The curious link between smell and memory

Aquila Magazine for children, December 2015. 

aquila dec15

The curious link between smell and memory

Why is smell such a strong trigger for bringing back memories? And what happens in our brains when a memory comes flooding back?

Smells have a funny way of bringing back memories you hadn’t thought about in a long time – maybe even things you’d forgot all about. If you’re not sure what we mean, just go and take a whiff from a bottle of sunscreen. It may be winter right now, but it will bring you right back to the beach, or the park, or wherever you were the last time it was hot enough to need to put on suntan lotion. But even if it’s snowing outside, chances are the smell will trigger memories and feelings of summer, and they’ll come flooding into your head, far more intensely than they would by just talking about it.

memory1This little memory trick works with all sorts of scents we have an emotional connection to. Think about how the smell in the air changes when summer turns to autumn, and it can only mean one thing: school’s back. Or if you’re in a car or train on the way to the sea, and you can smell the saltwater long before you can see it. Many of the smells we experience in childhood will act as doorways to memories when we’re grow up, waiting to be rediscovered if we smell something just like it again. Say if your grandfather is a woodworker and you like spending time in his workshop, the smell of wood shavings will probably remind you of this for the rest of your life. Sometimes the special smell can be really subtle, like the smell inside a toy chest or a wall clock, meaning you may not even realise it has meaning to you. But one day in the future you could find yourself smelling it again, and the effect can be striking: suddenly you will be right back to the place, and maybe even the time, where you were the first time you experienced that smell.

But how is it possible for smells to do this?

Out of the five senses – smell, sight, touch, hearing, taste – neuroscientists have discovered that smell is the oldest. What they mean by this is that in the history of evolution, creatures were early to develop the ability to “smell” chemicals in the air and water around them. Because of this, we can say that even bacteria have a sense of smell. But while we’re good at describing how things look or taste, we’re actually pretty bad at describing how something smell. While we describe tastes as sour or sweet, we usually resort to comparing smells to something else – like fresh bread, a meadow, or dog poop. Or as you might say if a smell triggers a memory: “This cake smells like my grandma’s kitchen.”

Let’s take a look at how we process scents inside our brains. The part of the brain responsible for handling smells is called the olfactory bulb: it starts inside the nose before running up into the brain. The olfactory bulb has connections to two other parts of the brain: the amygdala, which deals with emotion, and the hippocampus, which is very important for creating memories. Most other senses don’t touch on these areas as they travel into the brain, meaning they’re not as likely to bring back memories of the same intensity. Maybe that’s why hearing the word “rose” isn’t as effective for remembering as smelling a rose?

memory2Another unique thing about smell is that it moves very quickly to reach deep inside the brain, unlike the other senses which travel along a less direct pathway. Take vision – it starts in the eyes of course, before moving on to a relay station inside the brain called the thalamus, and only then moving further into the brain. Hearing does the same thing. Smell, however, skips the extra step and goes straight for the olfactory bulb. We don’t quite know why this happens, but having a straighter route with fewer pit stops may account for some of the reason that smells can hit us so hard. Researchers have actually discovered that using words to describe things can make the memories less intense, because when we talk about something that’s happened, we start to think of it like a story that we’re shaping, instead of just experiencing raw emotions.

But why can smells bring back memories so faint we thought we’d lost them? We’re not completely sure why this happens, but there’s a few clues in the brain’s memory centre, the hippocampus. Here’s one way to think about it: if a person were to suffer brain damage that affected their hippocampus, they would struggle to remember things after they had happened. But they could still learn new things. So for example, if that person with brain damage were to learn how to ride a bicycle, they wouldn’t remember learning it – but if given a bike, they would be able to ride it. This is because the memory of learning, and the ability to ride a bike, is saved in different places in the brain. That makes it possible to forget the smell of fresh snow at Christmas, but smelling it again years later could still trigger the experience of snow, and we’d feel something. So even if we have lost the memory, the experience could still be kept safe inside our brains, waiting for the right smell to bring it back.

Who was Marie Antoinette?

Aquila Magazine for kids, March 2015.

ScanWho was Marie Antoinette?
Marie Antoinette was executed in the French Revolution. But was the last Queen of France really as out of touch as people thought? And did she really say that people who couldn’t afford bread should just eat cake instead?

Marie Antoinette was born in 1755 in Vienna, as an Archduchess of the Austrian Empire. Baptised Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, the girl was described as “small but completely healthy”, and had a happy childhood with her 15 brothers and sisters. Considering what was customary for a royal family at the time, Marie Antoinette had a pretty relaxed upbringing. The children were allowed privacy from the rest of the court, so they could dress more casually, learn from their teachers, and play in the gardens, often with regular kids.

In those days, royal marriages were tools for forging alliances between countries. For this reason, Marie Antoinette’s mother, the Duchess, decided her daughter should marry the boy set to become the next king of France. Marie Antoinette was only 15 when she was married to 16-year-old Louis, and the teenagers had never met when they were married in a ceremony where they weren’t even present. Before she left for France to start her new life, Marie Antoinette’s mother told her daughter to never forget she was Austrian, even when she was the Queen of France. But the French had other ideas, as young Marie Antoinette was made to get rid of all her Austrian belongings, even her clothes and her dog, replacing everything with French things.

Life for Marie Antoinette wasn’t easy once she arrived at the Palace of Versailles. As the Queen, she had to deal with everyone at court keeping an eye on her, gossiping about what she got up to. Her marriage to Louis was difficult, partially because the couple didn’t have children for eight years, something that caused a lot of speculation around the court. They eventually had four kids: Marie Thérèse, Louis Joseph, Louis Charles, and Marie Sophie, who the Queen was very close to as she took care of their upbringing and education herself.

But for all those years before her kids were born, Marie Antoinette had few royal duties, so she didn’t actually have all that much to do. As a young girl far from her family, the Queen spent much of her time socialising, and buying fancy clothes and jewellery. She liked to ride horses, but also enjoyed gambling on cards and horse races. At a time when France was struggling financially, stories about the Queen spending a lot of money were spread around, and criticised in the newspapers. The Queen and her friends, it was written at the time, “loved pleasure and hated restraint; laughed at everything, even the tattle about their own reputations; and recognised no law save the necessity of spending their lives in gaiety”.

As the first lady of the court, Marie Antoinette was supposed to set standards for fashion, so she’d buy a lot of new dresses, shoes, hats, perfume and makeup, sometimes even going into debt to pay for everything. At a time when many people were poor or starving, it looked bad that a woman who had so many luxuries would play dress-up with her friends, running around on a model farm dressed up as milkmaids and shepherdesses. This was considered insulting to real farmers, even though Marie Antoinette was probably just trying to fill her time, recreating the playful games of her childhood in Vienna.

While she did spend a lot of money, Marie Antoinette was certainly not to blame for all of France’s financial problems, as many people liked to say. The country was in debt mainly because of its involvement in the American Revolution, which cost far, far more than the Queen’s extravagant wardrobe. The royals’ money splurging did give the impression of being out of touch, but the social unrest in France was more based in the fact that ordinary people had to pay high taxes, while the richest people who owned the most land did not.

In the winter of 1788, the rising prices of bread led to a crisis in France, and Marie Antoinette was rumoured to have responded to the problem by saying: “Let them eat cake!” This wasn’t actually true, as Marie Antoinette gave a lot of money to charity and would have known better than to say something so silly. But people wanted someone to be angry with, and it was easy to blame the Queen had a reputation of spending too much money and not caring much about the people.

Once the French Revolution started in July 1789, the royal family quickly realised they were in danger and left the Palace of Versailles for Paris. Marie Antoinette tried to stay out of things and focus on her children, still hoping her son would become king of France one day. But as the revolution roared on, the monarchy was declared over and the royal family stripped of their titles. To make sure the King could never reclaim his power, the revolutionaries executed King Louis for treason, and as the Queen, Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate nine months later. She was 39 years old when she was executed by guillotine, after a rushed trial. Somehow, Marie Antoinette managed to get hold of a pristine white dress and bonnet for the occasion, determined to make a final impression of defiance. Her last words was to her executioner, after she accidentally stepped on his foot: “Pardon me Sir, I didn’t mean to do it.”

Scan 1Scan 2


How to make a quilt

IdeasTap Magazine, February 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 14.29.10

How to make a quilt

A quilt may look complicated but it isn’t actually that hard to make. Just follow our step-by-step explanations, and you can turn your favourite pieces of fabric into a memory-filled showpiece.

The best thing about making a quilt is that you can use fabric from old clothes, curtains, table cloths – whatever you have sitting around. How about a quilt made from all your old T-shirts from university? I raided my mother’s closets for fabric for my little quilt, meaning each patch represents a little story in my family. Or maybe you could make a quilt for a friend whose child has outgrown their baby clothes?

It’s surprisingly easy to make a quilt, even if you’re not all that crafty. It requires a little patience as you measure out each patch and sew them together, but isn’t there something almost meditative about making something with your hands? Whether it’s sewing, baking or gardening, these sorts of tasks will let your mind rest a little, and tap into an age-old custom to make something solid. Back in the day, people would quilt in part because it was a way to use up fabric scraps too small to use for anything else, but nowadays it takes on a new function. Rather than hoarding boxes of old clothes, a quilt can be a great way to keep hold of bits of fabric to trigger memories.

Materials needed:
Scrap fabric pieces, plus one large piece for the back
Measuring tape or ruler
Scissors, pencil, pins
Sewing machine

1. Collect lots of pieces of scrap fabric. Make sure they are clean, and iron if wrinkly – this makes it much easier to measure the patches and sew them together.

2. Using a measuring tape or ruler, measure out each square into the size you want them, and cut out the patches. My squares were 8 centimetres in length and width, but for a full-size quilt I would double it. Then, using the ruler and a pencil, mark off each patch on the back, indicating where the seam should go. This will be about one centimetre in from the edge, on every side. This is a little time-consuming, but if you want clean corners you need to be exact.

3. Lay out all the patches on a flat surface and arrange into a design you like. Then it’s time to start sewing. Starting with the bottom row, sew each individual patch together to make a long row. [Photo 3 / 4] The pencil marks on the back of the patches will show you where to sew. At all times, make sure to sew on the backs of the patches, keeping the “good” sides of each patch facing each other – that way they will all face the same way once you’re done.

4. Once you have a row of patches, iron to lie flat and set it aside while you sew the rest of the strips. Then, get a big piece of fabric that’s large enough to cover the whole back of your quilt. You’ll want to make sure there’s plenty of slack around the sides, as the patchwork can go a little crooked as you work, especially if not all the patches are made from the same type of material. If you’re careful with the measurements, this won’t show much in the final piece – quilting is forgiving that way!

5. Starting from the bottom of the quilt, take the first strip and place it on the backing, face up. Then take the second strip and place it on top of the first strip, face down. Then sew the strips so they’re stuck – both to each other as well as the backing material. [Photo 5 / 6] Keep going until you’ve sewed down all the strips. If you want a cosier quilt, you can add a layer of wadding between the backing material and the patches.

6. At this point you can make your patchwork into anything you want – I made a cushion from mine as it was quite small. But it’s even simpler to make a wall-hanging or bedspread: just fold the backing material over to hide the raw edges of the patches, and sew it in place. Then step back and admire your handiwork.

The weird, the wonderful and the WickED

Source Magazine, spring 2015. Original article.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 13.09.16

The weird, the wonderful, the Hackney WickED
The Hackney WickED festival is a three-day explosion of the creativity of London’s most brilliant arts hub. But the community that’s the beating heart of Hackney Wick keeps the spirit alive all year round.

Hackney Wick doesn’t feel like the rest of London – actually it doesn’t even feel like the rest of Hackney. Coming off the Overground you immediately see the larger-than-life red letters on the wall: ‘HW’ they read, setting it in stone. And further along a more modest scrawl: ‘Welcome to the Wick’. This is a place by artists and for artists, but you’re welcome to come stay a while: linger in the galleries, study the artful graffiti, have a drink at The Hackney Pearl.

The biggest influx of visitors happens during the Hackney WickED festival. Last summer 35,000 people came for a peek behind the industrial facades as artists opened their studio doors. Not to mention all the gallery exhibitions, tours and workshops hosted during the festival, along with music, food and drink. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to run this festival for seven years with so little money,” says Anna Maloney, festival director at Hackney WickED. “We’re a volunteer-run arts organisation, so it’s based mostly on goodwill.”

The first studios opened in 2001 as artists came to the Wick in search of affordable spaces to work and live. The Hackney WickED festival came along in 2008 to celebrate and promote the art and community. “A main aim of Hackney WickED is to bring the artists together, to work together more closely and celebrate what we have here,” says Maloney, who estimates the Wick has near a thousand studios.

The feeling of community is the reason artists come and stay in the Wick: “I was looking for a large space where I could make noise and dust and be messy,” says Lee Borthwick, an artist at TM Studios. “I wanted to be in a more professional environment, and around people a bit further ahead in their practice so I could learn from them. The community in Hackney Wick has been far beyond my expectations.”

TM Studios is one of many who welcome visitors during the Hackney WickED festival. “You get people who’re interested in seeing the work and have a conversation with you,” says Borthwick. “People were buying work, which was lovely. That happened more the second year I opened, as people have to see you a few times to know you’re a professional, to get to know what you’re doing.”

Hackney WickED is currently working on become more of a sustainable, year-round presence in the Wick. “There’s so much change in the area” says Maloney, pointing to the concerns weighing heavy on the heart of every artist working in the Wick right now: several studios have been given notice to vacate, as the popularity of the area has led to increasing outside pressure. Hackney WickED was in part established to protect the artist community in the face of change, which has escalated since the Olympics. “First of all we’re an art organisation with an annual art festival, but we’re also a network of artists and a community working together. The festival wouldn’t happen without the participation of the people in the community,” says Maloney. “It’s a fine balance.”

Joanna Hughes, director at Mother Studios, believes Hackney WickED has been crucial to the success of the area: “The lasting legacy of Hackney WickED is how it’s pooled the community and made it stronger. […] Being an artist can be a solitary life, so you need your peers in the art world to help you on your way.” Hughes was among the first artists to come to the Wick, and feels strongly that the arts hub needs protection in order to continue thriving: “When I opened Mother Studios I had a waiting list immediately, and I’ve never lost it. There are twice as many artists as artist studios in London.”

Daisy Bentley, part of the Tunnel Studios artist collective, recently lost her studio space in the Wick. “I’m hoping I’ll find a new one in time for this summer’s Hackney WickED. If not, I’ll definitely be getting involved in events.” Working in the Wick for three years has done more for her art practice than a decade of arts education, says Bentley: “People tend to shut themselves away in their studios, so Hackney WickED is an invaluable opportunity for everyone to share and open up to potential collaborations.”

While she prefers to keep a closed door to get work done, Nina Fowler appreciates the opportunity to get to know her neighbours during Hackney WickED. “I usually decide near the time if I’ll open my door during the festival, as it depends on what I’m working on and how accommodating my studio is to guests,” says Fowler, who works at Wallis Studios. Last year, festivalgoers could take part in her ‘Polaroid Portrait’ photo booth. “The festival reminds us there’s a large and thriving creative community in the area, and this is something to be celebrated.”

It’s a long time since Hackney Wick was “a mudpatch in the middle of nowhere”, as Doctor Who said in 1976. Even so, during the first Hackney WickED festival in 2008 there were no bars or restaurants in the area, and the organisers would sell drinks out of a caravan. Today, people come to the Wick to shop and eat all year round, indulging in the smoked salmon at Forman’s or a microbrew at whatever pop-up bar is attracting crowds that week. Even though it’s still geographically isolated between a major road and the canal, the Overground has made the area much more accessible. All the while, artists are busy at work in the warehouses lining every street, building the creative energy that’s unique to the Wick and thoroughly infectious.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 13.06.43

Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 18.40.29

Source Magazine, autumn 2014.

 Original article.

art2Artists of vision: The Hackney and Haringey arts hub 

She’s not quite what you’d expect, Lauren Baker. Her art is intense, bright and hard-hitting, so you’d think the person dreaming it all up would be loud and brash. Of course, Baker is plenty intense once you’ve spent some time with her, but the surface remains deceptively subtle: a small girl with lots of big brown hair, riding a pink mini-bike with a chihuahua zipped inside her coat. In a sense, Baker’s a bit like her art: the surface is only half the story. Look closer and something happens, light and dark collide and it’s sharp and fearless, and ultimately, fascinating.

Take Baker’s favourite piece right now, a large, three-dimensional starburst covered in mirrors: “It’s symbolic of the portal to other dimensions.” Next to the portal sits a coffin, lined with light: “Like the light you see when you have a near-death experience.” And everywhere are the skulls: gold and metallic ones, jewelled eyes, bright neons, colourful crystals, painted in jagged or sweeping patterns, energetic and bold.

Baker’s Hackney Downs studio is halfway between Hackney Wick, which has the highest concentration of creative practitioners in Europe, and Haringey, home to a thriving artist community including the Chocolate Factory, London’s biggest studio complex. While conscious of the nurturing effect of the East London arts scene, self-admitted workaholic Baker is really just doing her thing, no biggie. Her studio is inside a railway arch next to Hackney Downs; perfect, she says, so close to her house. Today she’s in a loose, long-sleeved playsuit and tights, chunky jewellery in silver and bone offsetting the discrete outfit. She serves tea in mismatched crockery before sitting down, launching into the story of how she got to where she is today. Now 32, Baker’s only been an artist for three years: “I didn’t find my passion until I was 29. It’s moving really fast. Now that I’m finally on the right path, it’s just flowing.”

Baker credits her former life of working in events and marketing as part of the reason she’s managed to become a successful artist in such a short time; she knows how to attract attention to her work, and this is how the Tate Modern picked her up after her very first show. But it was necessary to make a change: “I quit my old job and went to South America. I was looking for an adventure, a spiritual path.” What she found was a mosaics artist in Brazil, who inspired Baker to go to Venice and learn the craft. But not before having an experience, deep in the Peruvian jungle, where she met a shaman and had a vision that she should become an artist. Having moved on from mosaics since, Baker now considers herself a multimedia artist: “I see my art practice as one big fun experiment. I don’t want to restrict myself.”

It’s sunny outside the cool railway arch, and Baker’s chihuahua, Dude, is keen to go outside. Baker releases the dog once we round the corner into Hackney Downs, and the tiny dog disappears immediately in the tall grass. Baker is unconcerned; Dude makes friends easily. “I love it here,” she says, as she waves to a woman passing on a bicycle; “That’s my neighbour. She’s a blacksmith.” I ask if Baker, who’s not a native Londoner, would ever leave the capital, but she looks at me like I’m mad: “Oh no! East London is my home. I could never leave!”

Even when she’s talking about her work, Baker is soft-spoken to the point where you still can’t quite believe all that powerful art comes from her. Then she talks about how, early in her career, she decided she wanted to decorate display windows, picked three places she fancied, and ended up with Harrods. She makes it sound easy, like it was nothing. The Harrods window led to a Selfridges window, and there were shows in New York, California, Ibiza. “I try to trust my instincts,” she says, in an effort to explain how she does it. “I think, in order to succeed, you need the ability to just go for it. Not letting yourself be led astray by what other people want you to do. Stay true to your heart.”

And, Baker is quick to add, you need to be a top-notch networker: “You really need to get yourself out there, go to exhibitions, art fairs, talk to lots of people and tell them what you’re doing.” Being part of Hackney Downs Studios makes this possible without going far; Baker’s complex is home to over 100 artists, designers, record labels, bookbinders and other creatives, even a brewery. Regular events and open studio days, plus a café, shop and gallery, ensure a nurturing community.

Baker doesn’t linger on the details when she talks, skimming over the studio that’s freezing in winter and the fingers that bleed after hours and days of placing crystals. Instead she talks about how much she loved it when the Tate Britain invited her to reinterpret one of their works; she chose ‘Ophelia’ by Millais, “the most beautiful death”. Baker created a forest inside the gallery, recreating Ophelia’s final moments surrounded by trees and flowers, and of course, skulls and bones. “I’m really driven to try and understand death, in a positive way. We’re not here forever.”

We’ve sat down on a bench on the Downs, and Dude has reappeared and wants attention. Baker has been talking about her work for Save Wild Tigers, and spending two and a half months placing 35,000 Swarovski crystals on a life-sized tiger’s head. This year she’s doing it again, only it’s bigger and will take four months. She readily admits the work can be maddening: each sequin is individually placed, and it has to be perfect. “But then I get into a meditative state doing it, and it’s really lovely.”

Baker’s in demand for commissions, but will still spend all her money on materials and push on with her passion projects. She’s just come back from her first vacation in three years. “The plan now is to have a work-life balance!” If that’s possible, that is: “I get into extremes with work. I got to bed at 3am last night. I basically have to leave London to stop working.” She seems to be having a lot of fun though. Is she? Baker looks up from Dude in her lap, and for a moment it’s like she’s surprised. Then she lets out a big, red-lipsticked laugh: “Yes! I’m having a really good time!” And you know it’s true.


art3Adam Doughty, illustrator in Hackney Wick
Adam Doughty draws what he sees: a pint, King’s Cross station, some cheese, what the weekend feels like. Of course, it’s all re-imagined, bringing a sense of magical, yet simple, realism to his work. “I liked the phrase ‘magical realism’, I felt it was a fitting term to describe my work.” says Doughty. “I focus on the everyday, but I like to play with aspects of the illustration, like manipulating scale, adding historical references, and using a varied colour palette.”

The result is day-to-day elements captured with a whimsical feel. Doughty likes to research the history of an area before drawing it: “It’s inspiring to discover the old use of a building, the people who worked there and what it stood for.” Like his workplace, the Bridget Riley Studios in the part of Hackney Wick known as Fish Island; the building used to be part of a peanut factory. “The Bridget Riley Studios has such an array of talent. At the last Hackney WickED open studios I talked with painters, glass cutters, sculptors, illustrators, web designers, architects, fashion designers – all in the same building.”

Doughty shares his studio with two women, one is a children’s illustrator and the other a freelance architect. “Our studio is quite spacious and we all get on really well. I love the fact that the space is hidden away, nestled in the corner of an artistic hub. If I leave my window open I’ll often get a cat visitor, who sits on my rocking chair until I’m done for the day,” says Doughty. “I’m proud to show visitors around the area. The graffiti, the quirky sculptures, canal boats, the giant stadium, and the creation of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Park. It all make for an interesting experience.”

Doughty lives ten minutes’ walk from his Fish Island workspace, in Bow. “I loved the feel of the place straight away, especially the vibrant arts scene in Hackney Wick. If you need support, it’s there for you.” Recently, Doughty has been experimenting with larger scale illustrations, but he always has a couple of Moleskine notebooks on the go: “I sketch and draw in these when I’m out and about. I draw on the bus, train, the doctor’s surgery, the beach, the Sikh Temple in Bow – anywhere that allows it.” He laughs. “The only place I’ve been told off for drawing was in the Tate Modern!”


art4Matt Small, painter in Haringey
“North London is one big village,” says Matt Small. He’s sitting on the fire escape of his flat in Camden right now, but his workspace, at Euroart Studios in Haringey, is just a skip, hop and jump away on the Overground. There are new studios opening up all the time, Small observes, with lots of open days and initiatives for support: “There’s a DIY mentality growing. I think us artists have realised it’s important to take control, and not wait on established organisations to provide support.”

As a full-time artist, Small knows that locking yourself away in your studio to focus on your craft probably won’t cut it: “You have to be savvy about promoting yourself. That’s a part of the job as well, and not something us artists have traditionally been so great at. So it’s good to have a network of individuals who are in the same boat as you.”

art5Primarily a painter, Small has a strong, compelling style, often choosing discarded objects like car bonnets or old signs instead of canvas for his work. “The theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.” Small explains how the urban debris he paints on becomes symbolic of the feeling of being without value: “I thought it’d be interesting to connect the two – that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone – I don’t see it like that, I see that it can be something beautiful and worthwhile. That’s how I see our young people too. Let’s look at their potential, at the hope that’s in all of them.”

Small has hosted workshops for socially marginalised people, driven in part by a desire to give them a voice, but also wanting to make art more approachable in general. “I think the art world is un-inclusive by design, but for me, making it understandable and connected to us mere mortals is what art is about. It’s about finding your own way of communicating what goes on in your mind. That’s the most powerful thing you can do as an individual: creatively express yourself, visually or through music or dance.” And of course, there’s the thrill of the challenge: “I’d feel as if I was cheating myself if I wasn’t pushing the boundaries of my own potential. Keep discovering, keeping finding, keep playing.” He laughs. “Having fun with it all. Yes, yes!”


art6Natalie Ryde, painter/printmaker in Hackney Wick
Delicate nets and intricate webs are in Natalie Ryde’s blood, it seems, as she was drawing these patterns for years before discovering her family’s 300-year history as framework knitters. “It’s so curious to me. I’d been drawing these nets and ferns almost intuitively,” says Ryde. The realisation came five years ago, when her family was invited to visit the factory where their ancestors had worked for generations. “My family knew, but they never mentioned it. They just took it for granted. So it’s definitely not from nurture!”

Studying nature, and close-up details, are key elements in Ryde’s work. Her nets create a “sub-lingual pattern” that tries to convey something: “It hints at things that are familiar but not quite discernible, like you can relate to them but you’re not quite sure what they are.” She laughs a bit, nervously, it’s hard to explain what she means. “I’m compelled to drawing things and making things in response to the world around me. I can remember being little and wanting to be really good at drawing. It’s so much a part of my life now, I can’t imagine it not being the thing I do every day.”

Originally from Scotland, Ryde works at Wallis Studios in Hackney Wick. “Why did I come here? Because this is where everyone is!” Previously living in London Fields, Ryde has since moved to Haringey. “I was thinking of getting a studio closer to home, but I quite like the commute. I cycle down, along the canal.” Not to mention the community in the Wick: “It’s exciting, there’s always lots of exhibitions and galleries. There’s always so much fun going on. People work hard here, it’s nice.” Ryde is part of a mentoring programme for artists in the area, and also works in arts education, in part for local children in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park.

And of course, there’s the net drawings. “I have worked in lots of different mediums but I’m focusing on the nets, as I feel that’s my visual language now,” says Ryde. “l get my ideas from being outside, but I’m not necessarily interested in the view. I’m more interested in the ground, or in things that are washed up on the beach. That’s how you’ll find those strange, alien-looking things, detached from their context, so it doesn’t quite make sense when you first see it.”


art7Richard Peacock, printmaker in Haringey
“The Chocolate Factory is really not bad,” says Richard Peacock, who’s been in his Haringey studio for 14 years now. “When I first qualified I had a studio in Dalston, where you had to scrape the ice off the windows. But here, we have heating!” He laughs. Peacock lives close to his studios too, although this is a happy accident; he originally came to Haringey because his sister lived there. “I didn’t do my art degree until my 30s. As a teenager in Essex I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t get back into it until I started going to evening classes. Then slowly and surely it became the most important thing in my life.”

Peacock talks about the “rhythmic abstract” process of screen printing, the “changes in the weight of the inks” and the “variation in the edges of the shapes”. This is a physical experience, requiring 24 different processes for each print. It can be planned or intuitive, but regardless: “You have to respond to what’s happening. That should let you make something that’s better than what you can plan.”

The result is part abstract, part pop art, playfully exploring shapes and colours. “Every time a cardboard box comes into the house I take it apart and look at it,” says Peacock, who often ends up using the shape in his work. “I like things with holes and gaps in it, so you can see through it as you print layers. Someone once sent me this lovely waxed paper with lots of tiny holes, it had been used in a circuit factory.” Peacock used the paper to print strips, which began to resemble trees in the forest. The resulting piece, “Step from the path”, is his favourite. Sometimes he’ll includes words too, usually simple phrases, or maybe texts from spam emails or horoscopes; it’s cliche language that ultimately says something about how we live.

Haringey has seen a lot of new artist spaces pop up in the past few years, says Peacock. While still a very diverse borough, things are becoming more buzzy, especially around Tottenham with its open studios, and around Alexandra Park with its arts trails. “Then there’s the Chocolate Factory, which has its own community associated with it. There are lots of people here who are making things happen.”


art8Esther Ainsworth, mixed-media artist in Hackney Wick
It starts out subtle, Esther Ainsworth’s work, always with a place or sound that’s caught her attention. Like today, when she’s in Balfron Tower, East London’s Brutalist masterpiece: ”It’s an incredible building. I’m using it as a kind of residency, trying to conjure up ideas based on the environment here.”

Ainsworth’s main medium is sound, but through this comes an exploration of space. “I like looking at what makes an interesting place, and then finding the sonic information that gives it a sense of identity.” The result is an experience that teases you in and opens you up, be it a recorded soundscape or a site-specific installation. Ainsworth has been at Mother Studios in Hackney Wick since 2006, which has provided its own experience as the area has changed. “Hackney Wick is such an interesting place to be. It was completely different when I got there,” says Ainsworth; especially the previously “stark and industrial” Olympic area has undergone a complete transformation.

One of Ainsworth’s current collaborations is with a light artist also working at Mother Studios. “The activity on each floor at the studio is very sociable, very vibrant. People often work with their doors open, and you can get feedback on your practice. We share a mailing list where everybody can promote their work,” says Ainsworth. “All the studio blocks and the galleries tend to know about each other. The Wick is essentially an artists’ village, because there’s not really anything else happening there!”

Having said that, Ainsworth often works outside of East London. Her favourite project is called Drive-In Sound; she’s done it three times so far, most recently on her way to a residency in Slovakia. “I love the idea of combining the freedom of a road trip with something that’s deeply enmeshed in the communities you visit. You can create new networks as you move around from place to place.”

This also goes to the core of why Ainsworth does her work: “It comes from trying to understand the world a little bit better. By finding interesting places, by hopefully connecting people between those places.” She thinks about it. “The idea of uniting and building bridges between communities and cultures is very exciting for me. I don’t think there’s an arrival point, but there’s a sense of journey. It drips through everything.”


Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 18.42.12

Kids running their own business? Yes they can!

Aquila kids’ magazine, October 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 14.20.30Kids running their own business? Yes they can!
If you could have your own company and work for yourself, what would you do? Running a business is challenging, but if you’re ambitious there’s no reason you can’t start something now.

There is no age limit to having your own business, as long as you start small and are willing to go through a bit of trial and error as you learn. Working any job would teach you so much about life, such as being creative in ways that don’t follow set rules, and maybe even taking a few chances. Working for yourself also teaches you a lot of practical things, like how to handle money, dealing with customers, and figuring out what people want.

These things are true regardless of what kind of work you want to do – it could be babysitting, cutting grass, running errands, washing cars, or walking dogs. Kids can also earn money from make greeting cards, tutoring younger children, making baked goods, or offering lessons in sports or music – or maybe you could even teach social media to people who are less computer savvy? In any case, start by taking a moment to think about some things you enjoy doing or making, and how this could be turned into a business. Henry Patterson from Buckinghamshire got the idea for his business after hearing his parents and grandparents tell stories about the kinds of sweets they used to eat as kids. This led to Henry starting his own sweets company, “Not Before Tea”, when he was just nine years old.

It’s probably a good idea to ask your parents or guardians if they can help out a bit with your business. Even kids have to pay tax if they earn more than a certain amount of money per year: at the moment this limit is £10,000. Of course, this won’t be an issue for a small babysitting business, but even if you earn just a little bit of money, it may be fun to have a separate bank account where you can watch it grow. With a bigger business, having an adult involved could be useful when it comes to checking if the company needs to be registered or needs any special permits – this may be the case if it involves food.

Getting help from mum and dad has been very important to Ally Mollo from California, who started her own dolls business when she was just eight years old. Ally used to draw pictures of angels to watch over her and her friends, and decided to make them into dolls. Now her business, “Guardian Angel Rainbow Division”, sell angel dolls that come with their own stories. Part of Ally’s earnings go to charity, and Leanna Archer from New York even set up her own education charity foundation with some of the profits from her company. Leanna was only eight years old when she started “Leanna’s Hair”, where she sells hair products made from recipes that have been used in her family for many generations.

Like most kids, Ally didn’t know anything about business, so she had a lot to learn when she started. One thing was how to register intellectual property, which was necessary so nobody else could copy her dolls. One of the most surprising things for Ally was just how long it took to get the business up and running: it took over a year of going back and forth with the factory to get the first dolls made. She also needed her parents to help pay for the first round of products, so she would have something to show to people interested in buying them.

When it comes to technology businesses, kids may even have an advantage over adults: you grew up using the internet. The World Wide Web wasn’t even invented until 1989, meaning most people who are adults now had to learn how to use the internet, instead of it being something that’s always been around. Thomas Suarez from California was just 11 years old when he started “CarrotCorp”, a company that makes smartphone apps. Now 15, Thomas also makes apps for Google Glass and 3D printing, after having taught himself how to write computer programming code. This was also how James Gill from Kent started software company “GoSquared” at 15 with two school friend – they would get together in the evenings and teach themselves how to make the computer do what they wanted it to do.

While you should definitely pick something you like doing when you start a business, it’s also important to pick something that people are willing to pay money for. Before you start, do a little customer research: ask people what they think about the idea. Would they use your product or service? How much would they be willing to pay for it? It’s also very possible that your first idea won’t be your best one. When James and his friends first started GoSquared, their main product involved selling advertising. Then they made a software programme that analysed how people were using their website, only to realise that this was a much better idea for a product to sell. Now, as GoSquared has moved to London, this is their main business. Similarly, Henry started “Not Before Tea” as an old-fashioned sweets business, but has since expanded to selling things like books and clothes in the same style.

Chances are, your first business idea won’t be a job for life. But it could certainly teach you a lot of things that will be useful later, both at school and in your future job. Having a bit of extra pocket money isn’t too bad either, whether it’s to save up for something special, or to help someone else through a charity. In any case, working for yourself is a great way to figure out what you want, what kind of thing you’re good at, while also providing some practice for the things you’re not so good at. Because there are plenty of things we can learn from books, but there are lots of things we learn best by doing.

Scan 1

Things lost to exes, begrudgingly.

The Toast, April 2014. Original article here.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 15.36.58

Things lost to exes, begrudgingly.

– Endless loaves of bread.
After too many mornings of waking up at his house and finding there was absolutely nothing to eat, I started bringing my own food over. The coffee and peanut butter stayed in the cupboard where I’d left them, but the bread would disappear immediately. At one point I was buying a loaf a week for my own house, and up to three loaves for his. Then he started complaining all that bread was making him put on weight.
* Lesson: Bring a man a loaf of bread and he eats for a day.

– Fancy water bottle.
My ex and I had the same water bottle: a red aluminium canister of the kind that will last a decade if you look after it. I’d been looking after mine. Then at some point during the relationship the bottles got swapped, but I didn’t become aware of this until we’d gone through the only breakup I’ve ever had where things got so ugly we no longer speak. And my ex had not been looking after his bottle. I don’t want to think the swap was deliberate, as that would have been petty. But then again, he’d been known to use the Twitter account belonging to the cat he’d shared with his ex to try and make her jealous, so.
* Lesson: Trust no one.

– James Bond back catalogue.
My ex was really into TV, and as a result we watched what amounted to, in my opinion, endless amounts of crap. Amateur cooking shows and kitchen sink dramas, urgh. So the Bond films were an attempt at coming up with stuff we both actually wanted to watch, as we’d exhausted Star Wars and Harry Potter. So I bought the DVDs and kept them at his house, and we chuckled our way through them. I mean, those films are comedies, right?
* Lesson: Opposites attract, then opposites bicker endlessly over what to watch while eating dinner. Romance is dead.

– Favourite knickers.
Do women actually leave used underpants at the houses of men they are dating, or is that a 1980s film cliche? In any case, these knickers were left behind in a clean state, in a moment of optimism that I’d be returning to wear them. I did not return to wear them. At the time I was too torn up about the guy to be upset about the pink and orange lace number, but it goes without saying: I’ve never left a favourite piece of clothing at anyone’s house ever again.
* Twist in the story: About a year later I found myself back at the scene, briefly, and retrieved the lost knickers! I’ve never been able to wear them again though, so the loss stands.

– Favourite yoga teacher.
I once got asked out by a man who, like me, liked to do 90 minutes of Ashtanga yoga on Tuesday nights, overseen by a wonderful teacher named Kate. This man was attractive, as boys at yoga often are, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never met a person I have less in common with. Cue Mia Wallace in ‘Pulp Fiction’ making a square with her fingers, if you catch my drift. Fast forward a couple of weeks, to when his prettiness no longer compensated, and I saw no other choice: I begrudgingly gave him custody of Kate, and bought a bike instead.
* Lesson: Good men are hard to find, but not as hard to find as good yoga teachers.

Thor Heyerdahl

In Aquila Children’s Magazine (ages 7-12), February 2014.

scandinavia-feb14uThe adventures of Thor Heyerdahl
Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl crossed the open ocean on wooden rafts, risking his life to prove that people in pre-historic times could have travelled the world.

When a young, unknown researcher named Thor Heyerdahl claimed people from South America had travelled to the islands in the Pacific Ocean, no one took him seriously. Most scientists were certain: the people who live on these islands, known as Polynesia, had come from Asia. This was because pre-historic South Americans didn’t have any boats which could have survived the long and dangerous journey.

Heyerdahl quickly understood there was only way to prove his theory: travel across the ocean himself. A crazy idea for sure, but Heyerdahl had a raft built, using the same materials and methods as the pre-historic South Americans would have used. With a crew of seven, Heyerdahl set out from Peru in April 1947, letting the sea currents and wind take them where it wanted. The Kon-Tiki raft travelled 7,964 kilometres before reaching Polynesia, 101 days later. Heyerdahl had proved he was right: pre-historic South Americans could have crossed the Pacific Ocean.

The young explorer
Thor Heyerdahl was born in Southern Norway in 1914, in the town of Larvik. It was his mother, Alison, who inspired him to become a researcher. She was a chairwoman of the city’s museum association, and a supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Thor created a small museum in the office of his father, a master brewer also called Thor. Young Thor decided to become an explorer when he was eight, and went to the University of Oslo to study biology and geography. There Thor met a collector who had travelled in Polynesia, a friendship which inspired Thor’s interest in the region. Soon after, he went to the island of Fatu-Hiva and lived there for one year.

Heyerdahl wanted to discover how Polynesia originally became filled with plants, trees and animals. He realised the winds and ocean currents were constantly coming from South America, and that this had consequences for plant life. But it was only when he found the same types of statutes on the islands as previously found in South America, that Heyerdahl started wondering: maybe the winds and currents brought more than just plants from South America to Polynesia? Maybe they brought people too?

This was when Heyerdahl decided to prove this theory by setting sail on the Kon-Tiki. In the documentary he made about the trip he talks about how people doubted whether the crew would survive. After all, no one could save them once they headed out into the open sea on their simple raft, made from nine balsa tree logs with a small hut on top. “On calm days, we would float like a cork,” said Heyerdahl. “On smooth days, it felt like utopia.” But not every day was calm. Lorita, the seasick parrot who had come along from Peru, was lost in a storm. Swimming was dangerous because of the strong currents, not to mention the sharks which frequently followed the raft. The whales were dangerous too, as they sometimes topple small boats at sea. Heyerdahl admitted there were times he feared for his life on the Kon-Tiki, as he had been afraid of water as a child and really learned how to swim.

Ra and Tigris
Heyerdahl became famous after the Kon-Tiki mission. While most scientists still disagreed with his theory that South Americans had travelled to Polynesia, at least it was clear it was possible. Heyerdahl was a big believer in the diffusionist theory: the idea that pre-historic civilisations had been in contact with each other. This could explain why groups who lived very far apart, like the Egyptians in Africa and the Mayans in South America, both built pyramids. But most scientists, both during Heyerdahl’s time and now, are separatists: they believe these similarities are coincidental, probably occurring because people all over the world have a lot in common.

Heyerdahl’s next sea voyage came in 1969, after he found pictures of reed boats during his archeological digs on Easter Island in Polynesia. Reed boats were also common among Mediterranean civilisations, meaning people could have travelled from there to South America, and then to Polynesia. Heyerdahl decided again to prove the skeptics wrong, and built a boat out of reeds and set sail from Morocco. Ra 1 had to be abandoned after 5,000 kilometres, but Heyerdahl was undeterred. Ten months later he tried again with Ra 2, which successfully reached South America.

Heyerdahl’s largest reed boat was built in 1977, this time with the ability to navigate instead of just drifting. The Tigris set out to prove it had been possible for people in the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley to be in contact with each other. After five months at sea, the Tigris ended its voyage by the Red Sea, where Heyerdahl burned the proud ship in protest of the wars happening in the surrounding countries.

The biggest adventure
People describe Heyerdahl as a charismatic man with massive amounts of energy. But in video interviews he comes across as modest, almost shy, using formal language and always determined to make us understand: this is about science. For Heyerdahl, his voyages were also a message for people to work together. His crews on Ra and Tigris were all from different countries sailing under the United Nations flag, proving that people born to different places, habits and religions can work together. “Each of us were depending on the others’ friendship and help to survive. We knew if one of us was unwell, it would affect us all. That we all got along so well, that was the greatest part,” said Heyerdah, in an interview on Norwegian TV. “When you get to the bottom of it, to the big questions of life and death, people are so similar. We are all slices of the same loaf.”

During the Ra voyages, Heyerdahl became concerned with pollution of the world’s waters, as the crew found hardened clumps of tar floating in the water nearly every day of the 57-day-long trip. Heyerdahl’s reports were an important wake-up call for the international community about the dangers of pollution. “We seem to believe the ocean is endless. We use it like a sewer,” said Heyerdahl. Remaining a vocal advocate for the environment for the rest of his life, Heyerdahl was also a tireless supporter of international collaboration: “Borders – I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”

Heyerdahl died in 2002 when he was 87 years old, living with his third wife Jacqueline in Italy. He had five children from two previous marriages: Bjørn, Thor Junior, Annette, Marian and Helene Elisabeth. While the theory of contact between pre-historic societies has now largely fallen out of favour, Heyerdahl continued his work until his death, convinced he was right. We may never know for sure, but last year research from the University of Oslo provided clues. Blood samples from the current inhabitants of Polynesia show they are mostly descended from Asia, but some of them have South American genes too. So it seems Heyerdahl was at least a little bit right.


Knit, purl, catharsis

Flamingo Magazine, Future Craft issue, March 2013.

knitpurlKnit, purl, catharsis
In my garden I can hear the distant sounds of traffic, night and day like a constant hum. This is London, where only a few stars are still visible in the light-polluted sky, hanging over a metropolis of grit and push. I feel it surrounding me, like a promise that it’s all within reach.

At a distance, the London creature sounds just the same as the whitewater river where I grew up. I spent so much time wanting to get out of that place, to leave the village where everyone was the same and nothing ever happened. One winter, when I was 19, I found myself back there after my first ever journey outward had come to an end, and I slept all day and stayed up all night in jetlagged sadness. My heart was still out there, across the ocean, where life was happening and where I still wanted to be, but instead I had to come back to the village where the river now slept under a sheet of ice and snow. I wondered if any of it had ever happened, that brief moment of life in the city, and I was terrified that maybe I’d dreamed it up.

I don’t remember much from that winter except for one thing: I made a quilt. Unable to sleep at night I skulked around until I found pieces of fabric in my mother’s cupboards, each reminiscent of a different time: a floral blouse, my childhood curtain, a doll’s dress, some worn-out sheets. I started cutting, measuring the pieces into careful squares, before I started sewing, making strips, adjusting each row using a ruler to get clean corners. When I ran out of patches I went to my grandma’s house, looking for more fabric with another set of memories: an old cushion, grandpa’s worn-out shirt, a threadbare flannel nightdress. I kept making rows of patches and when I had enough, I sewed them together into a blanket. I wanted it to be finished so I could cover myself in these feelings, these stories from a time when I was small enough for the village to be big enough for me. And I never wanted it to be finished because I needed this task; it was my crutch as I staggered through the winter, bewildered by clocks and maps and no longer believing my own memories.

Now that craft has changed from a chore to a hobby, there is something quite liberating about this activity. Whether it be quilting, sewing, brewing or baking, there is amazingly simple and refreshing about letting the brain rest while doing something with our hands. Picking up the knitting needles to make my own socks to go inside my winter boots becomes a meditation, a gesture of order because here is something I can control entirely. A friend found a cookbook in a drawer last year and ended up making something from it almost every night for months, deciphering hand-scrawled recipes of boiled puddings and obscure cuts of meat. It became the thing she did instead of dating, which had gone from uninspiring to upsetting fast. Another friend once knitted a massive jumper during a bout of extreme sadness that couldn’t be explained by life just being a bit rubbish anymore. The counting of the complex pattern created something else to focus on, something other to do than wonder where her life had gone. She found the jumper again recently, folded up neatly in the bottom of a drawer, but instead of it being a symbol of her illness it seemed to carry a promise that it gets better.

I thought about my quilt earlier this autumn, when I went with my friend Peter up to the blackthorns that grown along the brook behind his house. Peter had just split up with his girlfriend, who’d taken the toaster and the soft furnishings and left the man to live with a bare-walled flat and a nagging question about the point of committing, if this is all it’s worth. Our bucket filled with sloes as Peter explained how he wasn’t planning to make jam, nor gin, with them, but how he wanted to harvest the wild yeast living on the fruits to make beer. Brewing equipment had taken over his living room, replacing the girl, and one day the beer will be ready for drinking. And someday, maybe a little later, Peter will be ready to make another promise.

In my London garden, the soft rustle of traffic sounds just like the whitewater river I grew up by, but only if I close my eyes. I came to the city because this is where I want to be. Inside, on the wall over my bed, my quilt hangs as proof of the things that pass.