This is the second in a series of interviews to be published monthly via my blog page, with a selection of Artists & Artisans based in the North East of England. The series is scheduled to run for the next year.
We’ve already heard from Stephen Richardson of SPQR Design (check out the interview here ) and now it’s the turn of two artisans, Amanda Ford and Alison Longstaff who run Driftworks Tidal Art (DTA), a creative business using reclaimed materials (mainly driftwood) sourced from the beaches of their beloved Northumberland to create evocative pieces of art full of charm and character. So, brew up a cup of tea, put your feet up for a moment, turn on your tablet, phone, laptop or whatever other gizmo you use, and enjoy the interview.
'Heart' - by Driftworks Tidal Art
I’m going to start with a little aside;
‘Listen to the water, listen to the flow, listen to the ripples, listen very slow’.
The words of David Smith, a pupil at Felton C of E First School.
I have two black Labradors, and the wonderful thing about dogs is that they can bring daily adventure and discovery to our lives! The day of the interview with DTA illustrates this point perfectly.
On arriving early at the stunningly picturesque Northumberland Village of Felton, which nestles around the twists and turns of the River Coquet, I parked on a road adjacent to the river and pondered the options this early arrival afforded me; I could sit in my car and ‘power nap’; I could head to the Northumberland Arms (where I was due to meet Alison and Amanda) and carry out a little last-minute interview preparation. But, instead, I popped the leads on my two constant hairy and smelly four-legged companions and took the short walk down to the water’s edge. The April sunshine twinkled and glittered off the river’s surface and there under the bridge on the riverbank at Felton I could have been walking in Kenneth Grahame’s footsteps and imagining the escapades of Moley and Ratty in the Wind in the Willows. As I trundled up the bank, I came across a stone bench, and carved into it were the words quoted above;
‘Listen to the water, listen to the flow, listen to the ripples, listen very slow’.
Lovely, simple words. I closed my eyes and for a moment, listening to the river’s ripples, with the sun on my face I did listen very slowly. I felt a moments peace and calm…that is until Maggie barked at a passing flotilla of ducks and the moment was gone.
So, here’s to our wonderful canine friends for taking us on daily adventures and leading us to these moments.
And thank you too, to the rippling and eddying waters of the River Coquet. We should not underestimate the importance of water. For instance, we are, in-fact composed of 60% water and something in the order of 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. It is vital for life and also pretty important to Amanda & Alison of DTA.
I’m due to meet both of them, but unfortunately Alison has to attend to a family matter and so It’s just Amanda and I. We meet at the Northumberland Arms, a charming sandstone pub where we find the staff extremely hospitable and where our first task is to work with said staff to solve a local scandal involving a dog on the loose on the main road running through the village. It’s like Midsomer Murders for a while until the riddle is solved, the dog retrieved, and the owner located.
So finally, then, after the ripples of the river and the mystery of the Dog In The Road, we are able to sit down and talk all things Driftworks Tidal Art over a Cappuccino.
And we start with water…or to be more precise, the Sea.
A Creative Environment
The wild coastline of Northumberland stretching from Druiridge Bay in the South up as far as Bamburgh to the North has long been a place of sanctuary and wonder for many – including Amanda and Alison. In-fact, it is this coastline, coupled with their own ‘adventure-bringers’ (their two dogs – a Dalmatian and a Golden Doodle) that prompted the establishment of DTA as Amanda explains:
‘We have lived in the North East on and off for a long time, but in 2007, largely due to the recession, we had to move to Birmingham to find work. After a 9 years in the Midlands we thankfully moved back up to Rothbury in 2016 and we are now in the fortunate position of being semi-retired in our early 50’s. We just love spending our mornings walking our dogs on the beach.’
It was during these morning walks that the pair would sift through the white sands to pick up the gems that the North Sea had washed up overnight. ‘We collected sea glass, pottery, ceramics but mostly driftwood. Anything that caught our eye and was unusual or (to our eyes at least) beautiful. We ended up with a pretty sizeable stockpile in our garage and as we’d always wanted to do something together in a work capacity, we began to make things out of it. We started with bird sculptures and then expanded into pot and candle holders.’
One of DTA's fantastic Bird creations.
Amanda and Alison had always fostered the idea of running a business together – and there is something quite lovely and indeed exciting about the wild and rugged Northumberland coastline being the spark which ignited this idea into something tangible and achievable. This place provided the right environment at the right time and allowed this couple to explore their creative passion.
It’s a story which Is quite exciting and intriguing because there is a sense that this is the type of creative business venture that is actually within the grasp of all of us who may harbour creative talents and ideas. There is a sense that sometimes it just needs the inspiration of a beautiful environment coupled with a bit of time, passion and vision to create something like Driftworks Tidal Arts and make it grow.
So, the Driftworks Tidal Arts concept had its naissance on the beaches of Northumberland. As interest amongst family and friends for the pieces that the couple were creating grew, so Amanda and Alison started to diversify the range of pieces they were producing and quite aptly, they began to create coastal and rural Northumberland scenes:
The Jolly Fisherman in Craster Coastal Scene
‘The idea for the coastal scenes actually came up when we were at a reclamation yard in Walker (East Newcastle) and we saw some old spindles. Alison looked at them and said, ‘it’s a lighthouse’! And I could see that if we cut it here and there it would indeed make a lighthouse. So, we bought the spindles and combined them with the flat pieces of driftwood that we had collected over the weeks, and it evolved into a coastal village scene. This was the beginning of what has become our most successful line of DTA products’.
Amanda and Alison both have backgrounds in business, (Amanda used to be a Business Adviser for NBSL and still works in a consultancy role for them) and so as they began to see the business opportunity emerging (literally) out of the beaches of Northumberland, their marketing acumen kicked in and, as Amanda explains, they began to research other similar artists operating in the UK and further afield:
‘What we found interesting when we conducted this research, was that our focus on real rural and coastal places was more or less unique – and set us apart’.
DTA are active on social media (Instagram @driftworkstidalart and Facebook @DriftworksTidalArtPage ) and it is certainly true that it is these Coastal Scenes that stand out! They provide a visual feast of instantly recognisable local places. It’s a great business idea – let alone an artistic idea – because the North Eastern coastline is riddled with iconic buildings. From the many and varied castles; Warkworth, Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh to name but 3 – to the whitewashed pubs – such as the Jolly Fisherman in Craster, or The Ship in Low Newton. These are much loved places which hold many a memory for those that hail from the North East or have holidayed on the Northumberland coast. To capture them in reclaimed materials washed up on the North Eastern beaches holds a particularly charming appeal.
The Sun Inn in Alnmouth Coastal Scene
An exciting adventure
Chatting to Amanda, I get the sense that at the outset DTA was a venture which evolved rather than was heavily planned. And, despite their joint business acumen, principally DTA is about doing something enjoyable, rather than developing and growing a successful business. It just so happens, that both Amanda and Alison also enjoy combining their joint business skills with their creative talents. But for them, it’s clear that this is more of an exciting adventure – which coincidentally also supplements their income from their part time jobs.
‘For both of us this is about doing something that we are proud of and creating work for which we become known and have a name – whether that’s just very local in Northumberland – or beyond. That is our focus. Selling in high volume is not really what we want, because we don’t need to as we have other part-time work which provides the income we need’.
And because this is something of an adventure, Amanda (in particular) is prepared to ‘dream big and be unrealistic’ as Jay Z puts it.
‘When we first started to sell our pieces, I said to Alison that we should aim to get into Galleries! Alison’s response was, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’! – But, low and behold – we are in three galleries now.
And looking to the future I feel that the next stage for us is to progress to exhibitions, to which Alison’s response was pretty much the same’, says Amanda laughing.
Whether DTA do indeed progress to exhibitions in the future, the point is that they are being true to their initial vision for the business; To do something they are passionate about together, having fun and using their joint skills. And here we hit upon something which is critical to all small and start-up businesses (not just ‘Creatives’), which is to be clear at the outset about your vision. What it is that you want your business to achieve? Where it is you want your business to go?
This part of our conversation is also a reminder to me, as I hold these interviews with Artisans and Artists in the North East, that though we are in the same creative industry, we are all at a different stage of our journey. Each vision slightly different. We all approach our work from different standpoints which in turn affects the way in which we operate. This ‘difference’ is what makes the creative industries so exciting. This variety is indeed the spice of life!
Listen to your customer
However, even though, DTA’s focus isn’t about creating a ‘money-spinner’– that’s not to say that it hasn’t required a serious amount of planning and structure and having recently set up my own creative business, I’m keen to understand a little more about this. I want to really understand how much the business has ‘just evolved’ – and how much planning has really gone into it?
‘Yes, in the early months it did just evolve’, says Amanda, ‘We were discovering together that we could create things which we really liked, however, in the early days we really weren’t sure that others would like what we were creating, but as we began to understand what our customers liked we saw the business opportunity and then we started to plan more and add structure’.
Amanda and Alison were enjoying what they were doing and encouraged by friends and acquaintances, they began to sell their work and attend markets and craft fairs. But, they found that the products they thought would be popular with customers weren’t at all:
‘We had a stall at a craft fair in Alnwick in February 2017 and took all of the stock that we had made. At that point we had focussed on things like candle holders, plant-pot holders, the bird sculptures and some practical stuff too like coat hooks. We also took a couple of the coastal scenes with us – thinking that they would just fill out our stall a little. As it happened, everybody who came to the fair loved the scenes – nothing else – just the scenes’.
And here we have another critical point for any small business to take note of; and that is to try to test ideas and products with potential customers as early as possible. It is so important to observe and listen to the customer, rather than just developing the products that you like and assuming others will like them too. This doesn’t always sit comfortably with creatives, because Art – your creation – is your creation – and your style is your style – and this presents then a balance between being creative and creating the art and pieces that you like and enjoy – The statements that you wish to make, and at the same time running a sustainable business and meeting a customer demand.
So, Amanda and Alison have adjusted the types of product they now produce, though they remain true to their vision and are still guided by the uniqueness of each piece of driftwood or sea glass that they work with. ‘The piece that we are working with – it’s shape and size, the curves and irregularities – will often tell us straightaway exactly what the piece is going to be’.
A DTA Candle-Holder
A varied career to date
For Amanda and Alison, the market research and product testing is underpinned by a varied career to date…and when I say varied, I mean varied! For instance, Amanda’s business career started in a professional photography lab, but only after a very early stint on the Women’s European Golf Tour:
‘I’ve played golf since I was 7 and I still play the courses up here in Northumberland. I went on the European Tour as a Caddy in my teenage years, but realised I wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional golfer. I came back from the tour at the grand old age of 21. That was pretty tough because I didn’t have any qualifications and realised that the Golf dream was over, and I’d have to get a job. Thankfully, pretty quickly I got a job at a professional photographic lab’.
Amanda’s career then took in local and regional management positions at Click Photopoint and similar positions at several charity retailers including YMCA, before she decided to ‘go back to school’ and gain the academic qualifications which had eluded her earlier in her career. ‘We moved to Edinburgh and I had to firstly take an access course for a year before I could enrol on the full course, but in the end, I got my master’s in psychology. All in all we were up in Edinburgh for 4 ½ years – and then we moved back to Northumberland’.
With the ‘piece of paper’ in place – Amanda then embarked on the next chapter of her career working as a Business Advisor for NBSL, which is a role she still undertakes part-time as a management consultant. In which guise she also delivers training and development courses in the automotive and healthcare sectors for luminary clients such as Peugeot and The Priory Group.
The future? Elementary my dear DTA
For now, though, Amanda runs DTA, provides part time management consultancy services and has recently been appointed as a director at the Elements Co-operative Art Gallery in Rothbury. That’s quite a portfolio of work and It strikes me that by anyone’s estimation, far from living the relaxed semi-retired life that most of us may crave – there is a risk that Amanda may in-fact be spreading herself too thinly – but she’s having none of it. Like so many in the Creative Industries, this is her passion and she and Alison are clear on what the future holds:
‘More of the same! The focus will be to reduce the amount of management consultancy work over time. I have already relinquished the work involving designing and delivering training courses for NBSL to start-up and small businesses. I loved this work and I would use the experiences of DTA to help others who may wish to follow the same sort of path. I also loved the challenge of preparing courses – it gets my creative juices flowing and it’s great for networking. My real focus though is DTA and Elements Art Gallery’.
Elements Art Gallery in Rothbury - Certainly worth a visit...
It’s clear that her role as a Director at Elements is something that really excites her and as she explains the cooperative model the gallery uses, it’s clear that, subject to the views and agreement of the other directors and members at Elements, there is scope to roll it out in other galleries and ‘pop-up’ spaces as Amanda terms them.
‘Elements is essentially a physical retail premises in a great location in Rothbury’ Amanda says. ‘There are 39-member artists, and 3 directors. The cooperative model means that instead of the members paying a commission to the gallery for any artwork sold, they actually buy space (a shelf or an area of wall space) and in addition give their time working in the shop on a volunteer rota basis equivalent to the amount of space they have in the gallery.’
It sounds like a great idea which has the dual benefit for the artist of having their work on display – but also spending time meeting customers in the gallery too.
‘It’s a great model and since I started my directorship in October 2017 the Gallery has exceeded expectations and so we can see definite room for scaling up. I’m particularly keen to follow a model we used at YMCA when I was there to create pop-up galleries using temporary retail or other spaces available in coastal towns and villages – so watch this space’.
There is a real sense of energy and vibrancy about Amanda and it is reflected in the pieces that DTA produce and indeed in what she classes as her early and continuing life inspirations. Amanda points to the Dorset oil painter Rebecca Lardner as a key artistic influence and many of Rebecca’s vibrant coastal shapes and colours can be traced in the DTA coastal scene pieces – but it’s the early inspiration on the golf course that fascinates me.
‘I am inspired by the great outdoors – and as a young girl, golf was everything. Getting out onto the course in idyllic locations such as Gleneagles or Royal Troon close to Scotland’s glorious mountains or the rugged and wild coast. I think innately I am also a very visual person and I have always felt so comfortable outside in and around nature’,
Golf, as with most sports also provided Amanda with the immediate thrill of performing an action well; striking a ball perfectly down the fairway or sinking a tricky putt. ‘I remember quite clearly, when I was 14 I had a match – where I had to win the last hole to win the tournament – and going down the last, my opponent was on the green and I still had to play my approach shot to the green. My ball was on the fairway but sat right in-front of a massive bunker, so the pressure was on. I went for the shot and put the ball to within 3-yards – and then sank the putt. That feeling of hitting the shot and seeing where it ended up was just fantastic. I can still feel it now’.
It’s apt then that we should finish our interview with memories of the rugged South West Coast of Scotland, when we started by tracing Driftworks Tidal Art’s roots back to the stunning beaches of the Northumberland Coast. The sea can be pretty mesmerising – much like the work of Amanda and Alison.
If you’d like to check out Driftwork Tidal Art’s work, you can find them in the following places: