To be prolific is to be highly productive, profusely active, prodigiously energetic, and usually innovative. Praise indeed, especially when the area of expertise for all this productivity is in a creative field. A talent for coming up with new ideas and then finessing them so that they can be taught to willing fellow creatives is one thing but, to do that with boundless creative energy is quite another! Rachel Ellen at the Gifted Crafts Company is one such person.
Don't be fooled! You may think that this level of diversity could dilute the quality of what Rachel has to offer, but on the contrary. What you get from this multi-talented artist is craft at its very best. Her ability to develop ways of making craft as accessible as possible, is, to be frank, awe-inspiring. You may have guessed, we're a teeny bit impressed!
For those not in the know, they could be forgiven for thinking that Shropshire-based Rachel has an army of creative elves at her disposal, helping to bring her creativity to life (I did ask if she had a team of Oompah Loompahs in her workshop). But, Rachel is simply full of great ideas, has the skill, the vision and the tenacity to bring them to fruition, and is more than willing to share them. Take for instance, her Craft Kit Subscriptions where you purchase a 12-month subscription to the craft of your choice and receive, by post, a different project every month throughout the ensuing year. Clever!
Luckily for us, she made time in her intensely busy schedule to tell us all about her work and the creative foundations for her wonderful workshops and craft kits.
Can you tell us a little about yourself: your background, and when and why you started practising your crafts?
I’ve crafted as long as I can remember. I’m surrounded by crafts people in my family. I’m grateful every day that I get to combine my two passions: crafting and teaching. If there’s a new technique, new material or chance to learn from another artist, I’m there and loving every minute. I’ll instantly be planning a new workshop and thinking about how to pass on the exciting process and skills to others. I can’t get enough! I started with drawing, painting, crochet, knit and jewellery at school. I studied Graphics at uni, pushing the boundaries of the course by exploring as many disciplines as possible from letterpress to woven textiles! I taught Art & Design and Design Technology in secondary schools for 15 years which opened up so many more crafts, from pewter casting and enamelling to screen printing and 3D.
Tell us about your workshop space.
We're located in stunning countryside near Shrewsbury in Shropshire and it’s a short commute across our camping field to my studio. I still can’t believe the view on the way across the field (Corndon Hill to the left giving me the weather report for the day - if I can see the hill it’s a good sign! - and the gentle chatter of the sheep in the field to right). I walk in the door and smile, grateful for my own space to create and share craft with others. Tools, materials, collections, and inspiration galore in an organised system (artist meets designer and teacher in one space!).
What can students expect to learn on your courses?
When I go on a course (which I do as often as I can find an excuse!) I hope for these things …
- An approach that’s all about the making, creating, exploring.
- Help, reassurance, knowledge when I need it and space to play when I’m on track.
- As much knowledge as I can absorb so I can carry on as soon as I get home (because I will!).
- The chance to develop my skills in a way that’s right for me and the way I learn.
- An adaptable, personalised approach so my aims can be achieved instead of a one-size-fits-all course.
… so that’s what I aim to provide for every one of my lovely students that ventures into the Shropshire Hills for a workshop with me.
"Absolutely THE best time on this course. Held one to one it is more than a learning experience but the opportunity to craft with advice and in great company. Rachel has a beautiful heart and is a most talented artist in many media. I look forward to further courses with her. " - Manda 8th March 2023.
Who is on your team?
I have the best team of support that enables me to run Gifted Crafts. Family and friends support me in so many ways. From amazing fellow tutors and instructors with whom I can share ideas, to practical help maintaining the studio and doing all the 'adult stuff,' they give me the space to pursue my dream. I am blessed to have so many great people right behind me, supporting, encouraging, allowing me to bounce my ideas off them, and generally being amazing!
Describe a typical month as a maker.
One of the things I love about being a craft tutor is the variety. Every month is different but always includes as many craft courses as I can squeeze in, developing more advanced courses, practising and developing my own skills and making bespoke crafts for orders. I take photos wherever I go; I soak up ideas from the world of amazing artists out there; I make gifts; I craft with my kids; and I stay in contact with past students (finding out about their current projects and supporting them, solving problems if I can). I’m not sure where the line is between my work and my own life because I live by one of my favourite quotes:
"I don’t know if I’m playing or working, that’s my idea of heaven." - Anon
Do you still craft in your spare time, when you’re not teaching?
This year I’ve set myself the challenge of a drawing a day with a different theme every month to keep the ideas flowing. I’m trying to push myself out of my comfort zone, and value the naive and awkward results along with the more refined and comfortable pieces! If I miss a day I just do an extra one the next day because that’s real life, and I want to enjoy the process not feel under pressure. In January I played with brush pens, February was quick sketches of figures, and March is all about expressive landscapes. With these very loose rules I’m on track so far!
I’m also trying to learn a new craft or material every month. I’ve told myself it can be just for the joy of it and it doesn’t have to yield a new workshop, but I know I won’t be able to help myself because if I enjoy it, I just want to share the fun! So far I’ve started glass fusing and concrete casting. Serious fun right there.
Who/what is your biggest source of inspiration professionally?
I’m really eclectic in my approach to inspiration. Everything I see, everyone I meet has the potential to spark an idea. A dear and truly humble friend and colleague will always be my inspiration as the ultimate teacher. He couldn’t have cared more for his students, and couldn’t have been a more masterful craftsman.
For new materials and processes … honestly … Pinterest. It’s my guilty pleasure!
For pure aesthetics, I’ll be mesmerised by how light falls, contrast in colour and texture, and I love a short depth of field photo.
What advice would you give to other people looking to teach their craft?
I have the privilege of running courses that provide qualifications for new instructors and tutors through the Level 3 Award in Education and Training. Because of a very strong belief in the idea that teachers, tutors and instructors should always strive to be the best they can be in their field and the best teacher they can be, I have combined this qualification with discipline-specific training and created the Craft Tutor Academy. During this bespoke course I devote time to promoting the following principles (alongside gaining experience in delivering quality workshops and achieving a teaching qualification):
Listen to and get to know your students however long you will be spending with them.
Plan and prepare to the best of your ability for every workshop or lesson you deliver.
Know and love your craft and continually strive to improve your own skills in order to be an even better teacher.
Teaching in itself is a craft to develop and practise.
What is the most memorable thing to happen on one of your courses?
My most memorable and meaningful moments come when a student lets me know what they’ve been up to since my workshop. For me there’s no greater compliment, because helping create a spark in someone else is what it’s all about.
Well, like us you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed and reflecting on your own levels of serious under-achievement right now! Rachel certainly is a power house, but she has such generosity of spirit and an innate desire to make everyone she meets through her work feel fabulous about achieving a new skill, that you can only applaud her work ethic and her seemingly endless creativity. We feel very fortunate that Rachel is part of the CraftCourses family.