Thursday, March 05, 2015

A little Faith

Copyright Faith Butt-Lyons

In 2001, we packed up the kids and went to England.
It was an adventure- a kind of geographical shake up for us, to try out those long unused British passports which were ours as birthright, and see what we could rustle up on the work and sightseeing front. We found ourselves after some weeks in Bristol; kids finally in school, husband with a job in Bath and me, in a basement flat keening for the light and freedom of New Zealand and to feel usefully employed. 

I tried every avenue to find work in the arts; applying for gallery hosting jobs (nil response to my CV)  volunteering ('sorry, our volunteer list is full, we can put you on the waiting list') and finally refusing to budge from places until they  gave me the time of day or a lead to something I could do. Stroppy sorts, these Kiwis abroad.

My persistence paid off and I was given a titbit- The Bristol City Council were employing people in the arts on a casual basis to work in low decile primary schools. Taking music, painting, sculpture and dance to kids who didn't get to go to all of these things as after school activities, because there was no spare fat in the budget for families to provide these luxuries.
I applied and got the work, and so, as my husband went off to Jane Austin territory to work in an advertising agency surrounded by beautiful things and cobbled mews, I drove into the deepest parts of Bristol, to schools surrounded by barbed wire, keypad security on the gates. After the Dunblane Massacre of '96, no one was taking any chances.

I worked at four different schools delivering a curriculum of art which I devised, to groups of kids who were sometimes baffled as to why they were there. Three of the schools dumped the strays and mischief makers on me. I was a beleaguered babysitter with paint. I can't even remember what the schools names were; they stood out only for their lack of interest, grey walls and even greyer worn down teaching staff.

The fourth one was different; Cheddar Grove Primary School. It was led by a principal who cared and had vision. The school felt different walking in, the kids were happy, the parents smiled, the place was cheery, with lots of art on the walls. It didn't feel like a prison.
The head teacher had selected the students with care; kids who had a love of art. He also let me know that some of the students had experienced very difficult lives to date for various reasons. He didn't let me know who or what in particular- careful not to single anyone out for some kind of misplaced sympathy oozing from well meant intention. But he did want me to be aware that some might not turn up at some times for various reasons that had nothing to do with me or the programme. What he wanted was for the kids abilities to blossom and for all of us to have fun.

And we did. I looked forward to my lovely class of kids every week; it was my reward for having to deal with the grim ones. One little girl stood out for me. She was slight and shy with huge eyes. I struggled to hear what she had to say, and sometimes she bolted from the room minutes after arriving 'I can't be here today Miss.' I never asked why,  and when she was there, she concentrated furiously and tried all the techniques I showed the class with studied intent.

One day when I was talking about art I'd seen in different places, a boy said 'Is that what you do Miss?' (they wouldn't call me Fifi, and you have to read this with a West Country accent) 'you go around the world like, and do art?' In that moment I realised how my life must look- glamorous and exciting; and relatively speaking to the barbed wire, it was. I felt ashamed of my moaning about the basement flat. It was in Clifton- the very poshest part of Bristol. That it was mouldy and dark and nothing like home was irrelevant.

Eventually the classes came to an end and said goodbye with sadness to my Cheddar Grove art babies. I loved them all and they had taught me that I could teach. Faith came up to me and gave me a card made up of some of her best work and whispered 'Thank you Miss for showing us art.' A year later we left Britain and I wondered for years how she was and what had happened to that shy little girl.

One day a message popped up in Facebook asking me if I was the same Fifi who taught art at Cheddar Grove. Faith! Not only is she all grown up, fully blossomed into a strong, confident, gorgeous gal, but she is studying art. 'I'm doing it, I'm at art school!'

Faith Butt-Lyons is finishing her BA Honours degree in Drawing and Applied Art, UWE, Bristol. She's sent me her website with her work; on the 'About' page, she explains her exploration through different media of her sadness and the family tragedy that underpins it. The images are strong and abstracted and, I found, very moving knowing the context.

I am so humbled to have been a part of Faith's early journey in art and so proud she has followed her heart. Sometimes, someone just has to open the door to let it through. That headteacher, he knew a thing or two :)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Curious Story

Nearly a year has gone past so I thought I could share this; because art is meant to be viewed not lie idle on a hard drive or stuck deep in the drawers of a plan file (yes I still have one!) It was commissioned for The Curioseum  as a last minute ring in, but as last minute panic commissions are wont to be, it didn't quite fit with the overall look of the book. I have this in my life as a repeating motif- nearly there with the famous, but not quite! So here it is for free...after my communing with the dung beetles in Te Papa's insect collection...I still like it :)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Save me now Neil Gaiman!

I saw a tweet today that said 'I've written a post, does anyone even read blogs anymore? But here it is'. It was retweeted by Neil Gaiman, so I'm guessing, yeah, some will be reading it.
Christmas, New Year and the summer (such glorious weather finally!) has had me nowhere near posting on my blog, so I guess Neil won't be following me at all but if he contacted me for any reason I'd be saying 'Why hellooooo!' with all due deference to his talented wife Amanda Palmer, whose book 'The Art of Asking' I've been reading all week (most excellent I might add- I'm one of those annoying people who insist on reading out bits of it to you when you'd really rather be digesting your facebook feed, or old school newspaper).

I think others have been reading it too because with January not even cold in the calendar (except in the northern hemisphere), I've been getting requests. Some are for commissions all of which earn me a living (I love those!) but others that popped into my messages and inbox just made me want to reach down the internet and throttle the sender I was so frustrated.

In fact, if I was Chuck Wendig I'd probably say something like this:

So, you always wanted to be a picture book writer? I mean you're a writer yeah? You've edited the Badminton Club newsletter and got three half assed short stories on the subject of Finding Your Lost Chakra nominated for awards no-one ever heard of except for the website which you paid $10 to enter their writing competition. You put it on your literary CV. Good on you. Right above your junior school swimming certificate and award for being a great maths monitor. Awesome dude!

You have this idea for a series of picture books and you just need an illustrator. It's the first time you've ever tried your hand at this but your stories about a kitten and duckling are so unique, if Golden Books had ever thought of publishing anything like that they'd have made millions. Imagine! AND you wrote it in verse! O.K some of the words didn't rhyme unless you pronounced them in a Canadian accent, and in the second verse, a Scottish one, but essentially, if you hold your head on one side and sort of force it to fit, it's brilliant. And your nieces LOVED it. Especially with the candy you got them to suck on whilst you read it out loud.

And you thought that it would really come to life (because it's barely got a pulse right now) with some incredible illustrations. And you thought that we could like, partner up and I could spend like 6 months creating the stunning pictures and then you'd submit it to a publisher and we'd all get rich and famous.  I thought once that I'd quite like to be a surgeon because I cut up gravy beef for the dog real well. Give me your leg and I'll practice on you!

Sorry who the f*ck are you again?

And so on. I do Chuck a great disservice- he writes a whole lot pithier than this and uses a huge amount of epithets which I totally adore. Some of you right now might be thinking I'm a bit harsh, and a bit up myself and a bit like some Tall Poppy literary chick that has got too big for her award winning boots. Who on earth does she think she is, speaking her mind? Has she lost it? You might wonder. 

Well now that I have your bristly attention I want to explain a few things. Us writers and illustrators try to educate others (for free) in our art, but it seems everyone with a notion of becoming a children's book writer never thinks to do any kind of research on the topic. Melinda Syzmanik's blog is a great resource for learning about this stuff. She is very patient; much more so than I. I'm all squawk and feathers whilst she is a quiet fox. And both of us know that seriously playing at being a writer is a long game, and it helps to know a few of the rules and strategies, otherwise you'll end up on the Monopoly Board with 2 utilities, mortgagee sales and no cash to pay the exorbitant rent being extracted by the hotels on each corner.

I have written novels, columns and blogs. Picture books are harder to write than most forms of fiction. No room for waffle, no exposition, no sermonising, no patronising, NO SPARE WORDS. Just a few good ones. And preferably not in rhyme unless you are a genius at scansion. I had a verse column in a major magazine for 8 years and know quite a bit about rhyme, but I don't do it for picture books. In fact I don't write them at all. The thing is...I can't think of one story that would delight and enthral a kid (or me and my inner kid) the way that a good picture book will do, so I leave that to the ones who are good at it and I do the illustrations.

On with the illustrators hat...

These are the things to know when asking an illustrator if they will do some pictures to resuscitate that dead duckling you've been carrying about with you for the last few years (or dashed off over a glass of pinot one Christmas evening after watching too many reruns of Home Alone).

A picture book takes 3-6 months to illustrate depending on the complexity of the pics. If it's a book about 10 different animals at 20 different parties, many of which include bicycles and differing sizes of dystopian cities, then yeah, that's probably the six monther. Maybe a year.

What do you earn in your capacity as something other than a hobby writer? Anything I'm picking from between $25,000 (low wage hospitality) to $100,000 (business analyst ) a year. An illustrator has usually spent 4 years in training at a design school and amassed probably around the same loan as you did for your commerce/other degree. Then gone out and interned for free, built up a portfolio of clients over the years by writing proposals, marketing themselves and  pitching for the work. They also pay studio rent, buy their own stationery, materials and coffee. They go through a lot of coffee. The real stuff. That's not cheap (nothing good ever came out of instant).

So you'd expect that an established illustrator who can come up with the right solutions might reasonably need between $15,000 (living on lentils in a scummy flat) and $50,000 (can afford a holiday and pay mortgage) income for six months work. 

And here you are with your badly written manuscript, no credentials, offering to give the artist 50% of the royalties, after they've done the illustrations and after you've found a major publisher who has never seen a rhyming book about ducks before in their life, and likes the style that the illustrator has come up with. Too bad the artist has only ever drawn tractor and never animals, they can draw right?
O.K, I'm being freakin' brutal with you, but someone has to be because you just have to stop right there!

Royalties pay 10% on the retail price of a book, so you'll get around $2 per copy which you'll split with the illustrator (remember they spent 6 months on your masterpiece that you did in that weekend writing course).

The average first print run for an unkown author by a well known publishing company is 3000 copies. Not all copies sell and not all sales pay out the full 10% (book clubs, promos etc). So you are offering the illustrator a MAXIMUM of $3000 should the book ever get into the bookshop and sell any copies. Most books are remaindered.

Forgive me if we seem a little rude in our super polite replies.
Forgive us if we are crass enough to say we would certainly illustrate your book for $15,000 up front. No problemo. In fact, we'd put down our own manuscripts and start yours tomorrow. True.

There are always exceptions to the rule though. If Neil Gaiman emailed me and said, 'I have this great idea for a picture book, would you do a couple of sample illustrations for me to show to my publisher?' why, I'd be there and panting. Because he's Neil Gaiman, and he's a talented writery god and because of that, doing a book for such a person is money in the bank. And at the end of the day, however much we love our paintbrushes, the bank loves our payments more.

My next post will be about the much safer and less contraversial subject of fracking.
Over and out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Zealand Christmas? Jandals of course!

Here you go- a free craft template and instructions for you to keep the kids entertained now they are off school and the weather is warming up!

Nothing says summer like a pair of jandals, flip flops, things or whatever you like to call them!
Here are some cute wee ones to hang off your tree, or presents.

And that's it from me for the year- have a great break over the festive season, keep safe, keep smiling and keep the love flowing. See you in 2015 xxx Fifi

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Twelve Days + Twelve Artists

In the lead up to Christmas, artists are at work!
A dozen of us, for a show at a new gallery in Wellington- re.SPACE

Twelve Days + Twelve Artists

12+ is the first group exhibition for be held at re.SPACE. Each of the 12+ creatives exhibiting in this retail exhibition has had a role in getting re.SPACE to the six month mark. So 12+ is a celebration - offering fresh, engaging work from both emerging and established creatives.
Open until Christmas and all works for sale.
My collection of work is called 'Eclipse' which is the name for a group of moths. Mine are a continuation and exploration of the works on velvet which I have previously exhibited (in sell out shows). In working with velvet I embrace the 'low art' of Edgar Leeteg and New Zealand's own Charles McPhee  in high craft form.
Each NZ Native moth is made from velvet stretched over hand cut wood forms, backed with felt, painted and airbrushed. They are finished with fused copper feelers and embellished with fur and feather trim. 
Joining me for Eclipse is artist Julia Christian, with her beautiful collection of framed watercolor moths and butterflies from her 100 Days Project.
Opening is this Friday 5th December from 5.30pm. Come and join me and the other artists for a drink and nibbles and viewing of the works. Don't forget to bring your Christmas money- there will be some wonderful works to capture :)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Freaky Halloween Fun!

Well yes, this a blatant plug for my new book, Ghoulish Get Ups published by Scholastic. Create your own freaky costumes on the smell of a (clean) recyling rag. I'm pretty proud of it and I think you will find it extremely useful in the lead up to the freakiest night of October!

I LOVE making things and actually, surprise surprise, so do kids! There is so much to be learned in the process of cutting, pasting, glueing, sewing and painting. But don't worry- this book is not about dragging out the sewing machine- not at all! Safety pins and double sided tape hold these costumes together. And the book is jam packed full of excellent tips and tricks to create makeup and prosthetics to match your outfits! 

This is what people have to say about the book (all good!)

'Fifi Colston is the Jamie Oliver of the costume world. Give her a cupboard of recycling and art supplies, or even a bag of them, and she is certain to come up with something incredible-looking, at pretty well zero cost. This book, which is the second of its kin after the bestselling, award-winning Wearable Wonders, has truly got something for everybody....' (see more here)


'...That's the beauty of this book - there's nothing expensive you need to buy. Fifi gives you tips on how to make 16 different outfits including elves, fairies, punk rockers, vampires, zombies, murderous butchers, aliens and creatures. If those costumes don't appeal Fifi shows you how to turn recycled objects such as egg cartons, paper bags, sheets, t-shirts, pants and tights into numerous outfits. She also gives tips on how to transform your face, hands, feet, ears, hair, and how to make wings, foundation, warts, boils, facial hair, guts and broken bones, wounds, stumps and bumps, and horns.  She even gives recipes for ghoulish food such as zombie fingers, and eyeballs... (read the rest here)

Available in all good bookstores and online at Fishpond and Wheelers

Sunday, October 19, 2014

100 Days Project, and what I learned in the process...

In the style of Andy Warhol

October and life goes on...I managed to complete my 100 days Project and for those of you who don't know what that is, it's where you register to commit to completing a creative endeavor on a theme once a day for 100 Days. Here is more about it 

Here is a summation of what I did as it appears on my artist card at re.Space gallery in Victoria Street. The exhibition of 100 Days artists is on until Sunday 26th October.

You can see my project here- click on each picture for a description :)

 Project Title: Take it on the Chin

Project Description: Create 100 half face images in the style of different artists and illustrators. The aim is to explore the work and technique of the masters and see what I learn. I will alternate male and female faces in each artist's medium.

What is it about the project that appealed to you? Eyes usually are the most expressive part of a face but I liked the idea of a half mask, but the half that usually gets forgotten

What changes (if any) has the project helped bring about for you? That not reaching a deadline isn't the end of the world and I maybe I am more human because of that.

Best thing/s about 100 Days: Posting them and enjoying other's reactions to them

Worst thing/s about 100 Days: Realising I am so far behind I might never catch up!

Can you share a moment of insight (about the creative process, or something personal about your experience of the project)? during the last stages of the project, my father became ill and then died. I spent much time with him and my mother out of town, and took my 100 Days with me to do in the evenings. I found I couldn't work easily in a state of grief and my drawing and painting which is usually my solace went on hold as I tried to process his decline. This is new for me. It appears that the death of someone so loved was more important than me being 'clever'. I couldn't get to my happy place.

What was a favourite day or moment? In a moment of disillusionment I asked on Facebook why I should even bother with my art and this is one response from a father: 'One of the purposes or perhaps results of your being able to draw is that a ten year old girl in Sydney is given an excellent example of how to be a woman in the modern world. She delights in your additions to your 100 chins exercise getting pleasure from the styles she recognises and learning from the ones she doesn't. She also learns when they don't come through every day. They might not be making money but they are making the world a better place.'  This alone made me carry on and catch up.

How many times did you consider giving up? Many times after my dad died, I wrestled with this and decided be kind to myself and do a simple digital homage to him and my mother

If you could pass on one piece of advice to someone considering doing this project it would be: Don't worry about the outcome- it is what it is.

Days completed out of 100:  100

Monday, October 06, 2014

World of Wearable Eulogy

September has been a month I tell you...
One month ago today, I rushed to our father's hospital room and a week ago he died.

In amongst all of that was The World of WearableArt. Normally each year I blog, facebook and tweet about WOW because I have something in show and I am generally asked to speak or give an interview about it all. This year was different. A few months ago I got asked to do a corporate gig for the opening night at a private function but turned it down for a variety of reasons. I'm no psychic, but I'm so glad I had said no, because two months later, that was the night the nurse from the hospice called and said 'If you want to gather family now, this is a good time.' At that stage he had maybe a couple of days to live, and 400 hundred miles between us. There is no way I could have talked chattily and inspirationally about my work that night. The following night, the awards night, whilst my sister held his hand in the hospice, I watched the show with, my phone tucked down my bra, barely seeing the wonders before me, waiting for 'the call'. 

In the days that followed, I had time to reflect upon my father's decline, life and art. At his funeral, family paid tribute to this man we all loved so much and as always happens at such an event, people said 'I never knew that about him,' as past history of a life well lived comes together in the memories of those who knew a person at different stages of their lives.

In the hospital and the hospice that followed, he was shrunken and incoherent; a frail shell of the man he had once been. To an onlooker- just another wrinkled dying 83 year old man. But to us, he had been so much more. He had done stuff, he stood for something, he had a story and a presence and years of work and goddammit, investment in life. He affected people and the effect on us was remarkable. 

Later, someone asked me about my WOW entries and I barely had the energy to think about them. They wanted to know how long it took, what they were made out of, was I excited about the show and all the usual curiosity. I tiredly showed them pictures and explained the process and then, the backstory... and they were amazed. These were not just fancy costumes; they had a reason to be.
And it occurred to me that my wearable art pieces were kind of like my father. On the outside, just something to observe - with little understanding of what was inside; what made up the whole, what the history was. Because story is everything. Without it, there is just wallpaper, or the husk of a person with no empathy or meaning. 

And my art means a lot to me. I'd like you to understand it too. So here it is, explained. And if you like either of them, you can vote for People Choice's-choice

Firstly 'Mighty Acorns' - not so much to say about this except that little people are nurtured from breast milk and so become strong. I chose to make my babies into elfin folk. The acorns were made out of plastic bowls with felt detail and Fimo nipples. The babies were dolls I repurposed with new ears, colour and clothing.

Mighty Acorns- Photo courtesy WOW

Mighty Acorns- inside

 And then, then there is this:

London Missionary Church

Whilst in Samoa last year we went and saw the lava fields on Savaii, and I was awed by the forms and the history: 

The Virgin's Grave
In 1905, Mt Matavanu's lava poured through the London Missionary Church of Saleaula, Samoa
 The 1905 lava fields of Savaii are a moonscape of textural delights. Through tunnel like tubes, which now house moss and tiny cave swallows, lava continued down and right through the London Missionary Church, in Saleaula capturing the arches and walls forever in volcanic rock. The lava poured down to the sea; along the molten journey was the Virgin's Grave; a girl buried some years before. A bubble formed over the tomb and created a natural cave. Spared from the mountain's outpour, the grave became a holy shrine, and the only place that seems to grow flowers in the whole barren field.
Made from 30 meters of plastic backed painters drop cloth felt from Bunnings, my most  ironic moment was painting the fabric with a spray gun.
I made the archway from MDF board, and carved Styrofoam. It attached to a custom made trolley with castors. The basis of the corset was made at a specialist corset making class the previous year and I made the palm fronds from painted fabric- it took me ages to get the plaiting right. I handmade the shirt from sheer fabric and satin and all the other components were made from the painters drop felt with other details- like the cave swallows. LEDs lit up the front 'lava tube' and a light in the virgins cave at the back. 

It took me months and left me with terrible OOS. My finger is clawed every morning and I have to heat it to make it work again. And work it will, because doing this stuff gives me joy.
'Talofa Lava' was one of the best pieces I have ever achieved and I'm pretty proud of that. Next year will be my 20th year of entering with the 23rd piece.  I have an idea for it, and it has plenty to do with those final days of my father's life. When I have finished it, don't say 'good luck, hope you win' because that's not why I did it. Say instead 'What is the story?' Look beyond the materials and the glamour of showtime. Beyond the facade. Look for my father. He will be there.

Talofa Lava front
Talofa Lava back

Talofa Lava side views
Talofa Lava details

Monday, September 15, 2014


I've been quiet on my blog since my wonderful win with Wearable Wonders (note the alliteration?)
But on my personal facebook page (sorry, you'll have to go to my public one if you aren't family or close friend) I've been pouring forth.

It's been a tough past week and one where I have realised with a great 'ding!' on goes the light-bulb, that everyone is dealing with something and things are never what they seem.

I am at that age- you know, the one where you become the next generation as your parents leave their tired bodies behind. Up until now I always said to people when I heard their parent had died, things like 'Oh well, 80/83/88/90 (whatever age) was a good innings.' And I kind of wondered what the sadness was all about. You get born, you live and you die and if you die old, then lucky old you.
What I have been completely unprepared for is the inevitable passing on of my father. I say inevitable because he is in hospital with Parkinson's symptoms exacerbated by a series of falls, and like taxes, death is one thing we are sure of, and his will come in  matter of days. I thought I was o.k with my parents passing on- they've lived good and long lives, had adventures, surmounted challenges, a family to be proud of and really a great life. What's is to be miserable about? It's a cause for celebration surely?

But this past week, holding my father's once strong and certain hand, now tiny and frail and clinging to  mine like a child not wanting to go to school for the first time, I get what grief is.
Grief is watching someone you love leave their body slowly as it shuts down. First the legs that refuse to co-operate, then the throat that cannot swallow and the bodily functions that carry on despite the mind shouting 'No! I do not want to relinquish control here!' The sleep that comes mid sentence and the sentences that come jumbled and confused until, the head shakes with frustration and the sigh of giving up.

'Your poor old Dad' he managed to say as I moved his arm to a more comfortable position. And with sudden clarity, no hint of a Parkinson's slur,'I love you my darling' to my mother, his wife of 62 years. Then the eyes half mast and a cough and a droop of the head. The jet fighter pilot whose flying boots I stomped around in as a 3 year old, the patient father of teenagers, picking them up from discos and then teaching them to drive so he and they were not embarrassed by a Dad lurking outside waiting. The man who teased us and made us giggle at the dinner table night after night so that mealtimes were always a joy of food and love.

Laughter is the best medicine.

He can't laugh anymore. That Parkinson's 'mask' has slipped into place and taken his face from us. How dare it! The man we thought would fish until he was 90 and die mid cast. The man we thought who would outlive our mother to eat fish and chips and bacon and eggs for the rest of his days, inviting anyone in to share the feast. How could this condition take away his outgoing personality and zest for life? I walk in a haze, numb with shock that this time is really coming to pass and he will leave us all behind. Earthbound.

This, this is grief.

Post Script:  RIP William Baxter Colston  7/10/1930- 28/09/2014
Much adored husband, father & brother
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Winner- 2014 LIANZA Elsie Locke!

Well gosh, after 30 years in the children's book game (I illustrated my first book in 1984) I have actually WON an award! A real actual 1st place with flowers and a cheque and applause and everything!
It was the LIANZA Elsie Locke Medal for Non Fiction for Wearable Wonders. I feel like it's o.k to crow a bit- I've waited a long time for this and the reward is all the sweeter; I couldn't be more thrilled! There is not much more to say except thank you, from the bottom of my heart. That book is kind of a download of my brain which is buzzing with joy right now.

Acknowledgment  is truly a marvelous inspirational thing :)

It was a great night- many thanks to LIANZA and their sponsors- Hell Pizza and The Children's Bookshop who sponsor the Elsie Locke Award. You have made my year!

Here is me and Melinda Syzmanik who won the Librarians Choice Award with her deeply poignant novel 
A Winter's Day in 1939. If you haven't read it yet, you must!