Rhona Duffy talks to three professional artists who decided to change career midlife. She asks them to share the stories behind their decisions and what they’ve learned along their journeys.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY RHONA DUFFY
Listen to Rhona narrate her article:
Isle of Skye artist Morag Archer, who creates beautiful mixed media collages and mosaic art from her garden studio, was one of the many people whose career path was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
While Morag originally studied an art degree in textiles and tapestry weaving, she moved away from art when she had her children. To fit in with her family’s schedule, she decided to retrain in early years’ education, and she worked in nurseries, primary schools and after school clubs for many years.
“I still carved out time at the weekend to experiment with art, some of which I gifted to friends,” Morag says. “Then, about ten years ago, a local gallery held a charity exhibition. I entered a mixed media collage and it got a lot of attention. The gallery owner asked me if I had any more. I told her that I had a cupboard full of them! They sold really well. So, from that small seed, things started to grow.”
Morag then took a number of small steps, to increase the time she was able to spend on art. First, she cut down her hours in her day job and then she got the opportunity to change jobs after being offered a part-time position in the gallery that sold her art.
“That still gave me a regular income,” Morag continues. “So it wasn’t the scary thing of throwing myself into full-time self-employment immediately. I had to learn new skills to be able to sell paintings and work in retail. But I absolutely loved it. It was about that time that I started to do mosaics too, after I was given some broken china.”
A selection of Morag’s art and Morag is also pictured.
Word of Morag’s art spread and, soon, three more galleries had approached her to sell her art. Morag settled into a busy, but happy, routine of working part-time at the gallery and creating her own art the rest of the time. Then, when the pandemic struck, the gallery was forced to close. Morag says she spent April “with her head in her hands”.
She was inspired to move forward by the artist’s support pledge, an Instagram movement started by artist Matthew Burrows to provide a platform for artists to sell their work during the pandemic.
“If an artist sold £1,000 worth of art, they would then pledge to buy a piece of art from another artist. I thought I’d give it a go. So I put two pieces up for sale and they sold straight away. The pledge gave me the confidence that I could do this. I went on to sell more pieces that way, used some of my furlough pay to set up a website, worked on my social media presence, and set up an Etsy shop that did really well.”
After being paid furlough for a few months, the gallery owner made the difficult decision to make their jobs redundant. “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have gone full time as an artist. That was the impetus to make the change,” Morag adds.
Since then, Morag hasn’t looked back. Her art is in popular demand and is sold direct through her website, on her Etsy shop and in a number of art galleries across the UK.
Luton-based Dionne Ible’s first job was at the Crown Prosecution Service and she worked as a legal secretary for many years. She’d also been an athlete, but decided not to go down the professional route because of injuries.
“I followed the money and went to work in the City of London. For years, I climbed the career ladder and I bought a house. Then I had a moment. I realised I was bored and craving creativity. I even moved to work in a creative field of law, but I was still unfulfilled.”
Around that time, Dionne decided to do a ten-week course in mosaic. “I wasn’t able to draw very well and, on our first day of making, everyone had their designs drawn. I was wondering what to do and playing with my earrings. I remembered they had a picture of a side profile of a lady’s head on them, so I used them for inspiration. It worked!”
Dionne was hooked. But she didn’t get to do much more mosaic art until about four years later after having her children. She did another refresher course in mosaic and started to sell her art at events and run children’s mosaic art parties. A couple of years later, she began to teach workshops and do school projects. Her greeting cards are also now stocked in a number of local shops.
As woman of African descent, Dionne’s art tells the story of her culture, attire, vibrancy, nature and creativity. She says that mosaic is “like meditation” for her. “It allows me to explore and delve into my innermost thoughts, grab what’s there and express it with tiles and colour. Whilst I create, I either listen to music or motivational and empowering messages.”
A selection of Dionne’s art and Dionne is also pictured.
One of Dionne’s biggest challenges is self-doubt. “While I come across as confident on social media, my biggest challenge is believing in myself,” she continues. “Even though the evidence is clear, I still have doubts. But I have a strong support network who cheer me on. Charging the right price is a challenge too. So I visit lots of galleries to see what kind of art is out there and what they’re charging.”
What’s next for Dionne? “I’m now building back up my collection of mosaic art and working towards exhibiting in 2022. I’d also like to work on some bigger pieces.”
North-London based Sharon Taylor had been working in the package and design industry for about 20 years before finding mosaic. “I started as an artworker and became a graphic designer. I used to make mock-ups by hand, which became a dying skill because of the onset of technology. My roles were made redundant twice. The second time that happened, in 2007, I decided to retrain. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career working on computers.”
So why tiling? “That’s something I often wonder myself as I can’t quite remember why I chose it! I was in my 40s and had a mortgage to pay, so I had to pick an area where I could retrain fairly quickly. I wanted to work with my hands, but I didn’t want to do electrical work or plumbing.”
There was a tiling training centre located near Sharon, where she did a full-time, four-week training course. “Being practically minded, and because I enjoy working with my hands, I immediately liked it,” she continues.
A selection of Sharon’s work. Sharon is pictured in three of the images and is pictured with Maud Milton (to the right of Sharon) helping her install a mosaic.
Sharon says it took her a few years to get established. “Someone who did the tiling course asked me to help him with a project for my first job, but I didn’t get paid for it. So after that, I decided to do my own thing. I started off quite small, doing mainly domestic jobs for a couple of years, which I got through advertising in directories and on trade websites.”
Then Sharon returned to the tiling centre to complete more specialist courses – first a Victorian tiling course and, the following year, a Bisazza mosaic tiling course.
“And that was what led me to mosaic. It was a three-day course, which focused on how to cut mosaic around corners for steam rooms. I seemed to have a knack for it. Having patience and an eye for detail helped. I really enjoyed it. So I decided to do an advanced course at Bisazza’s centre in Italy the following year, which was a brilliant experience. That got me hooked on installing mosaics.”
Sharon dropped off her business cards at tile shops that sold Bisazza mosaics and, with a shortage of Bisazza-trained mosaic installers in the UK, her skills were in high demand. She began to focus on steam rooms and, while not all of them use Bisazza mosaics, she was able to transfer the skills she learned to any type of mosaic tile.
“A lot of the steam rooms I do are commercial and most of my work takes me outside London,” continues Sharon. “The average steam room takes about two or three weeks, depending on the complexity. No two steam rooms are the same.”
Working in what’s typically a male-dominated trade, Sharon says it hasn’t ever posed a problem for her. “When I did the domestic jobs, sometimes people were surprised to see a woman at first. But they were always positive about it. When I work on building sites, I’m usually the only woman, but I’ve never had any issues.”
Sharon also helps mosaic artists, like London-based Maud Milton, install their artwork. And she’s recently branched out into other projects, like the pizza oven pictured. So what are her plans for the future? “I’ll be doing some more mosaic projects in 2022. I did some teaching in the past at the tiling centre where I first learned, and I’d like to do more teaching in the future,” Sharon adds. “I’d also like to do more creative mosaic projects, like the pizza oven.”