Mary Strickson – The Picture Whole

Mary Strickson is the founder of creative enterprise The Picture Whole and one of the artists behind two of The Mighty Creatives projects – Emerge and Splash! We caught up with her to find out more about her unique journey into the arts as a photographer, illustrator and workshop facilitator…

“I didn’t come from a traditional arts background so it was really scary for me when I first started out. I didn’t know anyone in the arts, or anything about freelancing, as the careers advice I’d had at university mainly focused on graduate fairs and graduate careers with big companies.

“The whole way through school I always wanted to do art, but then at college I discovered a passion for history and ended up doing a history degree. I really enjoyed it but it didn’t mean I’d lost my love of art. The year after graduation was terrifying…wondering ‘now what…what shall I do?’

“Luckily, I emailed Nottingham Contemporary and got involved with their youth programme. I also signed up for the youth programme at Nottingham Castle, Museum and Art Gallery and started writing for Voice magazine – a platform for young people interested in the arts, culture or technology industries. Looking back, emailing the Contemporary was the best thing I did.”

“It’s making that initial leap that’s the hardest thing to do, but once I had, it led on to everything I’ve done since.”

“I went back to uni to do a Masters in Art History but I was still involved with the Contemporary and Nottingham Museum, and kept up my writing too. After uni I joined the Young Producers at City Arts in Nottingham, and also worked with Junction Arts – helping run workshops and freelancing as an event photographer. I was also trying to get back into drawing and illustration, something I’d always loved, but felt like I didn’t have time for. It took a while, a bit like having writer’s block.

“I knew I wanted to do photography and illustration but at that point I had no confidence in my work and didn’t think I was good enough. I certainly didn’t have the confidence to turn what I was doing into a business, I didn’t even have a website or know how to set one up.

“In what turned out to be one of those strange twists of fate, I applied to work as a young artist on The Mighty Creatives’ Emerge festival. I didn’t get an interview but in retrospect I got something better, an email about their Creative Enterprise programme. The programme gave me the building blocks of how to set up a business – it forced me to take a leap and get it done. Launch a website, get on social media, sort out the paperwork, develop a business plan. It took me through the process and broke down all the jargon. It was so helpful to learn about things like managing accounts and tax, and researching market segments and what’s in demand.

“Beyond the practicalities, the mentoring I had from The Mighty Creatives was also a really big help. When I first launched my website I worried about what people would think but the support I had helped me get over that and feel more confident.

“Spending lots of time in the art world, around lots of people with art degrees, had made me question myself and ask ‘am I qualified?’ In hindsight I don’t think an art degree would have suited me. This way, I’ve kept art as my passion and the support I had from The Mighty Creatives helped me get back into drawing and illustration again – and make it a major part of The Picture Whole along with photography.

“The Creative Enterprise programme inspired me to keep developing my business skills and I went on to join The Big House business support programme in Nottingham and did a 12 week course with THiNK around running a pop-up shop. As part of the course, I had a stall at Sneinton Market and now I’m booked up until Christmas doing markets with The Picture Whole, selling my illustrated products.

“Without The Mighty Creatives and the mentoring I had from Becky, both during the Creative Enterprise course and beyond, I don’t think I’d have done any of what I went on to do, or what I’m doing now. They gave me the support to make the jump.”

“Now, through The Picture Whole, I’m exploring my career as an event photographer, illustrator and workshop facilitator. My focus for the last year or so has been on running creative workshops for The Mighty Creatives Emerge and Splash! festivals. For Emerge, I worked as part of the creative team running workshops for young people in Sutton-in-Ashfield and for Splash! I led workshops independently, exploring photography, drama and theatre with young people with disabilities. I’d worked with young people with disabilities before, but Splash! was a great chance to go into SEND schools. I still write and work on heritage projects too, there’s no rule that says you have to choose or stick to one thing!

“As someone who’s had to find an alternative path into the creative sector I know how hard it can be when you don’t know how to start or who to talk to. People always think young people access everything online but if you don’t have creative people in your social media bubble, you won’t necessarily know what’s going on out there. I would have loved to know about places like Nottingham Contemporary when I was growing up, but I didn’t. That’s why projects like Emerge and Splash! are so important, as well as arts in schools. It’s vital that young people have different avenues to find out about the arts. The youth programmes I did gave me the chance to do Arts Award and learn from others in the sector, about how they got into their careers and where to go and look for information and support, as well as giving me access to all kinds of arts and the opportunity to produce my own creative work.

“When I was doing my Masters I wrote for the uni’s careers service to practice my writing and they invited me back recently to talk about my freelance career and write some career blogs. I try and focus on the fact that you don’t need to know what it is you want to do – it’s all about trying things out and letting your career develop naturally. The last ten years have been a massive learning curve but it really feels as if I’ve come full circle and now I’m helping other young people on their journeys into the arts!”

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