6. ESTONIA TRIP - SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

Interior with table and samovar - our wooden hut at Lake Peipus, Estonia

Interior with table and samovar - our wooden hut at Lake Peipus, Estonia

I knew practically nothing about Estonia before I went, “they’re in Eurovision, right?” My expectations of Estonia and the things I would learn there were unexpectedly life changing. The enthusiasm and love exuded by our constant guide, Maarika and her clear sense of pride in her home country served to accentuate my feelings about our experiences. It ended up that by the end of the week saying goodbye to her actually made me an emotional wreck. I was also sleep deprived and we had all been doing long, long days of travel and discovery, but she did end up in my 100daysofHerstory (number 67). That’s the real deal.

Maarika allowed us - as foreign visitors - a unique insight into life as an Estonian person in the twenty-first century, but also facilitated our understanding of Estonia’s chequered and often confusing past. Her use of words like ‘emotions’, ‘nature’ and ‘beauty’ kept reappearing. A clear sense of general Estonian priorities became clear through her presence, of simplicity, returning to nature, folklore, science, using available resources in the best way, learning from past mistakes and celebrating the firebrands and game changers of their history.

The RMK, essentially the Estonian forestry commission, impressed me in many ways with their use of natural materials left in their organic state. Amongst these were a trio of dioramas made of rolled paper or cut from thin sheets of birch. These were on display at the Lahemaa national park visitor centre and proved that

elegant simplicity wins out against overdoing tech

These displays would have been relatively cheap to produce, doubtless using local materials and when they require replacing, I can only assume they will be repurposed or they can even be composted! At the same RMK centre we were taken for a hike by Triin and taught to look for cultural heritage in the landscape. She pointed out that walls and dykes made by people hundreds or even thousands of years ago can still be visible and mistaken for natural features. Since then I’ve been trying to ‘read’ every rural landscape I have been in, looking for clues of times past. It also made me want to learn more about wild plants, especially after munching on some tasty wood sorrel. Although... if you eat too much you start hallucinating, so maybe good to know a few other edible plants. 

At Kivioli, we visited a former shale oil ash hill. The whole area used to treat the hill as a source of pride in its prosperity, but with the decline of mining the hill became a dark blight on the landscape. Local people attempted to ignore it, despite it casting a literal shadow over them. Thanks to the foresight of two adventurous friends (yes, really) since 2005 the hill has been an outdoor adventure and ski centre.

The hill was volatile and hot even after decades of inactivity

but that residual heat has been harnessed in order to power a hostel and conference centre on site. Interestingly no one seems to know how long that might last. The slag was covered with soil, allowing new growth and rendered it safe for international motocross, ski slaloms and discgolf* courses. They've built a colossal zipline from the top of the hill over the new lake they've created, but disappointingly wouldn't let us on it. Rather than shying away from the huge hill, it's being embraced, even some wildlife is returning. The UK could learn a lot from making use of such a negative and depressed site, converting it into a sustainable and enduring asset both locally, nationally and internationally.

Along the ‘Onion Route’

we stayed in Varnja in a traditional Peipsi lake cabin with rustic interiors and no running water.

I made the ink illustration of it from a sketch I did at the time. It had a traditional sauna and a pretty full composting outdoor toilet with a simple bucket toilet inside. It was basic in aspect, aside from electricity, we had none of the usual comforts expected when staying in a cottage. However, the reliance on a well for water and on wood burners and lanterns for warmth made me appreciate how unsustainable the way we live has become. Treats here were the sauna (except in Estonia it is simply a way of life... I wish), air dried fish and the near silence of sleeping birds, toad calls and insects. It was one of the most pleasant places we stayed because of the quiet, the large interior space and a glimpse into a simpler way of living, at one with our surroundings. I also recall the hilarity of being one of five naked women in the sauna when a pan was accidentally dropped into the hot water tank, closely followed by a second one (she was trying to get the first one out). Maarika was furious. I nakedly watched one awkwardly laughing naked woman being scolded by another cross naked woman. Great entertainment.

All these experiences led me to the conclusion that tourism and interpretation can be sustainable, both in terms of being eco-conscious, but also that it will last and can be easily maintained. There was a complete lack of touch screens and audio visuals in most places, but I didn't feel the lack. If anything, it was a refreshing break. More posts will appear in this suite about Estonia - I thought it'd be good to share them as a record for myself of a work related foray, but also just for fun.

*Discgolf, or what we would probably call FRISBEE GOLF! Why is this not a thing in the UK? We asked one local about it and she said "where have you been? Here, Finland, everyone is crazy about it." It's exactly like golf, but instead of a caddy of clubs you have a series of frisbees. Sign me up!

 

5. DOING THINGS BY HALVES

Shades make me feel cooler than I really am

Shades make me feel cooler than I really am

Occasionally we all get the feeling we’ve taken on more than we can handle. So it was when I started half marathon training back in late 2016. “Anyone can do a half marathon” they said, “it’s totally achievable” I read. The additional fact that my mother goaded me by saying if I did a half marathon, she would run it too spurred me on. It was too good an opportunity to miss – my mum in shorts, that is. Once I told my friend, Anna, we were three.

The official thirteen mile run is fast approaching in late May and

I’ve got a long way to go, but I have to remind myself I have also come a long way. Profound, right?

In October 2016 I thought I wouldn’t like running. I hate running. If I ever have to sprint for a train or rush off to a meeting, I feel like part of my body died. I like retired people things like swimming, walking (sometimes quickly) or 8 year-old kid things like trampolines and bouncy castles (for less than ten minutes), a gentle game of rounders in the summer, that sort of thing. Running seemed snooty to me, sort of smug. Running always felt like it was better than me, better than I can do. Well, I have news, and it’s mostly good.

I like running. Not fast and not always, but in general, I actually kind of like it. I work sitting down in my studio 85% of the daytime so leaving the house is not a daily given unless I’m shopping, delivering, meeting, visiting. Running gives me an out. I make excuses not to go and the first five minutes are the worst. That’s when I think

“I could just turn back and watch Netflix. No one would ever know”.

But I know. And the guilt of being more sedentary than a limpet is worse than the five minutes of leg-and-lungburn at the start of a run. That’s the bit I still have to push past. However, in the late autumn when there were some real golden afternoons, I would run along the Kelvin river and hit almost euphoric pockets of vim and sunlight unexpectedly.

I started by doing walking and running in sequence, taking breaks and then powering forward, but I’ve realised over the weeks that playing the long game is where I like to be. If I stop, there be dragons. That’s when I play mind games with myself, “I’ll start running at that tree… nah, a bit further at the bollard… well, I may as well just wait until I get to the road…”

It’s a slippery slope away from pushing myself. Now I’m more inclined to go the other way and see I’ve hit 6.8km and push through to round up to 7km before I stop. The down sides are the Glaswegian rain, the silly synthetic gear*, where you’re supposed to put water or keys if you don’t fancy the bumbag option (the nineteen eighties called…), the lack of public toilets and all that. I had a disastrous run over Christmas when I had food poisoning that only manifested at the furthest point of a run and I had to walk, crippled, white and sweating to a point where my sister could pick me up and drive my clammy body home to perform emergency ablutions. Now I scan the canal edge for good foliage as I run out of fear it might happen again.

A massive benefit (sort of) was having a painful knee and hip in the new year and discovering that was because of how I sit at my desk. Cross legged at a dining chair. Yes, I know. Now I have a footrest (it’s heated!) and a proper desk chair and everything. I’m so business and

now I am one of those vaguely smug looking jogging types.

Turns out I am good enough to run. Oh wait. Anyone is.

If you would like to sponsor us, we’re running for FCIC who help children suffering from facial deformity in Cambodia. 

*Which I have just discovered turns into microplastics, goes into the sea, fish eat it -which is horrible - and then we eat our own microplastic bits when we eat fish. Gack.

4. UNFINISHED BUSINESS

A small inked section of A Midsummer Night's Draft, Act II, Scene I. Puck first appears and we are introduced to the King and Queen of the fairies who are having some time apart.

A small inked section of A Midsummer Night's Draft, Act II, Scene I. Puck first appears and we are introduced to the King and Queen of the fairies who are having some time apart.

I’ve started 2017 trying to overhaul Illustration, etc. That involved looking for help, mostly! Amy helps me for a few hours a week, I’m trying to take more time away from my desk, but still organising, sorting and cataloguing my past projects and work. I also decided it was time I went to the Cultural Enterprise Office last month for a one to one session to talk about Illustration, etc.’s future. I see these sessions as a kind of semi-emergency business therapy.

If I’m stuck and I don’t know what my next step is, I go for a chat

and I always feel so much better afterwards. I’m sometimes lacking another perspective and I can’t be very objective about the little business I’ve built for myself.

The upshot of this latest meeting* was that I should find more time to be creative, to pursue my own goals as well as those of my clients. HOORAY! Sounds like a great plan. Finding that time is part of the big overall plan, but for starters they encouraged me to consider taking on only projects that further my ‘story’.

So the things that interest me, that make me excited to be an illustrator, that I really believe in –heritage, equality, stories, community, education, all that sort of thing.

I joked about my recent organising and the folder marked ‘UNFINISHED’. It sits chronologically last in all my shelves of folders, encouraging me to add to it, or perhaps to finally migrate something from the folder to my desk and into a completed projects folder. The biggest of these ‘on-hold’ projects is pictured above. I call it A Midsummer Night’s Draft.

It’s so big. It sometimes feels pointless, but one of my goals (deep breath) is to illustrate the Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one single long panel using only Shakespeare’s words, like a lengthy tapestry. Back in Summer 2013 when I began this project (so long ago!) I edited the play down to (what I felt) was the minimum amount of text to tell the story properly. The play is set in ancient Greece, so my illustrations will reflect the vernacular art of that period. In this case I chose blackware pottery, you know, the elegant black and terracotta colour urns with all the people running around them, jaunty patterns, beasts, folk drinking and all that? The speech would go in the top and bottom borders, like a comic. I thought it would be fun. Turns out it is MASSIVE. Also, I don’t actually have a reason for doing it except that,

1.     I think it would be so beautiful if I get it right.

2.     It would be amazing to see the whole play all at one time so you could see all the themes and character arcs and mischief play out all at once.

3.     I actually think as an educational tool, it’d be a great introduction to the (let’s face it, pretty confusing) play.

4.     Folk who assume Shakespeare is too intellectual, too out of date, too boring would be able to see how much fun this magical play is right from the get go and would be able to see it and read it and understand it and it would still all be Shakespeare’s own words.

But it has been shelved. I don’t know how I would make it worthwhile, you see. Once I’ve finished it, then what? It’ll take several weeks to do at least, maybe months of not being paid. I just can’t do it. Who would fund something like this? The only remotely finished, inked section is the one I did for this blog post! I have only done the pencil sketches up to the end of Act II, Scene II and that took me at least an hour a day for three weeks in 2013. In pencil! Also, I’d do it a bit differently now so I guess it’s a page one rewrite.

I hope that other creatives have these folders - whether in their head or on a shelf or tucked away somewhere secret

– they feel to me like the dreams we return to when the rest of our working lives can feel somewhat staid or cynical. The thought of returning to this unfinished draft fills me with trepidation, but also I can still see its latent potential. It will give me pleasure to revisit it and build it up, inch by inch. I might even tweet some images at the Globe or the RSC or something - they might like the idea too. Looking through the folder of half baked ideas and forgotten sketches, I look forward to the possibility of placing some in the bin where they belong, others back on the shelf for another time and the occasional one onto my desk for much needed reconstructive surgery.

*Overall I have had three CEO meetings, two in 2014 that were connected to the Glasgow Alphabet Map project (it lacked direction initially) and then this latest one once I remembered it was an option. 

3. IMAGINARY FRIENDS

The Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2017 lineup

The Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2017 lineup

Four years ago I didn’t know what improv comedy was. I understood the terms improvised and comedy but I didn’t know what it looked like or why a person would do it. Fast forward to mid 2016 and I am an active member of ‘Imaginary Friends’, an improv group founded by then boyf, now husband, Joe. When it began, he recruited friends from his uni days, many of whom had performed in student theatre. They started practicing these games and putting on occasional shows at a local pub. I helped in my own way by collecting the £3 fee (from our very dedicated friends) to get into the shows. Over time, folk moved away or didn’t have the time to devote to prancing about in a room

pretending to be Catman at a volcano’s edge, a lion with self esteem issues or a plum.

The improv died. Last year it was resurrected with some new blood. In my wildest dreams I had entertained the notion of joining in, but was deterred by my own lion issues, but also not wanting to attach myself to every aspect of my husband’s extra curricular life. It took a lot of encouragement to finally take the plunge. Mind you, eventually it was pretty difficult not to be involved since the sessions were often happening in our living room.

For the first practice I chose my clothes so carefully, did proper makeup, I was becoming increasingly nervous all day. These people - the Imaginary Friends - were already my actual friends but I still had to concentrate on looking like

I was playing it reeeeaaal cool

by the time they arrived to play improv games. I was terrified. Unnaturally and disproportionately terrified. Now a practice is something I look forward to and never prepare for, I don’t worry about how I look or what happens in the practice, I just enjoy hanging with my pals.

With improv performances I have to allow myself to fail, to relinquish control. I don’t like that. I hate failing and looking stupid (doesn’t everyone?), I need to be a team player and go along with the ideas presented, whether I like them or not. I suppose I don’t often have to deal with that. Usually I am working on my own, at my own pace, to my own rules and caprices. Sure, clients can surprise me or a job takes a lot longer than it should, but it gets done inside a framework I have some measure of control over.

I find improv tough. Every single time we perform I get myself into a bit of a fankle and say things to myself like

“I’m just not feeling it”

or “I’m not ready”. It’s never easy, despite our brave exteriors. We performed this month as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival and it was our most popular show. I actually lay down for five minutes before I left the house, just to try and quell the nerves, but after that first laugh I got from the audience (yes, it’s cliché) I started to enjoy myself. The audience is on our side. They’re our pals! There’s something about performing that allows for bigger risk taking and heightened creativity. That night I was Guy Fawkes on a dating show, I was an ancient Egyptian God buying sandals and an alien who had to come out to their friend after 32 years.

The fear of being out of control is the most powerful barrier to enjoying improv – but with a lot of other aspects of my life too. However it’s also that lack of control that creates the sassy new characters, wacky situations and amps up the creativity of the whole team. It’s taken me the longest time to realise that’s on me. It’s a job for each one of us. I will probably always be afraid of failure and I’ll almost certainly never stop worrying about being judged, but I realise more and more it doesn’t matter. It’s within my power to recognise it’s just my own perception and that it can change. It’s on me. I can be a hilarious sexy spacehopper or whatever I want. The great thing about improv? If it’s not funny, there’ll be another topic coming along in a minute.

Follow Imaginary Friends on Twitter here or have a look at the Facebook page.
 

2. BURNOUT

blog - mental health march 2017 rosemary cunningham web res.jpg

A major project I was heavily involved in for a large part of 2016 was inspiring and huge in terms of scale for me as an artist as well as personally. Its focus was mental health and building an imagined positive future for its treatment and care. I got to meet incredible people and work with them. I learned such a lot, it was amazing.

However, it was during the course of the ten months of the project that I began to (ironically) notice my own mental health degrading. I’m not blaming the project entirely (it was many factors, being 31, being lonely at work, my perennially predictable creative existential crisis,

“what is the point of me?

and a general feeling of events being out of my control) but certainly the workload was staggering and I really struggled through a lot of late nights and early mornings, sometime drawing upwards of ten hours a day with very few breaks. My wrist felt like it belonged to someone else and I had a genuinely revolting blister peeking out from under the skin of my calloused finger. At one point my (utterly wonderful and understanding) husband, Joe was doing all the cooking and cleaning and evening tea-making as I only stopped to visit the toilet, to feed myself and then have fitful sleep. It sounds ridiculous, but the intensive drawing and emotional state I found myself in made me completely overwhelmed.

Freelancing can be lonely. Many self-employed folk are lucky to have varied jobs, stints in offices, travel, meetings and so on, but often I find myself on my own, in a chair, at a desk with only podcasts for company. (I can recommend some superb ones.) Now couple that feeling of being alone with having heaps of work to do and having no one to ask for help. Tight deadlines, important clients and this isn’t your only work. No one could take the work and help me do it, I couldn’t see a way out. I muddled through but near enough burnt myself out.

Things are better now.

I have my studio manager, Amy coming in to assist me one day a week – this makes such a difference. We chat, have a dance, listen to music, we talk about decisions I have trouble with, she makes suggestions and just takes some of the workload off me. I went for a round of CBT. I have brilliant people around me that understand these things. Now I take time. Even if I’m really busy (which is pretty often) if I feel myself spiraling into an anxiety whirlpool, I treat it like a cough. Stop. Have a cup of tea, take a couple of hours off. Go for a walk or rest. Sometimes I even dabble in deep breathing or meditation. If symptoms worsen, take some more time off. It’s all health, right? Hopefully with this approach I can stave off the worst of it, when I can’t remember how to sleep, have crippling IBS*, panic attacks and when I think no one likes me.

I’m not writing this for sympathy, or to show off how millennial I am, but to prove it’s OK to ask for help from people around you,

it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and it’s OK to talk about it.

To ‘admit’ it**. It should be something we can ‘own’, that we’re aware of and look out for, especially as so many people I know (whether they know it or would admit it) have suffered from some kind of mental health fade at some point.

*I was gluten free for nearly two years and it turns out I don’t have to be. I’m sensitive to wheat, but basically I was stressing my body into not working properly. Yup. Intense.

**I don’t like that word in this context. It implies guilt – should a person be ‘blamed’ for their mental health?

1. WRITE ON

Writing is something I have always done since I could even do it. It’s part of who I am. I often go months without writing anything, but then I return to it inevitably. I have buckets of journals and diaries stretching all the way back into the early nineties when I used words like brill, doofus and ace and my biggest concern was my sister hitting me. I’ve more than dabbled in poetry in the past too. Haven’t we all?

My first (and until now last) blog was all about my early twenties and my travels in China, living there and experiencing everything I thought I knew anew. Now in my early thirties, it feels like time to blog again, but this time about living where and how I am now and experiencing everything I thought I knew anew, anew... What?

It’s not all going to be about work, but it also won’t be a personal diary (sorry to cheat you of gossip). I don’t really know what it’s going to be, but I’ve felt compelled to write about a few things already, so see this as the BIG INTRO, the first of many pieces to come! I’m going to use it as an opportunity to do a wee sketch or experiment. Like this gif of some pencils. I actually don’t get to play with images much anymore, but I’m trying to make it part of my job again.