This is me Rehearsing for a work in progress ‘Light Kills Darkness’ at NN Contemporary Art Project Space, December 2015. I am using my body to explore movements within a space that could create marks upon a surface.

This coming weekend (Saturday 2nd April and Sunday 3rd April) I will be at an Arts Admin Weekender with Vlatka Horvat, where I will be investigating ‘complex spatial and social relations between objects, bodies and elements of the built space’ and also ‘working out performative solutions to a range of tasks dealing with the provisional nature of physical boundaries’.

This marks the beginning of my journey with the A-N Professional Development Bursary.
As artists we often daily search through all of the information that is out there detailing: awards, bursaries, competitions, opportunities, jobs, exhibitions, residencies …. to find the one that fits us now – the right thing at the right time.
This bursary was that thing.
I thought so hard as to what the best course of action would be. Did I want paid for time to do x.y and z? Did I want to learn? Did I want to create opportunities and increase chances? Did I want to network? Did I want to reflect and plan for the future? Did I want to raise my profile?

I decided on all of the above except paid for time: There were professional directions that I wanted to pursue but I didn’t have the right contacts, experience, networks or training. I needed to up my game online – I had no website, I had films of performances that weren’t being seen, I needed to learn skills so that I could edit and post film and sound content myself. The evolvement of my practice was developing fast, but I needed specific experiences that would push and challenge me so that I could embed this into my practice in order to increase the quality of my work.

And so, on that last point, this weekend I will be doing just that. I will be out of my comfort zone but will be relating what I am doing to my own practice and how I can implement techniques and ideas. I am a little bit nervous now, but will be a lot nervous come 10.30 am on Sat 2nd April.

A BIG THANK YOU to A-N for this opportunity. I was overjoyed when I got the news. This award couldn’t be more timely or crucial. So many of us struggle for so long to at least get part way to acheiving our dreams. This is a huge helping hand, so that I can at least take a big next step to achieving mine.

Here goes!


A tech aware but not tech savvy artists guide to building a website.

‘Just start it’ he says, ‘you can always change it – just get going’, ‘Come up with a bit of content then off we go’ , or words to that effect. This all sounded very scary, jumping in off the deep end. I had wanted to plan exactly what I wanted it to look like and then find a template that fitted after that. But James (Steventon) knows his stuff. And sometimes you just have to trust and go for it – and this was one of those occasions.

I’d already decided upon a WordPress website. I had spent hours over the previous couple of years, researching artist’s websites – what did and didn’t I like about them? Who’s looked more commercially driven and who’s more artistic? Which looked visually interesting and which didn’t? What helped work to shine and create a story and what didn’t? There was an awful lot to consider and in some ways I had still only a vague concept, so James’ just get going approach sort of made sense.

One fundamental thing that I knew was that I didn’t want a blog as a website (I had tried that already when being my former artistic self) I wanted to pay for a ‘proper’ website. I also knew that I wanted it to be an experience for the viewer and not just a running list of works and facts.

So I presented James with a brief of sorts, who then spent time routing around WordPress to find the best template to suit my budget – Phogra– and off we went. After getting the ball rolling with some initial images, he guided me through, very patiently, with each stage of the process.

It really was a case of trial and error. It is difficult to imagine how a website works and looks without playing around with it. What I did find, was that once you add something (say an image), it changes the look of everything else, so it becomes about balance. Also – (and James had warned me several times) I learnt that simplicity is best. Too many options presented to the viewer on the home page causes confusion about what to look at first. So establishing an easy to understand menu is crucial.

After my mentoring session with Morag, I’d solidified the idea that I wanted the website to read like a book. That an impression could be gained at first glance, but also, by opening up each page, there were further options to explore and the viewer could go deeper if they wished.

It was also important that the site was a visual affair and had a rich look and sumptuous feel. It needed the ability to have text options, but not be text driven.

It took a number of attempts to come to the final decision of my home page menu. Various permutations preceded the form it is in now. To satisfy my desire to have lots of content options for the viewer, I needed a way to add this but by keeping the simple home page design. The answer came when I decided on the format to present work. Three headers: archive, recent and current/in progress.

Within these ‘parent’ pages, the viewer could then investigate at a more detailed level the history of my practice. I wanted the same format for ‘About’, options that the viewer could explore (Biography/ CV/ Statement) so in tech speak, these become the ‘children’ of About. By now I had learnt, how to create pages, what were parent pages and children pages, how to order them and how to create a main image for each page.

Once the content started to build I began to notice things in greater detail. Why did one image have a caption and another didn’t? Why couldn’t I format text how I wanted it? The next lessons from James were about how to Code. Yes, I said Code. For me, this was an alien language that was only discussed between fellow computer geeks. As I am from the generation where the first time I used a computer was in my first year at Uni, and having the attitude that as long as I know how to use something basically, I’ll get by, talking computer coding was not in my everyday mind-set. I am not incapable, far from it, just hadn’t seen (until applying for this bursary) that I really did need to learn about these things in order to progress.

You use coding in WordPress when you use the ‘text’ option and not the visual editor. The visual editor only gives you limited options in terms of formatting and editing content. In text you can be more detailed and fix problems that might occur when using the visual editor. It gives you increased flexibility and control over the design of your content. Blimey I sound like I am writing a WordPress manual!

Here is some code speak:

  means Non Breaking Space

is a closing tag. If I am to cut and paste a moving image, then I place the code of that in between the open and close captions

Want some more?!

<p> = paragraph

(h1) = header 1

James also taught me how to upload film onto Vimeo and then from Vimeo onto WordPress. To then use code to edit in order to tweak the aesthetics. So if I wanted to increase the width of the film, then I look for the word ‘width’ in the text and adjust the number of pixels that is next to it.

Now, I don’t remember all this off the top of my head –  I have written them all down in my own website building handbook! It has been a while since I have I have edited anything on my website – so a total revision session is in order to refresh my memory before I restart. There are formatting edits to be done and I would like there to be lots more content on the website, and although this will be a long process, I aiming for a soft launch at the beginning of March and a full launch at the end; so lots and lots of work to do!

We have only really touched on the tech training that I am in need of. Even though this has taken quite a bit of work so far, it is a great start and I look forward to learning much more. It is important that I learn all of this (film editing, uploading content, coding…..) as it enables me to take control of my work, get it out there and within my own timeline. 

And here is the link to my website – I shall allow you a sneaky peak!



It was Tues 26th April 2016 (previously I had mistakenly remembered it to be May) and I met up with the lovely Morag Ballantyne in my studio at NN Contemporary Art.

I have known Morag since 2009 (or was it 2008?), since we first met for a mentoring session through what was then known as Creative Northants. I had recently changed career plans and my arts practice was existing somewhere in no art land, completely lost, I was presiding in what I now call The Lost Years.

It turned out to be quite an emotional experience; of the sad, getting it off my chest, been through a lot, what do I do now kind. Morag allowed me to breathe – provided me with a calm, warm space where I could absolve, reflect and search for those remaining embers of artistic passion and drive for an otherness in my practice that had lain dormant for quite some time.

Over the next few years, she witnessed me: trying things out, stopping, changing tactic, trying again, stopping, changing tactic, navigating through decisions, drops in government funding (i.e. the ridiculous notion to stop the Creative Partnerships Programme), applications, getting jobs, not getting jobs, adapting to change in workspace/lack of workspace, meeting someone, getting married, adapting to married life and how that can change how and when you work, but then comes with benefits as he also works in the arts, working partnerships not working out, avoiding organisations because I wasn’t ready, redefine myself again, decide when to strike (two particular occasions which I remember very clearly), strike, it pays off and then a few years of building up a portfolio of practice that finally reflects the artist that I really am, research, research, research, new lasting partnerships, new dedicated studio space and now – here I am, inundated with dreams and visions, resolute in my convictions and itchy fingers to start on so many things………

But I still need mentoring. I still need Morag. Just because you find your path, it doesn’t mean that you stop needing guidance.

In my first proposal to Morag, in terms of the content for the mentoring session, here is what I requested:

Specific advice re my ‘Light Kills Darkness’ application to the Arts Council.

How am I perceived as an artist? Is that the perception I want? If not, how do I change that?

Do I  communicate effectively my artistic and professional identity online, in print and in person and if not, what can I do to change that?

Challenges and exercises that can help me to increase my confidence when approaching collaborators, gallerists and curators. (i.e. I am a multi disciplinary artist rather than I want to be, I have done x y z rather than I want to….)

We decided that it was a lot to cram in to an hour’s session – so we would need to target. The email conversation itself kick-started the process of sorting through these particular queries that were rattling around in my head.

For the start of the session, we decided to quickly look at Light Kills Darkness, with my idea of turning it into a much larger project that would need substantial funds (in January I performed this piece as a pilot – but on reflection, the quality of the set, lighting and sound quality was really that of a live rehearsal, so needs more time get it to the pilot stage and a lot more time and funds to get it performance and touring ready) With two levels of funding on offer, I couldn’t make the project fit financially into the lower category and the higher would have meant a lot more work for the money – not that that is an issue, but I needed to be sure that I wanted to take on that level and amount of work as it would be all consuming. Morag made suggestions how I could potentially cut costs to fit the project into the lower category and we put it aside for me to ruminate on ( and six months later I am still ruminating, but more on that perhaps in another post)

Next came How am I perceived as an artist? Is that the perception I want? If not, how do I change that?

Morag asked why I wanted to ask How I am perceived as an artist? Why that question? At first followed a stuttering response, failing to articulate the why. Morag nudged further, gently poking me with her enquirers stick – mentally willing me to unlock my reasoning. And then it came – the torrent, just like 2008 (or was it 2009?) – but with a completely different demeanor, not a hunched shoulders anxious one, but a sit up straight, this is who I am one.

What follows is an edited transcript of that experience, deciphered from our notes.

Emma – What’s the purpose of my work? What is the impact I  want to have?

Morag – Your website – what would you like people to find?

Emma – I would have an easy to locate About section, in which would be a statement, CV and Biography. How would I describe what it is I do? I am multi disciplinary. But many people are that, so  what is really interesting about that?

Morag – Why should people be interested?

Emma – I do feel I have certain strengths. I am very imaginative, I am excited about life, I am able to work with different people and situations. In my Educator work I work on a personal level; I am caring and attentive – I am aware of people’s emotional states. I think about things from an alternative angle. In my life generally, I have a quest for knowledge and I love experience. It is important to take a moment and to see where you are in the world at that time – it’s life.

Morag – Who is Emma? What is Emma uniquely like?

Emma – There is the Fermynwoods Emma; in that context, I like to push the young people, not pressure them but to gently nudge them. They can do it, they are capable, but also still to be there for them. Knowing when to challenge, when to give space. My qualities there are that I am open and have an ability to get on with everyone.

There are two sides to me. I am the person that can be open and be with people, but the other side is that I need to shut it out and be a hermit. The hermit side of me, this is about mindfulness, looking after myself, otherwise I find that I am mindful of everyone of else all the time. In the studio, it’s about making, but also a mental and positive emotional space.

Morag – What is it? What is Emma?

Emma – I am experimentative, not in terms of the art world, but in terms of me. If James’ work (Steventon) is about endurance – I can relate to that. Putting in the hours to get the job done, whatever the job is, Fermynwoods work or a R+D commission. I have to treat every job like my last job. I am passionate, committed, I like a challenge and I am methodical. I will always ask ‘What is the Purpose of that, What is it For?‘. Everybody has to get something out of my art work – whether it be visual, intellectual or an emotional experience.

Morag/Emma – It is worth pursuing this thought process, what the audience/ viewer is getting from the experience – describe that.

Emma – What makes me, me. It is an emotional investment – it is much more than ‘just a job’. I want a job to advance my practice/ career, but also want to learn, so that there is an outcome – a commitment to it.

Morag – Why would/should people be interested in your work/ practice?

Emma – I am reaching out, like a hand coming out of the computer screen. Hopefully, they will take it. I want a lot of warmth to be coming out of the screen. It’s a comfortable space to explore something and I will keep you safe while you do that.

Morag – What is the space?

Emma – Honesty, Confessional. Honesty in my approach and what I’m telling people, but in a way that’s safe. I want to be an artistic Bear Grylls. My website, I want this to be prodding, poking, challenging, but not in your face. With my work I want people to have an element of choice. I want there to be a sense of personal connection.

Morag – The name Emma – is the safety. There are layers, people trust Emma and it helps them to see the work and it’s layers.

Emma – There are different entry points for different audiences at different stages. There  is a physical process of art work that is about layers as is the way I describe my work. I want the website to be about layers, I want people to be able to look at it superficially but can also then be drawn in.

Emma – My studio practice is about thinking long term – a long term process. I am desperate to be the artist who I was at college – someone who was experimental, doing ‘mad stuff’ (which elicited this comment from a tutor ‘you’re very brave to do that’) – I want to be that brave person again in my practice. I want to challenge people’s thinking. In recent years, (when I was becoming embedded into the process of moving away from the Lost Years) and I didn’t have a studio space, it changed my practice – it changed the process of the process. I started to embrace Live Art. With Live Art, people see you doing it, experience the development of a work from start to finish, or witness an artist creating, rather than only viewing the results. It is exciting. When the documentation of the Live Art process and results are then put online, it then becomes an online art work, which then takes to another place, becomes another art work. Also during this time, I was combining a visual art way of thinking within the process of performance. The ideas for this to become part of my practice, were beginning to form at this point.

Exploring Live Art, Participatory Art, Making Art Without a Studio and pushing forward my role as an Educator. 2011 – 13.

I am now at a place when I can describe my work as either ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. The ‘Out There’ work relates to Live and Performance Art, where I am opening myself up to an audience within a live context and the ‘In Here’ work is work that I develop within the studio, where I am cocooned within myself. Collaborative work, or commission based work operates somewhere in between.

Morag – What is your relationship to the work?

Emma – I am not under any creative pressure any more (now that I have taken away the commercialisation from my work). I am creating work from a different angle, I am my own person, my own artist. (But there are constraints, as with all things) With my studio ‘In Here’ work, I have the space, but I am time dependent (I can only get in about once a week). My Light Kills Darkness project, this depends on funding to be able to continue and the Performance Art …. ( there are some aspects that I can do, but to get anything performance ready, will also require an injection of funds)

Morag – Where are you now?

Emma – I am on a cusp. When we first met, parts of my life (personal and professional) had come to an end – and it was at the start of becoming an artist again (I had been in Arts Administration, enabling other artists to show work, rather than my own) I started to create work for a year or two, but I realised that the work was not a true reflection of my creative spirit – I didn’t want my work to be comfortable and accessible – I wanted to challenge myself and others. It then took another four years to get to this point, where I feel that I can launch myself on the professional circuit.

I need to make myself immediately recognisable as an artist and to the right people. I need to look like I really know what I am doing. I am starting to hear people say ‘You are doing so well’ and I want to build on that.

‘Out There’

‘Sky Spirit’ (Working Title), Action Research Performance, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, Wild Networking, 2015

‘In Here’

The Studio at NN Contemporary Art, 2016








Back to the set design course at St Martin’s.

This intensive week of study at the beginning of August was fabulous – from start to finish. I learnt so much – and I am still learning as I continue with the tasks set by the course tutor (along with a few other related matters).

Straight away, that Monday morning, we were set to work. No time to be wasted. After a brief get to know each other session, Gary (Thorne, our tutor) described our first task.

We were to measure ourselves.

It is not often that one is required to know ones height exactly, so we all stood up and measured each other. I measured 1.70 metres.

Armed with this measurement, we were to draw some tiny self portrait sketches to scale. My drawings were pretty awful, which I am sure prompted a comment from Gary to the class that some of us could do with some life drawing sessions! I don’t disagree with him, not having been to one for many  years. My practice hasn’t required a sophisticated figurative drawing technique for some time and it may explain why I am struggling with my book of little self portraits – but that’s another blog for another time.

Back to the scale drawings. One of the fundamental principles of set (and costume) design is to know how to draw and design to scale. Set and costume designers usually work to the scale of 1:25. Sets being any – stage, film, television and exhibition. With this universal principle, ideas can be accurately and sensibly conveyed to production teams, who translate your ideas into real scale.

Math’s isn’t my strongest point. I know enough to get by. CSE Grade 2 is all that I managed at school (that’s a D in O’ Level, maybe at a stretch C at GCSE, 4-5 in new money). Once I have got my head around a principle, I am ok – but when feeling under pressure I suffer from what many of us do – Math’s Panic – your brain freezes and someone is talking to you and you can’t quite hear them or you can hear them but all of their words sound like complete gobbildy-gook.

That is what I experienced when Gary was explaining what we needed to do in order to use the scale rule – i.e. we needed to convert our real height into various scale measurements, i.e. 1:75, 1:50, 1:25 and 1:20. There is a way of doing this using mathematical formula, but if armed with a scale rule and you know how to use it and are able to use simple division, then you should be ok.

But I got stuck on all levels – concept, division and how to use the ruler (it isn’t any old ruler – it has six edges!) However, with some patient tutoring from Gary and help from my fellow students, I cracked the code – and can now use a scale rule with ease.

Yes, I have my very own scale ruler. And this is something I am very proud of. Upon leaving the course, I was armed with a long shopping list of set designer items that would be extremely useful for me to have. I was accepting of the knowledge however, that it may take me some time to acquire these – funds were at an incredible low and paying the rent and providing food for the table, was, for the next few months, a priority. A scale rule and all other items would need to wait.

But what did I find when sorting through my late grandfathers things? When my Nan died in May, we not only had to sort through her things, but also my grandfathers, who had died in 2001. My grandfather (grandpop) was a draughtsman, designer and artist. When alive, he would love to talk to me about the Golden Section and Fibonacci Numbers. He even gave me an old tool to measure the golden section. With regret, I don’t think I appreciated this at the time. However, this week, while sorting through bags that I had swiftly packed back in the summer (before the course), there amongst Grandpop’s design tools was a scale ruler. I had no idea that it was there! And to use an overrated expression – my heart leapt with joy!

And here it is – my Grandpop’s Scale Ruler, and there it is – the 1:25 scale.

After we learnt how to use the scale ruler, the next stage was to learn how to make a model figure based on our 1:25 scale drawing. Gary swiftly led us through his technique, involving one piece of wire and a bit of masking tape. It was like watching an origami performance with wire. The wire was wrapped, bent and twisted to form a figure, complete with a base on which to balance on. Luckily we were provided with a guide sheet as to what was to looped where, otherwise that was something else I would have struggled on.

Back in the studio and inspired to use the scale model technique to create little figures for an art work, I used Gary’s template as the basis. Even if off task, and not with the right materials and being baseless, it served as a useful practice.

After the wire stage, we practised using modelling clay to build up and characterise the figure. Using model figures in a stage set, helps to imagine the actors within the setting and to visualise the scale of the designs. Designers use their own heights to begin with and then alter designs to fit the actors heights later on in the process.

At some point during the first or second day, Gary introduced us to the play that we were going to basing our studies on. It was a wonderful version of Hansel and Gretel adapted by Carol Anne Duffy. A short play, but packed with atmosphere and plenty of room for creative interpretation.

As with any play, there is a target audience. This version of Hansel and Gretel was aimed at children and families 7 yrs and over. Many fairy stories have a grim, horror element and many are based on real life events or familiar situations that are sad and haunting. But the horror or sadness is played out to the children in such a fantastical, or comical way that the truth is lost on them – and even at times the adults.

The Brothers Grimm, who wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, travelled around Germany and collected tales.  Their stories are then made up from a collection of these tales. The story of Hansel and Gretel is dark. It is probably based in Germany or countries in the Baltic regions, during the time of the great famine that happened between 1315 and 1322. Life was desperate for people during these times and families were reduced to abandoning children to fend for themselves, or were reduced to cannibalism.

No matter how far down the track an adaptation may be, it is crucial that the origins of stories are investigated. This then provides a backdrop to the story and full research of the subject is where ideas for set and costume are gleaned.

Of course, before you fully embark on detailed research, you will have gleaned some other basic key factors that will influence your decisions. You need to have done a site survey of the theatre, measured both the stage and the auditorium. You will have met with the director and sat in a play reading. All of this can happen concurrently and one of the most important things that Gary mentioned is that you will be working on all things all of the time. Read the script – have initial ideas – meet the director – they might have ideas of their own – sit in a play reading – ideas may change again – measure the theatre – ideas might have to be ditched due to restrictions – research the play – you might unearth things that then changes the way you are thinking – you get the budget – you have to re think again – you start to unit the play (more on that later) – but don’t get too into that as you need to test things physically – so play around with your sketch model box at the same time- you realise that ideas that came from uniting won’t work in the real space – re think – more research – re unit – come to some conclusion – meet director – re think again – meet the production team – re think again – and finally make the model box.

Apparently it is a whirl of activity and also, you may be working on more than one project at a time. Gary described a working studio – walls covered in uniting sheets, reams of drawings and sketches and research notes, scale drawings of the theatres, model figures laying about and discarded thought processes in the form of bits of grey board shapes, string and coloured paper. I am exhausted at the mere thought of all of this!

We read through the play privately and made notes on our initial thoughts, things that jumped out – mine were:

A nightmarish vision; A few Domestic objects to create the scene; It’s a story of starvation and terror; Strong feeling of chiaroscuro; Reminds me of a Gothic Horror or the film Metropolis.

After a second private read through, my second round of thoughts were:

Gloomy sparse woodcutters cottage; Deep woods that get deeper; Need to show time passing on – Daylight – Moonlight – Daylight – Moonlight; Birds; Pebbles; Path; Sparse; Hatred; Then stark contrast with the witches cottage – which is bright, colourful – grotesque colours – horrifically bright and gaudy; Then on the way back the forest becomes more colourful – rich in colour? Ends on a happy note; Full colour with jewels. HAPPY.

We elected for parts in the play and read through it – twice. I relished in being able to indulge in a bit of acting (once upon a time this was a career ambition) A bit of characterisation from myself and others actually helped to frame the play in ones mind – brought it too life. It also helped to establish the rhythm of the play – the pace of it on stage – which can inform how you design the set.

As a group we then established that:

There was an ensemble of three as well as the main cast. There were lots of shadows and a strong contrast was needed in the design. Gary mentioned that a crucial role of designer is to think about light – how to turn on light out of blackness, how to create natural light as opposed to man made light. As designers we need to be clear about our vision for lighting when we communicate this to the production team.

Gary wanted us to be clear where the turning point was – the catharsis? Who’s is the release? Or perhaps it is different for different people at different points?

It was now time to do some research – establish some facts about the play. This would help to pin down ideas or discount them:

Germany; Starvation; Famine; The Middle Ages; Rain and Cold Temperatures; Couldn’t grow crops; couldn’t bake bread; Starvation – couldn’t feed yourself, so had to get rid of things, get rid of responsibilities – had to get rid of your children – or eat them.

This was the grim and horrific reality of this time. Eat or die. Immediately, it goes from a fairy tale to one of absolute horror. This is a story for children but it portrays the true story of children being eaten.

As a mother this is an unreal thought. I can’t describe it as unbearable thought- as for me, unbearable means that you have some kind of understanding of what that must be like. We hear daily about children in this country who go missing, who have taken their own lives, who are killed in knife or gun crimes, or are abused – these are real scenarios that happen to our children in this country. We know about the terrible plight of refugees and refugee children, and as parents in this country, we think to ourselves what we might do in that situation – would we send our children away in the hope that they can escape war and find a better life? We can imagine that – as we watch it on the news. But the reality of the famine in the 1300’s is not something that we can imagine, as it is completely beyond our experience or understanding – how does a parent begin that thought process, what are the precise conditions where they need to even contemplate such an act?

We explored other historical references and how these related to the characters i.e. there was a lot of superstition and fear, people were often accused and tried of being witches, children at to be incredibly resourceful to survive and the father was a woodcutter so had possibly made his own house.

After discussing the history, we then looked at the construct of the play:

The characters also narrated, fluctuated between character and narration (perhaps this was reflection of how a story was handed down, through language and narration)

We had to make sure that we were designing for our audience (aged 7yrs and upwards) so must keep it riveting

As Carol Ann Duffy is a poet, their is a specific style to the play and the play illustrates strongly the sense of time: 1st Day, 2nd Day, 3rd Day. How as designers would we describe this? It is also described as Past Tense – that it is a previous life that is being reflected on.

The play is all to do with imagination and as designers, it is what we do with that.

It needs to be structured, giving the audience space to imagine.

Imagination is key and in order to make full use of our own imagination, it is important to read any original works – so that we separate ourselves from the script, get rid of that adaptation layer, so that we create a space in which to use our own judgement.

However, it is crucial that we understand any legalities associated with working from a script: the actors must speak the words that are written for them, production notes and stage directions can usually be changed – but with some exceptions (i.e. by law, all Samuel Beckett plays have to followed to the letter) – so check all the legal aspects associated with the play.

When there is a rich language base within a script, then designers don’t need to always provide an image, it can be imagined, it can be played with i.e. a house doesn’t need to be a house. Materials don’t have to be the real materials, so the witches house, as it is gaudy, could be set in a shopping arcade or could be made of bright Lego pieces, instead of looking like cake and sweets.

Potential problems always need to be considered, such as portraying complex characters, conveying a particular emotion to an audience, how to change set pieces, how to convey travel, how to reflect what is happening in today’s world and society, how do things appear on stage – how do they get there?

Through considering these problems, it opens up questions in  creating inventive methods while continuing to suspend disbelief. Can shadow play be used, projection, mime, can the stage set be multi purpose? A key question is how to use less for there to be more? A pathway of thought is established: how to economise, think the obvious, then consider alternatives. The golden rule is that all plays need to be initially imagined as written and then they can be manipulated to create another world or time.

Carol Ann Duffy’s version of Hansel and Gretel has the father narrating at the beginning ‘It was hard enough for him to feed them all at the best of times – but these were the worst of times…’  How visually can this be described? Is it cruelty or survival? We have to consider this very carefully. With the first scene, those first moments and words spoken, we need to grab the audience – we want them to have a strong initial reaction. Then build on this, by showing all the richness of contrasts within the play i.e. small house, huge forest and best of times, worst of times.

It was now time to conduct some precise research in the amazing library at Central St Martins. Oh how I have missed having access to such riches!

We had an afternoon to look through as many books as possible, we delved through history books, costume, landscape, architecture, folklore, witchcraft, fairy stories, artists, designers, nature, animal, birds, insects…… anything that would provide an insight, provoke thought, inspired imagination, framed thinking and give context. Armed with our sketchbooks, tracing paper and pencils, we set about collating as many images as possible.

Raven’s, Owls, Picasso and Van Gough

12th, 13th and 14th Century Costumes

Kathe Kowllitz and the Horrors of War, Starvation and Death

Uniting the play is a crucial task. As mentioned previously, this happens concurrently throughout all the other processes.  When uniting, there needs to be a structured way of thinking, so that there is unity across the board. Everything is blocked into units: a unit can be a line in the script or a whole paragraph. My understanding is that a unit changes when there is a change in pace, character or action. Each unit contains ideas and information that are listed in sections, such as characters, lighting, set, props, meaning etc.

This helps to look at layers within a plot and things that make the story more complex. It also helps to set out the play, work it out logistically. A crucial question would be – Is there a Pre Show? A pre show is where action and scenario takes place before the play is due to officially start – so, do you have happenings going on in the foyer of the theatre as the audience are collecting their tickets, or is something happening in the auditorium as they take to the seats? Or do you want to set an atmosphere gradually using lighting and sound?

All the information needed for this goes within the unit of Pre Show.

Gary showed us his method of folding an A2 sized sheet of newsprint to create a complex series sections. Each section had an approximate size that related to the size of each unit. To begin uniting the play, you go through the script and note onto the sheet where each unit starts and ends i.e. Unit 14 is P.5 L1 – P.5 – L.3.  Each character has their own colour and it soon becomes clear through being able to see visually when each character moves on and off the stage.

Throughout a play, the writer is taking the audience on an emotional journey. When uniting, an important aspect to consider is Mood and Tone. In this version of Hansel and Gretel, Unit 1 is 3 lines long. ‘It was no more than once upon a time when a poor woodcutter lived in a small house at the edge of a huge, dark forest’. In terms of Mood and Tone, there are two distinctions within this one sentence. ‘It was no more than once upon a time’ can be seen as inviting, cosy, magical or sad. ‘Lived in a small house at the edge of a huge dark forest’ can be modest, ominous, mysterious. As a set designer how do you convey these two distinctions in a short time frame?

In the timeline of the course, I think at this stage we might have been midway on the penultimate day. It was now time to learn how to construct a set model box. Something I have always wanted to know how to do. Gary gave us advice on how to measure in a theatre, told us that not all theatres have floor plans (some do just provide a list of measurements, from which you have to work out the plan yourself), he advised on materials and equipment to buy, provided us with all the necessary technical terms and wonderful drawings of the various stage formats available, such as Arena, Promenade and Thrust.

To make a sketch model box from the floor plan (once you have drawn that from the measurements ……. I can sense a spot of Math’s Panic returning), you lay the paper plan on top of your grey board and you pin through the main points of information. From here, you can cut out the base and sides of your sketch model box, then fix them into place.

Then you play. Use paper, scrap and junk materials to experiment with ideas. This is when you put in an idea and throw it out just as quickly. And in real life, you would be doing this at the same time as uniting.

The object was, that in our now limited time, we were to create a sketch version for the whole play. We were not to worry about specifics, if something looked like something or it didn’t, budgets or how a set consideration would or wouldn’t work – but we were to use our imagination and plot out the whole play.

For some reason, however, I obsessed over a Pre Show element and units 1 – 2b only – which was only 1 page into the play.

I made a woodcutters house – but it wasn’t the right style, so I made it again. I carefully made a tree that hinted at an Egon Scheile drawing and design style,  but worried about how it would stand, I made some scale furniture and worked out how they would be brought on and off the stage, I plotted the action of the characters and how they would help to move the set.

Two different house designs

What I did do though as a contribution to the look and feel of the whole design was to create series of screens. These would be utilised from the start of the pre show and right throughout the play. Onto the screens would be a series of projections, using animation  as a vehicle to establish atmosphere and location. Gary suggested I used the same effect on the floor of the stage, which would create a thoroughly immersive experience. Soundscape was to also play a crucial role in my design – and this would form an important part of the pre-show – setting the scene for audience as soon as they walked into the theatre.

Gary made the observation, that drawing and my drawing style was underpinning the whole design. This was really useful and helped in the decision to use animation throughout the whole play.

I am reticent at this point to go into any more detail about my design, as I am still working on it. Our homework for the next year is to continue on our studies – and if possible unit and design for the whole play. This I intend to, so would like to only reveal then, the thinking behind the whole design.

However, I will reveal the Pre-Show and Unit 1 – 2b in it’s current sketch model box form.

Pre Show – The woodcutter is sat on stage. The audience enter with the house lights on at 3/4. There is a soundscape of forest sounds. The woodcutter is whittling wood into the shape of a wooden doll. Behind him is a screen. It gradually begins to play an animation of a forest, flickering at first, but then forms appear. The house lights dim further, to 1/2 then 1/4. Slowly, on the floor a projection appears of a reflection of the forest canopy, flickering in the mid-light. The house lights go out. Slowly, the shape of a house is revealed behind the screen.

The screen moves up and we see the woodcutters house set amongst some trees. Behind the house, the forest continues.

Actors bring out the bed to the front of the house. This becomes the bedroom for the next scene.

I learnt so much on this course. It has already been so beneficial and I have a much clearer and deeper understanding of the intricate processes involved in set design.

I am determined to complete uniting the whole play and sketch out the whole play in the model box. This may take a while as I work on this bit by bit alongside my other work in the studio. However, I can immediately apply lessons learnt to my studio practice, which involves the construction of dwellings and model figures. I can adopt scale model rules to these, which will make the process of designing and making much easier.

I will be reflecting more on this experience with a longer term view in mind when I have completed all of the blog posts regarding my bursary activities (one more of those to go I think). This will also tie in with the reflective process that I have been engaged with since the mentoring session with Morag Ballantyne.

I can say however, that this process, this whole year as provided me with a solid grounding with which to move forward.


How can I forget! Before attending St Martin’s in August I visited Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London. I took part in a wonderful workshop focusing on Art, Health and Wellbeing.

When I visited, it was tightly packed during the life event – not long at all after it happened, my emotions were still raw, so this was so wonderfully timely, this oasis of calm.

So writing about St Martin’s will be delayed as it is very important that I talk about this first, seeing as it happened first.

It really was a magical experience. One reason, possibly, that it slipped my mind was that it was quite ethereal and other-worldly, something hovering and floating in the hinterland, just short of my grasp.

Another reason, perhaps, is that it was squeezed,  amidst a time of grieving and the backwards and forwards across and betwixt counties to sort through rooms of family history and cupboards full of love in the form of keepsakes, school books and photo albums.

This couple of hours of otherworldliness was led by artist and doctor Angela Hodgson-Teall.

I wouldn’t call it a workshop, more an experience. It was called ‘Preferring Laughter to Tears’ and was part of the London Creativity and Wellbeing Week (run by the London Arts in Health Forum) that was taking place between 13th and the 19th of June. As well as being included in this wonderful event it was also part of the Making Space for Wellbeing Programme in collaboration with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity.

Free events and concerts are put on under the expansive glass atrium for patients, staff and public alike. A wonderful concept that allows all to come together for however long or short a time as they wish – I saw patients and relatives come for a restorative break, visitors come in from the outside world and staff stopping off to eat their sandwiches and catch up with colleagues.

The event was described as: ‘… a playful performance of drawing and sound will use a balance of thinking and feeling, drawing with both hands at once, thinking about empathy and using rhythm of poetry on large scrolls of paper within the landscape of the hospital’

I had raced in, in a little bit of a fluster. Having arrived at London Bridge Station (via Northampton and Euston) I was amidst the redevelopment works that were (to a visitor) very disorienting. Large areas boarded up with high white hoardings, blocking off the construction work from view, but also having the unnerving effect of disengaging your brain and removing any directional sense.

I had meticulously planned my day, there was a lot to include and not knowing which event would inspire me the most, I needed to make sure that I visited them all.

Here was my plan (most events part of the London Creativity and Wellbeing Week – here’s the brochure)

Preferring Laughter – St Guys Hospital; Paintings  in HospitalsThe Mernier Gallery; Drawn – University College Hospital ….. and then of I got time (not part of the event) the good old, never fails Wellcome Collection.

So, I navigated successfully my way to the hospital, enquired at the reception desk as to the precise location, meandered my way through corridors, entered doorways, followed signs until I arrived – into a vast space, an atrium, dominated by a spectacular glass roof. I was a bit late and anxious that I had missed the start. This was the one event that I wanted to catch the whole of – experience from start to finish.

I was greeted by a lovely volunteer at the hospital. She welcomed me in (even though this space was vast, the atmosphere was such that I felt that I was entering into a vessel or cocoon). It was suggested that I removed my shoes and coat and then I was introduced to the artist – the gentle and calming Angela.

Angela explained the process and I tried my best to acknowledge what she was saying as my head was still swimming from trains, tubes and traffic.

The objective was to lay on ones back and gradually move up a long sheet of paper. In each hand were placed two drawing tools. I could close my eyes or keep them open. I could listen to the sounds or not – as I wished. I could be inspired by the sounds – or not as I wished. I was not to draw objects, or look at what I was drawing, but feel the drawing, draw in and out away from, around and too my body, but staying relaxed however, moving the arms comfortably. I think that Angela said that this was to be an empathetic experience, that she is focusing on art and empathy as a conduit to heal. I explained about my very recent experiences of grief and the effect that that has on your life when someone close to you dies. She said that this was a brilliant example of why she conceived this project.

The stresses, the anger, the melancholy that we experience throughout life can build up and ultimately effects your body and mental health. The health of our spleens are an indicator of how healthy our bodies are. The spleen filters our blood and is a key part of our bodies immune system. It can enlarge, deflate or have decreased function.

It just so happens, that as well as being an artist, Angela has trained in medicine, so she knows a thing or two about spleens – and she is in the final stages of her PhD study ‘Drawing on the Nature of Empathy’ – so she also knows a lot about drawing and empathy. I was in very safe hands.

I removed my boots, tucked them under a chair and lay down onto the paper, making sure my bottom was placed squarely on the paper. Angela knelt beside me and quietly spoke to me. Would it be ok if she massaged my spleen? This would help me to centre and relax. She did say that she could tell if someone had problems with their spleens when she did this, but that she wouldn’t be indicating this. I was to say however if it was at all uncomfortable. Although there was a slight sensation of tenseness, all in all it was extremely soothing – remarkably so, as having ones spleen massaged isn’t the most everyday of occurrences.

Angela subtly indicated that she would leave me be and gently peeled away. I was vaguely aware of her moving away elsewhere –  I had closed my eyes at some point during the spleen massage. My brain was gradually acclimatising to this experience – and beginning the process of letting go of the morning stresses. I was slowly moving inside of myself, while also remaining conscious of my surroundings – that I was in an expanse of space and surrounded by people.

My hands started to move, nervously at first. Lightly marking the paper, small scale marks, close to my body. Tentative. Feeling for my centre. I lay there for a while, allowing my hands to move freely, as much as possible without any particular instruction.

I started to shunt up the paper, a little bit at first. I was aware that I had a long way to go and I couldn’t hog the start line as others may be waiting to start. At some point, someone started reading poems by Keats and then extracts from Midsummer Nights Dream, I think it was Angela. I couldn’t work out where the voices were coming from, they were quiet, almost whispered.

Then a chime or some Eastern Percussion instrument was played, nearer to me – whilst Angela was speaking – so there must be someone else there, performing to me, through me, empathising with me through sound.

As I traversed the paper, creeping upwards, my movements became much more confident, the marks flowing from my body, concentric lines and waves.

I decided opened my eyes for some reason. I found that I was immediately under the glass of the atrium. And there was the shard – towering above, piercing the sky above it, while dwarfing my body as it lay exposed below it on the hospital floor.

I lay there for while, watching the sky and life as it within it. Pigeons performing their own version of Parkour, fluttering from one roof top to another. Birds flying far far above – higher than the adjacent tower block, hardly visible. And then the planes, tracking their flight lines through this small pocket of air space. This was all making feel very vulnerable, so I promptly shut my eyes to revert back to an empathic state. I re centered.

A cello began playing some soft harmonic sounds, its vibrations caressing my ear drums, some times imperceptible. A piano joined in, dulcet murmurs conversing with the cello. I wanted to respond to the music. My marks began to echo the sounds, long stretches that mimicked the length of the cello bow as it ran across the string, then playful movements, brief and gentle interactions with the paper that responded to the internal workings of the piano as they momentarily lighted upon a string.

Angela started to read another poem. It was hers I think. About a bird. About her studio. About her thoughts. I allowed mine to melt away once again and I imperceptibly moved along the paper, existing somewhere between the out and the in.

I reached the end of the paper. I slowly retuned myself to my surroundings and stood up. I walked to a chair and wrote this:

Spleen (get rid of anger and melancholy)           Keats                                                                Midsummer Nights Dream                                       The Cello and the Atrium

Being Centered                                                           Take Time to Respond                                                 To Sounds, Words                                          Sensation, Music                                                         And the Architectural Space

My Marks run over Marks made by Others       Other’s Marks run over Mine                                    Our Responses, Emotions, our Internal Conversations,                                                        Silently Intertwine

We Each Leave a Trail of a Hushed Conversation Within this Expansive Atrium

I stood up and walked along and around the drawings, sensitive to the others that were now taking part. Patients and volunteers spoke to me, but I struggled with their wish that I was in the present. I wanted to be back there – within. I picked up my camera, to record my spleen drawings as they interlaced with others, but also to feel that I was once again inside a dark space, where no one else could come in.

My marks are those that are meandering and wayward – reaching out to the extremities. The others, the tight concentric marks, patient in their rendering, focused and zen like are by the person that followed me. I watched them as they seemed almost to remain perfectly still, hardly moving at all. What was it like inside his mind compared to mine? Was he being intuitive or was he controlling his marks? Was he thinking in artistic terms or were they purely expressing his empathy?

I ask this as I remember that I had a discussion with myself over deliberate mark making – why don’t I try this type of mark – I need to make it larger/smaller. It is very hard to switch that internal critical commentator off and draw completely without direction. Achieving complete intuitiveness is very hard to do, but it is a beautiful and ethereal experience to try.

I left feeling a lot more peaceful than when I had arrived. I left knowing that I had been a part of something that had touched me in many ways. Personally and professionally. The power of drawing as a conduit, a mechanism to express, exhort, to centre, to remember, to forget, to heal.

I shall leave this here, at this point. The process of remembering has had a similar effect on me as the process of drawing did at that time. I want to experience that, even if for a short time, however vicariously.


It has been a while since I writing my last post. A life event happened in May which deserved my full attention and meant that everything other than day to day life had to be largely put on hold.

Things have now since settled, so I have been able to reconfigure. ‘Before’ May, I had had a mentoring session with Morag Ballantyne (part of my A-N Professional Development Bursary) which as usual, was a deep, soul and brain searching exercise – I had been ‘Moragfied’ – I already knew what this felt like as I had experienced this before. It was why I needed her valuable services once again!

This session resulted in pages of notes containing some answers to questions, formation of many more questions, realisations and prompts for further exploration of self and practice.

Homework was set by Morag, which I now need to tackle – I have applied for an extension! So I will leave writing about all of this until I refreshed myself on my notes and have reflected on my reflections.

Now for ‘after’ May. On Monday 1st August I caught the 8.00am (ish) train from Northampton and travelled to London for what proved to be an exhilarating and intense week studying for the Set Design for Performance short course at Central St Martins, led by set designer and lecturer Gary Thorne.

What a wonderful experience this was and as this is uppermost in my thoughts I will write about this first, in my next post.

However, I shall leave you with a photograph(sourced from the net) of the amazing new Central St Martins building  that houses the wonderful library.