Kim Tillyer - Witchmountain
By Kate Marsden
We’re heading to the beautiful countryside of Cumbria this week, to enter the inspiring creative world of Kim Tillyer…
Tell us a little about you. What do you do?
I’m Kim Tillyer and Witchmountain is the name of my art, design and giftware business which has been slowly evolving since I graduated as a mature student in 2008, from CCAD’s Textiles and Surface Design BA (hons) degree course. It still seems odd to call it a “business” - it’s just me, drawing, making cyanotypes (blue and white monoprints developed in precious Cumbrian sunlight), stitching, writing and dreaming.
The name Witchmountain was partly inspired by a friend’s comments about the long, winding drive over the hills to my remote, former home on the North York Moors, “where are we going, Witch Mountain?” and was originally just the title of my blog but the name stuck, and it has become much more than that…especially since I moved to a real mountain in the Lake District.
What does a typical day involve?
I’d like to say I’m up at first light and settling down to an intense day of highly productive work after a quick run on the fells; partly to dispel the myth that people who work from home really just sit about in their pyjamas all day looking at Twitter. Of course this not what I do! I’m not a morning person, so my ideal day starts slowly with lots of tea and time to check what’s going on out there in the real world, via social media, before another day of solitude and creative battles with whatever my task for that day is. Tea is exchanged for coffee after about 11am and I’m usually at my most awake and busy at about 9 or 10 pm.
The nature of this kind of self employment means that each day is different, and it all depends upon which stage of work I’m at - drawing, making prints, digital designs or packing orders - I’m trying to be more forgiving of the times when I apparently do “nothing” because these are the moments when an idea or an inspiration can be captured if you sneak up on it sideways, the “cracks where the light gets in” as Leonard Cohen wrote.
Where do you work? What is your studio space like? What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
I don’t have a dedicated studio space. I live with my partner (who works “normal hours” as an outdoor educator) in a converted bank barn right at the foot of a mountain near Keswick in the Lake District. It’s pretty much open plan so there is plenty of space to work. Luckily Rupert doesn’t seem to mind if the table is stained blue with cyanotype spillages or there is a row of prints drying over the sink when he gets in. I do struggle with the fact that the room is dark and very cold at times, built right in to the hillside and surrounded by huge shady sycamores. I guess my dream would be to convert the basement storeroom in to a warm, light filled space but we are tenants, so that dream will have to wait a while until my Fairy Godmother turns up.
I feel so lucky to be living here immersed in the amazing landscape of the Lake District. When Rupert gets in from work we often go out for small adventures before my evening shift. This has recently included wild swimming which is my new obsession, it boosts my mood and is the perfect way to feel connected to the world again after a day of of living in my own imagination. We swim, walk and make coffee with the Kelly Kettle. All these experiences feed in to my work, if not always in direct subject matter.
What do you consider to be the main challenges facing designer makers at the moment?
This question is constantly on my mind, and I think the main challenge for many creative people is self confidence and the incredible determination needed to believe that what you’re doing is “real work” and is valid - of a value not just financial but emotional (otherwise it would be easier to get a regular paid job and do your making as a hobby). I think the second big challenge is education, both for us as designer makers, in that creative education needs to address the business side of things more realistically, and for consumers who often just don’t understand why handmade things are priced the way they are. We are all so used to cheap products and disposability, and to a certain extent the uniformity of mass production. Creativity involves a lot of “failure” and experimentation, dead ends and false starts but I think, as Grayson Perry said, the important thing is to “stay on the bus”.
What ambitions do you have for your business over the next few years?
I’m not going to lie about this, my ambition is to make a living and make my family proud! I think it’s so important to be honest about the dirty side of the creative industries - money. I’ve spoken to so many artists over the years and almost without exception we talk (dream) about the possibility of actually making enough from our work to be able to give up the day job, stop relying on Tax Credits or the fact that their partner works full time. In my own case I have been incredibly, ridiculously lucky in the last few years to have had help from my father (who is an artist with a capital A and that’s another story...) to pay my rent which has made it possible (despite losing my gallery job due to the downturn after the 2015 floods) to attend trade fairs such as BCTF. I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality of this. In so many ways I’m as rich as I ever want to be (in lifestyle and experience) but I’d love to be financially solvent and independent - and able to return the generosity at last.
Oh…I’d also love to write and illustrate a book and own a small gallery/bookshop with a cafe selling the best ever coffee and cake, so that’s my fantasy goal.
Do you have any tips for fellow designer makers/small business owners who are reading this and may be just starting out?
I hope the previous answer didn’t put anyone off. My daughter graduated from an illustration degree recently and most of my friends at art college were young (half my age), incredibly talented people who were given unrealistic expectations and little practical help. About 90% of the art graduates I know are now nurses, or working in restaurants, so I really feel passionately that people should follow their dreams and never give up even though it is very very hard (remind me of this when I’m feeling low). Some of the most successful creative people I know failed a thousand times before things came good. A turning point for me was doing a trade fair, with the support and encouragement of my friends at Temporary Measure. That forced me to look at things in a more practical way, working out wholesale prices, suppliers and so on.
A lesson I’m constantly trying to learn is not to assume that my customers are like me. Just because I can’t yet afford to buy the art I love, this doesn’t mean other people won’t or that I should lower my prices.
Please share any favourite independent shops/galleries and tell us why you like them.
It’s hard to list just a few favourite places; obviously all my stockists are wonderful too, but I’ll share these as just three in a list of many.
Sam Read Booksellers (where I occasionally do the odd day of blissful work) is a fabulous tiny bookshop in Grasmere, 130 years old this year. Lots of art and craft books as well as cards (and maps, lots of maps).
Leaping Hare Gallery - I first discovered this place because my friend Jane Thorniley Walker made their beautiful Mosaic Hare. Unfortunately, I’d just moved from the area so I have yet to visit but Michael and Sarah are passionate supporters of small businesses and always a pleasure to talk to.
The Dutch House/ Kunsthuis - Quite close to the Leaping Hare Gallery, in the small Yorkshire village of Crayke, the Dutch House is run by a Dutch couple who have built up this business over the years to include an award winning gallery, cafe and gardens. Cecile gave me my first solo exhibition there and I’m so pleased to see that it has continued to grow and thrive.
Had you realised the Just A Card campaign message suggests cards as an example of a small purchase - we're about encouraging all sales as they keep businesses afloat?
Yes, and the message is good one because most people can afford a card by their favourite artist and then aspire to save up for an original (I know I do). This also applies to the smaller pieces many artists make - a mug or a coaster perhaps. In one gallery I worked in we sold glass coasters by a well known glass artist whose large pieces were very expensive; they were under £10 each and pretty much kept the gallery solvent some weeks.
How important is the Just A Card campaign message to you and your business?
I’ve worked in quite a few independent shops/galleries. When I first moved to Keswick I was lucky to get a job straight away in Northern Lights Gallery, I loved meeting the artists and makers and and was devastated when I had to leave because the town was so quiet after Storm Desmond; luckily things have picked up again for the gallery but it made me more militant than ever about the Just a Card message. We even had people coming in and asking for addresses so they could go directly to the artist's studio to get a discount and writing down website details from the back of greetings cards before walking off without buying even a £2.50 card; never realising, or caring, that even a few more small sales could have made the difference between a person losing their job or even a gallery closing. And how dull would our towns be without independent shops?
Where did you hear about the campaign and which Social Media platforms do you use most frequently? What do you think people can do to support Just A Card, and how will you be doing so?
I first discovered the campaign on Twitter, back in 2014 and it hit a nerve as I was working in a lovely gallery in North Yorkshire and struggling to sell my own work too. We sold a lot of cards and the gallery always bought these from the artists whose work they showed, rather than taking them on Sale Or Return (vital for an artists cash flow) I wrote this blog post at the time.
Since then I’ve usually displayed a poster at the events I do, as well as talking about the ideas around it to customers and gallery owners. Like most of us I spend way too much time on social media (Instagram is my favourite but my Facebook page has been most successful for sales and interaction) and constantly wonder how to go about transforming loyal followers in to potential customers, without being mercenary, as well as spreading the message of this campaign.
I used to hope that I could make my business work entirely online; selling through Etsy and my website and cutting out the gallery commission problem. Because I live in the middle of nowhere social media and online marketplaces are a godsend in many ways, but I now realise that despite the joys of the internet, there is no substitute for real shops and having more people see my work in the flesh has made a big difference. Galleries and Artists need to work together to ensure that they support each other and Just a Card is a really useful way of promoting this.