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Mixed Media Collages and Switchback Amnesia……

This blog post is dedicated to all you introverts, fraidy cats and home lovin’ Cancerians. I see you. ❤️

As a typical introvert I’m happy in the company of good friends and likeminded people, but feel most at ease in my own company. I am, however, acutely aware that if I don’t give myself a poke and a prod occasionally I’m in danger of fossilising inside my carefully constructed shell.

So every January I like to set an intention for the year. I make a vision board, often with friends, and think about the things that I really want to do, and achieve, that year.

Last year’s intention was: Spend More Time Outdoors.

So I got a dog.

Weeks of research and procrastination ended abruptly the day I made a rash decision to buy the first dog that jumped up at me from my phone and I’m now the apologetic owner of a dog who has taught me many things, including the theory of special relativity.

In case you can’t remember this from school it goes like this:  as an object moves faster, its observed mass increasesHe helpfully demonstrates this regularly by hurling himself at me so I can observe and experience the effect of being knocked over.

This year’s intention was: Be Brave – Travel More

I wish I was braver, but it’s easy to talk yourself out of things when you’re the only adult in the household. (the ACTUAL age of your children is irrelevant here)

It’s even easier to think of excuses not to do things that require more effort than driving to the beach with an excited beady eyed friend panting in your ear.

But part of being brave is speaking the truth – to ourselves.

So here goes: “Actually the reason I choose not to do those things is because I’m a big fraidy cat”

So by the end of January this year I’d faced my fears and booked a long weekend in Paris and was planning a week in Portugal.

Paris was lovely, as always. I love the galleries, the shops, the food and I feel at home there.

A weekend in Paris eased me gently into this years theme of traveling bravely. Yes, I realise that climbing the 300 steps to the Dome of the Sacre-Coeur is hardly a brave act but it’s more satisfying than climbing the stairs at the multi-story car park.

And I was wearing boots that rubbed slightly at the heel – so it was actually quite a challenge.

Paris was, however, the warm up act for what felt like the big adventure – my trip to Arganil in Central Portugal.

I’d published a blog post by my friend Nikola Orpen at Texatelier  last year about the art and textiles courses she runs in her studio in Benfeita, Portugal and I’d been thinking for some time that I’d love to do one of her workshops.

So I thoroughly researched every possible flight in forensic detail,  studied every available type of accommodation within a 10 mile radius of Nikola’s workshop and continued to do this for weeks, stuck in a research loop unable to actually book anything for fear of making the wrong decision.

And then, just as time was running out I booked the flight, the accommodation and Nikola had arranged for me to borrow a friends car.

By now my daughter had decided she wanted to come too; I was happy she wanted to join me but this new layer of responsibility  heightened my anxiety and I was now catastrophising in vivid technicolour.

So we went together. We made it to Porto airport, navigated our way through the metro, caught the  bus, and a second bus, Nikola met us exactly where she said she would, and drove us to my loaned car. We found the keys, found our accommodation on google maps and set off on the last leg of our journey.

The scenery was absolutely stunning, a beautiful mountain-scape with tiny villages nestled into the landscape; whitewashed buildings with beautiful flower boxes lined the roads and the sky was an indigo blue.

I, however, was completely oblivious to the beauty of my surroundings, focussing only on the white knuckle ride ahead of me.

I have NEVER driven abroad.

I’ve always managed to avoid it and it’s been one of my biggest fears in my adult life. I’m so envious of anyone who can just hop into any car, anywhere in the world and own the road with confidence and abandon.

With my daughter as navigator we cautiously started up the mountain track, and I tried  not to see the  steep drop to my right. It struck me that I’d just discovered  the polar opposite to Highway Hypnosis; I like to call it Switchback Amnesia as I’d completely forgotten all my driving skills.

We crawled like a snail around the mountains looking for our accommodation, the blue line on google maps occasionally re-routing but always pointing up a precariously narrow and very steep track.

Somehow we seemed to be circumnavigating our destination and Siri was under the impression our accommodation was a deserted barn on a barren piece of wasteland.

A broken wing mirror,  some tears and an hour later, after being chased by a dog intent on alerting everyone in the vicinity to the arrival of an incompetent driver, we eventually found our accommodation.

And it was perfect.

The hosts greeted us warmly with freshly baked bread, cake and a much needed bottle of Douro.

The next morning we had just a short drive to Nikola’s studio, so as soon as the glue had dried on the wing mirror I found the route on my phone and braced myself for another white knuckle ride.

True to form, Siri  hilariously rerouted us off track and through the tiniest village ever with roads just about wide enough for a chicken on a bicycle.

How DO you stay on the right side of the road when there’s only one lane and it’s  millimetres from the edge of a mountain?

We arrived in one piece and I knew instantly why I’d made the effort to get here.

The space that Nikola, and her partner Sean have created is pretty amazing. It’s completely off grid and they live a self sufficient life which enables them to spend their time, teaching, practicing art activities and traveling. They really are the evidence that brave choices can result in an extraordinary life.

We were joining Nikola for a  Mixed Media Textile Collage and Assemblage three day course and this was an opportunity for me to take some time out for myself and indulge in three days of playful colour and collage exploration.

I wasn’t disappointed. Nikki is an excellent tutor –  her studio was beautifully prepared and each of us on the course had our own dedicated space  to work in. Nikola’s studio comfortably accommodates four people and a late cancellation meant that there were only three of us.

Day one was all about creating surfaces to use in our montages. We had a wide selection of papers, textiles and card to work on and we were shown how to use a broad range of mixed media to generate a collection of colourful, textured sheets.

Emphasis was on exploration and discovery. We worked with inks, dyes, acrylics, bleach and  print media. And we experimented with markmaking using brushes, rollers, oil pastels and a whole range of found objects; nothing was off limits.

By the end of Day One we’d all generated a wall full of colourful work ready to be cut up and reassembled the next day.

By Day Two I was beginning to relax into the daily commute and had given up on Google Maps – preferring to navigate my own way through the mountains and I was looking forward to working with the sheets I’d prepared.

Nikola talked us through the next step which was to create a series of small compositional montages aiming for tonal variety and exploring different format arrangements.

I love working like this. I could spend days arranging and rearranging  small pieces of coloured paper looking for the perfect composition. Waiting for that familiar little dopamine hit I get when something just ‘works’. It’s an intuitive way of working and making art. There’s no particular meaning, it’s non- representational and it’s unconfrontational. It’s simply a very uplifting and accessible way of working.

By the end of Day Two I had a delightful set of small collages and I was feeling very happy and relaxed.

Day Three: the last day of any art course  is conventionally the day when you do the ‘self directed work’

It is possible to make beautiful work by passively following instructions – but if you want to challenge yourself and claim ownership of the work you do there comes a point when you have to start thinking for yourself.

This can be the hardest part of any course for some people- after two days of being guided through the process it’s time to ask yourself some questions and discover your own authentic way of working.

Again, Nikola guided us through this step, talking about her own practice and showing us a collection of her work that spanned whole decades (she really is a professional at this and has a lifetime of work to prove it!)

So by the end of the third day we had all forged our own paths and had industriously created our own, personal, body of work.


I’m fascinated by observing how other people manifest their creativity. We all had different intuitive responses to the same materials equipment and tools- and with the knowledge and guidance Nikola offered us we were able to generate a coherent and beautiful collection of collages.

Each collage was complete in itself – but it could also become the point of departure for so many other, larger pieces of work; abstract paintings, patchwork quilts, embroidered panels and  crochet blankets. There’s so much potential in each tiny study.

So we finished the course feeling happy, relaxed – oh, and very well fed! Nikola and Sean prepared the most delicious home cooked lunches and provided refreshing teas and snacks throughout the day.

The next day we said goodbye to our lovely accommodation hosts, and their two  slow motion dogs- and after an uneventful journey home I was literally bowled over by the enthusiastic welcome I received by my beady eyed friend.

I’m reflecting as I write this on a fabulous week of discovery and a creative re-boot – and I’ll remind myself regularly that great things happen when you take a brave step……

If you’d like to take part in the next Mixed Media Textile Collage and Assemblage course with Nikola, which takes place this October – nip over here for more details– I thoroughly recommend it!





This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Hello! I am totally in that group of ” introverts, fraidy cats and home lovin’ Cancerians.” I felt every inch of your journey – and the fabulous pay off. That truly was an exciting Workshop! My question is – will you do it again? If another similar opportunity comes along, now knowing how hard it was to book the course, make the arrangements, drive up a mountain, would you do it again?

    1. Hi Wendy, that’s a really good question! I think the answer has to be YES! I know things that are hard first time round generally get easily the more times you do it….and it helps that I’m also very stubborn and refuse to be beaten!

  2. This is a lovely piece Sue and resonates so much. I too have set an intention to be Brave. I had to be brave to travel to America with old friends and it was one of the most uplifting experiences I can remember. I took my “safety blanket” of a crochet hook, yarn and concentrated fingers with me, and it was great. Your photos and writing in this blog are fabulous – thank you for sharing them.

    1. Thank you Helen! I’m glad it spoke to you- and I’m glad you’re also taking brave steps.

  3. What a wonderful blog on your experience and travel , let alone all the gorgeous work you did. Well done you and time with your daughter too. With love xx

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