This is the fifth 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 and we’ve already heard from Stephen Richardson of SPQR Design, Amanda and Alison of Driftworks Tidal Art, James Pocklington of Pocklington Art and Freddie Matthews of Hanging By a Fred - Check out the interviews here. Now, it’s the turn of Helen Hardy who runs Helen Hardy Art, a creative business which focusses on hand made textile art and architectural pen drawings. Helen produces a whole range of fantastic products featuring her wonderful designs, from quirky and expressive framed pieces, to tea towels, coasters and much more. Helen loves what she does and I have to say that the interview was in-fact more of an educational lecture for yours truly – with Helen patiently explaining the meaning of terms like ‘freemotion’ and ‘cross-stitch’ – which I previously understood to be dance moves! So brew a cuppa, put your feet up for a few minutes and enjoy!
An example of Helen's fantastic freemotion embroidered art
We meet at Costa Coffee on the insanely busy Yarm High-Street, and having chastened Freddie Matthews for being late for my previous interview, I must hold my hands up and confess that I was 15 minutes late this time round…but I blame the traffic! Yarm, for those of you who don’t know it, is a charming little town in North Yorkshire and certainly well worth a day trip. My own memories of Yarm revolve around the beatings we (The Newcastle RGS boys) used to hand out to the Yarm School incumbents on the Rugby pitch. But less of such crowing, and onto the nimble fingers and creative talents of Helen Hardy.
‘Dream big – be unrealistic’
Helen has been creating her range of textile art for over 3 years now. Since she started out, by her own estimation, the learning curve and pace of change has been ‘huge’ and as we begin the interview, our first point of discussion is the recent change in her business name, from ‘A Sisterly Stitch’, to ‘Helen Hardy Art’.
‘The business has grown so much over the last three years, it’s really outgrown the Sisterly Stitch name’, explains Helen, ‘I’ve added my architectural pen drawings to my product list and Sisterly Stitch just doesn’t work with that now. In fact, it was confusing some of my retail stockists who were particularly keen on the pen drawings’.
In this decision to change her name, what Helen is doing is actually a vital part of the armoury of any small business owner – and that is – the ability to pivot. Or, the ability to change direction, products, designs, anything – in order to stay afloat as a business and keep the dream alive. And Helen certainly has dreams…We are sitting next to the window on the first floor of Costa, which affords a great view out onto Yarm High Street, and from this vantage point, Helen points out a retail unit on the other side of the high street.
‘My planning for 2019 is really exciting at the moment, because I’m considering investing in physical space and possibly setting up a gallery. I don’t live far from Yarm high street, and my children go to school locally, so that gallery over there (she says pointing to the aforementioned property) would be just about perfect’.
Now that really is to ‘dream big and be unrealistic’ as Jay Z put it. The financial outlay to either purchase outright or rent retail premises in this location would be high and added to that the business rates, utilities costs… the list goes on. However, Helen isn’t put off, and this confident attitude provides an immediate insight into the reason for the development and growth of the business during it’s first three years. Helen is prepared not only to pivot – but is also confident enough to take risks – and this appetite for risk dates back to her childhood.
'The Hare' - One of Helen's signature pieces
‘One life – live it’
Helen grew up in a family heavily dominated by the female of the species – she had two older sisters – and her mum was very much the kind and generous matriarchal influence. As we chat about Helen’s memories of her childhood, she drifts straight into recollections of Christmas time in the Clark household, which serves to perfectly illustrate her mum’s caring and giving spirit.
‘My mum just loved giving us gifts and helping us in any way she could – and this was never more so the case than at Christmas. I remember that we all had our special ‘area’ where we would position ourselves and sit and wait expectantly for our presents – and they would come in a great big bin bag. The bag was never big enough, and the presents would always be spilling out of it’.
My memories of childhood Christmas’s are somewhat similar, but as I cast my mind back there now I would add to Helen’s memory, in no particular order; a slightly tipsy Granny, the smell of the rosemary on the Christmas dinner, the brandy burning on the Christmas pudding, the marzipan on the Christmas cake, a glass of sherry before 10am, snowballs on ice…but I digress…
Back to Helen’s bag of presents, in which Helen would invariably find lots of arts and crafts materials. ‘My mum wasn’t really Arty herself, but she would encourage us in our artistic endeavours and she provided the materials and the space for us to be creative.’
So Helen’s mum was a huge influence in her childhood years – guiding and encouraging, but the appetite for risk came from her Dad’s influence and sadly his untimely passing when Helen was just 16.
‘Losing my Dad at such a young age instilled in me a degree of bravery to take decisions and to choose to do what makes you happy while you can. I suppose the idea of; ‘just one life – live it!’. It’s clear that as the years have gone by, this is a great part of the legacy that her Dad has left for her - to be prepared to take the risky decisions if it feels right – and who knows – in 2019 to take on a gallery in Yarm!
It’s remarkable isn’t it, the way in which we are built? The debilitating impact that loss can have. The sharpness of the grief. You wonder whether you will ever be able to climb out of the sorrow, which passes over you it seems in great surging waves…And yet, sometimes years later, the legacy of our loved ones, those who have meant something, shines through and in some senses directs us and motivates us. It’s an act of incredible bravery in itself to survive such loss – let alone to embrace it and allow the memory to be a force for good.
In a lovely throwback to days gone by, Helen recalls that her Dad would write letters to her when he was working away. ‘He had a very dry sense of humour, so he would write things like; ‘Now, I know that you can’t read very fast, so I’m writing this very slowly for you…’. But as well as his humour, he would always provide me with advice and his honest opinion and he always helped me so much when I had choices to make. Those letters mean so much to me now’.
Helen's pieces have such wonderful texture
From Criminology to Freemotion
So Helen likes to take a risk or two, but it wasn’t always like that and in actual fact she recalls being quite shy and naïve as a teenager, a shyness and naivety which was quickly knocked out of her by her first foray into the world of work in her early twenties.
‘I followed the academic route through GCSE’s, A-levels and then to University. I had done Art at A-level – but when I discussed it with my Mum, there was definitely a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to make a career of it – unless I moved to London. I didn’t want to do that – so I ended up choosing to do a Criminology degree! It was fascinating – I loved it – but then, because it’s not really a vocational degree I ended up not really knowing what career I wanted to pursue.
Eventually I took a job as an Arrest Referral Officer, working with young people arrested often for petty crime like shoplifting or burglary and my role involved working with those who showed signs of drug addiction. So I would spend time with heroin addicts whilst they were in custody, checking them over, checking the needle points to make sure that they were at the very least injecting properly. I would then refer them on to other health and rehabilitation services after they’d come out of custody’.
‘I was quite a shy and naive person – so working in that environment helped to bring me out of myself. In fact, looking back, it was probably what I needed – being dropped into the thick of it. Opening the shutters in the custody suite and looking at the young people who had been brought in – often in a bad way and with just unbelievably poor hygiene. You don’t expect to see it here, and the smell would often turn your stomach.’
Quite a chastening experience for a fresh faced – green behind the ears graduate – and it’s not surprising that Helen soon decided to move roles and use the skills she was developing in the Local Authority Career’s Advice Service.
‘I took on the task of dealing with ‘hard to reach’ young people. So, these were young people who were self-harming, getting into prostitution and those who were homeless. It was pretty challenging, but I really enjoyed it and consequently stayed with the Career’s Service for 12-years. But I was eventually moved on to providing main stream careers advice in schools which really wasn’t my bag’.
In the past decade, coinciding with the present government’s austerity policy, so many Local Authorities and governmental organisations have faced the challenge of making huge cuts to their budgets and inevitably reducing staff numbers dramatically. Helen’s department faced this gradual culling of staff over a period of time and she recalls the uncertainty and chaos caused by the constant restructuring of departments. Staff members being moved to other departments, taking on different roles and titles, the services being diluted and experienced colleagues losing their jobs. The inevitable disillusionment followed, and Helen took voluntary redundancy in 2014.
‘I was at that point of unhappiness in a job and I needed a change’, Helen recalls. ‘I took a breather so to speak, took a few months to consider my options, thought about retraining as a Social Worker and then my brother in law died. My niece was the same age as I was when I lost my Dad and it brought a lot of emotional memories to the surface again. But strangely, It also helped me to make my decision. Because, I felt more than ever, that I just had to do what felt right and what I felt happiest doing – and that was creating textile products.’
Whilst this massive change had been going on, Helen’s middle sister, who is a qualified upholsterer had been teaching Helen the basics of sewing and stitching, and she recalls during this time having a sisterly glass of wine with her, creating some cushions – and realising just how much she loved the creative process.
‘I started off sewing and stitching and have gradually developed my Freemotion embroidery style – which is essentially drawing with a sewing machine. I draw out the design with fabric pen and then I switch all of the dials off on the sewing machine and then a literally move it and change the spool colours when I need a new colour and gradually build up layers of colour onto the fabric’.
Freemotion work in progress...
Helen took a 10-week textile art course at the Cleveland College of Art, which helped to embed her developing skills and as the orders for her work started to steadily increase, she started to consider the possibility of setting up her own business.
Re-finding your Identity
Helen and I have known each other for a little while now. We’ve braved markets together. And, as we sip coffee and chat together, I find we’ve a great deal in common. I also took voluntary redundancy and faced a difficult career decision and took the scary and risky step into the unknown in setting up my business. And as we recall those early days Helen remembers the nervousness but also the huge boost that taking that first step gave her.
‘I wasn’t hugely confident when I started out. To me at the time it was a hobby. I would put the odd thing on Facebook and friends and family would ask me to make items for them. But as time went by, it started to mean more. I was in a situation where I wasn’t contributing to the household bills and I had lost a large part of my identity which was linked to my career to that point. In my textile work I think was re-finding my identity?! Not as Mum, not as wife, not as Career Adviser, but as ‘Helen’.
When people talk about knowing something is right in their ‘gut’, or, getting a ‘gut feeling’ I guess this is all part and parcel of that. To identify with something because it identifies with you right at your very core. And in the style of art that Helen creates you can see the love and care she has for it coming through. It means a great deal to her because it has helped her to re-find her identity.
‘I just love it when I see people walking past my stall and they stop when they see one of my pieces and smile or laugh and come over to see it closer up. That’s just awesome.’ Contrast this to the ‘unhappiness’ that Helen talked of back in 2013 towards the end of her time in the Career’s Advice Service – and you begin to understand just how important this business is to Helen. It’s provided a route to happiness again.
From 'work in progress' - to the completed piece!
But of course it isn’t all peaches and cream, running your own small business is full of everyday frustrations. It’s a huge learning curve. Moving from being an employee to being self-employed is a massive jolt to the system - and one thing that you never seem to have enough of is time!
‘Though I absolutely love doing what I do, and I regularly sit up until 3am in the morning completing my textile art and architectural pen drawings for clients – the great frustration is always that I just don’t seem to have enough time. I have my first exhibition (a 6 week exhibition at Gallery TS1 on Corporation Road in Middlesboro which has just opened) and also the Festival of Thrift at Redcar and there is so much to do and not enough time to do it’.
This I’m sure would resonate with other creative businesses, because, one thing you don’t realise when you set up a small business and pursue your passion, is all of the other work that you have to do aside from the actual art work – the thing that you love. In particular, Helen’s frustrations lie with engaging third parties who don’t perform well. When you are already running out of time, the last thing you want is the hassle of then having to deal with underperforming suppliers.
‘There are things that I just can’t do, I don’t have the technical expertise. So I have to engage third parties and hand tasks over to them. You are then in their hands, and it can be so frustrating when the task is either not done on time – or done really poorly. I do lots of events and markets and so it’s important that any products, packaging, banners are finished in time for these events. If they aren’t it impacts on the impression I want to make, and it seems that some suppliers just don’t seem to appreciate this.’
But these frustrations are outweighed by the sense of achievement that Helen has in developing her business over the past three years and re-finding her identity. So, it’s not surprising then, that when we talk about people that have acted as an inspiration to her, Helen zooms in on someone who was a catalyst in helping Helen take the decision to set up her own business:
‘Norliza Garbutt – my friend – She also worked with me in the Career’s Service, and she took voluntary redundancy before me. She set up her own business, and she helped me to believe that it was possible to do it. She was one of those people who ‘just did it’. All of a sudden, because she had done it, It became achievable for me too. Yes it was a gamble. Yes it was a risk, but all of a sudden it seemed achievable.’
One of Helen's intricate architectural pen drawings
...So what's next?
And from a distant dream to a current reality, Helen Hardy Art is moving onwards and upwards. That ‘impossible’ has become possible – and as we finish our coffees, I’m curious to know what lies ahead for Helen Hardy Art.
‘Well, I used to be a meticulous planner when I was younger. I kept copious, well-structured and ordered notes – but now, I don’t really have a detailed monthly plan – I tend to work on annual plans. I think that having lost my Dad and my Brother in Law and having had kids early too – it knocks the edges off you and you don’t get too wrapped up in heavy planning. So, I tend to set myself aims annually. I guess I want to leave room for spontaneity, and of course my planning at the moment is exciting – because I’m thinking about my own gallery as a possibility’.
And in her mind, Helen has the details of the Gallery mapped out with potential for a workshop to run textile classes, her own sewing machine so she can work in the gallery and folk can watch their commissions being made in an Economusee style and a gallery full of local artists work.
It sounds like quite a dream. It sounds a little impossible…doesn’t it?
If you’d like to check out Helen’s work, you can find her in the following places:
Website: - https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/ASisterlyStitch
Facebook: - https://www.facebook.com/helenhardyart/
Instagram: - @helen_hardy_art
Markets: – You can find Helen at her stall at most of the Love Art North East events at Central Station and other local places and at Gallery TS1 on Corporation Road in Middlesboro.