Creativity Found: finding creativity later in life

Gaelle Jolly – letters and loss, messages and miniatures

February 14, 2024 Claire Waite Brown/Gaelle Jolly Episode 93
Creativity Found: finding creativity later in life
Gaelle Jolly – letters and loss, messages and miniatures
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers
Navigating life's ups and downs by embracing creativity. 
In this episode Gaelle Jolly shares her journey from feeling unfulfilled in her job and struggling to find her place in a competitive sector, to discovering a passion for creativity that provided solace during difficult times.
Despite previously not seeing herself as creative, Gaelle has found an outlet in hobbies including photography and calligraphy, which eventually turned into a small business. We talk about Gaelle's love for paper, stationery, words and the art of bookbinding, which led to the creation of her own line of notebooks and other paper products. She touches on the therapeutic aspect of her creative work, which became a source of meaning and escape as she faced an emotionally challenging future.
We also discuss the balance between doing something for oneself and turning it into a business, and how she maintains the joy of creating while managing the pressures of entrepreneurship.
Gaelle's experiences remind us that creativity can be a powerful tool for healing and self-discovery, no matter where life takes us.

"I think a lot of what I do actually does go back to childhood in some way, and it's about getting lost in an imaginary world."

If you found value in this episode and would like to show your appreciation, consider supporting the podcast through the Support the Show link, or by sending a boostagram , for example in the Fountain app.
Your contributions will help me continue to share inspiring stories of creativity and resilience.

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Researched, edited and produced by Claire Waite Brown
Music: Day Trips by Ketsa Undercover / Ketsa Creative Commons License Free Music Archive - Ketsa - Day Trips
Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.uk
Photo: Ella Pallet


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I liked the idea of where I was working, but I wasn't particularly enjoying the job itself. I just couldn't find the next job within the sector. It's very competitive. I clearly had some kind of wish to be creative in some way and for a long time I didn't still see myself as being creative but there was always some kind of creative thinking going on around other things in life. That kind of became my hobby and something that felt more meaningful to me and also an escape. I did have it at the back of my mind that having this and so keeping it going while he was still alive was important because it would be something something to bring some kind of meaning into my life once he was gone. I think a lot of what I do actually does go back to childhood in some way and it's about getting lost Hi, I'm Claire, founder of Creativity Found, a community for creative learners and educators, connecting adults who want to find a creative outlet with the artists and crafters who can help them do so with workshops, courses, online events and kits. For this podcast, I chat with people who have found or re-found their creativity as adults. We'll explore their childhood experiences of the arts, discuss how they came to the artistic practices they now love, and consider the barriers they may have experienced between the two. We'll also explore what it is that people value and gain from their newfound artistic pursuits. This time I'm chatting with Gayle Jolly about her later blooming love for letterforms, words and books. Hi I'm very well, thank you. It's lovely to How are you? Yeah, I'm very good, thank you. Tell me what the creative outlets you I think what I enjoy making the most at the moment, and it's been a little while, is miniature books. I'm slightly obsessed with making small things. I really like making the tiny, tiny little books. And papermaking is also something I've been enjoying for the past year or so. Just making my own paper, which I then turn into notebook covers and experimenting a little bit with natural dyeing as well. So I've been dyeing paper with avocado. also really enjoy photography, which is less. I mean, I do use it for my business in various ways, but it's something that feels more free because it's not something I try to sell to anyone. I really always enjoy spending time, you know, as a way of self-expression. It's quite a mindful thing Brilliant. A few things there then, and it's interesting that you already mentioned the difference between doing something for yourself and doing something that has kind of been turned into a business. So we will come back to all of those later. Did I really can't say I did. I mean, I really deeply believe that everyone is creative, especially every child is creative. I think it gets lost along the way for quite a few of us. I think especially because traditional educational systems kind of see, well first don't value it particularly much, but also tend to see visual arts and drawing as what it means to be creative or artistic. I certainly could never draw very well at all. I can't draw letters, but that's about it. I was more academic, really. I was a serious child who enjoyed school and did well at it. There wasn't really very much that it's creative. You know, I took piano lessons. I was very, very bad at it. I am not at all musical. I took ballet classes as well. I still do ballet every day now, but again, it's not something I was, you know, I didn't reveal myself to be a natural ballerina. So yeah, if anything, I think writing was the way I was more creative growing up, especially in my teens, you know, writing journals and long letters to friends and terribly bad poetry. But really not making, not so much what I do now, not really. I always loved stationery though, so there It was already there in the background. Love for the paper. So which were your favourite academic subjects and what was your planned educational trajectory and I was fairly good at everything at school, every subject, but I mean, when I came later on in my school years, I think my favourite subjects were English and philosophy. So English being English as a foreign language. French. I grew up in France. I did a lot of math and science because that's what the French educational system valued more. If you could do it, you did a lot of it because that was seen as the mark of being good academically, saying math and science. I ended up doing quite a lot of that. I didn't know what I wanted to do at all. There were some kind of turns and changes because of health issues as well. So I ended up studying English at university, which was, you know, one of my favourite subjects, something I was good at. And the idea was, well, that will be useful in some way for probably at some point, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. And yeah, I didn't stop there. I've got four degrees. I went on from studying English to moving to the UK and studying sociology and still didn't know what I How did you come to the UK then? So I was studying English back in France and absolutely loved the country and it was a combination of things. I had planned to move to the UK to study, you know, as a way to carry on speaking English and enjoying English and going to a place I liked and also it felt like Academically, it felt like an easier thing to do than studying more in France. By the time I actually moved, I Brilliant. With your burgeoning education in various degrees, it feels like there wasn't one thing that you definitely wanted to do. How did you then start actually earning money and going out and getting a job? What did you choose? Or Or did things change for you? Back in the old days where you bought the Oxford Times and went through job ads and tried to find something slightly appealing in there. My first job was working for a charity, working on the projects in kind of health and social care. I did that for a year. I was interested in trying to work for a charity and trying to do, you know, not specifically that kind of work, but I'd done some volunteering while I was a student. So there was some kind of intention there. But then after that, I worked in a bookshop for a while, then went into publishing. So that seemed to make some kind of sense, but nothing really felt that enjoyable, or I couldn't see a path to something that I would really enjoy. But in the middle of all that, I started getting interested in historic landscapes, in particular, and historic buildings. That came from a photography course I did. So photography kind of came into there and just walking around Oxford and noticing things more. And from working in a bookshop, I worked in the history department of Blackwells in Oxford and just kind of noticing books about... There was a book about garden history, which I ended up buying and reading and getting really interested in. And so, yeah, I decided to try to have a career in the heritage sector. So I went back to university, did an MA. I did end up working within the sector, but then kind of went back and forth, went back to study part-time to try to specialise a little bit more, did an MPhil on historic cemeteries, trying to make my way through the heritage sector. So I did up leaving my job, doing another job in order to be able to study at the same time. I got another job in the sector. I was sort of getting there, but not quite. I loved working within the sector. The last job I had was with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which is a wonderful place with a great history within historic conservation. I absolutely loved working there. The job itself was Pretty stressful. I was commuting to London and partly I liked the idea of where I was working, but I wasn't particularly enjoying the job itself. I just couldn't find the next job within the sector. It's very competitive, very few jobs around. And then my husband got ill and at that point it started feeling absolutely ridiculous that I was commuting to London and sitting there in London and doing this job. So I decided to go for something more practical, find a full-time job in Oxford that could offer more benefits, allow me to take time off if I needed to, allow me to provide for both me and my husband if and when he needed to stop working at any point. So I ended up working in communications within higher education. I ended up doing that for about seven years. Yeah, until I left to So let's go back to the paper then because you've already said about books, bookshop and publishing and I can see that bit relevant to the paper that you do now. And as you said earlier, you always loved stationery. So how has that developed as a creative practice for you and how does that fit in with everything Yes, so I've got a very meandering answer to question about how there is a similar story to do with the other stuff. It's nothing straightforward in my life, I don't think. I think the first thing I did, which was related to all that, was probably letterpress printing. But I clearly had some kind of wish to be creative in some way. And for a long time, I didn't still see myself as being creative, but there was always some kind of creative thinking going on around other things in life, like clothes and interiors. I love that kind of thing and an interest in how things looked generally. That kind of love I always had for letter forms, I suppose, and printing. As a child, I would turn everything I could find that had relief on it into a rubber stamp. I mean, the top of aspirin tubes. I played with my mom's typewriter, all that kind of thing. So I did have that interest in that. And through the jobs I did, I did end up doing quite a bit of my own graphic design as well. So I got interested in that kind of thing. So that's where it started. And that's all with the backdrop of thinking, I can never really make anything myself. I can't I can't really create, but I can use a typeface on the computer. I can learn to print. That's where it started. I did a letterpress printing course. I didn't take it anywhere because it seemed quite inaccessible, even having done a course to you know, I could have had access to going back to the same place to use the presses, but I didn't feel confident enough to do that. So it was all a bit scary. So I did a bit of line of cut printing at home and, you know, making my own rubber stamps again. I didn't really take it very far other than the odd bit of printing on with linocuts. Then I started a photo blog because I started getting obsessed with finding letters around the streets. Things like street signs and shop signs and ghost signs. We've got those beautiful old painted signs that have faded on walls and taking pictures of that. publishing that on the blog. It all took quite a few years before I got from that to maybe I could try calligraphy. I think modern calligraphy was becoming more fashionable at the time. I started seeing things on Pinterest and I started following blogs that talked about that kind of thing. It was a little bit scary because, remember, I can't do any of this. That's the starting point. I can't do this. And I was almost put off learning by something you often hear calligraphers say, and I do say now, don't be scared by it, is basically to reassure people who think, well, I've got terrible handwriting, so I can't possibly do calligraphy. They will say, don't worry. Calligraphy is nothing to do with handwriting. It's all about drawing letters. And I saw that and I thought, well, I can't draw. That sounds terrible. I will never be able to do it. And it is true, but it's not drawing as in... as in drawing a picture is very different. It's true in the sense that, yes, you don't need to worry about your handwriting because the letters are created in a slightly different way, which is actually easier. I gave it a go. I took an online class thinking, well, we'll be terrible at it, but it might still be fun. Let's find out. I just caught the bug completely, became obsessed with it, eventually became better at it. Again, I didn't do very much with it at that point. It's about a decade ago, so I did a little bit for friends when they wanted something like a new baby name to put on the wall, that kind of thing. But I didn't really use it for very much until I joined Instagram. Calligraphy became a bit more serious at that point. And from seeing other people share things, being supportive, discovering a kind of lovely supportive online community of creatives, basically, and taking part in challenges that forced me to post every day and create a bit of calligraphy every day. So that's why I decided to take it a little bit more seriously. And that coincided with my husband's health taking a turn for the worse as well. And I think it was just a coincidence. Yeah, something happened with his health, which at about the same time as I joined Instagram, there were no connections between the two. But then it became a means of escape, I think, for me. I was doing a job at the time which was perfect in many ways because it brought all the all the practical things I needed, and I had very lovely supportive colleagues and employers. It was everything I needed, but it wasn't fulfilling. So having that creative endeavour on the side, which at the time would have been a lot of calligraphy, but mixed with trying to do some creative photography, integrating calligraphy in photos to post that on Instagram, that kind of became my hobby and something that felt more meaningful to me and also an escape from dealing with my husband's illness and very poor prognosis at the time. And then from there, I started getting work. Someone just commissioned me to do some calligraphy based on my Instagram. I didn't even say anything about it. I didn't advertise myself in any way as doing it professionally. That kind of started things very slowly at first, but that's where looking at it as something I might make a living out of came Yeah, that is Very good to hear that you were able to get that kind of escapism, get that kind of meaning through this personal expression for yourself. And in fact, through trying lots of different things as well, which I think is super. You both knew that your husband was going to die. Did that knowledge prepare you? Do you think you were maybe using that creative process was going to help you in the future because you knew he It's definitely something that I thought would be useful to have once he was no longer there. So we knew he was going to die, we didn't know when, it was all very vague. I knew it was going to happen at some point and I knew I would be left on my own with a job I didn't particularly like. I had lots of friends, I'm not isolated, but I did have it at the back of my mind that having this and keeping it going while he was still alive was important because it would be something something to bring some kind of meaning into my life once he was gone. So yeah, that's definitely something I thought about at the time and something he understood as well that I needed to spend some time on all of that because it was good for me then. It would be good Yeah. Tell me about messages in the bottle and how your creative ideas and actions developed I feel like I can't really take the credit for the idea, in a way, because I had this beautiful mouth-blown glass bottle which I brought back from Visby on the beautiful island of Gotland in Sweden. And then one day I decided to, as one of those creative Instagram posts, to put a message in it. So I literally just wrote the word message in calligraphy and rolled it up and stuck it into a bottle and took a picture. And the glassblower saw my post, I think I tagged him in, and he suggested, wow, why don't I send you some bottles and maybe you can write messages for people in calligraphy and sell them. So it's basically his idea. And that didn't happen for quite a long time. We didn't set it up for quite a while, but then Brexit came along and he messaged me again and said, before the extra restrictions actually come into play, shall I just send you some bottles? And so he did, and that became my first product. So those beautiful bottles come from Sweden and I do custom calligraphy messages in them. I was about to launch them just before my husband died, so I ended up being slightly delayed with something I got to focus on once my brain started vaguely working again a few months after he died. That just did feel like it was really the beginning of going from just the odd piece of work to actually, yes, I'm going to have a shop now and I'm going to sell this, then COVID happened. So at that point, I was already also thinking about bookbinding. So I had learnt a little bit of bookbinding from a kit that got my husband to buy for me for Christmas. So I'd done a little bit and I'd bought a book. I taught myself a little bit. I was looking for in-person workshops and found this lovely workshop in Edinburgh, which I was going to go to in May 2020. So that didn't happen. So yeah, I ended up being postponed twice. I did go in the end. I didn't make it, but what I ended up doing was, this was a workshop with Rachel Hazel, Travelling Bookbinder. She's wonderful. She had also published a book and so I decided to support her book and decided I was going to make every single project in it in lockdown. I wasn't the only person doing that. I don't think I started sharing this. Other people were like, yes, I'm doing this too. And so I taught myself more bookbinding, just going through every single project in the book. From then on, I started selling notebooks as well, so I developed a range of notebooks. Bookbinding is something else I got addicted to quite quickly, a little bit like calligraphy. I do a range of notebooks. Some integrate calligraphy as well, so customizable labels, that kind of thing. Some of them just have calligraphy in the design. I've added some more skills on top of that. Last year, I decided to have a summer of learning new things. I'm just going to build up for myself a little kind of creative course with various things. So that's why I learned to do miniature books, which I really wanted to learn. I learned to make paper as well, and I did another letterpress printing course and put my own press as well. I have all of that going on, papermaking, letterpress printing on a tabletop press, as well as all the bookbinding. Yeah, crikey. A lot. Why do you think you were drawn to miniatures? I'm fascinated by miniatures. Why do You know, I don't know what it is. I think a lot of what I do actually does go back to childhood in some way and it's about getting getting lost in an imaginary world in some ways. Now a lot of the products, I mean some of my products are fairly straightforward, like this is a book, but a lot of the others have a story behind them. I have a time travel journal, an escape map. I like to have a story around it and to imagine them living in this kind of world of my own imagination. I think miniatures fit really well into that. They are There's something of childhood magic about miniature. There's something magical about making books, anyway. To me, it's like you start with a pile of A4 sheets or whatever, a pile of all big, massive A1 sheets, and you turn it into a working book. That's magical. Making paper is magical. You're take the contents of your shredder and turn them into paper. I think miniatures really fit into that feeling of magic and bringing a little bit of magic into your everyday world because you can use them as well. They're tiny books. You can write Oh, that's brilliant. I love that story. I'm glad I asked that question. I got you explaining it for me. That was brilliant. So we're going to go on a bit of the kind of balance when you start making your creative thing into something that is work and how that balances out. So do you feel now that you still experience the benefits you did when you started to get creative? so the form of escape that we talked about earlier. Now that you are making them a business and you have a product range, do you still get those good feelings from it and is there kind of It's tricky. I do not see making and being creative as a draw. I think it can become that if it's your business. I don't have that issue. But it's not quite the same. And especially something like Instagram, which I know a lot of people have very mixed feelings about these days anyway, but which was such a joy before. Now I try to turn it into something that explicitly markets a business that makes it tricky, trickier. So I am working on trying to make it joyful again. That's one thing. In terms of making, I always enjoy doing it. It's more stressful when you're making for somebody else. It's always going to be more of a stressful doing a calligraphy commission, making a piece for someone that's very important to them. You want to get it right. It's always going to be a bit less of the escapist joy than doing it for yourself. But I still very much enjoy making that's still there. What's a little trickier is that I just don't know how to have time off anymore. I find it very difficult to just do nothing, which I don't know, I'm sure I used to be better at that. And if I do something, it ends up being work because what is now work is what I used to do as a hobby in my spare time. And I've been thinking about that very recently because I had a day only last week when I wasn't very well, so I should take the day off and I just couldn't. I ended up doing some work. So yeah, I'd say a lot of the joy is still there, but I guess it's not as carefree as it used to be for most things. and recapturing that feeling of doing it just for fun and escapism and your own sake is difficult. So photography does help a little, I mean, except I share everything I do. Yeah, I take photos just for fun, except I then post them on Instagram, which is not my business. But at least I have no I said I'm not ambitious with my photography. I do want it to look good and the way I want it to look, but I have no ambition to be a photographer. I have no ambition to do it for somebody else. So even if I do it for my business, it's never really for someone else. I think that kind of safeguards it a little bit from that particular issue. I get more lost in it than anything else. I don't take photos and do something else at the same time in the way I do with pretty much everything else in life. I'm a little bit all over the place like that. But I think there's also a lot of value in sometimes doing creative things that you're bad at and you know that it will never become something. You're not going to turn it into a job. I don't really do it in the summer, but I tend to just knit one scarf a year. and I can't knit anything other than a rectangle in the simplest stitch, and I have no ambition to try to do anything else. I just knit my rectangles every year. And that's really nice because it is creative. You are making something out of nothing. Well, not nothing, but you know, a ball of yarn. But I know I'm not going to be a textile designer. That's not going to happen. I'm going to launch a knitwear brand. So things like that are things that I would do. I enjoy cooking as well. Again, I'm not going to open a restaurant. No one should do that. but it's still a way to be creative that's separate. My next task is to find something else. I think I need something else now, another creative endeavor I'm bad at to work I thought that was a very good thing. You should try to do something you're not good at, or you think you're not good at. My thing as well, I teach a dance class and that's great fun, but I take part in another dance class and I'm not the boss of that dance class and that is brilliant. That is the absolute escape. You just go along and have the most amount of fun and somebody else is doing all the thinky stuff about it that goes with it. I completely understand that just doing something for the sake of doing something and how enjoyable that is. You've talked about trying a new thing you're not very good at. Generally, do you have any particular aspirations I'm actually trying to let go of having plans. Cool. It doesn't mean I have nothing to say to your question, but I think Yeah, plans are not for me. They're too stressful. They're just to invite disappointment. So my latest take on things, I just want to be open to what comes up. So I have no plan for my business other than just carrying on with what I'm doing and see what comes up. I've recently started doing two part-time jobs, which I both enjoy and which kind of add variety to my life. So I'm trying to take some emphasis away from the business being everything because at one point it was going to solve everything in my life. It was going to add meaning and you know, provide my income and everything. So I wanted to, going back to actually the previous question, I wanted to be more fun. So I'm taking some pressure away from it. I always have ideas which I never get around to working on. So maybe that's what I should do rather than try to find something else I'm bad at. So I do want to To experiment a little bit more with bringing calligraphy into my products even more, into the other things I do even more. So I'd like to work on having more calligraphy on notebook covers, maybe mix calligraphy with letterpress printing, doing some layering, maybe have some prints at some point rather than just notebooks. So that kind of thing I'd like to experiment with. I want to play around a bit more with natural dyeing of paper as well. What else? I'm also yeah, I have a separate... I'm not I'm going to go get it because I can wait. Mind. Of course not. Is it something exciting? It is. It's my garden waste Sorry about that. Where was I? Okay. No, I know. Something else I've started fairly recently, which I also want to develop is I have a Substack publication, which is a slightly separate thing from my business. So this is where I talk a lot more about grief and about kind of personal side of my life, I suppose, which is something I wanted to talk more about but stick out of my business and my blog and my newsletter because it's irrelevant. I wanted to give it more space in a more appropriate place. That's something I'd like to work on a little bit more. It's called Another Chapter. I'm sure there was something else. I'm also thinking of possibly having an online pencil calligraphy course. I've been teaching some workshops in pencil calligraphy, which is a really nice, easy, accessible way for people to try calligraphy without having to invest in anything. So I've got the back of my mind to turn that into something that people could access all the time, rather than just when I'm randomly doing a workshop for someone else. So, yeah, I'm sure there are other things. I have lots of ideas. Actually getting around to implementing them is another matter. Yeah. Do you write them all down in your own notebook that you made? I do. Yeah, I have a few of those notebooks and I go back and, oh, I've forgotten about that one. There's, yeah, Good to have all the ideas, not necessarily the time to implement them, but yeah, good to have them there. That's been My brand is called Inky Square, so my website is InkySquare.com or Thank you so much. It's been a lovely chat and thank you for getting in touch with me. It's been lovely, thank you. Thanks so much for listening to Creativity Found. I hope you enjoyed this episode and gained some value from it. If you did, perhaps you'd like to contribute a small monetary sign of appreciation, either by becoming a regular supporter from as little as $3 per month using the link in the show notes, Or, if you are listening on a value-for-value enabled app, such as Fountain, TrueFans or Podverse, feel free to send a few sats my way. I also occasionally promote products that I personally use, so please use the affiliate link where relevant if you are buying from those fine companies. Thanks so much, I really appreciate it.

Childhood Creativity and Academic Interests
Moving to the UK and Career Journey
Interest in Historic Landscapes and Buildings
Development of Creative Practice with Paper
Discovering Calligraphy and Instagram Community
The Message in a Bottle Product Idea
Miniature Books and the Magic of Making

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