Letter (or rather e-mails) from America

Back in March I received a lovely email from an even lovelier lady called Hilary.  Hilary explained that she would soon be moving from California to Florida and was keen to commission a piece of work from my Butterfly Series.  There was the inevitable to and fro with emails to work out exactly what form the commission would take and timescales.

After a short hiatus, during which time Hilary made her big house move, I completed a number of sizeable projects and a fun but rather intense 2-week exhibition, we re-established contact, by email, and Hilary gave the commission the green light.  I knew that she was 100% committed as she had already started to invest in furnishings to go with the yet to be started art work.  This level of commitment comes with a certain amount of additional pressure to get it exactly right and I gave it a lot of consideration. I always want the entire experience of a commission to be exciting and enjoyable … for both parties!

Hilary requested a vibrant piece with a central rising sun. Immediately the name came to me “Florida Sun Over An English Meadow”.  I had such a good feel for what Hilary was looking for that the piece came together beautifully.  When I was able to send photos of the completed piece, slightly ahead of time, Hilary was effusive in her praise and the warmth of this new found friendship was palpable even over an electronic medium as impersonal as e-mail.

"Florida Sun Over An English Meadow"

Hilary paid promptly as agreed, something that I am always appreciative of particularly when collectors have yet to receive their artwork. All that remained was to package up the piece with due care and send it overseas.  I was let down by the initial courier but managed to rebook with what seemed to be a more reliable one.  How wrong I was.

The courier was a large multinational with many years experience of handling high value goods for transatlantic shipment (what could go wrong?). As arranged, a smartly dressed young man, armed with his clipboard and scanner, collected the carefully pre-packaged piece as anticipated, at which point I bid farewell and, uncomfortably, lost control of the work.  I didn’t have it.  Hilary didn’t have it.  The courier had it. Then they lost it. They found it. They damaged it. They delivered it.

I had told Hilary that the shipment had been collected and when it was due to arrive assuming no hold up at customs. I continued to track the shipment – not able to relinquish total control until I knew it was safely at its destination. I realised that the courier was not progressing the delivery – not because they contacted me to say they required more information but because I was tracking it and the status was not changing. I made an urgent call, only to discover that the information they required was not a legal requirement (I had met those) but related to an internal, procedural rule which they had failed to communicate.  Sigh.  Following a rather irate phone call (me not them), thankfully the package was again on its way through UK customs and on a flight to the USA.

Once state-side I had hoped for a smooth passage.  Instead the package was again held up.  Given the accuracy of the paper work submitted this was another frustration for me and indeed for Hilary who, understandably was feeling nervous that her delivery was yet to arrive.  Thankfully, it was delivered according to the revised schedule after the short delay at UK customs. But to my horror, the reinforced packaging had  been damaged so badly that the artwork had been speared from one side all the way through.  Let that sink in. The piece of work I had been working on over weeks arrived with a hole in the middle of it. Cue two devastated women either side of the Atlantic.

Hilary immediately emailed me to say what had happened. She wrote in capitals. I opened her email just as I was relaxing into the Friday evening ignorant of the disastrous journey that had befallen this longed for artwork. I won’t sugar coat it. I cried. I really did.  I had a pitiful sob at how appallingly something so valued by me and by Hilary had been treated by people whose job it was to take care of it while we couldn’t. The blatant disregard for other people’s valuables enraged me.

Then the all important question … Hilary asked if it was insured. It was (*collective sigh of relief*).  But then followed the long-winded and utterly incompetent investigation to understand how and who damaged the piece. It was glaringly obvious that the damage happened in transit yet still we were subjected to a most ridiculous invesigation. Some time ago now, before I started shipping abroad, I had thought long and hard about packaging and what makes sense for various work (boxed or crated). Weighing up adequate protection and weight is vital as cost racks up quickly with transatlantic shipments. One thing I always do is take photos as I am packaging my artwork.  Thank goodness I did!

Hilary was absolutely amazing! She understood immediately that this disastrous journey was not in my control and that I needed her help to claim on the insurance. At the same time I was horribly conscious that she was without her precious commissioned piece.  I couldn’t say if it was repairable without seeing it but the piece was now in Florida and the courier company refused to ship it back to me (probably just as well!). Hilary took photos immediately and we shared copious update emails trying to get the courier to admit liability and pay damages.

Whatever it was that penetrated the external reinforced box also went through the internal corrugated wrapping (several layers thick), several layers of large bubble wrap, reinforced board and the painting and back board. The hole is in the centre of the white circle, an inch in diameter.

After weeks of chasing the courier for payment and eventually contacting the CEO’s office – escalation is really the only thing that seems to work with multinationals – the courier company admitted liability and paid out.  So here we were back at square 1.

Hilary was still very keen for me to reproduce the piece – with the understanding that with my style of work it would not be an exact copy.  It did however give her the opportunity to make a few alterations. I worked around the clock to get the second piece finished in time for Hilary’s father to see it on a flying visit. This time I named the piece “Sunburst” – it seemed to fit Hilary’s sunny disposition and it was vital that Hilary was left with a positive experience. As a thank you for Hilary’s tenacious assistance in contacting the couriers stateside and for the gross inconvenience to her, we agreed that I would gift 2 mini-originals.

"Sunburst" with additional yellows and orange flowers.

I used a much smaller, local courier specialising in art for the second shipment.  The cost is significantly more but the benefit of knowing that the work will arrive on time and in the condition in which it left me is priceless. They have become my go-to courier at home and abroad.

All that remained was the question of what to do with the original, now damaged, piece. Hilary suggested getting it restored, if possible, and found a local art restorer. He seemed to feel he could remedy the piece to as-good-as-new.  This saved any shipping back and Hilary was keen to keep the restored piece (reduced to reflect the restoration) for her new office.

Hilary found Art Restorer, Helmut Zitzwitz in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Helmut did a fabulous job!
"Florida Sun Over An English Meadow" in its forever home in Hilary's office.

It was so fortuitous that Hilary discovered my work and that we struck up such a positive and trusting relationship from the start despite all our communication being over e-mail.  It saw us through a tricky situation such that we were both happy with the final outcome. I would always strive to go the extra mile to make my collectors happy, and this situation put it to the test!

The moral of the story is that no matter how difficult a situation may seem, honest and open communication and hard work can make it all worthwhile.

Tracey Thornton is an international mixed-media artist
Originals, Prints & Products from www.traceythorntonartist.com  
Facebook @traceythorntonartist  Instagram @tracey.thornton.artist

Feel Good Art

I have always thought of my art as “feel good art”. It is easy to see why with the butterflies, the happy colours, the nature scenes and what my work stand for. Indeed I frequently tell my clients that I have one key objective: to make them smile. Don’t underestimate how beneficial it is to take a moment every so often and just smile. Makes you feel good right?

My collage Portraits are also popular because people enjoy discovering all the hidden detail and personalisation as well as the aesthetics of some seriously cute children and pets (the usual subjects in my portrait career to date).

But I have recently taken my “feel good” approach to a new level. I am now offering mini-masterclasses to children as part of my commission work. What this means is, when I am commissioned to make a piece of art, I include the child/children in as much of the piece or pieces as possible and learn about the creative process by seeing it evolve from inception to completion. This makes the piece a truly valued work of art. Sometimes clients decide on two or three separate pieces – one for each child. The process is much the same regardless.

Now, just to put a few things straight: I control the process! Nobody is let loose unless I am monitoring every flick of paint. After all, I am being tasked with producing a beautiful piece of art, not overseeing a unilateral creation of an oversized piece of artwork like the many that I find in my childrens’ book bags day after day after day. I’d like to think that my experience counts for something. It’s a serious business. Seriously fun.

There is also increasing evidence to suggest that having a creative outlet is good for our health. It alleviates stress and rebalances us. The end result is important but the process of creation is really worth investing in and developing – and so much better to start young.

It turns out that I am not the only one to see the value in combining a mini-masterclass for children with commissioned work. It really is something the whole family can buy into and so much more meaningful than buying art off the shelf. Theo is a great example of how great the experience can be …

Last week …

Over the next couple of weeks I will be with Theo to create a work of art and hold a series of mini masterclasses. We are planning to get the piece done in 4 sessions together. In reality this means I will be working between times to make sure each stage is where it needs to be before moving on. Oh and this is all happening in Theo’s garage, not my studio. I have a very, very large dust sheet to protect the environment we will be working in. We will not be inhibited from throwing paint!

Theo is eight. He is keen to have the classes but I don’t yet know how well he can focus or listen in a 1-2 hour session. This will affect how much we can do together. It is about finding the balance between giving him a breadth and depth of experience now so that he keeps on enjoying various aspects of art over the long term. The last thing I want is for him to see this as hard work. I want Theo to be a part of creating something amazing and feel an honest sense of achievement.

Theo in action …

Today …

I have just completed the mini-masterclass commission piece with Theo. Theo is actually 8 and three quarters … nearly (not simply 8 as previously stated) and is enthusiastic, happy, bright and creative … and he can listen well. Very well. He was a joy to work with from start to finish. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was an amazing experience for me (and hopefully him!).

There is something about a shared experience and imparting knowledge that is especially enriching for both parties. I particularly enjoyed watching Theo throwing paint onto the canvas. He was unconstrained. He went at it with a level of confidence that defied his age and experience. He didn’t see any of the barriers that we erect as we get older – often erroneously – and which only serve to inhibit us. At one point Theo turned to me and said “I don’t know if you made that mark or me.” It didn’t matter to either of us and somehow we were better off not knowing. This was our piece of art. Full stop.

Theo was involved at every stage of the piece. We built the layers up over time and sometimes that meant doing the grunt work of drying the piece with a hair dryer. Theo cracked on with it without hesitation. To say I was impressed is an understatement.

As the piece developed Theo’s input was more and more considered. His views mattered and I incorporated almost all of them without amendment. Where I felt improvements could be made he listened (that essential skill!) and agreed. The mutual respect was palpable – indeed he earned it throughout.

The finished piece is called “Flying High”. The number and placement of flowers, as well as the type and colours chosen, represent things that mean something to Theo and his family. The piece is highly personalised reflecting key dates, special numbers and meaningful moments. Yet on the face of it, it is simply a beautiful sky and a summer meadow … which looks fab in their living room!

So there it is. These collaborations are so worthwhile. They really do make everybody feel good. I left Theo a few hours ago and already he has planned and named a series of work to get started on. Maybe some time soon I can be his apprentice.

Tracey Thornton is an international mixed-media artist
Originals, Prints & Products from www.traceythorntonartist.com  
Facebook @traceythorntonartist  Instagram @tracey.thornton.artist

Young Shoots

Last week was a gem of a week …

Monday

This is going to be a good week. I have a couple more days to prep for an art project that I am going to undertake with a local school. The children are three to four years old. Oh and there will be about 18 of them.

Hang on! What am I thinking of?

Essentially the children will be working with me at each stage of the project. They will get to work with paint, collage and glitter using sticks, brushes and their hands. It will be a free-form of expression (with a lot of behind-the-scene direction) – let’s face it, free-form is the only way to go at that age. I can’t wait to see how they decide on what colour to use and how tentative or bullish they are. Personalities really do play a part in the art that is produced. I have always felt that each of my pieces have a little of me in them forever.

So am I apprehensive? Sure I am. After all I have no idea how it will turn out.  I am anticipating a big brown mess but hoping for something more exotic. But actually, when children are little they are more interested in the process of creation rather than what it ends up like. That isn’t to say that they won’t be excited to find out how it pans out. I just hope they feel a sense of achievement in the part they play.

So now I have some paints to mix to try and minimise the faffing on the day and ensure that things run like clockwork. After all that’s how it is with pre-schoolers … isn’t it?

Wish me luck!

Tuesday

So the last bits and pieces have arrived (better late than never I suppose). The car is packed ready for my early start. It is a big ask to produce a finished painting the size of a very large canvas in one day and I am mindful that when the little ones have done their bit I have to step up a gear. Not much thinking and reflective time like I usually have and I’ll be honest, it makes me nervous. But one day is all the time we have so … Bring. It. On.

Wednesday

Today is the day!

The children are raring to go! Some are roaring (literally roaring) and others are moving in all directions with an abundance of energy waiting to escape. It is really infectious. I find myself bouncing on my feet and throwing my arms in over dramatic gestures. We are all smiling and we haven’t even done anything yet.

First thing I do with each small group is to show them some of my work and ask them to tell me what they see. “Sky”, “Flowers”, “Butterflies” they shout. I am delighted they are so engaged. Then I ask them what do they paint with. They look at me like I’m nuts! I am in my painting gear so basically look like an overgrown child in dungarees and converse boots with my hair in bunches (I didn’t want the children to be intimidated. They weren’t.). One of the children states the obvious in his outside voice, “PAINT BRUSHES!”. Although he is absolutely right, this art project isn’t going to involve painting in the traditional way of brush on canvas – after all, I am determined to avoid a big brown mess!

“What else can you think of to paint with?” I ask while over zealously wiggling my fingers in front of them. Greeted with a sea of blank faces before one seriously appealing child beams “Your fingers!”. I ask them to think of one more thing we could use that was in the room and before I can finish, one of the boys shouts “STIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICKS!”. The enthusiasm for the motley collection of spindly twigs is wonderfully over-the-top and contagious. The children can’t wait to take a stick and get started with the paint. We’re off!

The Grasses

The canvas, which had been teasingly in view from the start of the day, has already been prepped with sky in my studio. To the children this is a rainbow of colour but not much else. That will soon change.

We have already discussed how we should apply the paint in terms of the general composition and almost all the children copy my “V” pose à la YMCA. A few discerning children are having none of it. Fair enough.

We choose a few paint colours and let the kids loose on the canvas with their sticks. Some barely touch the canvas while others use their sticks like weapons. The personalities of each child coming to the fore. Between each group there is an intense burst of refinement just to make sure the paint is distributed across the canvas.

Throwing the Paint

It is only a few minutes into this when one of the girls, who would rival Jessica Ennis’s throwing arm, wields her stick back over her head at pace and manages to flick paint across my face. In an effort to remove myself from further assault the boy next to her brushes his paint stick across my hair. This never happens when I paint alone. The children find this hilarious. It really is. We all laugh. The bond is made.

The Flowers and Butterflies

After frenzied drying, and painting between groups we are ready for the flowers. The children wear gloves (a surprising number of them are not at all tempted to touch the paint directly – fastidious beyond their years). However, the gloves are far too big which necessitates me to hold each individual finger so that the glove is taught enough for the child to control their mark-making. Prior to letting them loose on what is turning into a rather lovely piece, I have each and every child demonstrate a circular movement with their fingers. We discuss how big the flowers should be so that there is room for everyone to put two or three flowers on the canvas. This is all going smoothly until one child decides to do the biggest circle possible across a quarter of the canvas! Thankfully I have wipes at the ready and in one fail swoop lift his hand clean off the canvas and wipe the offending circle off with a “shall we do that again?”. Harsh as this may sound, this exercise is about teaching the children to create a piece of art; work as a team; and create something which will raise funds for the school while having fun – lots of fun. All in all a great learning experience.

When it comes to positioning the butterflies the children are very adamant where their butterfly should go. Inevitably, after the first two butterflies are down next to one another, the other children gravitate towards the same spot. I end up encouraging them to find space for their butterflies to fly but I rather love the togetherness of the composition – after all as a group of children there is obviously a lot of affection for one another and I think this is very much reflected in the piece.

The Finished Piece: “Young Shoots”

Credit where it is due

The children had already signed the back of the canvas. It is only fitting that their contribution be acknowledged. After all, they chose the colours of paint (from a carefully curated selection) and with their own hands had put flowers and butterflies visibly on the piece. Each one could point to it and rightly say “I did that”. And haven’t they done a marvellous job? The resulting piece is truly a work of art. It is uplifting, joyous and very beautiful and reflective of the experience of all those involved in today’s project.

When I got home I was beyond exhausted. The children had been absolutely brilliant. We all had a great day and the sense of achievement of having created something carries on beyond the moment. We will auction the canvas and sell prints and other merchandise to raising funds for the children’s playground. They have earned it don’t you think?

Prints, tea towels and mugs soon to be available

I WAS SO TIRED but utterly elated at what had been a wholly positive experience. Teaching staff, I salute you. You have a tough job. A wonderful, important, fulfilling but exhausting job. And the difference is, you will be back in tomorrow doing your thing all over again.

Tracey Thornton is an international mixed-media artist
Originals, Prints & Products from www.traceythorntonartist.com  
Facebook @traceythorntonartist  Instagram @tracey.thornton.artist