I have been painting and drawing all my life in some fashion, but I have had periods where other creative work has been more important. After studying Art and History of Art at school I went on to Art College and choose to do my degree in Textile Design. The course was very much based on painting. We were encouraged to develop design ideas from our personal experiences and inspirations. At this time I was spending a lot of time in France. I have always loved the work of the post-impressionists and the artists of this period throughout Europe and beyond. They explored paint in a new way, explored the surface they worked on through the texture of paint and enjoyed the actual experience of painting, sometimes working beyond the studio, out doors with nature.
I live in Ealing, West London, and when we moved to the area six years ago, I put my name down on a waiting list for an allotment. I knew there would be a long wait and figured that by the time I could really commit to it, my name might have crawled to the top of the list. In the meantime I borrowed a patch of earth on a friend’s plot and got my children involved at the ages of 1 and 3. I wanted them to have the chance for an “out door class room” and to learn the things that my grandparents and parents had taught me. They taught me what to look out for during each season, the names of flowers, different bird songs, where food comes from and how mucking about in mud is fun.
Our tiny garden would not have given me this opportunity. On my borrowed patch I have grown potatoes, broad beans, peas, strawberries, courgette, swiss chard, beetroot, rhubarb, angelica, cavelo nero, rocket, lettuce, spinach, and various herbs including mint, oregano, sage and chives. I try to keep it simple. I could not compete with the real professional gardeners down there.
This year in April, I got my own allotment plot which I have had to clear extensively and am only now beginning to lay out the beds and edge them with some old decking boards I got from a skip. I have also erected a shed I got on the website Gumtree. I have managed to grow runner and French beans, sunflowers, sweet corn, patti pan squash and kohlrabi.
I have inherited a plum tree, a morello cherry, a damson, a fig tree, raspberries and both a red and black current bush that were all hidden on the plot. The children have loved growing pumpkins. Every time we go down there, they have a sense of freedom, they eat off the plants as they play and gather cobnuts, blackberries and the windfall apples. Whatever the weather, they always want to go.
I have wanted to paint food and flowers from the allotment for a while. Having not painted for a period in my life of about 8 years, juggling other work commitments and raising my children has taken priority. As I am beginning to get a bit more time to myself, I have started painting again. I have turned the dining room into my studio where I lay out the objects on the table. I still have limited time for this kind of activity so am working on only quite small projects. I aim to capture a moment, that’s all. For me it’s about colour, shape and texture. It’s about returning to painting. I find wood in skips to paint on or get off-cuts from the local timber yard. I am painting in oils and I love the smell. I also draw with ink on paper to improve the fluidity of my line.
In my commercial design work, creating sets for magazine and television, it can be very stressful, and as I am freelance the pressure is always there to secure the next job or meet a deadline. I love the teamwork, I love designing in 3D and problem solving, which are all key. Having returned to painting, I realise how it helps to keep me balanced in my world of juggling. Having something that is totally personal, only about space and thought, revolving around a quiet and meditative process, is extremely therapeutic. The allotment offers the same thing. I have had to be patient to bring the two things together.
The whole family benefits from the produce we grow. The kids are learning to cook as well as grow their own food. Nothing gets wasted of what I manage to bring home.
The peas and mint often make it into a recipe for pea and prawn risotto, the swiss chard is very good cooked with spices and added to couscous with lemon oil dressing, the beetroot is great baked with caraway, honey and balsamic vinegar. Toasted cobnuts are lovely with grilled courgette, I use angelica cooked with the rhubarb for a bit of a twist and broad beans in a lamb and shallot stew are delicious. I bake the patti pan squash, cut in rings in the oven with soya sauce and chilly flakes and I add grated raw kohlrabi to a salad of lettuce and spring onions with a lemon and olive oil dressing.
I make up dishes as well as use my cookbooks.
We have made lots of jam. I use my grandmother’s recipe from her very old-fashioned book “Basic recipes” by Margaret Sheppard Fidler. I have had some lovely evening meals on my allotment with friends, serving what is growing in front of my guests. I love combining the allotment with my creativity. It is a happy combination. I am documenting a year down my allotment through my painting and drawing. I plan to exhibit this work once completed.
Alice Sheppard Fidler’s website and Blog: www.alicesf.com
Follow Alice on Twitter: @AliceSheppardFi