Urban Studio North Workshops

I am very excited to announce that my new workshops are available to book on line.


The workshops will take place in my studio, which I am calling the Urban Studio North, in Eccles, Manchester. The studio is light, spacious and easily accessible. I'm limiting student numbers to 6 so that each student has plenty of space to work and I have plenty of time to give one-to-one support. My aim is to supply as much of the media and equipment needed for each class so that, in most cases, students only have to bring fabric. 

I have developed an introduction to screen printing workshop that includes breakdown printing called Simply Screen Printing and an introduction to dyeing workshop called Dyeing to Begin. Both are two day courses, suitable for absolute beginners and are intended to be pretty fast paced with students printing / dyeing lots of beautiful cloth. I have also created a 1 day a month for 10 months programme called Introduction to Surface Design which covers dyeing, printing, breakdown printing, mark making, paper lamination, adding and removing colour and so much more! 

And I have my first guest tutor. Ruth Brown will be teaching a two day workshop on Hand Made Books tailored towards textile artists. This will be suitable for beginners and will cover a range of book types. 

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I will be adding more workshops and more dates over the coming months but I am really interested in getting your feedback, good (hopefully) or bad. Do the workshops look interesting? Have I given enough information? What do you think about the pricing? Am I a mad fool?

Playing with intent
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Having spent lots of hours at my computer getting ready to teach (writing lesson plans etc) I have now moved onto the much more fun bit. I want to be as prepared as I absolutely can be which, for me,  means creating lots of samples and practising the demonstrations that I'll be giving. I know that I know my stuff and I know that I have enough knowledge to probably demonstrate 'off the cuff' but that is not who I am. I'm a control freak who writes lists, makes detailed plans and practices, practices, practices! So whilst I wait for some 'official' stuff to come through that I need before I can launch my workshops properly I am playing at the bench.

Whilst I'm not planning on giving a class on colour just yet, colour is fundamental to surface design, particularly when you are layering one colour on top of another using dyes rather than paints. Sometimes you want to achieve dull, sludgy brown but when you don't and that's what you get it can be demoralising. So I am spending some very happy hours in my studio making different types of colour blankets that, I hope, my students will find useful. Inspired by Claire Benns wonderful DVD (Exploring Fiber Reactive Dyes from Gali Publishing) I have created my own version of a colour 'tartan' on two types of cotton to see if they take colour differently (they didn't) and am now making colour wheels based on secondary colours (oranges, purples and greens). I am playing with intent and loving every minute of it! 

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So exciting and so scary - getting ready to teach

I love a good list and it turns out that there is a very long list of things that I need to do before I can start to teach in my studio. It is so tempting to start rearranging the studio, to start ordering 'stuff' and to spend hours at my bench preparing samples and practising demonstrations. But there is not much point in doing any of that unless I know I've actually got some students.

So first things first - writing lesson plans and getting everything loaded onto my website. Writing lesson plans is fun; figuring out what can be fitted in a two day workshop and what is a logical order for the demonstrations whilst remembering that the technique driven workshops will be aimed at beginners; making the workshops fun, intense, great value for money but not overwhelming. Getting things loaded onto my website has also been fun albeit in a slightly masochistic way. Lots of going round in circles figuring out what works and what doesn't work. Lots of cups of coffee. Lots of biscuits. Maybe the odd swear word. 

So far I have four workshops loaded but hidden from view. I am itching to share them with you but I am waiting for my local council to confirm that I can teach without needed to submit a formal 'change of use' application. Everything I have been able to read suggests not so fingers crossed!

And as a reward for all my hard work I 'allowed' myself to do a little rearranging. I started with the most important area. I have moved my coffee machine away from where we'll (hopefully) be mixing dyes. Health and safety in action. Still need to buy more cups, glasses, different teas, fruit bowl etc but I think this will work.

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It has always been my long term plan to teach in my studio and right now feels like a good time to start. I have spent some very long days at my sewing machine this last year preparing work for my two exhibitions with Helen Conway but sewing time is serious thinking time. Time to think through all the pros and cons.

I have given a lot of thought to what, and how, I want to teach. I have taught informally before and found that I really enjoyed showing students how to use dyes, paints, screens, tools etc to create work that was uniquely theirs. So I will be teaching surface design but I will not be showing students how to 'make a Leah Higgins quilt'. I am currently putting together lesson plans for 2 day workshops and for 'a day a month' programme. It makes sense to start with technique driven classes for beginners then add more advanced classes. Any suggestions or requests will be gratefully received!

I have also given a lot of thought as to how it will affect my family as my studio sits behind our home. The good news is they all think it is a great idea and are helping me get the studio (and the garden which is a mess) ready. I will limit surface design classes to 6 students. I could have fitted in more but I want students to have lots of room. And I didn't want to lose my giant print bench! Which I love.

I hope to run my first workshops in July. Assuming that I can attract any students. It's all rather exciting and rather intimidating at the same time. I'll be adding details to my website, hopefully before the end of May. Better get back to it!

Reconnecting / Recharging
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With just over three weeks to spare I have now finished all my pieces for Fragments, my upcoming exhibition with Helen Conway. Phew!

So what next? I have no immediate deadlines to hit so the pressure is off for the first time in a long time. I am free to continue to explore the monoprinting / breakdown technique I played with last year. I should be excited. I should be full of ideas and energy. Especially as spring has arrived and I usually love working at the bench on days when breakdown screens can dry outdoors. Instead I feel kind of flat. Maybe stale is a better word. Or studio'd out if that was a word. Not that I want a break from being in my studio. I don't. It is my favourite place and whilst I don't mind taking a few days or even a week off I cannot imagine going longer without being in there.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me that I feel this way. I have been putting in long hours for over a year to prepare work for my two exhibitions with Helen. And for most of that time I have known exactly what I needed to do. Each piece had been planned; fabrics had been printed and samples had been sewn. I have spent months cutting, constructing, layering, stitching and finishing. Thankfully I enjoy every part of my process but it has taken steely determination some weeks to hit the deadlines I set myself. And all at a time when my home and family life has been full of unrest; coloured by sadness and anxiety.

So how do I get my art mojo back? How do I recharge my batteries?

  • I am going to give my studio a deep clean and clear out. I need to reclaim my space.
  • I am giving myself permission to play. I want to reconnect with techniques other than breakdown printing and with media other than thickened dyes. I want to colour and print cloth without a fully defined end point.
  • And I am giving myself permission to be less than 110% focused on my art for a while; to volunteer, to teach. To connect with others.

And when the sun shines I may even take time out to sit in the garden with a cup of good coffee and a book!

The art of collaboration
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It is 5 weeks or so until my next exhibition with Helen Conway opens at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery on Saturday 26th May and the only thing I have left to work on is a collaborative piece with Helen. Now I have written more than once about how I work in series and how I only 'work to the beat of my own drum' so this may come as a bit of a surprise. But maybe not to those who know us well.

Helen and I met several years ago at a local contemporary quilt group and went on to be founder members of the exhibiting group Etcetera. During the groups time Helen and my work evolved rapidly with Helen embracing acrylic paint and mixed media and me developing large, abstract pieces based on breakdown printing. But strangely our work always looked good together. Our colour palettes were similar and Helens wonderfully organic graffiti marks linked nicely with the somewhat random marks made by breakdown printing.

But work that looks nice together is not enough to make a successful collaboration. In my humble opinion it is the fact that we both approach our art practice in the same way that has made it work. We are both professional women in our day jobs and approach our art with the same level of commitment and professionalism. We are ambitious but also pragmatic. We are not precious about who does what; we just get on with stuff. We curate our exhibitions so that they work best for the viewer rather than vying for prime position.

The gallery in Stockport is a huge open space which has been easy to curate. With the exception of the section of wall that faces the double doors leading into the gallery. The wall is framed by two columns and whatever is exhibited there is inevitably going to draw the visitor towards it. So we knew from day one that we had to find some way to share the space. Rather than get distracted by this we both got on with our individual pieces. Knowing what the rest of the exhibition would look like we got together a few weeks ago and decided that we wanted to make a piece that was very obviously inspired by Stockport. Cue a quick scribble on a scrap of paper. I gave Helen some samples of the fabrics I wanted to use. Helen sampled her ideas and sent me photos. They looked great so she did her bit and I got cracking printing fabric. No angst. No worries.

I have about 35 hours of stitching to do to complete the piece but with 5 weeks to go our collaborative piece of art has been as stress free as the rest of our activities. Go team Helen and Leah!

Fully stretched
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With the Stockport exhibition opening on 26th May it has been full on production at Studio Leah this last couple of weeks. I have been finishing a collection of 10 panels, each 40cm x 100cm, and each referencing a specific coal pit from the Lancashire and Manchester coalfields. These are part of my Traces series inspired by industries and industrial structures that no longer exist; that have been wiped clean from our landscape. Each piece is finished by stretching over a deep canvas. To help achieve crisp corners I did not use any wadding. Instead I fused two layers of cotton together which gave me a good firm surface to stitch on and a fabric that did not skew and distort as I stretched it over canvas. A few people have asked how I do the stretching so here we go.

I use stretched canvases rather than stretcher bars as the canvas manufacturer has done all the hard work by stretching the canvas onto the frame. All I'm doing is wrapping my piece around it - I am not really 'stretching' the work. Looking at the above photos from top left to bottom right:

  • I prepare the canvas by adding double sided sticky tape to all four sides of the canvas and to all four edges on the back of the canvas. If I were stretching over a standard (narrow) canvas I wouldn't bother with tape on the sides.
  • I position the canvas on the back of my piece and mark around it with a pencil. I then trim my piece such that there is enough left to wrap around the edge of the canvas - in this case my canvases were 1.5 inches deep so I trimmed to give 2.5 inches all around. I also trim away part of the corner section to reduce the amount of 'bulk' at the corners. I leave about 3/8th inch of the corner - look at the photo to see. This leaves me with a 'flap' on each side.
  • I spray the front of the canvas with a little 505 basting spray and re-position on the back of my piece. The spray is just there to prevent the canvas slipping. With one long edge facing me I remove the paper strip from the double sided tape on the side of the canvas and start lifting my flap up onto it. I start from the centre and work to towards the corners. You don't need to pull hard, just enough that the piece is a snug fit to the side of the canvas. 
  • I then remove the paper strip on the back of the canvas and flip my flap over and down working from the centre out towards the corners. Again you don't need a lot of force. Once in place I finish by adding some staples. You don't need many as the tape does most of the work. I repeat this process on the other long edge.
  • This is the most important part and probably the hardest to describe! I tend to get on my knees so that the short end of the canvas is at my eye height. I remove paper strips from both the side and the back of the canvas. I turn the excess fabric (that 3/8th inch) from the side wall of the long side of the canvas around onto the side wall of the short side and stick it to the tape. As you turn this edge it naturally turns the edge of the short edge flap under. I then lift the short edge flap up and over the edge of the canvas tucking in the excess from the top of the side flap as I go. I pull the flap tight and fix in place with a couple of staples. I repeat at the other corner. I then go along the short edge lifting and sticking down the rest of the flap. I do the same for the other short edge.
  • Because fabric can fray, and because I am a neat freak I finish my canvas by adding a linen effect self adhesive tape over the fabric edges on the back of the canvas. I then sign the back of the canvas and add a business card.

I love the finished effect, particularly how the stitched lines fold around the edges. And using deep canvases meant that I could stitch the name of each piece onto the side edge. I can't wait to see all 10 hung together!

Doing the work
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Well the last week or so has been a bit of a rollercoaster. The nervous euphoria of my exhibition preview last weekend followed by a somewhat deflated feeling the next day was easy to put behind me as I have so much work to complete before my next exhibition. But then I had two rejections during the week. The piece rejected by Quilt Visions (23 Kilns, above) was one I made using more of a 'monoprint' style of breakdown printing that I really, really want to explore further over the next year or two. I thought it was good, I love the graphic nature of it so rejection was a bit worrying. Until I saw that they had only selected 43 pieces out of 343 entrants. I didn't feel so bad.

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The other rejection was from the European Quilt Triennial. Second time I've entered and second time I've been rejected. The piece is called the Cost of Coal (detail below) and is a companion piece to a large quilt that has got lots of positive comments from visitors to mine and Helen Conway's exhibition. But, being quite pale, it is difficult to photograph which makes me wonder whether this and any further pieces I make in the Traces series will be difficult to get accepted into exhibitions. Which has shaken my self-confidence as I was planning to take this series further. Should I keep going? Have I backed myself into an artistic corner? Should I just make more Ruins pieces which have been a very successful series for me?

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It is very, very tempting to wallow in self-pity and self-doubt and reach for the gin but that isn't really an option when I need to work at a steady pace for the exhibition in Stockport at the end of May. In fact it isn't really an option I would let myself take at any time. It has been a while since I mentioned Steven Pressfield in a post but this week I felt the need to pick up my dog eared copies of his book's 'The War of Art' and 'Do The Work' again. Yes they are a bit 'preachy' and maybe too full on 'American' for many but his approach is part of my studio / art practice. He talks about the resistance - all those things which get in the way of us making the art we want to make. Rejection letters are part of the resistance. As are acceptance letters. They both elicit emotions which distract us. Pressfield talks about turning pro and about treating art as if it were your paid job. To paraphrase - show up every day, show up no matter what, stay on the job all day, be committed to the long haul, understand that the stakes are high and real, accept remuneration for our labour, don't over identify with our job, master the techniques of our job, have a sense of humour about our jobs and accept both praise and criticism as part of our jobs. Of course very few of us can make art full time. I commit to 20 hours a week in my studio. I get there by going into my studio virtually every day even if it is 30 minutes squeezed between my other commitments. I turn up when I feel ill (full of a cold as I type!). I turn up when the sun shines. I turn up when it is dark and wet and cold. I am 100% committed. This matters to me. I don't let rejection paralyse me (it is a specific piece of art that gets rejected not me as an artist). I just keep doing the work.

One down, one to go!

It is a weird feeling the day after a preview. My exhibiting partner, Helen Conway, and I put so much hard work into making the artwork, designing the gallery layout and marketing the event that the run up felt like riding a wave. Certainly I was so twitchy that I couldn't settle to anything in the last few days before the preview. The next day I felt like a bedraggled bit of seaweed left on the shore. That could have been caused by the white wine drunk after the event but more likely it was that deflated feeling you get after something big has happened. Like Boxing Day.

It might have been nice to take time out, read a book, have a nap, remind my family who I am but with the prospect of a second exhibition in just over two months that was never going to happen. So it is straight back into the studio. The next exhibition previews on Saturday 26th May at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery. The space is much bigger than the St Helens gallery but Helen and I are consummate art professionals (or mad fools!!) and are absolutely certain that we will have all the new work ready in time. 

And who needs sleep?