Extracurricular activities: creatives on the side-hustles which grew out of 2020
Lockdown gave many creatives a chance to do that passion project they've always meant to do, but how have those hobbies influenced their main practice? Ronan McKenzie, Kate Prior, the Apartamento founders and more, share theirs.
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Although the various troubles of 2020 placed a number of creative ventures on hold, during the turbulent times we all experienced, many creatives utilised the time to pick up something their “normal” lives never allowed room for.
Largely down to what felt like an endless stretch of time suddenly placed in front of us, the lockdowns and socially distanced times of 2020 made way for a whole host of hobbies and crafts. In our very own office we’ve seen colleagues pick up cross stitch projects, a new handmade earrings side hustle, mosaics and plenty of baking, knitting and Animal Crossing playing too. It’s a habit we also noticed the creative community picking up enthusiastically, with several creatives utilising the free time offered to try a creative task that’s always been just out of grasp.
For many, these new creative extracurriculars have stuck around, becoming ever growing side-hustles or a new source of inspiration for the individual’s original medium. Inspired ourselves, we catch up with five creatives who put down their usual set of tools for a new venture last year, from an illustrator who started a pop-up pizza business to a magazine creating a wine subscription and a photographer now designing the clothes she would usually be photographing behind the lens.
Illustrator Peony Gent’s new-found love for quilting
For Peony Gent, a London-based illustrator and artist (who was recently House of Illustration’s Artist in Residence), 2020 saw her take up quilting. An “unexpected saviour” during the UK’s first lockdown, shifting her practice momentarily to textiles has offered Peony a whole host of inspiration and provided creative space away from her day-to-day work.
Initially, Peony was inspired by “the very talented Jillian Tamaki” and her own grandma, who had already caught her up with the do’s and don’t’s of this new creative outlet. “The huge amount of time I suddenly had, plus my flatmate’s charity shop sewing machine, equaled the perfect mental place for me to try a new hobby,” she tells It’s Nice That. Following a month of trial and error, aided by “a lot of help from sweet old ladies from Texas who make quilt tutorial videos on YouTube,” Peony was set to add quilting as another factor of her creative practice, as well as her usual portraits, comics and prints.
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Peony Gent: Quilt (Copyright © Peony Gent, 2020)
Although a creative task, Peony points out that quilting requires a largely different frame of mind than putting pen to paper. For instance, most of her illustrative work is narrative driven and “entirely observational” where she creates autobiographical comics about her own life – a task which “isn’t very easy or especially generative to do during a stressful national state of emergency,” she explains. In turn, the repetitive nature of quilting offered “an alternative way to stay creative,” as well as utilising “an entirely different part of my brain”.
Likening quilting to being a visual conundrum to solve, in comparison to the open-ended question illustration poses, it additionally felt detached from Peony’s personal output. She adds that the process felt like a slight relief in not taking “quite the same emotional toll that making my comics can,” as well as offering “a clear path of what to do next, so creative block is a little easier to handle”. There is also a physical difference in the making too. Often drawing “leaves me stuck at my desk staring into space,” Peony describes. “Instead, I could really enjoy the difference in making and the different elements of cutting fabric, pinning and sewing all added a bit of variance”.
Peony Gent: Quilt (Copyright © Peony Gent, 2020)
Peony Gent: Quilt (Copyright © Peony Gent, 2020)
As well as offering a little room to breathe, and some beautiful handmade creative editions for the home, Peony concludes that this pivot in practice has shifted her personal view on being a “maker” also. “It’s definitely made me more comfortable with the view of myself as a multidisciplinary illustrator,” she says, “and made me feel even more fiercely that the line between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art is complete rubbish.” An artist who has always worked across mediums – Peony’s practice, although steeped in drawing, includes installations, poetry and artist books – she notes how there is a creative freedom in just making for the sake of making. “It felt so freeing to make something that wasn’t making a story, a statement or a political message. Instead I could make something that could just exist to exist; and exist to make someone happy or to make their home a little nicer. That has its own very special power.”
Apartamento’s co-founder Marco Velardi on setting up a wine company
For over the past decade interiors like-no-other magazine Apartamento has regularly provided unique insight into the homes of artists, chefs, musicians, architects, writers and more. Yet alongside producing its bi-annual magazine the team behind the publication has launched their very own subscription of a different kind – wine!
Opening mid 2020, The Natural Wine Company is a new venture for the publication, in collaboration with Alfredo Lopez, a close friend with a history of exporting natural wine from one of Apartamento’s HQs, Spain. As Marco Veraldi, one of the publisher’s co-founders tells us, “Apartmento has been also interested in drinking and discovering more about winemakers, and began featuring them in the magazine. The communal interest and curiosity led us to join forces in launching The Natural Wine Company in June 2020.”
A way to open up the community of the “growing natural wine scene together”, The Natural Wine Company is a shop and wine club, featuring four or six curated wines delivered monthly. An idea the team had been playing with for a while, “the slower pace of 2020 was definitely a key factor to be able to focus energies on such a new project,” Marco explains. While a pivot in product, “and the work is definitely different from making and selling magazines or books,” the publisher points out that there are parallels when you look closely. After all, Apartamento’s global success stems from its team’s ability to craft “a product made with love”, just like Alfredo’s approach to wine. Offering “a peak into another industry, which is quite refreshing as well, The Natural Wine Company has been a good testing ground for some ideas we had in mind for a while,” he says.
Within this testing ground the team have also learned several lessons in its new subscription service, “but if we had to pick one key aspect, The Natural Wine Company has shown us what it means to be producing and delivering content and product to an audience on a strict monthly basis,” explains Marco. For instance, its wine club doesn’t only deliver bottles to subscribers but carefully selected wine notes, videos and photos, both digitally and physically, while still remaining “very different from doing a biannual magazine,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we will see any changes in Apartmento’s own publishing schedule, but it’s good to push yourself and see your limits.”
Illustrator Kate Prior swapped pencils for pizza making
Kate Prior, another illustrator based in London known for her work for Pitchfork, Loud and Quiet and The New Yorker, also picked up a new hobby last year in making pizzas. Not just happy with creating some culinary experiments, Kate and her partner have set up their own neighbourhood pop-up pizza joint: Short Road Pizza.
When the UK first headed into lockdown in March 2020, the move inside was coupled with a long awaited house move for Kate. However isolation doesn’t particularly allow for mingling, and besides their Thursday evening claps for the NHS, Kate “fancied a better way to introduce ourselves,” she tells us.
In perfect timing, Kate’s partner Ugo had bought a pizza oven “and we thought maybe sharing pizzas with our neighbours could be a nice idea,” she recalls. Like Peony, making pizzas also offered a totally new outlet for both Kate and Ugo, explaining how they felt a little helpless during the pandemic. “Our jobs were safe but we didn’t feel of any real use to anyone, so we decided to make it purely charity focused.”
Making flyers to post to their new neighbours, the pair developed a plan to open every other Sunday. Residents could place their order via Instagram and, in exchange for contact-free delivery, make a charity donation to their neighbourhood food bank, Eat or Heat. Over 100 pizzas later, and £1000+ raised, “a nice man in our area called Jack who had the same oven as us wanted to help out,” explains Kate, now leading the trio to host a weekly Sunday pop-up at their local wine shop, TBC, in Leytonstone.
Kate’s role in Short Road Pizza differs massively from her day-to-day task of illustrating, largely handling logistics for the new business “and making sure things happen on time,” she says. “Some of that involves creating menu graphics in a short period of time but it’s mostly copywriting, taking bookings, giving time slots, sous cheffing, front of house-ing and box folding.” Despite the difference, this organisational role is one Kate actually loves. It’s also given the illustrator a chance to work within a team “and meet so many different people too, as being an illustrator isn’t the most social of jobs.”
Still working away at both the pizza cheffing and illustrating, Kate explains that although hugely different, this new venture has taught her a fair bit about her role as an illustrator. For instance, when the task of creating the branding for Short Road popped up she jumped at the opportunity. This experience (although definitely providing a stellar job) led Kate to realise, “how important working with an art director is for me, and also how one of the bigger, more enjoyable or rewarding aspects of my illustration job is working towards a client’s brief and needs, and being able to please them,” she says. Working in a team too has taught Kate to “be more open about collaboration,” she adds. “I can be a bit controlling when it comes to ideas and creativity, and want things my own way. Collaborating with two different people on pizzas was really positive and eye-opening – trust in people’s professionalism and vision.”
Photographer Ronan McKenzie on finding creativity in clothes making
In the first few weeks of the lockdown, it quickly became obvious that photographers were likely to be among the hardest hit by the restrictions, with their work literally relying on bodies in a room and a certain closeness. With things a little quieter for the ever busy Ronan McKenzie the London-based photographer tried her hand at clothes making, an experiment turned fully fledged side project, Selasi.
Tempted when her partner wanted to make some trousers, Ronan ordered some fabric to have a go, “and I honestly just absolutely loved the process,” she tells It’s Nice That. The result is a collection of free flowing garments in shape, which curve with strength and experimentation. Having not picked up sewing since she was a child, (“my dad still has a penny purse I made him on a coach trip to Hastings as a child”) and with no formal training, Ronan is able to be purposefully “free and fluid with it which makes it playful, expressive and just really fun”.
Approaching the practice with this sense of freedom has been a regular habit of Ronan’s realising that, for her, “exploring other creative practices has just allowed me to express myself through other mediums, and the more I do it, the more excited I am to try more things and then find ways to bring them together,” she says, “like making clothes, styling them, and then shooting them.” Whether it’s creating with fabric, or even recently clay, Ronan notes that giving herself freedom is key to keeping her creatively engaged. Pointing out how the transition of a hobby to a career introduces pressures and limitations, “it’s made me remember and realise that I need to be more intentional with my photography projects to make sure each one is special.”
Rather than a creative technique or stylistic attribute, it’s this sentiment Ronan holds closest since starting to explore clothes making and dedicating more time to Selasi. “I think it’s just opened my eyes and mind to remembering to enjoy my work, and to slow down and take the time to learn new things.” Taking the same approach as she nurtures Selasi now (although already receiving a feature in Vogue!) Ronan describes it as “me time” she says, “my Sunday afternoons listening to my mum’s radio show and just intuitively cutting, feeling, working with my hands, has been a meditation for me.” Keep your eyes peeled though as Ronan works towards creating her first official collection, around spring, “in my own time and on my own terms”.
Art directors Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam's pivot to digitally offering a window into new worlds
Living in Singapore, when the city was in its strictest lockdown art director couple Sonali and copywriter Vaishnav understandably felt a little cooped up in their one bedroom apartment. Endlessly staring out their own window – “a nice, but bland view,” as they describe – the pair quickly realised that feeling sick of their view, however nice, was a universal sentiment. A friend posted a story of their view in Barcelona and noted how bored they were growing of it, “Vaishnav and I were joking about how we wished we could just swap places with him, then we came up with the idea – if we couldn’t swap places, perhaps we could swap window views and pretend we were someone else for a while,” says Sonali.
WindowSwap was born at that moment, a collaborative digital tool which beams viewers into the viewpoint of a distant stranger’s window. A project we wrote about a few months back, Vaishnav and Sonali’s idea soon went viral in what “started off as a small project between friends has grown into this gentle monster, with over 10,000 video submissions from around the world,” explains Sonali.
A side project for the pair alongside their usual advertising jobs, the pair still divvy up the task of updating the site (which can only hold 150 videos at a time so they have to continually change them) to ensure its as varied as possible “with a good mix of city, country, rain and pets”. Growing also into an Instagram account for extra submissions which have may be too short or the wrong format for the main site, “It’s been a lovely experience – looking through all these windows really changes your perspective,” adds Sonali. “It breaks a lot of the stereotypes and preconceived notions you may have had about different countries, and you find yourself looking at the world, but also your own life, in an entirely new light.”
Like our other interviewees, channelling their spare creative energy usually saved for evenings and weekends has been a breath of fresh air for Sonali and Vashinav. Usually spending their days working on brand campaigns, “WindowSwap is a lovely, gentler way to spend our time.” It’s also teaching the pair a fair bit about being on the other side of a project, such as how to keep a community going. “Perhaps my biggest takeaways,” concludes Sonali, “is that the simpler the idea the better,” she says. And, if you have an idea for a project don’t overthink it too much – just make it.”
In the case of WindowSwap, the pair deciding to put this idea out into the world, in the hope that it resonates, has paid off massively on a personal level. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, think of it as an experiment, but just get it out of your head and into the world. Some of your ideas may sink (plenty of mine have), but you never know what might suddenly take off.”
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Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam: WindowSwap (Copyright © WindowSwap, 2020)
Apartamento: The Natural Wine Company (Copyright © The Natural Wine Company, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.