When Frances Caldwell received a scholarship from The Learning Connexion to study for the Certificate in Creativity and Art, it felt like a “miracle”. We asked her to tell us why.
“The scholarship was a miracle arrival in my mailbox; it turned up several weeks after I admitted my attempts to succeed in the world of ‘normal’ work was going to kill me – in spirit definitely, and possibly even by death from stress.
For almost 10 years I had job-hopped from frying pan to devil’s cauldron, working mainly in mental health as a manager, adviser, coordinator, or facilitator. I had no time or energy to be creative, and my physical and mental health kept declining. But I just kept on pushing myself until the week before I saw the TLC scholarship advertised. I was at work on Saturday, exhausted, but still functioning when my brain just stopped working. People talked at me, asking questions and all I could hear were strange underwater noises. Nothing made sense. I went home and cancelled everything in my diary for the following week.
In that week of silence I slept, meditated, journaled, and I taped pieces of paper together into a massive mind map. Things had to change.
I was on the wrong path, but I didn’t know what the new one was. The only thing clear was that I needed to do more of what nourished my brain and less of what made it feel like it was daily being stripped and shredded in a grinder.
Somewhere in that week of recalibration, I saw and applied for a TLC scholarship. I had no expectation of it being successful. But when it was, it was like a light came on; after years of banging my head on doors, one had opened, and I had barely knocked.
My initial aims for study at TLC were low key; I wanted to rekindle my creativity (before the “real jobs” I had devised theatre and done lots of writing) and see if there was anything in the embers worth saving. I wanted to explore the tiny but satisfying experiences I had had with visual art. I wanted to learn to draw. And I wanted to see if the envy I felt towards artists was a kind of wake-up call. Turns out it was.
My first TLC mentor, the very patient Billy Wilson, saw a tiny speck of hope in the dusts that were my initial attempts as a part-time distance student. He nurtured that speck and guided me until I was drawing! And then I was seeing the world differently, taking photos everywhere I went, working out what I was drawn to, getting ideas that were beyond my capabilities but starting to feel like this could be something I could keep learning.
I went to Wellington for a block week at TLC, studying jewellery onsite. It seemed like a bit of a side-track, but I’d never forgotten the winter I once spent in Amsterdam, staying with a silversmith, and watching him work; the flame from his torch warming up the icy studio.
Since that first jewellery block week, where I cut and burned myself as I learned to make hundreds of tiny copper jump rings, I’ve now done three TLC jewellery block weeks and have my own workspace at home, complete with a torch and a few of the other many (and expensive) tools required.
I’m not a patient person, not especially a details person, and certainly not someone prepared to suffer for my art. But when it comes to making jewellery, I’m in the moment, focused and content. Time disappears.
I applied for a scholarship for the next stage, the level 5 diploma. Again, my expectations were low and again, I was astounded to hear that I would have all my fees paid as I studied part-time for another two years. Again the door was open, so I walked through it.
My circumstances were a little changed and it was going to be harder for me to get to block weeks in Wellington. I didn’t know how I’d manage to keep learning jewellery by distance, but the Christchurch library had jewellery making books, and that seemed the closest I could get in the meantime. With the books nearly all out on loan, I put holds on some and was emailed by the librarian; she’d never come across this before, but the person with all the books out wanted to make contact with me.
Reluctantly I shared my email address, wondering if I was handing it to a stalker. But, the book borrower was a lovely women called Lorelie, a maker of beautiful silver jewellery, who hoped from my book choices that I was knowledgeable about enamelling. She was also curious to find out who wanted the books that she’d been serially renewing for months.
Unfortunately for Lorelie, I was no use to her on the enamelling front. Instead, she opened opportunities for me, inviting me to join her and other jewellers on Mondays, learning and making in the studio of retired Dutch jeweller Gerry De Gouw. I was shy and very aware of my lack of experience, but I couldn’t believe my luck. I now had access to tools, inspiration, guidance, and encouragement on a weekly basis.
And then it got better still. TLC changed my mentor to an actual jeweller, Keri-Mei Zagrobelna.
From the other side of 18 months of mentorship from Keri-Mei, my perspective on life has changed. Most strikingly, I’ve stopped anxiously searching for what to do “when I grow up”. I’ve accepted that being creative, visually, is something I need to do for my own health and sanity.
I’ve accepted that while not everyone sees that as a valid life choice, many people are supportive. I’ve learned how to set creative goals and work in a way that is emotionally sustainable, rather than my old workaholic driven-ness I’ve learned that I can calmly set goals and solve problems in other areas of my life too.
Keri-Mei also encouraged me to pursue other forms of visual creativity, ones that could nourish me when the jewellery well was running dry. I rediscovered my love of mosaicking, something linked to my obsession with op-shopping for old china to decorate my house, drink dainty cups of tea from, and make into jewellery. And I followed a long-time love of coloured glass, taking my first community class in lead lighting, then designing and making my first window. The glass class offered yet another opportunity, a community of leadlighters that I can create with on Saturday mornings.
In my first year of study, I identified art nouveau as a style of art that spoke to me. And when, on a car journey in rural Canterbury, I came across a tiny church with stained glass windows designed by famous wallpaper designer William Morris, I knew that my love of decorative art and floral motifs was something real and weighty. Something I had a right to care about. Keri-Mei pushed me on my whys for the floral theme and it went deeper; in the worst of my despair times, I hung hope on the changing seasons in the garden, focused on capturing the fleeting beauty of poppies, the last leaves of autumn and the severe branches of winter.
No doubt my tastes will change as my art journey progresses. I’m very new in this, still an apprentice with so much to learn and too many ideas going in different directions.
I wish I’d found my way here years ago, but I think perhaps I was too impatient, too unwilling to sit still and quietly, too unsure of myself and, ironically, too caught up in my own importance.
Initially afraid of destroying my creativity by linking it to money, Keri-Mei has encouraged me to think in terms of sustainability – making decisions that will allow me to cover the substantial costs involved in making jewellery. When I think of it this way, it makes sense to make a few ‘best-sellers’ that will allow me to keep creating. And selling things to make room to make more. So far, I’ve sold just a few rings, but next time Covid allows me the opportunity to be in an exhibition I will let other pieces go – if someone wants to buy them.
There is something terrifying about putting a price on something I’ve made, but I’m getting used to the idea of valuing what I do. I’ve got exhibition pieces ready and waiting, and I’ve enrolled in a course that trains people in setting up their own business. And when finances allow, I plan to re-enrol with TLC for the next phase of my creative journey.
In the meantime, mental health work has made a minor reappearance in my life – this time linked to creativity as I facilitate art sessions for people in community and inpatient mental health facilities. My aim is not so much to teach art but to share creative tools that have helped my own mental health."
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