join in and begin my commission by creating 100 ink illustrations. Which is why I now find myself beginning the massive challenge of painting or drawing something, every day from today until 11th November, to tell the stories of some of the local men who died in the war.

You can follow the project on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, support me on Patreon (coming soon!) and watch the work unfold over the course of the next few months!

I'm going to base the work on just four men whose names appear on the war memorial in the church and really want to make this project about their lives and experiences. There's an amazing local historian in Hilmarton, Richard Broadhead, who has done so much research into all the men who went to fight from Wiltshire, it's phenomenal - I definitely won't be short of material.

However, it doesn't end with the initial illustrations. What I'm really hoping to do is to use the work created over the 100 days as a starting point to make three or four installations inside the church. I’d like to commemorate the soldiers lives in a more personal way than names carved in stone, read out once a year. This part of the project all depends on whether or not we can secure more funding, but I really hope it will be possible!

In the meantime, today marks the very first day of the project, and here is the first painting-in-progress!

All the paintings will be exhibited in the church and are also for sale here (although this first one has already been claimed!) so please do follow me on social media and sign up to my mailing list if you're interested in staying up to date!


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Shorts, Sweets and Serotonin Songs

When the London Marathon emails you a couple of days before the race to tell you that although it's likely to be the hottest on record, the actual Fire Brigade will be on standby to hose you down, you know you'll probably need to ditch the snazzy new tights you bought and go on a last minute, two-day long, short-buying expedition.

I felt so much more nervous this year. I was checking the weather forecast as often as my dad used to before harvest and I didn't sleep for more than an hour at a time the night before the race. The running short fandango would have finished me off altogether if it weren't for the total heroes in Covent Garden Lululemon, who were wonderfully kind as I lunged around the changing rooms in every style they stocked, trusting my sister (hero x a million) to be brutally honest as I tried each pair on nine times. They even gave me a second pair for FREE as a pre-marathon treat! LuluLemon, I love you (I used to think you were intimidating and a bit pricey, but I'm totally won over).

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I have now (and I cannot impress upon you how insane this sounds to me, because in my head I'm still 10, don't even understand how to play rounders and have sneaking suspicion my PE teacher thinks I'm an idiot) run three whole marathons. This one was definitely the hardest. I was tired, hot and slathered in enough vaseline to swim the channel because I was so worried the new shorts would rub (they didn't - have I told you how much I love Lululemon?).

I'd still do it again though! There is nothing like the London Marathon for making you feel utterly invincible and optimistic; a little bit overwhelmed by the wonder of humanity and the power of the mile 19 jelly baby. So far, I've raised £2500 for Refuge - THANK YOU for all your support. A huge thank you to Refuge too, for letting my don that pink vest once more and for the best post-race massage in all of London!

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I'm just going to link (again) to Refuge's page on recognising abuse and this brilliant Woman's Hour programme all about coercive control. If you're going through something similar, or know anyone who is, please listen to it. It really helped me, especially to know that it's normal to still struggle to make sense of it all, long after the relationship is over. One of the women interviewed said, "I know when I left I felt completely inadequate and worthless. I went from being somebody who was relatively confident, to the end of the relationship when I couldn't even look in a mirror." I know that feeling so well. I used to think I might have lost whoever Kate used to be forever. I felt like I was floating above myself somewhere, watching everything through a haze and I had no idea how to get back in again.

Running quite a bit and yoga-ing quite a lot has been my fightback, my way of reclaiming my body and allowing my brain to come home to roost. It doesn't always work, sometimes it hurts so much to just be here... roosting (I feel like I've started a really odd metaphor), but sometimes endorphins can make you sing for joy, or maybe it's serotonin? Either way, it's like magic, especially when you've run 17 miles and it's gone dark because you set off too late and you're thinking it's a good job you know your way round these lanes and that you're not afraid of bats.

I didn't want to write a blog telling you that you can and should run a marathon (even though there's a weird, running evangelist part of me that really, really wants to), because the internet is already too full all that stuff. What I do want to say is this:

There are a million things in this world that tell you your body is not good enough. Whatever it may be, I think everyone should do something that makes their body feel like home.

If you're looking for help or advice about domestic abuse, Refuge is a really good place to start.

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The Great Inktober Auction

I’m seizing this International Women’s Day to give my London Marathon fundraising for Refuge a boost. I loved running the marathon so much last year that I rashly signed up to Team Refuge again, the freezing February training runs a hazy memory when I filled out my application back in May (this past week I’ve clambered through two snow drifts in an attempt to keep my legs on track, that’s worth a couple of quid, surely?).

Anyway, my main news is that I’ve listed lots of the #inktober paintings I made last year on Ebay, with 100% of the profits going to Refuge. Refuge is committed to a world where domestic violence and violence against women and girls is not tolerated and where women and children can live in safety. Please take a look, spread the word on social media and bid, bid, BID for your favourite. The auction will run until Sunday evening. Good luck!

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The same way that the #inktober challenge spurred me on to push my work in a new direction, training for last year's marathon gave my brain the boost it needed at a really difficult time. 12 months ago I found it so painful to say that I had experienced an abusive relationship. Fundraising for Refuge has really helped me talk about it more openly. It shouldn’t be this hard — 1 in 4 women in the UK will experience domestic abuse — but I still occasionally have days when I give in and blame myself for failing. My strategy for those days (which are happily much, much fewer and farther between than they were 12 months ago) is to replay things that my incredible, no-nonsense therapist told me until I can hear my own voice again (that and do some yoga). Thanks to the support of extraordinary friends and family (and the aforementioned incredible therapist) I have rediscovered who I am and I know why I want to stay alive. This probably all sounds a bit self-indulgent, but I just wanted to try to explain what abuse does — it will take away everything you thought you knew for certain and turn everything you thought was good about being you into something unbearable. And it can happen to anyone.

This is why women and children need Refuge. I am shamelessly asking you to sponsor me again, or to bid on a painting, or just to share this on Twitter / Instagram / Facebook / anywhere, to help other women who aren't as lucky as I am.

There are many forms of violence and abuse. Refuge offers specialist support to women and children who may be experiencing a variety of forms of gender-based violence including: domestic violence; rape and sexual abuse; forced marriage; so-called ‘honour’-based violence; human trafficking and modern slavery; prostitution; and female genital mutilation (FGM).

You can find my sponsorship page here and the ebay auction here.

Thank you so much for anything you can give. London Marathon - here I come! x

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The Narnia Tree

One happy September afternoon, while book-shopping with Sarah in Auxerre, I came across this beaut of a book, ARBRE, by Amandine Laprun, which got me thinking.

I'd already been working on some illustrations for the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for my portfolio, and the fold-out-tree-cum-book format seemed perfect for Lucy and Mr Tumnus. It's been a horribly long time since I got my act together and sent out anything vaguely self-promotional, so I vowed that, this Christmas, I would send something no less than SPECTACULAR. The Eiffel Tower of self promotion, a thing so exquisite that art directors all over the world would weep tears of joy. You know the sort of thing. Instead, I did this:

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I've been working on these illustrations for a couple of months and finally, last week, I had a whole forest of paper trees, ready to spread their roots! Well, nineteen to be precise, and one with a bit of avocado on it.

I'm quite pleased with how these turned out, but mostly very chuffed that I actually got them in the post the right side of Christmas! Here's to a 2018 full of doing some actual, proper work.

But before then, I plan to eat, drink, be merry, and attempt to bring some sort of order to the hovel that is my studio. And to draw some nice animals. And make a good sort of list. And go for a run, because it's been a while. And finish all those ink paintings I started before I remembered that I don't have time to do self-initiated projects in December. And finish making my crackers. And wrapping presents. And...

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Ink After Ink

I can't even remember quite why I decided to try Inktober. I hadn't used ink at all since about 2006 (to which my lumpy jar of Windsor and Newton will attest) and wondered if it was a good idea to invest so much time in something that certainly wouldn't lead to any more work.

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But sometimes having to stick to a 'style' feels like such a trap. Sometimes I even feel there's this huge gap between the kind of work I make and the work I see that makes my heart sing; I'm just not brave enough to try it. I think, I want to draw and I cannot draw, I want to paint and I cannot paint. I want to write another picture book. Create another window display. I want to make giant sculptures as big as a house and tiny, tiny books with beetle-wing covers. To hang a big tangle of ten-thousand paper stars glued to gold wires from a vaulted ceiling. I want to write poems and make costumes and design sets for theatres. I can picture, exactly, the wallpaper I want in my bedroom. I want to sit in my favourite tree and document everything I find there. I want to paint faces on eggs. I want to fill every second of every day doing things that matter, because otherwise, really, what is the point?

There are so many things. I sit at my desk, paralysed by endless possibility and the thought that I would do every single one of them if I was quite a lot braver and a bit less rubbish. And I think about what my decade-younger self would have thought of that (I can half-remember her having a lot more self-belief, at least in terms of work) and I want to go back in time and sweep her up.

So that's what Inktober was about, in the end; being braver. Speeding forth in on my inky-stained steed, throwing caution to the wind, rescuing self-belief and possibly blobbing on some ancient masking fluid for good measure. Somehow, just making time to do one small painting per day and actually doing it (albeit not always on the day), for a whole month feels like it might be the beginning of something. Although so many things have felt like new beginnings this year, I've almost lost track.

This isn't quite the blog I thought I was going to write - I thought I'd write about how difficult it is to know when to stop painting; the frustration I felt when I knew I'd ruined something at the last minute, or the relief when, after a couple of hours, that day's effort seemed much better than I originally thought. How with collage anything is fixable with pritt-stick and scissors, but with ink you're sort of stuck. How possible it is to lose yourself in painting trees.


Here are all the paintings, in order (plus a bonus bear).


I'd already begun using some pencil line in my more recent work, so I'm going to try painting a bit more of it too - beginning with this month's RSPB commission!

I'm also planning to auction these off, probably on Facebook, to kick-start my London Marathon fundraising for Refuge (yep, I'm doing it again!), so please keep your eyes peeled if you'd like to buy one and support a fantastic charity at the same time! You could also stay in the loop by signing up to my mailing list.

The Lady in the Aquarium

Yellow paint is the answer.

I mean, possibly not to everything, but it's certainly cheered up my studio. I've been channelling the Lady in the Van; I now have a rather lumpy, mustardy wall and it does feel more like home. Which is, I suppose, why Miss Shepherd always painted her van the same shade of custard... I mean, my Dulux is Madeira cake-free and I opted for the traditional roller, rather than a washing-up brush, but I defy you to wield a bright yellow paintbrush with anything other than sheer GLEE.

It's taken a LONG time (a good seven months, in fact) but I think I might finally have settled into this new studio - I know it's ridiculous, but it's true. I've actually been working and everything! Although obviously it will never compare to my beloved Apple Room, on the plus side it's very big, very light, the floorboards aren't disintegrating beneath the wheels of my swivel chair and I don't need a bucket of grit to make it safe to venture forth in frosty weather. 

A happy combination of paint left over from Top Drawer, a couple of plants (offshoots from a giant peace lily called Cedric, gifted to my mum by a patient of the same name about 20 years ago) and some of my old YSP birds have made it look quite nice. I also made myself a desk/den against one wall, having discovered that subject to whatever kind of Feng Shui-style forces operate in this ex-double garage, I do NOT like to have my back to the door.

In the desk-den no one can see what I'm scribbling and I've pinned the banner my sister made when I ran the marathon to the back of the bookcase. You can keep your tasteful motivational quotes, the best affirmations come emblazoned on neon pink felt.

On the downside, while no one can peer over my shoulder, they are now able to spy me snoozing with bits of paper stuck to my face because the windows are ENORMOUS and face the road. I think this, really, has been the weirdest thing of all; going from working at the top of a steep staircase where I could hear visitors/tea-bearers/nuisances coming about five minutes before they arrived, to being in a little bit of a fish tank, albeit one facing a sleepy lane in a tiny village. A bit like a Damien Hirst without the formaldehyde (and without me being dead).

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SO tidy. Too tidy, really, but happily it will not last. For now, I have all my different coloured baker's twine on this special dowel reel thing I made for the back of my desk! I am a DIY queen. I am the gazelle. (I am also sitting here in my leggings because I've been meaning to go for a run ALL afternoon and haven't. Yet.)

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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.