Local children have been welcoming an un-feathered friend into their homes and hearts.  A very popular artist Janice Foley has written and published her very first book, a children’s book describing the perils and the adventures of a real life garden visitor. Now Baldric, the unfeathered friend, has struck a real chord with children and grandparents alike and the first print run has absolutely flown out.

Janice runs Yarm Originals website, an online gallery that champions local and national artists and brings affordable art to people. Jan’s own paintings of Roseberry Topping have proved to be a real hit, often featuring the enigmatic Roseberry.

I met up with Jan in her Eaglescliffe home to hear all about the unfortunate bird Baldric and how the book has been such a sensation. Oh and I was so lucky because after the interview Jan read the first chapter to me. It was wonderful.

So let’s celebrate International Women’s Day by talking about the first book of a much loved local artist, Janice Foley.

baldrics-big-adventureQ: Jan please tell me about the book and the bird, Baldric?

Jan: Baldric is a real bird that appeared in my garden on April 1st last year.

Q: April Fools’ Day?

J: April Fools’ Day, yes, and everyone thought that I was pulling their legs until I took a photograph to show what he actually looked like. He had no feathers on his head. He was like a little miniature vulture.

Q: Very distinctive then?

J: Yes and quite jittery and jumpy and didn’t mix with the other birds.

So I looked up online why you would get a bald headed black bird and it could be a virus or a ring worm or it could be stress. Maybe he needed to find a mate.

So in my head when people started commenting that he would be cold and he needed a hat and he needed a mate and things like that, I decided to just think about why he was bald and maybe stressed. And I decided he was scared and he was going to be anxious and worry about everything.

Then one day he met the lady in the shed, the artist. That’s me. That is where I paint. The lady in the shed told him that he needed to go off and find himself and have some adventures and to be happy again.

Q: And you captured his adventures in a book.

J: Yes. Thirteen chapters. He sets off and leaves me and heads off to Roseberry Topping. Because that is where most of my paintings are set. And the Roseberry Hare does feature in the story but only for a brief moment because the book isn’t about him, that is a different book.

Q: The hare is a character that you introduced into your paintings and it became very popular.

J: Three years ago now and it is still incredibly popular. The Roseberry Hare has travelled all around the world. Hong Kong, Tasmania, Australia, Europe and America.

Q: Is this the first time you have actually written?

J: I have never written anything before in my life.

Q: That must have been quite a challenge for you.

J: Yes but I found it fairly easy really. It just flowed. Once I had the idea of the storyline, where he needed to go off and have adventures, it just happened. It was quite easy.

Q: I would have struggled even more writing for children.

J: I got the ideas from stories I remembered from my own children, my daughter in particular. I probably shouldn’t say this but she used to be scared of going to the toilet and bathroom on a night time in the dark. She was fine until she had to cross the landing and we could hear her charging across the landing. She was safe in the bathroom and then she had to charge back.

That was one idea of a scared child and a storyline for the blackbird. So that is in the book.

baldric-3Q: So do you think this story of the scaredy-bird will help children overcoming their own fears.

J: I think so because a part of the story in the first chapter is that the bird has no friends in the garden. Because he is different the other birds avoid him, and the snails make fun of him and the hedgehogs don’t like him and they scare him when they scrape under the gate late at night. So he has got no friends.

The lady says you have got to leave this garden, with the high fences and go off and make some friends.

It all works out quite happily for the bird, he does manage to find some friends. The book goes through the seasons as well. At some point it gets really cold and wintry and he has to find a hat for his head because he is so cold.

Q: So, back the suggestions at the start.

J: Yes, the ladies that suggested I knit a hat for him, yes. So, yes he does end up with a hat.

Q: Has the book made it into schools?

J: I have a couple of teacher friends and I have given them copies and they have taken them in and read them to four and five year olds over the course of a few days because it is quite a long book with eleven chapters so they couldn’t take it all in, in one reading session.

It has gone to ten year olds in a school. And they very kindly wrote to me. I got seventeen reviews back, which were absolutely brilliant. I got some lovely comments from them, very positive. I have been invited to go to another school and read it. I have done a book signing with it. And I have been invited by the WI to give a talk on how I started off to become an artist first and then to write my first book. I am doing that in April.

Q: It was April 2016 when this all started.

J: Yes, so it is about a year since we all met Baldric and I can go and talk about how I started painting initially and then I went from that to someone that wrote a book.

Q: I don’t suppose you would have imagined this time last year that you would have completed a book.

J: No, not at all. Although people have always asked about the Roseberry Hare, did he have a story? And he does and that will be coming out at some point. But not yet, for a while.

Q: Was this a limited print run?

J: The first run is a limited edition and we will soon be sold out of those.

Q: It is a really quality publication.

J: That was important to me. Nice thick paper. I have seen copies that children have looked at and had for a few weeks and they still look as good as new. The pictures had to be good quality for the illustrations. So it was important to me that it was a hard back, hard wearing, nice thick pages and large print. A lot of people that have bought it are quite elderly and have bought it as gifts for their grandchildren so they could read it to them. So it is quite important that the text size is big as well.

I have actually taken it into a nursing home and read it to some of the elderly people in there and they have loved it. They found it funny and entertaining.

Q: All those things that you list from the hard back to quality illustrations and nice big text that is how I remember books from my childhood. It used to be that way, didn’t it?

J: It did, yes. The difference between my book and what children are reading now is it is a lot longer and has a lot more words in. Although some children have actually said it is too long because they are used to very short, brief, a few lines to a story. But teachers have said that is one of the best books they have seen lately because it is different. But it is different in that it has gone back to how I would see books when I was young.

Q: Speaking to some teachers they tell me that some of the children try and move the pages of books with their fingers as if they are a smart phone screen.

J: I have seen that yes, I can understand that. I have done that on my computer screen and wondered why it isn’t working.

Q: It must be nice to produce a proper book.

J: It is nice to see that some children actually still read proper books, yes definitely.

Q: You have achieved a lot with this book. Is the next step to do another print run?

J: I think there will be some more copies but what they will look like I don’t know. Obviously I want to keep the price down and get it out there into some book shops. At the moment I am selling them myself. To get them in bookshops is another ambition. Also, to maybe take them into hospitals and children’s homes and get them out there to people that actually can’t afford the books would be nice as well.

baldric-and-janQ: Have you sold these books in the same way that you sell your paintings.

J: I have yes and it has mainly been online. Or people have come to me because they have heard about it. Not so many local people but this is the way the paintings go as well. My paintings go to people all around the country far more than they do locally.

Q: Have the people around the country got a link to this area?

J: Sometimes yes, they have moved away or they have visited here for holidays and have a special memory of Roseberry Topping and this area. They are bought as gifts as well for people that have lived here to give to family members etc.

Q: There is something about Roseberry Topping, isn’t there?

J: There is something magical about Roseberry Topping. We have all got a good memory of it and it is a place that you notice when you are coming back home. It is visible from so many miles around that we all see it is a landmark that means something to us in lots of different ways.

My uncle and aunt used to live at Great Ayton and as a child we used to go on two buses on a Sunday morning from Eaglescliffe to get to Great Ayton and it seemed to take hours and hours to get there. And then there was Roseberry Topping and just the magic of Great Ayton really. My uncle was an artist, just an amateur, he painted for pleasure. He did a few Roseberry Toppings and he always put a little snail in his paintings as a symbol. A lot of people see my Roseberry Hare as my symbol but there is actually another symbol that is hidden in the paintings as well. Some people know about it but I’m not going to say what that is, not just yet. At some point it will come out. But you can find it if you go looking for it.

Q: So, we should all look closely.

J: Yes, you should buy a painting and then you can see what it is (laughs).

You can order the last few copies of the book and view both Jan and other artists work online



Mackenzie Thorpe: Middlesbrough The Heart of the North

Do get along to Middlesbrough Railway Station and take in 12 exceptional railway posters painted by Mackenzie Thorpe all extolling the virtues of Middlesbrough and destinations reached from trains embarking from the two platforms.

Subjects include All Tickets Please, heading home or heading out in the train to the rhythm of the clickety click. Bound for the Moors, we are the gateway to the moors and that includes our very own peak, Roseberry Topping or Captain Cook’s Monument or to the coast and Saltburn by the Sea.

We also have a golden ticket to explore the Tees, the seals on the Tees (Seal Sands), the working Tees with its giant ships and cranes. And of course our beloved Boro. A footballer is jumping for joy. Not just over the moon but over the bridge…our bridge. The Transporter Bridge. As we are the Heart of the North.

The 12 old railway style posters will be on display for 2 years so you have plenty of time to explore them fully before perhaps setting forth on your own adventures from the platforms. Or maybe disembarking for the game, full of hopes and expectations of Premier football.

Mackenzie is our Premier artist, how lucky we are that we can enjoy his work and bask in his vision in the heart of the town, in the heart of the north.

Mackenzie Thorpe kindly chatted to me about how the commission came about. When he talks he oozes passion for his hometown and is clearly very optimistic in reading the signs that Middlesbrough is changing.

Q: What does it mean to you have your paintings on display as railway posters at Middlesbrough Station?

MT: It means a massive amount. How in the world could you imagine that you are going to be asked to do such a job? It would have been just another job had it been Kings Cross Station or Penn Station, NewYork. But no it is your own station. My station wants my work on their walls. So that our people can see it. That must be the biggest accolade for a painter, a songwriter, a movie maker, a dress designer, a window cleaner. Anyone to be asked to do it in their own community. It must be the greatest thing.

Imagine you are a footballer and you go and play for Arsenal and then you go and play for Benfica and then you get a phone call and they say will you come and play for Middlesbrough. Your own town, in your own country. It’s huge and I have never experienced it like this before. The Captain Cook (museum) commission was the first feeling of that. But this is going to be seen by over 1 million people every year for 2 years. If I had my own big art gallery in London and I knew that my work in this gallery was going to be seen by a million people a year… you know. I am thrilled to bits.

Q: You are very much taking your art out of the gallery then.

MT: Totally and for that I must congratulate Middlesbrough Council because they came up with the idea not me, I didn’t approach them and say can we do this. That’s exactly what they are doing. So anyone arriving, and the last thing on their mind is art, they are going to step off into the station and it is going to be there. They can opt into it or walk past it. And when they are leaving they are going to get it again.

Q: Or when you are waiting for your train.

MT:  When you are waiting for your train you are going to have it to look at. When you’ve come to Middlesbrough to buy a dress and you are going back home to feed your kids you are going to go past art. So that as an artist I advocate and hope more artists will follow and it will be just bigger and bigger and bigger.

I got asked could I do seven posters and it was an easy answer, YES. And I was really busy and still am that I said what we will do is take it from the archive. Easy. Then Middlesbrough say, Oh can we have two new ones? Alright. Just leave it with me. Then that night I said to (my wife) Susan if they had given me 6 months I would have done the whole station with real railway posters, like mystery posters. And she said that isn’t going to happen as we have Santa Monica to do, New York coming up, Australia…. OK.

And then she came up north. And I went in the studio and I rang her and said we’ll do it anyway.  So a lot of these are done at midnight, after work, kind of thing. Because I want to do it. If they are ready they will come out. And I did it. Susan told them what I was doing and they were over the moon. So, let’s do it. And that’s how it came about.

I was introduced to a graphic designer Matt (Twist Design) on Linthorpe Road near where Fearnleys Records used to be. I went in and met him and I said I have got these ideas. And I brought in this little book that Susan got me of railway posters. I said that green on the football one is from Mabel Lucie Attwell (British illustrator) who designed this poster in the 1930s. And the lettering is so important. He started researching and he got excited. Everyone around us got excited. And I ended up doing 15 pictures so we could whittle it down to 7. Then it went from 7 to 8 and from 8 to 10. And then last week they needed another one. So, Saltburn by the Sea was done last week to fill in the last space.

They are real railway posters. Looking at them, if they weren’t the Transporter Bridge or whatever you could take it to Paris and it would work as a railway poster. That’s what I wanted to do and I think we have done it.

Q: So those poster evoke memories for you..

MT: Massive.

Q: But the fact they look like real railways posters it must be a thrill for you to think that others will get memories stirred by them.

MT: Yeah. That was the big deal for me doing it. I started my journey here. I meet people in Timbuktu and they did. So, the next person who is going to start their journey in life and go on to another adventure, they are going to catch the train at Middlesbrough and they will see where I’ve come from and how I have interpreted it now and what this gives people is the legacy that is inside me and the message that I carry around the world is that we are the ‘heart of the north.’

Q: You come from here and travel all over and it is interesting to see things through your eyes when you return. Do I sense from you that you see some energy here?

MT: Massive. And it is the first time I have seen it and felt it and realised it. I was talking to some councillors this morning and I said you know I didn’t believe it. I have been involved with schemes and you have asked me to make comment on this and this. I come and I say, you still haven’t done that. I go home and tell my mam. Mam they are going to do this. Oh yeah they always say that. They always forget 3 weeks down the line. Now I believe that ten years ago they had ideas and now I can go and touch them. And that is the real thing, now I really believe in it. I really do. It is the first time I have complimented a politician. I was at the Houses of Parliament last year and I wasn’t complimenting anybody. My hat is off to them. The new park by the Transporter Bridge. What is happening around MiddlesbroughCollege. Saltholme. Fantastic. We walked the path by the NewportBridge, incredible. It is all starting to make sense.

And then somebody says on the news this morning that we have the most unhealthy high street in the country. Anything that they said was healthy on the best high street in the country you can get on this high street. A lot of it comes from social economic background. We can’t have gold on every platform. But they don’t look deeper either. If it was a census about humour or a warm welcome and gratitude and thanks, then we might come somewhere top of the list. That is what I concentrate on, the good and strong elements.

Q: And that is what your posters are saying.

MT: Exactly. They are not going to call us the heart of the north. We know we are. And I think we have been keeping it secret for too long so you know what I am going to burst the bubble and shout aloud and a lot.