Five lessons from 2017

As with every year that passes, 2017 taught me some real life lessons. Here, I share the five biggest things I learned last year – about myself and my business. 

Lesson One: People still want my work.

When you’re self-employed and work alone from home, you often feel you’re in a little bubble. Your friends, customers and peers are all online, and it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of comparison and jealousy when you scroll the Instagram feeds of fellow creative businesses and see their amazing creations and picture-perfect lives. Of course, I’m not delusional – I know everyone presents their best side online, but that doesn’t stop me being full of self-doubt.

I’ve been papercutting for more than six years now, and the days of being booked solidly for commissions for 18 months are long gone (I shudder at the pressure I used to put myself under!). I’m a lot less busy than I used to be. I know I’m not alone in this, and I’m happy with the amount of work I have on as it’s easier to balance with family life. So when I do get enquiries and send out invoices for one of a kind pieces, it still feels amazing. Every time my iPhone makes the cha-ching till sound when I get an Etsy sale, I do a little dance and a big “wahoo!”. It’s great to still feel wanted after six years of doing this (despite what my imposter syndrome monsters try to convince me), and it’s an honour to be kept busy by lovely customers with such great projects and orders. It helps put food on our table, pay towards the bills, and keeps me out of trouble – thank you. Always.

2017 saw me hand-draw and hand-cut a wonderful selection of commissions (a few are pictured above), from an architectural wedding venue cut to mermaids, seaside scenes and Cornish landscapes. I created a vintage typewriter which I turned into Valentine’s cards (buy them here!), cut lots more scenes of Yorkshire’s famous landmarks, cut some big family trees, pretty wedding hearts and colourful children’s name pieces, and developed new templates and kits in order to pass my passion for paper to others through delivering three fantastic workshops. I continued my work with Etsy’s Team York, hit 500 sales in my Etsy shop, and undertook my largest commission ever. Again – thank you.

Lesson two: I’m stronger than I realise.

I’m not a very resilient person, and lord knows me and my immediate family have had some trying times over the years. This year has been one of the most trying, but also one that’s taught me I am far stronger than I think. The year began on an unsteady footing as we recovered from the unexpected passing of a close family member, ascended into bliss as we discovered we were expecting our second child, and descended to despair when we discovered there was no pregnancy.

Laurence and I decided earlier this year that we really wanted to extend our family, and we were overjoyed to discover those thin blue lines in July. Everything seemed pretty normal – belly growing, strong symptoms, positive tests – and we were so excited to share our news with our seven-year-old after the 12-week scan in September. But it wasn’t to be. There was just an empty sac, with no baby. I said the words at the same time as the sonographer –  “a missed miscarriage”, while Laurence looked at me, dumbfounded. My body had been playing tricks on me, and it was a further two months of emotional and physical torment (eventually resulting in me needing surgery) before I was officially no longer pregnant. Even though I never really had been.

Missed miscarriage scan

Little Baby Nothing – discovering my missed miscarriage in September was a massive shock.

Once you see those two lines, your world changes. You feel all the fears and have all the hopes. But after that scan, hope went out like a candle. Hope for the little piece of love that would always be in my heart, but never in my arms. I read somewhere that you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability, and I feel vulnerable putting this in words, but every brave step helps the healing.

A little over two weeks after my surgery, I was driving myself to the Lake District to deliver a workshop, for which I’d created three new products and devised and put together DIY packs and templates (and started selling them in my online shop). I don’t know how I managed it, but I did. December was one of my busiest months ever, with another workshop plus a Christmas market and a ton of online sales – and I was doing it all singlehandedly, putting in crazy hours as Laurence was working away in his new job and only home at weekends. Had my mind not been kept so busy, I think the final weeks of the year would’ve turned out very differently. So again, I’m so grateful for all of the orders and enquiries – you don’t know how much that busy-ness helped me get through the experience. It certainly taught me that I’m stronger than I thought.

Lesson three: I love teaching

After nine years of self-employment, I’ve become used to my own company. Sometimes I can go a full day without speaking to another adult. Which leads me to act like a complete dork when I do engage in adult conversation. I pull stupid facial expressions, and make foot-in-mouth comments. Social decorum is not exactly my middle name!

So when I have to professionally ‘adult’ in front of other adults, who’ve *paid* for me to stand in front of them and teach them something… It can be quite daunting (we’ll gloss over the fact that I used to teach at a real-life college!). As someone who has long suffered from horrendous panic attacks and anxiety over public engagements, it’s a wonder I can pull my rear end into gear and actually teach workshops. But teach them I do!

I taught three in 2017, at the wonderful ArtisOn and at glorious new venue Swallows & Artisans. There’s nothing I enjoy more than sharing my passion for paper with an enthusiastic bunch of lovely people. Seeing their faces as they pull a finished papercut away from the template, or pose proudly for a picture with their finished creations… I just love it. Expect to see more workshops in 2018 – subscribe to my newsletter if you want to be kept up to date on when they’re happening. And if you know of a great venue who you think would love me to teach there, please let me know about it!

Lesson four: Family and friends are everything

After a trying year, I can barely begin to thank my family and friends for being there for me. I’ve made more of an effort to be social this year, rather than cooping myself up alone in my little studio, and it’s certainly helped my mental health. And probably my productivity as well!

Batfest collage_MelissaHolmes

Batfest… Heavenly!

From lunch dates with creative girlfriends and giggle-filled meetings with my Etsy Team York posse, to full weekends camping with creative geniuses; friends and fun were a central part of 2017. Once again, Batfest was a highlight. It’s not a festival dedicated to bats, it’s just a small get together organised between a bunch of creative indie businesses which this year involved camping, Smores, giant bubbles, stand-up paddleboarding, wheelbarrow races, eating, star-gazing, campfires, balloon modelling, rowing, face-painting, macrame, henna, dogs, country walks and an epic water fight. Very much looking forward to doing it all again this year!

Then of course there are the times when friends and family go above and beyond to help out in times of need – like when school mums take my daughter C to school while I’m struggling to stand upright due to a flare-up of my chronic pain condition, or my Dad and stepmum step in to help out with C when I’m too ill to manage, or one of my oldest friends accompanies me to the hospital to take the tablets to induce my miscarriage, and stays with me for the next ten hours through the contractions and crying to rub my back and bring me pain meds. Thank you Em, I’ll never forget your kindness and love over the past year and will never be able to repay you.

As independent as I like to think I am, 2017 taught me that I can’t get by without my friends and family. I’m so grateful to have such a special bunch of people in my life.

Lesson five: Self-care is vital

A couple of years ago, I read the quote “an empty vessel cannot serve”. To me, that translates as “you’ve got to fill your own cup before you can fill anyone else’s” – like when you put your own oxygen mask on first on a plummeting plane.

Spring is always a great time for new beginnings for me, and starting to try to extend our family corresponded with me really pushing my exercise and clean eating up a notch from around March onwards. I started lifting weights, my daily workouts went from 20 minutes to at least an hour a day and I was restless and tetchy if I didn’t get my exercise-induced endorphin boost. To me, exercise is a huge part of self-care – it gives me more energy, and helps me manage my pain condition. Plus lifting weights makes you feel ruddy incredible, like you can take on the world. So 2018 is seeing much more of that happening (I had to put exercise on hold with the whole pregnancy thing last year), along with more early nights, more daily gratitude lists and more making time for the things I enjoy doing (reading, art galleries, day trips with my family, good walks…). Last year showed me the rewards I can reap when I take better care of myself, and that’s a great lesson to learn. It’s inspired one of my new product ranges this year, and I’m so excited to share with you the first piece from the new range, which sums up this happy-go-lucky approach.

DoMoreOfWhatMakesYouHappy art print_HolmesMadePapercuts

Do More of What Makes You Happy – words to live by for 2018, and a fab new print by me, available now in my Etsy shop

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about my lessons of 2017. What were the biggest things you learned last year? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Much love,

Melissa x

PS – I know I’m posting this blog at the end of January, so it’s a bit late. But I don’t think I’m the only one who finds those first few weeks of the new year a little overwhelming! There was a lot to process last year… And this post is better late than never.

On creative block, not being good enough, and not giving up.

‘I used to be a papercutting artist.’

‘I was a self-employed creative, but I’m taking a break while I decide on a new direction.’

‘I worked as an artist, but…’

No matter how I try and phrase it, it doesn’t sound right. What is all this ‘used to be’, this ‘was’?

What do I mean, I’m ‘taking a break’?

I’ve never taken a break. I don’t take breaks. My brain never stops. I have always been creative. It runs in my blood, from my grandparents to my beautiful daughter, there’s a creative root that’s grown and flourished and blossomed throughout my life – whether it’s painting from my imagination as a toddler, working as an arts co-ordinator to support young people with disabilities, writing articles for national magazines as a journalist, or creating bespoke keepsake papercuts for great clients.

I’ve never not created.

But suddenly that blossom has withered away. My petals have fallen.

Trying to get my head round the concept of taking a break from my creativity, or even – heaven forbid – actually stopping papercutting… Well, it’s difficult.

For a few weeks, I haven’t created much at all. It seems to have started a while back, perhaps triggered by some rather nasty personal insults which caused me to question myself a little too much (apparently, I’m “just a mum who cuts holes in paper in her daughter’s bedroom” – the things people say when they have a keyboard to hide behind). I’ve been going through the motions. I’ve posted out Etsy orders in between being mum and caring for my family during the Easter holidays. Commissions have taken a back seat while I wrestle with ‘just not feeling it’ – thank you to those understanding customers. I’ve spent time with family, time alone, time online trying to breathe new life into my creativity with the support of a network of amazing fellow business owners. I’ve spent time exercising, meditating, reading… But very little time at my cutting mat.

The feeling of not creating is a very strange one indeed. I’ve come to realise that the minutiae of running a creative business (and the vast amount of non-creative time that involves) has started to overcome me. Keeping up with the admin, marketing, accounts, social media, getting my product photography just so, setting out plans for the future… But wait a minute. When did I last sit with a pencil and just draw? When did I last go for a walk in nature and not check my iPhone for Etsy stats or Instagram likes? When did I last spend an evening with my family without responding to client enquiries or updating product listings in my online stores?

IMG_0905

It’s Spring – time to gather up my petals and start blooming again.

I’ve come to realise that what I’ve been experiencing isn’t creative block. It’s creative overload. Surrounded by highly talented peers who are consistently coming up with bestsellers and new concepts; constantly seeing apparently perfect, organised lives and brilliant businesses on social media… I won’t be the first creative person to tell you that my ideas don’t feel original, that I can’t come up with anything new, that people must be bored of what I do, that I feel like I’ve no sense of direction, that I’m just not good enough. But all of these thoughts have whirred around my head in recent months.

Ah, self doubt. How I loathe you.

I wish I knew how to quit you.

And it’s been so hard, so hard when everyone else seems to be doing great, and when working alone (when I usually really value my solitude) can make me feel like the loneliest person on the planet. Not physically alone, but also alone with those isolating, almost self-indulgent thoughts.

I’ve reached out. I’ve spoken to other creatives, to friends, to people who follow me on social media. I know I’m not alone – in every sense of the word.

From my best friend: “You’re such a talented person. Taking some you time is maybe what you need.”

From a brilliantly creative online friend: “You may find you don’t need a massive break,  just time to remember how to be you again. You are a papercut artist, that’s what you do.”

Who is this ‘you’ that they speak of? I’m not sure who she is… I am my business and my business is me, and if I never have another decent creative idea ever again OH MY GOSH THIS IS THE WORST FEELING EVER!

And yet another wonderful original creative talent: “You are more than capable. Please don’t think you’re on your own with this, you’re not, at all.”

Of course, when you’re in the mire of creative numbness, feeling like you’ll never have an original idea ever again (while simultaneously beating yourself up about having such narcissistic thoughts when there are so many more important things going on in the world), these loving, supportive words bounce off your psyche like raindrops on a leaf-laden forest floor. Just not in such a beautiful way.

Because, when you keep telling yourself the same thing over and over, sometimes you start to believe it. Even when, deep down, you know it’s not the truth.

When you’re used to always being creative, creative block is a very scary feeling. None of my ideas feel like mine, you tell yourself. I will never be able to create anything ever again – you’re convinced. What if I never have any more ideas ever again!? My brain is empty. Literally empty. And this sketch looks too much like this other artist’s work. And I can’t do this design because everyone is doing this style and I don’t want to look like I’m jumping on some sort of bandwagon. And I can’t even put my pencil to paper as I’ve talked myself out of having any sort of talent or four years’ worth of happy, satisfied customers. That never really happened, did it? Face it, you’re just not good enough.

And so it continues, round and round. The nasty cycle.

Weirdly, all I’ve wanted to do since this murky creative fog descended is to write. Which is what I used to do – and do well – before my daughter was born. In a cruel twist of post-baby nose-diving self-confidence, I gave that up (not good enough! Are you spotting a theme here?) to pursue papercutting, which I loved (love). So perhaps I do still have a little creative ember burning away inside of me. Maybe I just need to find that spark to light it up again.

At times like this, I seek advice everywhere. I want to know what my favourite thinkers and influencers think about creative block, about self care, about keeping going and trying new things. The brilliant Austin Kleon quips: “You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it” and (pertinently, for me) “You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.” Phew. Well that’s a relief.

Meanwhile, my beloved Elizabeth Gilbert tells me: “Done is better than good,” and “Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.”

Elizabeth? Is that you? Actually inside my mind??

I could read every opinion and every theory about the situation, continue my procrastination and prolong my fear of getting wrong the commissions that a few of my wonderful (and patient, and understanding) clients are waiting for. But I still wouldn’t find the answer. Why? Because only I have the answer. And I know, through all my denial, dilly-dallying, self doubt, lack of confidence, anxieties over my abilities, that the answer is very, very simple. Too simple.

Do the thing.

Draw the sketch. Create the piece. Cut the paper. DO THE THING.

Actually doing the work, getting my ideas down (preferably free of my own judgement and self-criticism) is the only way I can get past this block. To rediscover my love of the process, to reignite my passion for the craft. It is truly the only way.

So that is what I’m going to do.

One pencil line, one scalpel cut at a time.

I’ll see you on the other side. Who knows what may happen…?

Words and images © Melissa Holmes :: HolmesMadePapercuts

WORKSPACE WEDNESDAY :: holmesmadepapercuts

What better way to kick off a new series of weekly (ish) peeks into creative workspaces than to start with my own space, right here at Holmes-made?

A special focus on a creative workspace – this week, I look at my little studio, from where I design and cut all my paper cuts, do all my admin and sort all my packaging.

A special focus on a creative workspace – this week, I look at my little studio, from where I design and cut all my papercuts, do all my admin and sort all my packaging.

Tell us about your workspace.

I set this workspace up in January 2014. Prior to this – for two years – I was working at the kitchen table, with work, packaging materials and paper stored in different areas all over the house. A new year meant I needed a new start. Deciding to ‘relocate’ to an unused corner of my daughter’s bedroom meant that I could have an area to call mine, where I could leave things out permanently (although not work and tools – those are stored on top of my daughter’s wardrobe where she can’t reach them!) and where I could feel inspired and motivated to create. In short, I needed to start taking myself (and my business) more seriously, so we had a family trip to Ikea and my workspace was born.

How have you chosen to furnish your workspace?

I’m very space-limited so a simple desk, storage drawers and chair is all I can stretch to. However, with accessories and clever storage, I’ve managed to work around my limited space to create a studio area tailored to my needs.

My desk is made up of legs, a cupboard unit and table top from Ikea. I chose smooth, plain white as a useful background for taking product photographs. I also bought a little shelf/drawer unit with brackets from the same Ikea range (they don’t sell mine anymore, but this is the closest). I then carried out a little Ikea hack with some brackets to suspend the drawer unit above the desk, thus giving me more surface space to work on which is vital for larger cuts, as well as an extra space for photography when needed (I pin a backdrop to the wall… It’s oh-so-glamorous!).

Seating is really important to me as I spend so long sitting while papercutting – again I chose a comfy desk chair from Ikea which gives me great back support and manoeuvrability.

Lighting is also super important. The fairy lights help give a warm glow on a miserable day, I also have a couple of ambient lamps to give a cosy feel plus I have my magnifying daylight lamp which I can move around and which I have on all the time. It saves my eyes from getting super tired and serves as a useful iPhone-platform for overhead shots!!

Smal but perfectly formed, my well-planned workspace means I have everything I need close by, plus it serves to give me a daily dose of inspiration.

Smal but perfectly formed, my well-planned workspace means I have everything I need close by, plus it serves to give me a daily dose of inspiration.

The storage I have is very limited. I’m not going to lie – I have packaging materials in my loft and airing cupboard, my giant A3 frame boxes and envelopes are stored in my wardrobe, plus there are a lot of papers in the sideboard in the lounge. My old barn door (which I use as a photo backdrop) is kept outside the house. Not practical! My A3 scanner and printer lives under my desk, and I keep more envelopes, packing materials and my Lightcase on top of the printer. Vertical living at its finest!! I store stickers, tissue paper, business cards, greetings cards and Drop and Go forms in an Ikea drawer unit. On top of that live my iPod dock/radio, along with a bunch of files, binders and magazine boxes (for envelopes, order forms, postage receipts and so on). One “leg” of my desk is home to a two-shelf cupboard where I store papers and prints in concertina box files. I’ve had to think cleverly of how to get the most from the small space I have, while at the same time being able to access everything I need quickly.

Three small wooden boxes contain everything I need to keep at hand for packing and posting, while a cupboard which serves as a table 'leg' holds essentials like paper, prints, baking boards and my arm warmers!

Three small wooden boxes contain everything I need to keep at hand for packing and posting, while a cupboard which serves as a table ‘leg’ holds essentials like paper, prints, baking boards and my arm warmers!

The over-desk drawers and shelf are super handy for keeping tapes, papers, tools and postal bits and bobs to hand; for example I have three little wooden boxes filled with washi tape, rubber stamps and ink pads, and all the elements needed for postage including my thank you notes, bakers twine and Signed For stickers. Everything I need to access on a daily basis is within reach of my desk, which is a vast improvement on how I used to work, and makes my working life a heck of a lot easier!

Oh and an additional plus-point – my daughter can’t reach the drawers above my desk, so they’re quite good for storing sweets and chocolate essential papercutting artist snacks.

And what about decoration?

Two words: Inspo wall!! Since I was at school I’ve had a bunch of postcards I’ve dragged with me to uni and into office booths and workspaces; just to give my working day a little boost. These include examples of my favourite art works like my Frida Kahlo postcards picked up when I saw an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern (she’s one of my favourite artists), Miffy and Hello Kitty postcards bought in France, some long-loved “quote” postcards (my favourite reads: “I want to be what I was when I wanted to be what I am now” which holds huge resonance for me), a sweet beat-up “Love Is” mirror from a thrift store in Glasgow and some lovely creations by my daughter which make me smile. There are also a few photos; some of me in happy times and some of my daughter, some hand-scrawled notes to myself (including “Only Love Today”, one of my favourite mantras from the amazing Handsfree Mama) and inspiring cards from the likes of Lucky Dip Club and Bread & Jam.

A snippet of some of the wonderfully inspiring things I've chosen to surround myself with.

A snippet of some of the wonderfully inspiring things I’ve chosen to surround myself with.

Accessorise those arty bits with handmade beauties from Two-10 design (a hand-carved wooden block), Katie Daisy (my “let go” canvas), Veronica Dearly (my amazing wall planner), TFLittlefootDesigns (two strings of pretty bunting) and Marna Lunt Textile Artist (my fantastic hand-embroidered hoop) and you get my little corner of heaven.

Oh, and add a plant or two and some flowers – usually sunflowers because they’re really significant to me. I need a bit of nature in my life, especially if it’s super-colourful.

What does your workspace mean to you?

Having my own studio space makes me feel more professional, like I can take myself more seriously now. Yes it’s just a corner of my daughter’s room, but it’s my corner. My inspiration wall is a key part of it – I love fairy lights, I love being surrounded by pretty things and goodies I have collected over many years such as my postcards, wall art and ornaments. I guess my workspace really reflects me and my work – vibrant colour, quirky, bold… Of course, it’s not like I can invite people up to my studio for a tour (unless they want to contend with Lego on the floor!) but I really feel lucky to have my very own space.

Do you have any rituals when it comes to your workspace?

After the school run is done, I come up and stick the radio on, put my fairy lights on if it’s dreary outside and make sure I have a glass of water to hand before I start working. I tend to always work with the radio on for company (Radio 2 or 6Music; Radio 4 late at night because I love The Shipping Forecast – yes, weird). So the radio goes on. And if I get sick of the radio, I’ve got my very old iPod for my entire collection of music – sometimes I require a bit of old school trance to kickstart my working day!

I always clear my desk off before starting a new piece; I like to start completely fresh. So the polish and duster come out and any tiny bits of paper I may have missed in my daily wipe down get hoovered up. Depending on what I’m working on and how busy I am the carpet (a nightmarish thick pile) gets hoovered anything from daily to once a week! I would probably drive myself potty if I attempted to hoover daily while working on an A3 leaf tree… those tiny leaves get everywhere!!

Every season I have a bit of a makeover, so I might change accessories around – change my pen pot and plant pot colours for example, or take a few pics down and put a few new ones up. Just to keep it fresh and happy in hopes that filters down to my work!

What’s your favourite thing about your workspace? And least favourite?

Favourite is the whole thing. Can I say that? Well, my inspo wall. I just love it. It’s so me. I just wish I had a bigger space to spread out more of the things I want to put up!! Least favourite thing: storage.

On that note – any plans for the future when it comes to your workspace?

I would love to have a dedicated workspace big enough to have a packing table, storage for all of my packaging like postal tubes and boxes, with a proper plan chest for storing prints and large pieces of work. And a special photography area where I could keep my camera, tripod, lighting and backdrops set up permanently. The best thing would be to have a door with a lock on, so I could leave all my work and tools out and just close the door on it at the end of each day, rather than having to pack everything away so my daughter doesn’t damage or play with anything! A purpose-built garden office would just be wonderful, or somewhere with character where I could display my work on walls and even take part in open studios. But since we’re currently in a two-bed rental property, I guess I’ll have to keep dreaming!! I do love my workspace though; it suits me and my business (and the current size of my business!) down to the ground.

::

GET INVOLVED

Would you like to take part in a future Workspace Wednesday? It’s a great opportunity to showcase your work and workspace, plus share some behind the scenes stuff with potential customers and social networking fans. If you fancy getting involved and are able to answer a few questions and supply some high quality photos, please drop me a line using the contact form on my website! I will of course include links to your online shop and social media.