Hi, Rachel, thank you for sharing your art and your thoughts with us today.
You studied fine art at Middlesex University. As a self-taught artist I'm always curious about the experiences that other artists have had in art school. Did you have a specific area of study or a favorite medium or style? How did your education prepare you for your career as a prop maker and later as an independent artist?
At my college we were left to our own devices. Initially I found this very difficult. Without having anything in particular that I wanted to say and being on a non-structured course I struggled. I liked working in materials that wouldn’t last and used film and photography to record the things I made. I tended towards the three dimensional. At college I learnt self discipline, lateral thinking but no sense of working to deadlines.
As an apprentice prop maker I enjoyed learning real skills like fibre glassing, mould making, leather work and traditional sculpting and painting. I had to work to deadlines.
After university you went on to work as a prop maker for The Royal Opera House, The English National Opera, The Globe Theatre, West End Theatres, London Transport Museum and Selfridges Christmas windows. What drew you to prop making as a career? Can you share what you typically did as a prop maker and what you liked most about the job?
I got into prop making after college because I wanted to earn a living (I didn’t have high expectations of doing this through my art at the time). I’ve always loved theatre, film, and opera. The collaboration of the visual, the intellectual, and the musical.
There was a great variety to the props I made over the years. For example a donkey's head made out of stiffened felt for the ballet dancer in Midsummer’s Nights Dream with moving eyes and ears, a large crystal that Ariel in the Tempest stood on. A commission for Selfridges was to sculpt two children’s mannequin heads in the style of the adults mannequins that Selfridges already had. I had to be inventive in problem solving as most things you make are unique. I liked this but it was also the stressful bit because each challenge was a new one.
The freedom of being freelance was great, it gave me the flexibility of taking time to go back to my own art work every so often. But it was stressful working in new environments, having to prove yourself each time and the uncertainty of how long the work would last. In prop making you’re only as good as your last job. The best bit was being paid to be creative and to be part of exciting productions - and free tickets!
The descriptions on your website of your tile-making process make it sound so simple, and yet I'm sure there are challenges. Can you explain the process? Do some materials work better than others by nature of their structure? Do you have favorite types of materials or favorite flowers to use in your casts?
It is simple! I won’t describe the process as there are articles already out there, that do that. It’s choosing specimens that look good and feeling in the right frame of mind when composing the pieces. It doesn’t always come out well, its hit and miss. But that’s the magic of anything creative you can’t accurately sum up why something works and therefore you can’t control the success rate- no one has the Midas touch. I’ve ended up specializing in plant matter which I’m still keen to explore. Some flowers when cast using this technique are very non-descript like pansies and forget-me-not but most plants and flowers make good impressions. Large roses aren’t very beautiful as they just look like round balls on a stem. Peonies are too messy and camellias are too fleshy. Tulips and crocuses splay out so they are no longer recognisable. I like a woodland feel - dangling flowers like blue bells, dicentra and solomon’s seal, young ferns as they unfold. At the moment I’m really enjoying the wild plants from our local heath. Ordinary weeds that we take for granted. Prickly plants like brambles and stinging nettles.
You mention that you use plants from your garden in your art making. Can you tell us a bit about your garden? What style gardening are you most drawn to and what sorts of plants do you like to grow? Do you ever plant something just because you'd like to use it in your art?
Ever since I was a child I’ve liked to be outside in a garden - as many children did it was swinging around on the climbing frame, making ‘perfume’ with petals, snail races with my sister, digging around for worms, helping my mum do the weeding, wheelbarrow rides with my dad and birthday parties in the garden.
As an adult, when we moved house 8 years ago it was important to have a garden for the kids and for myself. I’ve slowly made the flower beds bigger and filled them up. Initially with just a few plants I bought especially (orange blossom, magnolia stellata, cistus, bridal wreath) but mainly I had to choose the cheapest plants I could find. Many of my plants are hand-me-downs from my mum and sisters. The design is as we found it – it’s a rectangular garden with a straight flower bed on either side of a lawn. The beds are full, there are day lilies and phlox that came from my grandmother’s garden. Clematis and roses clambering along the fence. In the past two years, I’ve added in plants given to me at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I’m always drawn to the natural looking gardens, the British country cottage, and the more overgrown type like in the book ‘The Secret Garden’.
Your business seems to have grown largely by word of mouth and poking around on your website I see no signs of a social media presence, which is both surprising and refreshing. Do you feel any pressure to take part in the digital community in order to market your art? How do you think your absence on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. affect you as an artist?
That’s a really interesting question! This isn’t deliberate, I just don’t have time. I’ve got three children..... I do feel pressure but it’s interesting how the web has helped me get this far. People have come across me and written blogs; it’s spread like ripples in a pond. I take lot’s of photos so I hope to start an Instagram site.
Other than your plaster tiles, what media, art forms or creative pursuits do you enjoy? What sorts of routines, rituals or daily practices do you use in order to stay creative and get your ideas flowing? Do you have any suggestions or tricks for getting out of a creative slump?
I’m developing my use of concrete and keen to experiment in new materials. I’ve still got loads I’d like to do using casting so I don’t need any other creative pursuits. I recently helped a horticultural therapist and occupational therapist learn this simple form of casting. I felt very good about facilitating other people to use it as therapy. I’m also excited that my work is being used by the education department in Queensland as part of their curriculum. For over 20 years I’ve been fascinated with the effects you can get with this very simple technique and I’m really happy to teach adults and children to be able to achieve the same thing. It dawned on me recently that fossils are made in a similar way and if it wasn’t for them we would have no idea about dinosaurs and other extinct creatures.
It’s not easy earning a living doing something creative. But this is not a hobby for me so I treat it like a job and work as hard as I can, trying to ignore the days I don’t feel like doing it! It helps being outside in the garden and collecting plants on the local heath - it’s good for my soul - and I can justify it as it’s work related!
Where do you see yourself and Tactile Studio heading next?
I’d really like to work on more site specific commissions using very large pieces. Also I’m sure it would be fun to experiment with casting in metal.
Thank you, Rachel!
And thank you, dear readers; I hope you've enjoyed today's interview. You can find more of Rachel's work on her website. Her tiles are also available for purchase on Etsy.
Be sure not to miss the other posts in my Artists Series; they can be viewed here.
Photos 1, 2, 4 & 5 © Andrew Montgomery all other photos © Rachel Dein of Tactile Studio. Used with permission.