24 Aug The Art of Restoration – with Jay Blades
Fear is a funny thing.
I already did the hard work – traveled, photographed, edited and wrote the story – and yet when it comes to sharing my work, I froze. I delayed. I procrastinated. I dabbled in excuses. I delayed again. Fear can be both motivating and paralyzing.
In any case, it’s time.
Here’s the story of how I came to meet Jay Blades, an award-winning BBC designer. And how travelling to the West Midlands in the UK to photograph him, actually helped me find my way back to me.
My suitcase clambered over the cobblestone streets of Wolverhampton. As I rounded the corner of Berry Street, I adjusted my camera bag on my shoulder, balanced two cups of tea in one hand as I pulled the weight of my luggage behind me. With a deep breath and audible sigh, I was nervous, but I was ready. After about 6 weeks of anticipation and patchwork planning, I’d finally arrived.
I first reached out to him on Earth Day, 22 April, with a creative nudge and a simple idea. Frustrated by the job hunt in Toronto and healing from a painful breakup, I didn’t know when I’d find my light again. I was suffocating in rejection, I felt displaced professionally and I couldn’t find my footing. One year earlier, all the foundations I’d built came crashing down – I lost my job, moved across Canada in search of work and my relationship ended abruptly. Adding to this, my fortieth birthday lay on the horizon. I was humbled, discouraged and unsure of how I’d gotten to this dark place. I found myself under-employed, couch-surfing and completely lost. But here I was, clinging for hope, searching for answers and a way back to me.
For some reason, in all this searching, finding myself increasingly discouraged by job applications that remained unanswered, I started de-cluttering. I found peace in the clearing. But it was more than that – it was as if in the debris I was looking for answers. The more I parted with, passed on, let go of, I was sure I’d find the answers I was seeking. Or at the very least, I’d let go of the heaviness that had been weighing me down. Sometimes, I’d find things and give them new life, dust off the debris, renew, recycle, transform.
Much like the concept of Kintsukuroi (金繕い) – the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquered gold -I was looking to repair both my broken heart and my world through the art of restoration. In the clearing, I found objects to restore and was inspired by the Japanese philosophy which acknowledges that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.
It was a rainy day in April, tired from my early morning shifts at the local bookstore (far from my previous life as a humanitarian aid worker and photographer), I wanted something to lose myself in. Netflix recommended “Money for Nothing” – a show whose premise is based on rescuing forgotten items bound for the landfill and re-purposing them into something beautiful. I was immediately drawn to one of the designers – whose specialty is up-cycling and refurbishing old furniture. His use of colour, his style and his warmth intrigued me. But more than that, he emulated a kindness, humility and a compassion that resonated. His social media indicated that he works with young people in his community and teaches them carpentry, advocacy and mentorship.
His workshop is in a former post-office in the heart of old Wolverhampton. The light streams through old windows, highlighting the dust particles that dance around his work. Old paint peels off the ceiling and cracks in the walls reveal exposed brick, rich with elements of charm. As a photographer, I saw nothing but possibility in the texture, the light and the process of restoration.
On 22 April, I reached out to him via Instagram. I told him I was a Canadian photographer, inspired by the show and I’d love to work with him one day. I left the note with no expectations, and much to my surprise, in a nutshell, he said yes.
As I’ve been under-employed for months, money has been tight, but I knew I had the tools – and thanks to years as an aid worker – I had a global community of friends whom I could stay with. What started as an idea, became what I called my resurrection tour. Climbing out of the fog of my sadness, my not enough-ness, I curated opportunities for myself. I set up photoshoots in Geneva and time to spend with dear friends I’d worked and lived with during the Haiti earthquake response. It was an opportunity to connect with a part of my life that felt so far away, and it reminded me that my world was much bigger than it had felt lately.
And so came the day to meet Jay Blades – the BBC presenter, community activist and creator. With two cups of builders’ tea in hand, I stepped into the old post office. He greeted me warmly and apologized for the chaos. In the time since I’d left Canada, he was informed that the space had sold. Builders worked to clear out debris and materials from inside, kicking up dust in their wake. Jay dabbed the sweat from his brow as he worked to pack up and clear old furniture and materials out. I quietly observed the space and as I wondered through the old post office, it hit me. I was here. I made it happen and my photos would capture a moment in his history that was about to end.
As I edged down the old staircase, I rounded the corner and saw him. He dusted off his hands, put on his crisp white shirt, and said in his delightful Hackney accent, “Alright’ darlin’, I’m ready for you”
Something transpired over the next hour. I don’t know what it was, short of some sort of kindred connection. But as the distractions faded and our conversations picked up, the symmetry fell into place.
In the space of the debris and chaos, he saw me. It wasn’t lost on me that I was drawn to the one designer who takes broken things and makes them beautiful again. While I didn’t know him at all, something about his journey of arriving in Wolverhampton, felt similar to my own. There was a recognition in the struggle, a recognition of the rebirth. A recognition in each other. Something transcended.
As I circled him, brows furrowed in concentration, looking for the catch-light in his eyes, he said to me, “You’re spending all this time looking for the light in other people, but what you need to do is turn that camera around on yourself. Right now, you’re standing in the dark – and your eyes are beaming. I don’t know where you’ve come from or who has hurt you, but you’ve got summit special, girl. And when you catch up to yourself and realize how powerful you are …. Bosh, wow, look out world.”
I don’t know yet where this will take me, but in the dusty remnants of that old post office – far away from everything I knew – in this place of restoration, decay and beauty, I stood tall – back in me. Awash with serenity, I hugged this stranger-come-friend. The cosmos, kismet of fate, on the tendrils of my creativity, lead me to him and back to me. As I packed up my things, the adrenaline pushing through me started to fade. I could exhale. I did it. And en route to the train station, I saw a sign, reflected in the window: “Head on up”
I lifted my shoulders, my heart lacquered with gold – exhaled deeply and walked on.