Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - No comments

On Moxie and Marshmallows

West Kilbride, the town where I’m staying during my sabbatical, has branded itself as “Craft Town Scotland.”  Apparently in the ‘90s the town centre was derelict, with storefronts boarded up and merchants suffering from the lack of foot traffic.  But an initiative led by the townspeople to rebuild the town around the idea of being a “craft and design destination” really revived the community, breathed new life into the local economy, and gave the locals a sense of pride.  

This wasn’t necessarily the reason I chose to spend this season here - that was more about being hosted by people who’d created an atmosphere of rest - but it became apparent to me as I prepared to come that West Kilbride’s creative spirit was going to be a key part of my time here.  I arrived with hopes that some of the “boarded up storefronts” of my heart would have new life breathed into them through my interactions with local artists.

A little over a week ago, I went into the village to find out what’s what in the creative scene there.  I felt bold on the outside, timid on the inside, as I often do in situations like that where I know I’ll need to declare out loud, “I am an artist” and sound like I mean it.  Even though it’s the truth - I have a legit photography business, for goodness’ sake - I still often feel like I’m playing make-believe, acting out a role that I’d love to inhabit but that’s still a bit big on me.  It’s the same way I feel when I wear the outfit I wore into town that day - a cute heather-gray shirt-dress and black leggings, with my classy new black peacoat, autumn-plaid blanket scarf and tall black boots with a bit of a heel:  like a little girl playing dress-up and dearly hoping she doesn’t trip in the middle of the High Street.

Somehow just “cold-calling” at the different studios felt a bit overwhelming, so I decided to start small.  I made my way up to the Barony Centre - this gorgeous old church-turned-gallery/cafe.  They’ve got all sorts of art on exhibit there - paintings, pottery, jewelry, photography, glasswork.  And all, as far I could tell, by local artists - or at least Scottish ones - with a distinct Ayrshire coast flavour.  There were a bunch of hand-drawn and painted cards for sale and I bought one of a bare tree that really spoke to me as a symbol of this “pruning” season.  

I told myself I was just there to observe.  To get a feel for the town.  To sit and have a coffee and take it all in.  I didn’t have to ask a lot of questions just yet - I just had to get a feel for it.  There are a whole February’s-worth of days left for questions.  (Gosh, I would’ve sucked as a reporter!)

One of the things I’m working on while I’m here is continuing with my online travel writing class.  I’d thought about how fun it would be to do a story about some aspect of “Craft Town” - to interview different artists and craftspeople who have studios along Main Street, or exhibits at the Barony, or work in the bookshops or galleries to find out what it’s like to be part of an “intentionally creative community”, to mark art for a living, and to get paid to do what they love, right there on the high street, for all the world to see.  (I bet it’s highly motivating to “get down to the business of crafting” when any passerby can see if you’re zoning out on Instagram when you ought to be blowing glass!)

I sat and had my flat white in the Barony’s cafe, next to the window, watching the “lollipop man” get all the newly-liberated school children safely across the towns main street, his bright yellow vest and giant hand-held stop sign halting traffic so they could run safely over to the football pitch or down to Candy Man Craig’s (a.k.a La Dolce Vita) for a hot dog or an ice cream or both.  Boys in shorts and girls in hiked-up plaid uniform skirts and knee socks paraded past the window - they sure make ‘em hardy around here!  

A group of three not-quite-elderly ladies were having coffee and pastries in the corner next to me.  I would’ve assumed they were all locals, but that just goes to show you how not-good I am at differentiating between British accents.  One of them mentioned that she’d never heard of “toasted scones” until she came to Scotland.  “Tea cakes, yes.  But not scones.”  So, an English transplant, I presumed.  

Their conversation (which I had no choice but to be privy to) bounced around from one lady’s daughter who turned 29 today and had cried on the phone because she’s doomed to never get married (“She’s in Miami, you know, and she said it’s just dreadful there, with that new refugee law...sending all the people back from the airports.  They won’t even let some flight crews off their planes! Causing all kinds of chaos...”) to the mice wreaking havoc in another one’s garden, to how much hypnotherapy had  helped one during her first pregnancy, to a niece who once had a job tutoring the children of the King of Jordan.  They commented on “how nicely” the South Asian barista spoke, passed on advice about switching their phone plans to Giffgaff, and discussed how it could be spitting out when the sky had been so clear just twenty minutes ago.  (I thought only the meteorogically uninitiated asked things like that upon arriving on the North Ayrshire coast.  Made me feel better about all the times I’ve thought, “Why did I bother bringing this scarf?” only to be pulling it tighter ten minutes later.)

The gaggle started putting their coats on right about the time I finished my coffee.  So, with no one else’s conversation on which to “practice my observation skills”, I had a decision to make:  tell myself “looking at the exhibits” and “getting a feel for the vibe of the place” were enough and that I could come back with my courage and my questions another day, or gather up my gumption and at least ask what sorts of event or classes might be on while I’m here.  Deciding that the more I play the role of “the artist” while I’m here, the more it’ll start to feel true, I took a deep breath and went for Option B.  

The volunteer at the gallery - a nice lady of about sixty wearing purple eyeshadow and a kind smile, whose only regret from her Alaskan cruise-Rocky Mountain - Vancouver retirement trip was that they didn’t allot more than a day for Vancouver Island - didn’t know much in terms of events at the Barony, but she took me back into the cafe so I could “ask Rose.”  

Rose and a friend were seated at a table just inside the door.  Rose, it seemed, was “the one who knew things.”  

I’m not sure they knew what to make of me.  Honestly, I’m not sure I knew what I was making of myself.  I told them I was here on a bit of a “creative retreat” and was looking to get my juices flowing.  I’m sure I sounded terribly vague, asking if they had any “groups or classes or anything”, but not specifying whether I painted or knitted or made things out of bottle caps.

I think I half-expected them to ooh and ahh over the foreigner who’d come all the way to wee little West Kilbride cuz she’d heard of its famed creative spirit and wanted a taste of the glory.  Not so much.

Enrollment had already closed for any classes I might have been able to join in on, but they did point me in the direction of a few studios whose owners would be worth talking to - “the ones up at the corner at Happy Hills Studio” and Rosalyn who does the felt and fabric cards.  Apparently Maiden Aunt’s Knitting and the glass blowing place also do classes, though I’m not sure baby booties or glass swans are too far up my alley.  But I suppose it could help me tap into some deep creative well and “unlock the flow” and make me a better photographer and writer.  :)  You never know.  

It was getting on towards dusk by the time I left (meaning it was all of 4PM - winter!) and I still needed to pop by the grocery store on the way home, so I decided to save the studio conversations for another day.  But before eggs and milk, I had one other very important stop to make:  Candy Man Craig’s.

Craig is precisely the sort of man you’d expect to run a shop that sells ice cream and gum drops and Scottish tablet and fancy chocolates and fizzy sticks.  When I was here in November, I’d gotten accustomed to his red and white striped apron and politely jolly demeanor as he’d ask, “With whipped cream and marshmallows, then?” when I ordered my near-daily hot chocolates for the walk home through the glen.  

At first I didn’t think he recognized me - so proper was he when taking my order.  But once we’d established that I did indeed want marshmallows and cream, he asked (in his blessedly intelligible Scottish accent) “So, you’re back for a wee bit, are you then?”

Somehow I felt much more confident telling him about my ‘creative sabbatical.’  I suppose it’s hard not to feel good about yourself when surrounded by jars of candy.  

I’d heard that he has a “studio” of his own - a little workshop where he makes chocolates to sell in La Dolce Vita.  Now THAT is my kind of creating!  I decided I definitely wanted to do a piece on him while I’m here.  Something about the man whose creativity keeps the whole town licking their lips, or something like that.  I’d sit down at the sole table by the window with my creamy hot chocolate and my notebook and take notes on his interactions with all the kids who come in after school and spend their allowance money getting their hot dog cards stamped and stuffing their faces with fudge.

And when I told him I was working on growing my travel journalism skills and asked if I could come again and do an interview with “the village chocolate artist”, he was happy to oblige.  I have an appointment for tomorrow!

Turns out all it took to get my creative courage flowing was a couple of marshmallows and some cream...