Explore and Create Stories #17: Ellie Downing

The latest Explore & Create Stories interviewee is one quirky ideas driven energizer bunny. I knew that the moment we connected. And I love her for it. We have been bouncing off one another for a number of years now with ideas, and I truly treasure this. Say hello to Ellie Downing! As you will read in this interview, she is one busy creative lady who has loads of spark, spunk and charisma. She's an active social media user (we met originally on Twitter before finally meeting face to face) and she is involved in many passion projects that have such wonderful meaning and impact within the science world. Ellie is also into plants and she's a Grand Design lover (hello, me too!) and as you will read, she has some pretty ace projects centred around these areas. I think you will agree that her belief that 'everyone is creative, it’s just that not everyone has learnt how to express it or been given space to explore it' is evident throughout her life and interactions with other.

I hope you enjoy this interview, and make sure you jump over to Twitter to check out her energy, ideas, and various projects that will inspire!



Tell us about what you do.

Lots! I help out on a variety of projects, both at work and in my personal time. I work at the Australian Museum as manager of Science Engagement and events and I have currently been keep extremely busy with a lot of planning, strategy writing, and reflecting on processes and methods for our major event that runs 8 to 18 August, the Science Festival.  After the event I’ll be focused on writing up an evaluation report, as well as talking to a lot of organisations about getting involved in 2018. The Science Festival is a huge beast of an event that sees 6-7,000 students. We work with over 50 organisations to put on roughly 400 shows, workshops and activities, including a huge interactive Expo for students to explore applied science, technology, engineering, art and amt.

In my other time I have a few projects going on. I am part of a performance art collective which involves working at a variety of community and art events every few weeks or so. It’s very fun and active. We are regularly dressing up as native Australian birds and oscillate between talking about biodiversity and environmental remediation, to go-go dancing or leading kids movement activities.

I'm secretary on the management committee for the Australian Citizen Science Association. I’m involved in helping set up the membership structure, running a survey of the community to find out what they’d like and implementing our communication plan among other things.

In my other time I’m trying to get my head back in the academic world and write a few articles based on my thesis and a community consultation project I was involved with back in 2014. Otherwise I spend lots of time with my plants and in my garden, and playing lots of board games.


What are you passionate about?

A lot of things! I get really excited by other people being excited and passionate about something. Friends have described my hobby as collecting enthusiasts.

I have a huge passion for equity of access to information, and helping people realise their potential to access, process and apply the plethora of information out there. There is nothing more powerful than a confident learner, and someone who isn’t afraid to give something a go. Being able to help someone realise their own capabilities and watching their confidence grow is one of the most amazing things, and something I never tire of.

I also love plants. Plants, plants, plants. They’re so great!  Kevin McCloud (grand designs) is also a passion of mine.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been working on a Kevin McCloud zine for the past few months and it has been an absolute pleasure. Lots of terrible Kevin McCloud drawings, remembering moments from Grand Designs, perfecting and balancing 5 Grand Designs Bingo Board and reflecting on why I (and my friend Helen) love it so much. We think it is because he is a charm sniper: he can say the most awful, cutting things in the most charismatic way. People end up thanking him and agreeing with his scathing critique of their houses! It’s so great.

The evaluation strategy I’m writing at the moment for work is also inspiring me a bit. I’m broadening the scope so we can talk about attitudes towards science in a wider sense and tie it in with museum education theory more. This is really great because it means that I’m getting to look at the the stuff in museology that is really my jam: identity formation and supporting positive confidence growth.

I’m also always working on increasing my plant collection and adding more edible or native plants to my garden. And learning how to tie knots so I can make macrame plant hangers (knot tying does not come easily to me!).


What led you to your latest project or focus?

I used to work in libraries and loved the focus on increasing confidence around literacy and access to information. The theory I was reading about this often stopped there though because literacy was the name of the game. Museology, for me, picks up this same thread, but extends it to focus on how to build positive experiences and interactions to create a sense of self and community. I find it combines a lot of my loves and allows me to explore an array of interests.


How do you approach creativity in your life?

Not very consciously! I think my sisters and I were lucky enough to be raised to be creative in everything we do. I find that it is imbued in what I do and I don't actively seek it out.


We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?

Always a museologist, I always think about Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow because it is just the best thing. Reading Csikszentmihalyi describe the process of self-motivated, intrinsic learning was a seminal moment for me. It made me realise I wanted to work in education and try to help others experience something I’d always taken for granted. The theory of flow is about facilitating an experienced where you are challenged, but know you are in a safe space; getting feedback so you know how you can improve; and experiencing pure self-motivated (‘flow’) as a results that has the reward of positive identity formation. Creativity for me can be described the same way. I want to be challenged but feel safe, I want feedback on how I can learn even more and get better, and I want to have a great time.


What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? Howdo you do this?

I don’t know if I am very good at balancing!

I work through problems best or get new ideas when I'm not actually concentrating on them. Someone may be talking about another topic and I'll meanwhile have been mentally drifting off and find this great thread. I don't pull it, but rather let it flow and gently explore what's around it. I think I like it because it's low pressure on myself to have a fully formed concept, and also we weren't focusing on it in the first place. Does that make sense?


What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours? 

Often fear and anxiety. I know I’m a creative person and have a variety of ‘proof’ endorsing this, there is still a fear that I will do ~it~ wrong. This used to be because I was terrible at realistic drawings and painting. As I’ve realised that perfect doesn’t exist, and that realistic doesn’t always equate to good or interesting, this fear has calmed down a lot.

Un-learning the hierarchy of creativity has also really helped (i.e. oil, piano, violin etc a the top; playdough, post-it doodles and the artful arrangement of your socks at the bottom). I think people want to engage with other people: creative endeavors are a way to reveal and communicate parts of ourselves in a more abstract way to enable that connection, and share a common experience.


How do you find your zen?

Gardening. Or pottering around home in general. But mostly gardening I think. Being able to see the physical transformation and spending time surrounded by plants is the best. I also like all the greens, textures, and ways it can modify light.

Cooking is another one where I mentally check out. It is really meditative for me. And often delicious.


When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell us about this.

Flow for me is learning and reading, but applying it and producing something is a separate task that I need considered focus for as it often requires me to be paying a lot of attention to details. I explore thoughts and theory quite loosely, and often quite unstructured. Lots of bullet points, lists, and half finished sentences. Flow is the precursor to productivity.


Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?

Family. I was raised in a family that really supported and encouraged creative practice.

I think my high school art teacher as well. She really encouraged me to explore techniques and hated when I tried to realism. She really pushed me to be comfortable with practices and processes that came naturally, rather than try to change myself to practice the way I thought I had to.

The internet and emergence of subcultures also really helped; I was lucky enough to be able to find stuff and communities online that I had common interests with, so was it OK that I wasn’t into the same things as my school peers. I didn’t feel alone or alienated.


How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)

Probably seven at the moment?!!?! I have a lot going on so am time poor and not able to do as much as I’d like to, but everything is so great so I don’t want to drop anything!


Tell us, who are you clicking on at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Everything! Anything! From critical essays to those terrible lists and click bait. I can never have too much information, and I love seeing different styles, foci, narrative paths and voices. I learn a lot and often pick up new methods I can incorporate into my own practice.


Tell us, who are you listening to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Switching between everything. Lots of  funky disco (think Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Sister Sledge); to 60’s pop like the Ronnettes, Dusty Springfield and The Shangri-Las; to artists like Courtney Barnet, Angel Olsen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra; to nondescript low-fi electro, to Talking Heads, the Cure and the Smiths; to 90’s dance hits by the Real McCoy, Unique II and more. I listen to music when I work and when at home (oddly not really when travelling or walking) and I think variety helps me stay energetic and focused.


Tell us, who are you talking to at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

 Anyone who will talk to me. I resolve a lot of my thought processes through talking, and often will say something in conversation I didn’t realise I had been thinking about! My external voice (mouth) is far more articulate than my internal voice.


Tell us, who are you are reading at the moment?  Why?  Insights?

Academically I am reading up on new museology (The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon), evaluation methods and educational theory to get back into writing and find out what is going on.

Personally I’m just about to finish the Witches of Eastwick by John Updike. I have a huge interest in gothic and the occult, as well as modern short stories and narrative. This seemed like it would combine a few of those interests! I was also curious to read a novel centred on lived female experience, written by a male author.


What advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative?

 I really do think that everyone is creative, it’s just that not everyone has learnt how to express it or been given space to explore it. I am a huge advocate for just doing a thing. You don’t have to tell others about it, or show anyone, or even keep it! But doing it, doing it again, and becoming familiar with your own processes and what you are into is really important. Going to events focused on the creative and finding out what you like, what you don’t like is great! For example, for all my love of museology I’m a terrible museum visitor. I hate reading, I don’t really like going on tours and I don’t give weight to the authenticity of objects. I love being able to explore spaces by myself though, and finding aesthetics that I like and can try to recreate.

Trying to employ a bit of reflective thought as you experience something gives you a better chance of recreating that pleasurable experience in the future.

What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow?

I don't know! I am terrible at quotes :(

It might be a bastardisation of terrible advertising slogans like ‘Just do it’, ‘You'll never, never know if you never, never do the thing’. Also I guess the simple ‘do the thing’.

Stay connected with Ellie via Twitter - @jesiathe