Serious business…

One of the hardest things about being an artist is taking it seriously. By this I don’t mean being a pompous ass. I mean taking the work seriously. Understanding that however you regard yourself, the work has something to say and the endeavour is important. You might not be able to convey meaning immediately. You may not fully understand your own meaning immediately. But that the making of things is a language for expressing. The making of things is a way of learning its own language. It is a serious undertaking to conceive an idea and try to express it in a way you haven’t before (sometimes you discover someone else has… how maddening is that?)
Sometimes there is a glimmer of success. Now this doesn’t necessarily include critical acclaim, although sometimes it does and that’s like the holy grail of an artist’s career, both at the same time!
No… success… for me… is hitting a sweet spot you didn’t know was there but had hope.

The work I’m in the middle of at the moment is looking for the sweet spot between reality and abstraction. This pivot point holds a meaning for me that I hope to convey to others. I get close and then I ruin it. I want to do a drawing that is neither or both observational and abstract. I’ve been doing one or the other, while believing I can find a place on one piece of paper where both exist. I’m looking for an uneasy balance. I’m not sure I’ll ever find it. It may not exist. But I have to remind myself that the looking and making is important in some way. And there it is. Pompous ass-ness. Tricky huh?
I don’t think that I’m important or clever. In fact I’m far from either of those things. But there is a sort of remove in play here. The pursuit of art in its truth is humanity at its best. Art is the very best thing we can do. Again, I’m not the best, but this line of enquiry, in a language I barely understand, is worth pursuing. By me, by anyone who is compelled to do it.
I truly believe art is the opposite of war. War is a complete and utter breakdown in any and every sort of useful communication. War has given up trying. Art is a permanent, lifelong, human effort to communicate something human, to other humans, where other sorts of language have proved insufficient.

Elena Thomas, Artist.
Merry Christmas



Before I do these end of year things, I go back through my diary to remind myself what I have done. But it is not just the list that is useful, but whether things worked out, how I felt about them, and how my life impacted my work and vice versa.

The year began with a few scary health issues, which thankfully turned out ok, so a sigh of relief and a sign to get on with things, but these things do impact on your train of thought and the amount of brain space you have for other things.

Some things throughout the year were planned, worked on, but fizzled out, despite our enthusiasm, due to other people’s lack of same! There were also a fair few rejections that cost me a fair few pounds… Ah well…

There were some exciting radio plays for the band early in the year, on BBC Introducing. This gave us a real boost! Recording is expensive though, so as soon as we ran out of the decent recordings, the radio play also ran out. A lesson perhaps… although not sure what!

The trip to the USA was planned, I raised a bit of cash at my open studio to give me some pocket money while I was there, so that was great. It was stressful sending the work out to the gallery… but eventually all was well, despite one large parcel being sent to Jamestown N Carolina rather than Jamestown New York! I travelled over mid March for ten days of the six week exhibition. The journey mostly uneventful other than a slight delay on the last leg from JFK to Buffalo. I took advantage of booking assisted travel and I would do so again without hesitation. I arrived at my destination with my knees intact and no extreme exhaustion or stress. While there, with a gallery dedicated to a 15 year retrospective of my work, my mind was blown really. I did talks to students and fellow artists, workshops, had a wonderful reception evening at which I did a talk and also performed – the gallery director Colin played guitar for me for three songs and it was really great fun to give a live taste of the musical side of my work among the visuals. Then I did a few touristy things too, in the snow around the lakes. And the bit that stopped me feeling like I was thousands of miles from home was the warm welcome from Debra and her family who put me up and put up with me, and those days we just hung out together and talked.

I think the success of the year (it does feel successful) is measured by the occasions where I felt like an artist, was greeted and treated as an artist. When I got myself and my work back from the US (no hitches on the return journey) I had a solo exhibition to plan at the RBSA. (Five, Six, Pick up Sticks) I was really pleased with how this was received. I was happy with the hang, especially as it was quite a task to get it done!

Both of these events afforded me the opportunities to talk about my work, to review things for myself – especially through having had a retrospective and a solo show within a three month period. The reverberations are still being felt. At this end of the year, I now have to pinch myself to remind myself it all really happened!

Over the summer I did another project with Bill Laybourne and Helen Garbett for Workshop 24. This was called Radio Public Library and gave me the focus of activity, a place to consolidate and consider, in good company. I love working with those two, and they give my practice an outward look that I don’t think I could manage on my own very well. That is their strength, not mine I don’t think.

A big thing to happen for me personally was the birth of my first grandchild. This is obviously a huge personal change, but I have also found as the year has gone on, that this extra layer of family has effected how I think about the themes of my art practice. And that seems like a very significant change… more on that later I’m sure.

After interviewing and being part of the process of appointing the Graduate Artists for RBSA, I now find myself as a mentor and guide for them in the society. This is a role I am really enjoying. Throughout the year in addition to this role I have been able to do other mentoring sessions and have enjoyed them all. I have more of this to come in 2024, and I look forward to it greatly. I don’t want it to become a huge part of my life, my own practice is the most important, but I enjoy helping others to see the shape of their own practice, and that conversation always helps me refocus on my own too. If this grows slowly and gently I will be content.

Late summer and autumn I find myself developing new songs with Andy and Ian, but we don’t have many gigs booked, so it is quite nice to concentrate on the development of this new material. We have ambitions to get out into the world in the early 2024.

I’ve led a few workshops this year, small, but interesting. I’ve done a couple of Stolen Text workshops, have started a Sewing Circle (you can search for these on Eventbrite if you are interested) I’ve decided small but interesting is a better way for me. I can’t cope with the stresses of big commercial commitments, so a few people sat round my studio table works fine for me.

I also took part in a workshop with Helen G, making ink from natural materials. We both want to do more of this, so I look forward to doing more in the new year, and for those inks to make their way into my drawings. Helen has been a useful critical ally this year too. She has helped me take all the words out of my head, onto paper, and guided me into condensing them all into a single, fairly simple question that I am hoping will focus my thinking for a while.

Another big (ish) personal issue is the releasing of a small pension. This will give me a small increase in monthly income, but also a fund to use for Art Travel. The big thing will be a trip to see Stuart in Sweden in the early summer, with a view to us putting together a joint show. I also plan a trip to London again, and possibly Liverpool. Having stashed away a lump sum, and given it a title makes a huge difference. I have given myself permission to undertake these creative adventures, as a professional necessity. About three weeks ago, I decided it would be nice, if going to Sweden, to learn a few crucial phrases in Swedish, to greet the people I meet when I go. I signed up online to Duolingo, and suddenly I am obsessed with learning Swedish!

In the studio, I am undertaking large scale observational drawings, with a view to feeding and growing the abstract from these roots. Roots and rootlessness being the focus of my thoughts at the moment. The work that is produced will be the body I select from for my Candidates exhibition in April 2024 to become a full member of the RBSA.

When I look back on 2023, I see some amazing happenings, and I have a notebook full of things to take forward from that into 2024. This is what makes me happy. Things happen, I talk to people, I show my work, I talk to some more… things change… and then I have a collection of things in my diary to take me further on. As long as I can keep doing this I shall be very happy.


I could just keep going, making and drawing and staggering about in the fog of thoughts and ideas as mentioned in the previous post. And I do do this a lot, there is a joy in it, and even purpose. Just letting my hands get on with it and seeing what ends up in front of me, repeating, waiting for mutations to happen naturally… up to a point.

But then every now and again I feel the need to review where I am… refer to the gps… take a look at the view from the mountain before moving on.

My way of doing this is: I covered my table with (cheap) paper (someone gave me a roll of A2 printer paper, quite thin). I rolled it out, taped it together, then turned it over so the whole of my tabletop was writeable. Then all of the thoughts in my head were written down on it. I’m not going to post a photo of this because some of it is private and  personal. I write about how I like to work, what I’ve made, connections and running themes. I go away and return and write more. I draw connecting lines, and draw boxes and circles around certain words. The table is covered. Then Helen came to visit. We sat drinking tea and she said “what do you do with this now?” I wasn’t really sure. In the past, the next thing to work on has become obvious as I’ve worked on the task. This time there was no clear way forward but lots of common strands. This was a review, a map of where I’ve been over the last year. It included thoughts about the retrospective exhibition, and recent ideas about my return to observational drawing. Helen suggested I ask three things:  1) what am I making/how do I want to carry on making? 2) what concepts, themes and concerns am I thinking about? 3) does that illuminate/ reveal/ demonstrate/ evoke some sort of result or response?

She suggested I formulate the answer to these into one question or mission statement.

It seemed fitting to do this in a way that emulated my practice in some way, so I typed up all of the words I had jotted down in response to these three points, in no particular order, not in sentences, I printed them out, and cut them up. I then spent the evening shuffling them about until I found my question. Of course this may change as I work, but it is a really useful starting point. I shall write it up on my blackboard in the studio, as a guiding principle for a while. It will be interesting to see if and how it affects what I do.

Thank you for your guidance Helen.

How can the practice of subverting the proper-ness of traditional observational drawing, through subtle or gradual abstraction, signify and convey the unsettling feelings of rootlessness?


I’ve been reading back over the last few posts. I feel I need to find a sharper focus, I need to know what I’m doing. There’s a wooziness, fog, I’m skirting round the edge of something…

My grandson is now the age my youngest son was when my mum died.

I’m working with the words of nursery rhymes…

I’m searching for something…

I’m collecting sticks and stones like I did as a child, playing in the woods on my own. I’ve return to the basics of observation… but that in itself isn’t enough. It needs to not just show a thing as it is, it needs to stand for something else…

The meaning of loss?

Am I still searching for my mum 28 years after she died so suddenly and tragically at the age of 69?

Am I finding her in me as I approach that age? (I’m nearly 63)

I think I’ve been foggy on purpose. Because looking at this with clear sight is so difficult. It’s still sharp. I see friends- actually quite a few friends, dealing with the difficulties of having mothers in their 80s and 90s and I (sort of) envy them. I find I have questions for my mum I didn’t get to ask. (So if you have them, ask them.) I think what I’m doing in my work is a form of asking… what the fuck is this all about?

It is about loss and memory and grief, a rootlessness I think, in general. But I think it’s mostly about connection, and love.



My friend Stuart Mayes is an artist born in the UK, living in Sweden. He is another that I have only met once in the real world, but I still find that really hard to believe. We occasionally “meet” through the wonders of Skype. These get togethers are wonderful. He sits in his studio and I sit in mine, often both of us sewing, or doing some sort of repetitive task that requires no concentration. And we chat, as we would if we were in the same studio, not necessarily looking at each other much, popping out to go to the loo or put the kettle on (again). It can be hours… I think our record was four!

Over a period of years, we have come to know each other really well I think. We read each others blog posts and comment/respond with thoughts and work. We have a few things in common in the way we work, and think about the work, and about the Being of being an artist. So much so, that gradually, as we get to know each others work, we have started talking about doing a joint show at some point. There are places where our work overlaps in terms of materials, and processes so I think it would be interesting to curate a show where this overlap is a point of interest.

So… this real life thing is starting to coalesce into something probable out of the fog of potentiality!

I mentioned in a previous post that I am going to release a small pension in order to give myself a slightly increased regular monthly income, but also a lump sum which I have labelled my travel fund. When this actually lands I can start planning properly for my trip to Sweden. I think at some point we might try to get some funding for this joint venture, but at this point it is exploratory. But something that points to my level of commitment to this idea is the fact that I have downloaded a teach yourself Swedish app on my phone. A week in, I can tell you that my sister is tall and very funny (min syster är lång och väldigt rolig). Useful. Especially as I don’t have a sister. (Stuart, I didn’t check my spelling and the accents, so hoping I got it right).

What the process of these correspondences creates is a mind set. The act of getting in touch and having relaxed conversations creates a connection. It is fun, comforting, interesting, being in another artist’s studio to work with them, even if only in the virtual world. It is the “being” bit that we have talked about a lot. The compulsion to make, coupled with the necessity to earn a living: the efforts and sacrifices that are made in order for each side to balance.

The nature of the work we both do points to the being. I make work directly from my experiences as mother, daughter, teacher, carer… about those relationships. Stuart makes work that similarly reflects his life. Although our lives are very different, that directness is the connection between us. The things we stitch, domestic textile items and clothing, and things we find around us, magazines, books, twigs, are materials common to both of us. I think there is also a nod towards simple detail, repetition, care and precision that we both enjoy in each others work too.

I’m getting excited and looking forward to 2024.