Explore & Create Stories #20: Jem Olsen
When Jem and I met late last year, we were introduced by a mutual friend Sharon McDonough (E&C Stories #8 feature). She had told us both we would get along as we have so much in common. Well she was right! We have hit it off. Jem is one of those people you meet and just connect with immediately. She’s veracious, passionate, considerate, an awesome listener, and she’s a reflective gentle soul. Plus, she asks super great questions and has a killer smile! Jem is so humble it took some convincing for her to be our next Explore and Create Stories participant. I’m so delighted she can share with you her story. What I love about Jem’s story is how she has followed her heart and has become a textile artist (hello taking a leap). She’s now making exquisite pieces for an upcoming exhibition (check out her Instagram profile for work in progress photos) that is very much underpinned by her life experiences and values. I do hope you enjoy reading this interview and are just as inspired as I am.
Tell us about what you do.
I’m a textile artist from Ballarat, Victoria. After completing studies in textile design at the end of last year, I have been exploring which mediums in particular resonate with me the most. And from the books, Instagram posts and workshops I’ve found myself drawn to, I’d have to say my interest and focus is predominantly in print and surface design, especially collage, with a focus on using reclaimed materials.
What are you passionate about?
Colour! Texture! Fabric! Having worked in a number of positions within the education and not-for-profit sectors both here in Australia and Cambodia, I’m really keen to use my textile art as a vehicle to help raise awareness of social, political and environmental issues that I think are super important. It’s a way for me to channel the anxiety, anger and sadness I feel at times, into something with purpose.
What are you working at the moment or what’s inspiring you at the moment?
I’m a member of a Melbourne-based textiles group, Tenfold Textile Collective. We’re a group of ten gals who all studied textile design part-time at RMIT University together, and have a shared love of textiles, learning from and supporting each other’s practices, as well as exhibiting our work to help raise the profile of contemporary textile art. We have another exhibition lined up in Ballarat in April 2018, so currently I’m pondering a few ideas and techniques I might use in developing a piece to contribute for this exhibition. I love this part of the creative process; the incubation of ideas, and those moments when even further ideas come to the surface, helping provide more integrity and sense of “the whole” to a piece. In some respects, I actually enjoy this part of the process more than the actual making itself!
I’m finding of late that my best ideas come whilst on the train. I work part-time in Melbourne and so travel by train a lot. So for what others might consider “dead time”, I actually find my most productive – for I’ll either be working on or thinking about a piece of work, reading an awesome book or article or listening to a really inspiring podcast.
What led you to your latest project or focus?
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for a moment I had in late October 2012. I had just returned from an overseas trip to the UK to attend a dear friend’s wedding. In the lead up to leaving for this trip, I was working crazy hours in a highly stressful job. Whilst in London I was really inspired by the amazing upcycled fashions and art galleries I visited. There was actually a moment where I’d seriously contemplated staying on in London and quitting my job by email! When I arrived home, I was nursing a bad case of tonsillitis and on my first day back at work I remember staring out the window in tears.
For in returning back to work, I was returning back to the crazy workload. And I realised that I’d allowed my job to become all encompassing. I’d become very disconnected from myself; very different from how I felt when I was surrounded by beautiful fabrics, fashion and art, as I was in London. I was yearning for more creative time; more time to do the things I enjoy. I was also beginning to realise that if I didn’t get the opportunity to have children myself, it was going to be important for me to have something to nurture and that something also nurture me in return. And so the following day I submitted an application for the textile design course at RMIT and handed in my resignation letter to work. As soon as I did both of those things, I’d felt a huge sense of relief. That’s how I knew I was steering myself back onto a more authentic track.
How do you approach creativity in your life?
I am extremely lucky in that I work part-time at RMIT University’s School of Fashion & Textiles in Brunswick. And while my actual job involves extrapolating information from a range of systems and spreadsheets, I am constantly inspired by the work of and the conversations I have with fellow staff and students. The work produced on campus, as well as within the greater Brunswick area, is *AMAZING* and a constant source of inspiration.
Given the juggle act of work, travel time and life in Ballarat, I find it really important to schedule dedicated time for my arts practice. As I work three days a week, I organise it so that Wednesdays (and where possible Saturdays) are my textiles days; and typically I will spend the morning in actual practice mode, and then the afternoons heading along to the local art gallery or for a big walk around the lake, before coming home for another few hours of practice or reflection on the work thus far. I have found that by treating my arts practice with the same discipline and structure as my paid work helpful in ensuring that I get regular, devoted “art time”. I also try and attend any exhibitions, lectures and workshops that appeal to encourage my development as an artist as well as meet fellow creatives.
We talk a lot about “being in the moment” or “being” when creating. What does this mean for you? When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell us about this.
It’s that heightened state of flow, focus and timelessness you find yourself in, and because of that state, things just seeming to come together. I’ve struggled with anxiety since childhood and I attribute my better management of this over the last few years as being due to engaging in regular arts practice, which encourages my mind to slow down and be more “in the moment”. I also find having a routine definitely helps with preparing for the experience of flow. For instance, during my train ride to Melbourne in the morning, my routine is to spend the first 20 mins (from Ballarat to Ballan) eating breakfast and enjoying a morning coffee whilst observing all that is happening outside the train window. I try and look for something I hadn’t noticed before and really observe it in terms of all elements both objective: colour, size, shape, as well as subjective: feelings and memories it invokes within me. Between Ballan and Melton, I will typically listen to a podcast and perhaps work on a current textiles project, all the while with notebook in hand, at the ready for any further ideas that arise. In developing set routines both for travel time and at home, I find my mind can become more settled and prepared for flow mode. And I know I’ve entered that state when I look up and find myself at Southern Cross train station thinking “Wow that was quick!”
What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?
Great question. Whenever I’m about to start a piece of work, I do a brain dump or a mind map of any words, ideas, memories that come to mind about the topic or subject of the work to be completed, preferably on a large piece of butcher’s paper. From this, I then highlight three of these as possible focus areas. You might ask, why three… well apart from it being a favourite number, I find that it helps to narrow the focus and bring to the forefront of my mind what really resonates the most about a given subject. It’s this mindful approach at the beginning of a project which helps me to zone in on the key elements, understandings, materials and techniques that will bring true authenticity to the final work. I then find (unless I need to factor in sampling time for any materials or techniques I’m using for the first time), the final work then comes together pretty quickly.
What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours?
Self-doubt; in how others will respond to my work when it’s finished and out there on display. When I first exhibited with Tenfold last year, I was so nervous in the lead up to our opening night. Whilst the show came together like magic, I did feel uncomfortable with the level of exposure. But from talking with my fellow Tenfolders and other artists, this is a typical feeling to have, especially when you’re an emerging artist. I can imagine with time as my work develops further, I’ll grow more confident. Well, that’s the hope at least.
How do you find your zen?
Another non-negotiable for me during the week is yoga class on Friday mornings. I have the best yoga teacher in Ballarat. I think there’s something in the routines of the approach she uses which again encourages a better flow of energy within the mind and body. I come away from yoga class each week feeling rejuvenated and more at peace.
Who have been the biggest 3-5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?
I would have to say my Mum has been super influential in nurturing my creativity from early childhood. Mum was a keen crochet blanket maker and sewer when I was much younger, and then focused her energies later on with her poetry. To date she’s released about eight poetry collections which include images of her own collage work using photos, drawings, pressed flowers and other found objects. I find it interesting that I’m now finding myself drawn to textile collage work; I have no doubt the memories of watching her producing her own collage techniques have somehow carried on in me.
I am lucky to have some amazingly talented and nurturing friends here in Ballarat, whom I met while working at the University of Ballarat (now Federation University). One of those friends is Sharon (Shaz) McDonough, who also featured on this site earlier this year. Whilst she has a busy life juggling life as an academic, maintaining an olive farm with her hubby and spending time crocheting and knitting, in May this year we collaborated on an entry for the annual Ballarat Apron Festival. We’re both really keen on using our craft as a means to raise awareness of social and political issues, so we’re really proud to hear that the committee are planning to introduce another category of award in 2018 which recognizes work with this focus. Another friend is the uber-talented Bronwyn Blaiklock. Bronwyn is not only a maestro piano and accordion player, but she’s an amazing poet and writer. She’s also been knocking together some amazing costumes for her young daughter of late too! A key feature of my friendship with Shaz and Bron is this real interest in and encouragement we have in each other’s work. We’re also more introverted in nature, despite having such a strong drive to accomplish our creative pursuits.
I do feel so very lucky to have the support of my fellow Tenfold Textile Collective crew members too. Whilst our work is varied (our mediums range across weaving, sculpture, print, quilting and knit), the ideas we have for exhibiting our work seem to come together very naturally. We’re very encouraging of each other’s work, and I trust their judgement in identifying elements in my approach that need further development or could be strengthened by using a different technique or materials.
When I was younger I was super close to my cousin Sunni Dawson. During high school she moved up to Queensland and we fell out of touch. But over the last five years or so, we’ve grown closer again. She has this wonderfully positive approach to life and has spent the last three years travelling, writing and helping establish a social enterprise in Cambodia. She’s a great listener and provides really constructive feedback; and I guess because she’s known me and my family since forever, she’s like a third sister to me.
How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome)
I’d have to say it’s up there as an 8. I feel so fortunate to have another exhibition coming up in April next year with a very talented group of women. Over the Christmas break, I’ve set myself the task of engaging in six hours of arts practice a day for six days. There’s two ideas I have for this exhibition and so I’m keen to spend equal time working on each of them, before deciding which of the two to pursue further for final exhibition.
In November this year I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Lou Saxton, who creates very intricate collage pieces, mostly from old doilies and linens. I’d seen her work several years ago in an edition of Peppermint magazine, and to have the experience of learning her method and meeting her in person, will forever be a highlight in my development as a textile artist. Following our exhibition in April, I’ll be keen to return to these techniques and practice them further.
Who are you clicking on at the moment? Why? Insights?
For a long time I hesitated with the whole social media thing, but when I heard about Instagram, it really resonated and so it’s become the one social media platform I use. I love it, not just for keeping abreast of what my fellow Tenfolders and other mates are up to, but that opportunity to connect directly with other artists and writers I admire, I find really exciting. Among the people I follow, I love the posts compiled by @zerowastebunny @chambersjo @fash_rev and @inthefolds There’s such an honesty in their posts that I find uplifting and inspirational.
Who are you listening to at the moment? Why? Insights?
Given the time I spend on the train, I’ve become a huge fan of the podcast. At the top of the list would have to be:
The Slow Home Podcast with Brooke McAlary, full of practical advice and fabulous interviews about living living with less (things) and cultivating more time (for other people, experiences and creative pursuits).
Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. There’s been two series of this amazing podcast which re-examines an event, person or idea from the past, and seeks to uncover whether its original interpretation is in need of revision. The first episode of the first series, which features an interview with former PM Julia Gillard, brings me to tears every time I hear it.
Wardrobe Crisis with Clare Press. I first heard Clare present a lecture at RMIT as part of a Slow Fashion exhibition opening earlier in the year. Her interviews seek to address issues of ethics, sustainability, consumerism, activism, identity and creativity within the fashion industry. She’s a great speaker and very active on social media too.
Who are you talking to at the moment? Why? Insights?
As I mentioned previously, I am so very lucky to work part-time where I do. I get to talk with so many aspiring fashion and textile design as well as fashion entrepreneurship students, and their work is incredible. Combine this with the amazing skill and expertise of the teaching staff, and I feel so fortunate to not only have been a student at RMIT University’s Brunswick campus, but that it continues to feed by passion and development as a textile artist, now as a member of staff. I think it’s a really exciting time to be working in fashion and textiles given the development of technologies and initiatives, such as zero-waste fashion design and Fashion Revolution Week, in order to help address issues of greater sustainability within the fashion industry.
Who are you reading at the moment? Why? Insights?
The books currently on my bedside table are:
Clare Press - “Wardrobe crisis: How we went from Sunday best to fast fashion”
Sarah Corbett – “How to be a craftivist: The art of gentle protest”
Summer 2017/18 edition of “Peppermint” magazine, featuring articles with three of my faves: Brooke McAlary, Sarah Wilson and Emily Hundt (of In The Folds fame)
I’ve also just ordered myself the following Christmas gifts too:
Cait Flanders – “The year of less”
Brooke McAlary – “Slow” & “Destination simple: Everyday rituals for a slower life”
Chantal Plamondon & Jay Sinha - “Life without plastic”
What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark or what advice would you give to someone who thinks they aren’t creative?
There was something I read in Sarah Wilson’s book “First We Make the Beast Beautiful” earlier in the year that struck a chord with helping overcome some of my anxiety, but I can totally see the same strategy working for anyone struggling to find their creative spark. She suggests mixing up your set-routines (and this coming from someone who throughout this interview keeps referring to the virtues of routine!) but I can so see the value of it. For example, her advice is to do something back-to-front, such as eating dinner foods for breakfast, grocery shopping at midnight, sleeping at the other end of the bed, or going to an early morning movie session. The idea behind this being that the novelty of trying things in different ways helps to open the mind up to new experiences and sensations.
I believe that everyone is creative. What it comes down to is your mindset and how creativity has been nurtured within you since childhood. My partner is a joiner and the craftsmanship of his work is absolutely beautiful. But indicate to him your admiration of the aesthetics of anything he’s made, and he’ll retort: “It’s just one stick after another”. However, having observed him whilst in his own work (flow) mode, I can see the deep concentration and consideration taken with the cutting, placement, sanding and finishing of each aspect within any project he takes on.
Like anyone who thinks they’re not creative, and wants to cultivate this more in their life, I’d suggest signing up for a short course or workshop whether it be drawing classes at your local art gallery, a short-story writing course, joining a knitting group at the local pub or enrolling in a cooking masterclass with an admired chef. Anything that sparks an interest… and if you come away not feeling more fulfilled and wanting to learn more, then try something else.
What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow?
Further to the previous, I really like the quote “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” Whilst I struggled with this at the start of my textile design studies, I’ve come to really value the “failures” of any work I’ve produced. I now see these as opportunities to learn from, in terms of the refining of techniques, colour palettes or materials used. I remember one of my teachers telling us to make sure we keep all our work, both good and bad. With time, I have come to really appreciate this advice.
Another good quote I recently came across which really resonated and which I’ve brought up in conversation with a few friends of late, is from Brooke McAlary, producer of the Slow Home Podcast:
“By saying yes to something, you’re saying no to something else”.
I tend to think the next line Brooke might say would be:
“So be careful what you say both yes and no to”.
I totally agree.
AND PS: Jem has an upcoming exhibition to watch out for in April called "Second Skin" will be on show Thursdays-Sundays 12-4pm from Thursday 12 – Sunday 29 April, 2018 at Backspace Gallery (behind the main Ballarat Art Gallery), Huygue House, Camp Street, Ballarat.