Meet the Maker – Elly Rowbotham
Elly Rowbotham tried to resist printmaking, taking a ‘proper job’ as a teacher. But when that came to a temporary halt, printmaking “plonked itself, irresistibly,” right in front of her again and the pull of her old Adana Press was too strong to resist. Elly tells jeweller and fellow Folksy seller Leisa Howes about her journey from teenage poster printing to full-time printmaker in a very small studio in St Ives – and how, as an old radical, she is surprised to continually find herself creating images of nature…
To celebrate being our featured maker Elly is running three offers in her shop. Take 25% off when you purchase three cards with the discount code 3Cards25, 25% off her ‘Blackthorn Blossom’ original linoprint with code Blackthorn25 or use code Godrevy25 for 25% off Elly’s ‘Godrevy Lighthouse’ original linocut print.
So here I currently am in my mid 50s – printmaker, mum, mum-in-law, step-mum, step-gran and recently grandma… and at last, I’m comfortable in my printmaking skin.
Hello Elly! Can I begin with asking for an introduction about yourself?
Creating and making has always seemed the natural thing to do, even though my academic schooling said otherwise. That caused inner (and outer!) conflict for a bit but I achieved a Graphic Design BA (hons) & PGCE. So here I currently am in my mid 50s – printmaker, mum, mum-in-law, step-mum, step-gran and recently grandma. My husband is a melodeon tuner/re-maker (amazing specialist set-ups), so our home is a workshop. We’re both musicians. I consider myself very lucky to be a full-time printmaker.
How long have you been working for yourself and was it an easy step to set up on your own?
I’ve worked for myself intermittently throughout my working life in between many different jobs, so even when I’ve been employed I’ve always known I could return to self employment. It was a very hand-to-mouth existence until I eventually trained to be a teacher (finally a ‘respectable’ role). Teaching came to a natural halt, which could have been temporary except printmaking plonked itself, irresistibly, right in front of me again, in the form of my brilliant little Old Adana Press.
Watch Elly Rowbotham’s ‘Darker Clouds’ linocut print come to life (alongside Melanie Wickham’s birds) in this Folksy Friday animation by Leanne Warren and Yas Bowley.
I began with Christmas cards for friends and family and just kept going. I sold some Stargazey cards to a gallery and then, exploring online possibilities, came across Folksy by chance. I took a punt and paid for a Plus account (there was no monthly option then) and earned it back in the first year. It really was ‘learn as I went’. I was amazed when I sold things and that spurred me on. I had no idea what a great creative and supportive community I’d tapped into.
While exploring online selling possibilities, I came across Folksy… I had no idea what a great creative and supportive community I’d tapped into.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
The wonderful Folksy365 bunch on the Talk Folksy forum are the best encouragement – a very different creative world to the pre-internet more isolated one. I tentatively participated in #folksyhour on Twitter and was persuaded, with a little hesitance from me, that Instagram was a good idea. They were right – I learned a lot from participating in those things. Online selling has been a total game changer compared with the more gallery-dependant pre-internet days. I love my Folksy shop and, at last, I’m comfortable in my printmaking skin.
My home used to be Porthleven, where I lived used in a tiny fisherman’s cottage – one of the little houses in my Granite & Lichen print.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
You live in one of my favourite places and I can connect with many of the images in your design work. When did you move to St Ives and was there anything that inspired your move?
I never imagined I’d live in St Ives. I migrated to it gradually over a number of years after meeting my husband who lived here. My home was Porthleven, where I lived in a tiny fisherman’s cottage – one of the little houses in my Granite & Lichen print. For a long time we lived in both places, but eventually it was just more practical to be in St Ives.
It’s said that the light in St Ives has particular qualities that have lured many artists over time. Do you feel your inspiration has changed with your surroundings?
Most of my work is rooted in long-term interests but St Ives definitely has had an impact. I’m very lucky to look out over the celtic sea… most of my life has been by the sea. An experience will trigger an idea and combine with something from my surroundings, Wheal Margery Bee & Jakobi’s Clover are good examples of very local inspiration. We became heavily involved in trying to save a nearby woodland from development – it turned out to be thoroughly steeped in local heritage and above an early copper mine. Through that we discovered a great deal about mining history in St Ives.
My husband photographed the bee during one of his terrain-mapping expeditions and I photographed a single new seedling growing from a rock, seeking light from within the cave entrance of a natural adit, which aligns with the fissure in the Rock on which Godrevy Lighthouse sits (my Godrevy print). That new seedling is representative of many optimistic things, including my utterly adorable, enchanting little grandson.
An experience will trigger an idea and combine with something from my surroundings.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
Has your passion always been printmaking?
Printmaking has been my main love since I was volunteered, as a teen, to help an artist/printmaker create a poster for a local event. I’d always loved letterforms, calligraphy and layout, hand scripting posters for school events. So when I found myself assembling wooden type and printing multiple posters on a wonderful old Albion Press, I thought it was cheating!
It’s very important to me that I’m printing with metal movable type for the text on the back of my cards.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
It didn’t take long to fall in love with the process though. I was then employed to hand print their postcards and my relationship with a hand inking roller was embedded. Not long afterwards I was very lucky to acquire a roller proofing press and cabinets of type from a commercial printer who was disposing of it in favour of, what was then, new desktop publishing technology. When life and bills interrupted, printmaking lurked in the background for a while. My very damp shed in Porthleven wasn’t paper friendly either.
Have you ever explored any other mediums?
For an interval in the ’90s I became very distracted by and obsessed with exploring glass – a fascinating naturally synthetic material that has been fired since the Mesopotamians. I bought an obsolete potter’s kiln and kiln-fired glass for a few years, but it never captured my soul in the way printmaking did.
I’m conscious that Cornwall (usually!) pulls in the tourists. Are there times of the year when you find it easier to create new ideas?
These days there is less of a ‘season’, we carry on as normal while it rumbles on in the background. Ideas queue up regardless. I’m perfectly capable of being a tourist myself! We love the north – the countryside and built environment. Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland are beautiful. We make regular visits and they may well find themselves in my printmaking at some point. Pies – pie pastry in particular – from Yorkshire are a very yummy pasty alternative!
What surprises me is how I keep creating images about flora. I’ve always been quite political and, I thought, radical… but here I am creating nature images.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
I love reading the stories behind your designs. Are there any particular subjects that you enjoy more than others?
I always enjoy the current print the most and look forward to whatever is coming next. What surprises me is how I keep creating images about flora (there’s more fauna to come!). I’ve always been quite political and, I thought, radical… but here I am creating nature images. However, on reflection, MumaNature is simultaneously incredibly beautiful, alarmingly hardcore and considerable – a perfect allegory for any subject matter and long used by many creatives.
The paper I use is mould made, which I tear to size.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
It’s very important to me that I’m printing with metal movable type for the text on the back of my cards. I also use it for the signs that display in some of my outlets and market stalls. The paper I use is mould made, which I tear to size. I love the final folding as that’s when the printmaking become cards: physical artefacts.
Typed text is no replacement for a tangible hand-scripted message, unique to its author.Elly Rowbotham, printmaker
I totally agree with your sentiments about hand-scripted messages having more meaning and surviving into the future over digital writings. Do you think we are losing the art of writing or are you seeing a revival in hand-written communication?
I actually think the digital era has encouraged written communication. I love the creative way people have developed shorthand ways to write. But none of it will last beyond the next digital evolution. I have stuff stored on floppy discs, but I can’t remember what’s on them and have no technology to read them. Typed text is no replacement for a tangible hand-scripted message, unique to its author. There’s an irreplaceable ‘physical connect’ to holding a piece of writing from past eras, especially antecedents, and a delight in receiving a current one. We all know that our ancient history is recorded in artefacts left by makers’ images and writings left in caves and on tablets, illuminated manuscripts, letters etc. I’d love to see the present digitally written trend applied to hand-scripted messages. Maybe it happens more than I realise, but I like to think my little cards might be contributing to it.
Your work is beautiful and I see that you’re using your smaller press currently. Have your designs changed as a result of working in a smaller studio?
Thank you. Yes, all my current printmaking is entirely governed by my small press and my very small print room. It’s steered and changed my thinking about what I’m doing, the cards in particular. I’ve discovered a pleasing benefit in using fewer materials, as it’s more sustainable and allows me to keep printmaking. I never print more than 20 cards at a time and each time I revisit a print I get to tweak and improve it, which is a joy. It’s also a challenge.
I particularly love lino cutting but there’s a limit to how fine a gouge will cut while achieving enough depth, so as not to clog a groove with ink. I use engraver’s tools as an assist workaround, but it’s tricky – they’re not the right tool. I’ve also sharpened and slightly adapted my oldest gouge, which is made from good ol’ Sheffield steel Folksy! ;) – I probably should experiment more but feel a constant need to get the next design printed, which always seems to take an age, especially with all the necessary extra-printmaking selling activities.
Have you any dreams of where you would like to take your business in the future?
Although I love working where I am and fully appreciate how it has shaped my current work, I would like a bigger space where I could have both presses. I miss using my old roller proofing press and would love to produce some larger edition prints. It would also be a treat to work on a single horizontal plane instead of my existing, countless vertical levels! My next print room is already established in my day dreams. The courses I’d like to run are mentally written too. But in the meantime I’m quite enjoying my slow build and have my eye on more bricks-and-mortar outlets (post Coronavirus!)… if they’ll have me.
Enjoy 25% off when you purchase three cards with the discount code 3Cards25, 25% off her ‘Blackthorn Blossom’ original linoprint with code Blackthorn25 or use code Godrevy25 for 25% off Elly’s ‘Godrevy Lighthouse’ original linocut print.
Meet the Interviewer
The maker asking the questions this time was Leisa Howes. Leisa Howes is a jewellery designer and metalworker based in Hull who creates beautiful hand-stamped, uniques pieces of jewellery and collectables inspired by British folklore, Norse mythology, ancient landscapes, wildlife and the sea.
You can read our interview with Leisa here – https://blog.folksy.com/2020/04/06/leisa-howes-jewellery
Shop Leisa Howes Jewellery on Folksy – https://folksy.com/shops/Leisahowes