This week contains two studio visits to discuss Postures of Making. The first was yesterday with Dominique Rey and Polly Cruse.

This studio visit was a self imposed event; a deadline that acts as a motivation, a prompt to draw work together, finish off maquettes, clear the decks of the studio and present work in progress. It is in some ways nerve racking but also exhilarating.

Dominique, Polly and I have all known each other and worked together since we were selected to be mentees on the Commissions East Mentoring Scheme back in 2006. We instigated Satellite, an artist led group, undertaking projects and studio visits over the years; developing a trust and shorthand communication style which is supportive and productive.

I started the visit by showing work from the digital sketchbook with some elucidation. There were times when we stopped on a particular entry and the conversation expanded. During this process the enormity of project potential became apparent. There are so many possible lines of enquiry it was suggested I start to create a hierarchy of questions or areas to investigate. The digital sketchbook is working well for recording process and progress, but actually what I need is a much bigger working area to create a mind map or diagram of all the possibilities of the project to then start to select and edit together a list. This thinking through doing on a large scale works well for me; and I hope in undertaking this task the major research strands will be identified and in some way help Val and I decide: What are we trying to find out?

We also spoke of kinetic ideas, referencing the research but also in response to my articulation of the possible desired project outcomes. Polly mentioned Zoetropes (origin from the greek life and turning) in response to some forms I have been creating, and Dominique picked up on Choreography (origin from the greek dancing in unison) when I talked about some further documentation I would like to undertake. We talked of time management, psychological wellbeing, logs of my work activities, opposites and containment, context and outcomes. It was a stimulating and worthwhile visit. Predictably no answers have come to the fore, partly because the all-important mind map is yet to be created, but also because it takes time for conversations to sink in and integrate with existing ideas and ambitions. What ends up demanding my attention is currently unknown but I don’t think it will take long to come to the fore.

My thanks to Dominique and Polly for their time.


The School of Life is dedicated to exploring life’s big questions: How can we fulfil our potential? Can work be inspiring? Why does community matter? Can relationships last a lifetime? Using ideas from the fields of philosophy, literature, psychology and the visual arts The School of Life supports the search for alternatives to our current thinking (1).

I can’t even remember when I bought How to Find Meaningful Work by Roman Krznaric but there it has been, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting. I’ve only just started reading it, actually I keep dipping into it for short snatches. The quote at the beginning of the book is thought provoking to say the least:

The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete him out to him the most terrible punishment, one at which the most fearsome murder would tremble, shrinking from it in advance, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness or meaning”.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (2)

The quote comes from c.1880, close to the end of Dostoyevsky’s life, at a time when the poor worked in atrocious conditions, wages were less than subsistence and ill treatment was common. Its continued importance provokes us to consider if usefulness and meaning are central tenets of a good job.

Dostoyevsky is asking us to consider meaning in relation to work, but surely at its core everything has meaning.  Humans are after all considered to be meaning makers: even if that meaning is very difficult to detect or it is located in the most dire of circumstances, there is no escaping it and from it narratives, ideas and possibilities can be developed should there be a desire and a capacity to do so. I can’t think of a work role that it is utterly devoid of usefulness (why else would someone be paying for it to be done?) but in some work roles this may be very limited, or the place in which the usefulness lies may not be in line with individual values.

Within a work context a lack of significant meaning and usefulness can be very problematic for wellbeing and we may ask; what part are we playing in society? Who benefits from our efforts? What is the point in my doing this? After conversations with Val I am wondering if limited meaning and usefulness within a job can also be positive. Going to work and undertaking tasks which are directed and undemanding can result in reduced levels of responsibility or decision making. This can facilitate a greater ability to switch off when leaving work and an increased sense of ‘free time’ which ultimately may be more rewarding. The crux of the matter is the ability to accurately and periodically evaluate the balance between exchange of time and effort (labour) for reward which is usually pay, but importantly includes other benefits such as opportunities to enjoy leisure time or engage in other work activities which may be paid or unpaid.

In Stephen Pheasant’s book Ergonomics, Work and Health, he also identifies the psychological impact of work and links it to meaning:

Good pay, a safe and comfortable working environment and good human relations in the workplace do not in themselves lead to a positive feeling of satisfaction with the quality of working life – although their absence if likely to be a source of dissatisfaction. They may be necessary but they are not sufficient. …. Human beings are not solely motivated by the stick and the carrot – given the opportunity, they will seek out situations which are conducive to personal growth. For work to be psychologically rewarding, it must be seen to have meaning” (3).

In his book Pheasant quotes Ekland’s 1988 checklist: Characteristics of a good job. Interestingly the word ‘meaning’ doesn’t feature. I have selected a number of points from a longer list:

  • Variation: a job which consists of different tasks
  • Overview of the entire production process
  • Freedom to move around physically
  • Self paced work
  • Influence of choice of working methods and their order
  • Continuous development of skills
  • Freedom of action (4)

For self employed artists and creatives lack of variation is not usually an issue, what can become problematic is too many different tasks for too much of the time. These tasks are not necessarily associated with the production of the artwork, but with running the business: making applications, preparing presentations, managing a portfolio career, money and finances, solitary working and so on. In some senses the development of the actual artwork is the least of the artist’s concerns.

A strong sense of ownership over production processes, freedom to move around physically, take breaks or to switch tasks is something that has been evidenced in the research we are undertaking. Having control over the pace of work will at times be dictated by deadlines or unforeseen problems which need to be addressed. These occasions can necessitate all night working sessions, but because of the psychological connection to the task (a sense of pride and ownership) there is a payoff for completing the it; which may be experienced as a euphoric feeling. The Makers Focus Group we spoke to in May talked about organising tasks for the day or week ahead, both in their own work and when working for others, and this having a positive impact on their working lives. Through developing new work, trying new production methods and taking on new commissions, practitioners are challenged and stretched which contributes to the continual development of skills.

Above and beyond everything else the Freedom of Action could be a primary feature or aspiration of any artist’s work, even when those freedoms are hard won or unstable. Creating new knowledge through unexpected combinations of questions, materials and processes can in itself be a meaningful undertaking, leaving the artist to consider how useful their endeavours may be.

(1) Roman Krznaric How to Find Fulfilling Work London, Pan Macmillian, 2012 p. Introduction
(2) ibid
(3) Stephen Pheasant Ergonomics, Work and Health, London, Macmillan Press, 1991 p. 136
(4) ibid


Val came up to the studio yesterday and we spent some time reacquainting ourselves with the project after the summer break. I have used the last couple of months to work up ideas based on visuals from the case study and the two focus groups. I have been keeping a digital sketchbook, allowing me to document visual work and research sources in one place. Having long abandoned a physical sketchbook the digital book is really useful place to collate work: as a document it acts as a record and activities and offers a reassuring sense of progression. With many of my ideas being developed initially through hand drawing which is then scanned and manipulated digitally, it also negates costly printing. Sharing the digital sketchbook with Val and Gill Hedley, the project curator, allowed me to get some initial feedback, essential to prevent the danger of developing work in isolation.

In our discussions Val and I kept darting around a whole range of topics and ideas. To do lists developed, conversations meandered and then the question came: what do we want to find out? And this is where I find myself, sitting with that question; the consideration of which will help to drive the direction of the work, keeping it on track and focused. I now have quite an extensive to do list and it’s a matter of carving out some clear space to address it and with it the pile of research materials I have been collecting since the project started.


For the second Postures of Making Focus Group at the National Centre for Craft and Design in Sleaford a group of 6 makers came armed with enthusiasm and sets of intriguing tools from their workshops and studios. Working in a range of disciplines; jewellery, mosaic, glass and ceramics the postures and working methods were fascinating and unexpected.

We started with a group activity, exploring the ways in which postures might be described. Using a range of images of people engaged with work including Lucie Rie and an opening scene from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the group added descriptive words and reflections. Collating the ways in which the body in action can be described will feed into our understanding of vocabulary within this research topic. It also allows us to consider how the same image can be described in different ways.

Moving into a simple figure outline, the group added in notes about where they felt pain and discomfort when working and it wasn’t unexpected that everyone had something to add. The usual suspects of eye strain, shoulder and lower back aches, pain in the hands and fingers all featured; which is likely to be similar to other groups of workers who have some aspect of repetition in their work. It was noted that at times it was felt that pain and discomfort came not from making activities, but rather the use of a smart phone, a tool most of the group used daily. After intensively frenetic periods of practical work, time was dedicated to tasks associated with the business: maintenance of websites, emails and making applications, which increased the time spent using digital devices.

Within the group, participants spoke of how they used a variety of different tools at different stages of a process, thus using a variety to movements and postures which could be seen as negating a propensity to repetitive strain injury. When repetition was present it was not felt to be stressful – perhaps not always enjoyable – but such activities allowed the mind to drift, which indicates a comfortableness and ease with the task in hand. Some practices were organised in such a way that a four week cycle had been developed, with repetition of the same task over a number of days, before moving onto a new task in the process; and this pattern was reported as being satisfying.

There was a discussion about the joy of being a practitioner, the flexibility to go back and forth between tasks, and the freedom to decide the order of tasks that needed to be completed. Control over task order and organisation of the working day, combined with having an overview of a whole process, from raw material to finish product, could indicate a higher level of job satisfaction. Self employment quite often offers flexibility, but with it comes responsibility for everything which surrounds the actual creation of the work. Hours could sometimes be long; early starts and late finishes were a feature of work patterns which could cause some tension both physically and psychologically, but these were felt to be be temporary in nature. The delineations between work and non work (leisure, family, domestic) were thought to be blurred, with work weaving in and out of all life to a certain extent. Indeed some participants described how their creative practice provided the flexibility to work around family commitments. The spilling out of work across other areas of life is something familiar to plenty of self employed people. Within the creative sector there can be an inability to switch off, as there is always something which needs to be done. Self employed artists, makers and creatives are rarely ergonomically studied; and it is likely there will be a complete absence of any dedicated person to monitor health and wellbeing. Individuals must take on this role themselves. or rely on friends and family to notice when they hear constant complaining about an ache or pain, or seeing someone feeling or being overwhelmed.

When Val and I were working in my studio we discussed how the creative work is never done. Val talked about working in an employment environment where you may hand over your labour for 8 hours a day, but at the end of your shift you can walk away without a second thought until returning the next day. Contrast a different kind of making to the focus group activities we were exploring, within manufacturing for example: an individual may only be involved in one small part of a production process, operating a machine, pushing a button, never seeing or understanding the whole process or product. Not being able to see the bigger picture or hearing affirmations about the value of their contribution in a process may be a high price to pay for freedom from work thoughts in leisure time. An edition of Granta Factory contains a series of photographs by Alex Soth – The Making of Parts which depicts the isolation from the whole.

When we moved onto individual testimonies, each participant talked in detail about their working processes and also to some extent the structure of their businesses. For some, part of their week might be spent working for others in the same discipline, which was an opportunity for paid work but also to learn new skills. Working processes and actions varied, there were some extraordinary movements alongside more expected ones. There were plenty of unusual postures, the ulnar and redial deviations were accompanied by flexions that looked awkward, but reported to be comfortable. I am left wondering when postures look uncomfortable whether the knowledge that a freedom to change activity  or task can make the discomfort more bearable. There was an interesting discussion about the effects of how at the moment, pain and discomfort were felt to be mainly temporary in nature; but there was an awareness of the accumulative effects which could prove to be more difficult to manage in the future.

There was a mass of data and visuals generated from this day: articulate contributions and fascinating re-enactments of working postures have contributed to a bank of information and resources which I will be unpicking, processing and refining in the studio over the coming months.

This group offered us a generous insight into the shape of their work, the tasks they engage with and the issues they face. Val and I extend our thanks to the whole group and to Design Factory , Design Nation and National Centre for Craft and Design for supporting the call out for participants and for facilitating the day.


Visiting an artist studio is always a privilege – in fact I think that of any workspace, whatever the context. The attention I give to work and workspaces comes from an extended fascination with how we spend much of our lives working: the domestic and the unpaid, alongside employment and self employment. Through my art practice I have gained access to offices, architectural practices, engineering hubs, and seen behind the scenes at museums and archives; each of which offers a fascinating insight to otherwise closed or semi closed worlds. The ways in which people move and carry out work activities in these spaces is the basis of Postures of Making.

Within the Postures of Making project Val and I envisage undertaking a number of studio visits to expand our understanding of how artists work and interact with an environment of their own design. Studying individual movements, postures and interactions with space and equipment will further our understanding of the practitioner’s body when engaged in creative practice. Each artist we visit in their studio will be given the option of being identified or to remain anonymous. They have the opportunity to view any photographs / video footage that will be made public. This allows them to identify images which may hint of long developed innovative processes or works in progress, and request cropping or deletion. Practitioners also have the opportunity to read the blog text before it is published.

Polly Cruse has her own studio in her back garden, where she undertakes her photographic and sculptural practice. During the visit, I asked her to talk about the types of activities and tasks that she typically undertakes, any pain and discomfort she experiences whilst working, cycles of work and repetitive tasks, tools and equipment used and adaptions made in the studio. I also asked about the psychological components of the work she undertakes.

What I initially thought would be a verbal explanation was quickly accompanied by physical demonstrations of a variety of movements. I wonder if this kind of instinct to demonstrate is particular to people whose main activity involves physical working: would clerical workers also use gestures to describe their work activities? The studio based interview differs from the focus groups where individuals talk about practice away from their work and tools. In the studio works and tools are to hand, movements around the space are familiar and recallable. I can also ask additional questions about the things that I see.

We started our conversation with Polly’s photographic work and looking at the movements associated with using the camera, tripod and setting up the still life. The work involves both seated and standing positions. The body looked at times compressed when seated, shoulders were raised, neck forward and head lowered trying to see through the camera view finder which was set at a low height, due to the arrangement of objects being photographed. The tripod was an interesting piece of equipment in this studio, as from the outset its size within the space is noticeable. The very nature of the tripod is to provide stability for the camera, but in moving around the space trying to avoid the tripod legs can cause instability in the person using it. Polly detailed how after a period of time of stepping over and around this object, it finally gets moved or the legs are folded in and it’s put to one side. The tripod, much like the camera used in the creation of Polly’s work, has become a familiar and instinctual object with which to interact. She described how it took a period of time to get used to the tripod, and although the mounting plate went missing a decision was taken to adapt rather than replace the equipment. This propensity to adapt is a regular feature in this workspace set up, and Polly repeatedly spoke about the flexibility of the space. She has the practical and spatial skills to order and re-order this workspace as the task requires. It generally has a similar set up but heights of desks and tables are altered depending on the image being composed.

One wall of the studio is covered in shelving and on these contain a concentrated myriad of objects, grouped in specific taxonomies. The body extends to reach objects, one hand is used to take down the object whilst the other is used to aid balance to the outstretched body. Some of these objects are at height, and Polly uses a set of steps to access them. The stretching seems to be of short duration and the objects are not overly heavy. Setting up the photograph is a repetitive cycle: objects are selected, placed, moved, removed, replaced. Polly has a sensitive dexterity with the objects and the ways in which they balance; all the arrangements are temporary. Objects come down from shelves and are ultimately returned. There is a lot of moving between the shelves and the arrangement, between arrangement and camera, checking compositions. The floor space in the studio is fairly small – 3 x 1.5 metres – but Polly said having a bigger space might not make any difference. When taking the photograph the shutter release is set to auto and Polly stands well away from both camera and set up, sometimes standing outside the studio if necessary. Photographs are mainly taken using natural light, controlled by some blinds and additional pieces of card balanced up at windows.

In terms of pain and discomfort, sitting behind the camera and tripod leaning forward with her head back is the most difficult. Polly reported that her neck and either side of the upper spine ached, but that this was eased by moving position and stretching. The amount of time spent on these activities varied, from half a day upwards to a day, depending on how long it takes to get things right; and may include working intensively for several days.

The desks in the studio are mainly made up of pieces of wood under which archive work is stored in an assortment of boxes. It’s an efficient use of space and means the space can be adapted easily. Sometimes this does involve heavy lifting as workspace heights are altered, but this is not an everyday feature of Polly’s practice. The desk in front of the window is where the sculptural practice is undertaken and looks low, but Polly doesn’t look uncomfortable. There is a noticeable lack of space beneath the work surface with no room for her feet. Being unable to tuck feet under the desk causes the body to tilt at the hips and a leaning posture adopted. This standing position is alternated with sitting in a swivel computer chair where the body is leaning forward, arms extended and held aloft. Materials are selected, placed, moved, re-arranged and then finally fixed.  Individually the found forms that she works with are of different sizes and weights, but again nothing is overly large or heavy. When pain and discomfort is felt, usually in the neck and hips, the working height is raised using an ad hoc turn table.

In terms of psychological issues, Polly works in this space alone but not in silence, as she often has a story tape playing in the background. Working to deadlines was seen as a positive thing. When she stops making the work (the making of the work happens in the studio) and the images are processed at the computer (located in the house), the final decisions are made and marketing, framing and pricing all considered. This finishing of the work and preparing it for exhibition Polly finds “good, it gives me a purpose for the work, makes me look a the photos harder – trying to see it through other people’s eyes. The ambition is always to do the work in the studio, then processing via the computer. The majority of the decisions are made in the studio, as they become more difficult to take when working at the computer”. Polly sees her studio as a location which offers a good deal of choice and freedom. In fact the issue of choice and freedom is an important one: as a self employed practitioner she is able to make choices over the work she produces, the intensity of work flow and the types of activities she engages in. Any pain and discomfort seemed to be temporary as she is able to change activities to do something else. This level of control and freedom and its impact on relieving any pain and discomfort is one I am expecting to see when we visit other artists’ studios.