Posted 04 May 2023

“If you can’t find a room, build your own”: Illustrator and artist Charlie Collins’ advice on overcoming creative isolation

It’s not unusual to feel creatively isolated at some point in your career – just ask Charlie Collins. Having graduated from uni in the thick of the pandemic, the Peak District-based illustrator and artist attests to feeling pangs of loneliness as a rurally-based emerging creative even today. But she’s managed to start breaking free from it by putting herself out there and building a community of collaborators – including those she works with on No Jobs in the Arts, a zine and arts organisation she co-directs with artist Ryan Boultbee. Here, Charlie shares her advice and experience on how she’s managed to seek out like-minded creatives, both online and IRL.

I often do hours (or days) of solo work as a curator, illustrator and creative producer, chipping away at projects to meet deadlines. I’ve found myself frequently cancelling on, or not even RSVP-ing to social occasions in the name of getting work done. But no matter how passionate I am about creating work, when that feeling of loneliness starts creeping in, I can feel my creativity waning.

I’ve regularly come up against the same challenge: how does a rurally-based, introverted, recently graduated, socially anxious and neurodivergent creative expand my community and lift the blanket of isolation? I know I’m not alone in experiencing this, and the prospect may seem daunting. But it’s important we find ways of connecting that work for us, as opportunities become more abundant when you put yourself and your work out there.

With that said, below are resources and methods of working that have allowed me to reach out, find friends and collaborators and generally feel a little less isolated. I hope they will help you do the same.

💭 Know that you’re not alone

When I began making some notes for this article I was having a pretty tough day. A mound of work was piling up, and a few things were going on in my personal life. So I’m here to tell you that you are not alone in feeling this isolation, and it’s a good idea to remind yourself of that.

You could choose to share these feelings with a peer, close friend or family member. If that isn’t a possibility at the moment, there’s a beautiful project that I came across recently. The Loneliness Project is an archive of stories shared from people all over the world, brought together to show us that we are never truly alone.

👯 Collaborate with others

The idea of the solo artist or ‘lone ranger’ is a romanticised myth; you don't have to go it alone. When I began paying attention to the way I work, I noticed how conversation, dialogue, and sharing of ideas were feeding into my practice.

Working with others has allowed me to explore new ideas and learn new skills, which has been particularly helpful when producing No Jobs in the Arts’ zines. It’s been incredibly valuable to work alongside new guest curators for each edition, who often challenge and question our curatorial choices. For example, in 2020 we collaborated with curator Morel O’Sullivan, who shared knowledge on accessibility which has continued to influence the projects I deliver.

🙇 Working remotely doesn’t have to mean working alone

Try to agree ways of communicating that are inclusive for all of your collaborators. Vary your schedule with video, telephone, or coffee shop meetings, as they can help break up your week.

Team meetings can feel daunting, particularly for the introverted or socially anxious. It may help to introduce interactive working methods into your practice. Various platforms allow for this type of collaboration, even for different disciplines. I like working on collaborative mind maps on Google Jamboard and posting physical work-in-progress between team members.

Give yourself a change of scenery from your home or studio by spending time in a public space. Libraries, coffee shops, shared studios or co-working spaces, such as Oppidan in Manchester, can be great spaces to work in. Look out for spaces that are set up with the freelancer or remote worker in mind – many of them run social and networking events for their communities.

🔍 Find out how other creatives build their community

Sharing your work with others, asking for advice or offering mutual support are great ways to lessen feelings of alienation. To build your community, don’t be afraid to ask those with more experience in your field. How have they networked? How did they meet their collaborators? How do they stay in touch with peers?

Another way is to observe how fellow emerging creatives connect with others through social media, so it’s worth following people working in a similar discipline or simply working in the same geographical area, to gain relevant recommendations: where do they go for cultural and artistic enlightenment? Is there a co-working space they join? You could even just start up a conversation with them if you find a common creative interest.

🤝 Find professional organisations and communities that can help

Mentoring opportunities can be a wonderful way to forge initial connections and gain insightful, experience based advice. I Like Networking is a great creative network and mentoring platform for women and non-binary creatives to gain access to such advice; they even have a mentoring scheme focusing on expanding your creative community. Other organisations offering similar opportunities for creatives of all disciplines include Arts Emergency, CVAN and A-N The Artist Information Company.

Discipline-specific groups and trade unions can be just as important, too, particularly when you’re in need of specific advice or support. As an illustrator, becoming a member of the Association of Illustrators has been incredibly helpful. Because I did my illustration degree during the pandemic, it’s been particularly hard to develop a network of fellow illustrators I could share my experiences with. So when I was faced with a new client job that I didn’t know how to proceed with, I reached out to the AOI team and felt much less alone with my dilemma.

🚪 Find your room

For me, social anxiety makes going to networking events an almost impossible task. But it isn’t just about turning up to any event and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone – or being loud and extroverted – to connect with others. To feel seen and valued, you have to be in the right room that aligns with your interests and values.

It takes a lot of social energy to attend events, so really think about what you hope to gain from them. One of my favourite ways to meet new creatives is attending spoken word and poetry evenings, for example Poetry Praise Sandwich at Yada, a safe space and alcohol-free bar in Derby. Although the focus of these events isn’t necessarily on networking, there will often be opportunities to introduce yourself and chat with other creatives in a low-pressure environment.

Try different things. Start by exploring the events happening near you, and pick one that resonates with your interests. For me, zine workshops and creative events, where I have something to focus on and do with my hands, has been a great way to meet other creatives who share my passion for making. I recently attended the Nottingham Zine Fest and had the opportunity to meet and connect with a wide array of creatives through our shared interest in zine-making.

🔧 If you can’t find a room, build your own

After graduating from uni, I moved home to a small rural town in the Peak District and didn’t have any sort of network. I had no idea how to meet other creatives. However, I knew I wanted to create something to bring people together, to meet others and have creative conversations. I put a call-out post online for contributions to a zine I wanted to make. An artist called Ryan Boutlbee emailed me to find out more. Five years later, we’re now co-directors of our arts organisation, working on the seventh edition of our zine.

Written by Charlie Collins
Mention No Jobs in the Arts