Think of famous artists and designers, and what probably comes to mind is a picture of romantic rarefication.

The penniless artist in their loft studio, surrounded by brushes and unfinished canvases; the designer, wearing a black turtleneck and oversized glasses, moving elegantly amongst their collection of Eames chairs.

Of course, in reality things are rather different. Most artists and designers have to be professional pragmatists, working to a demanding—but rewarding—schedule of commissions and client projects.

And, like Einstein at the patent office, some of the most exciting creative careers begin by people working on passion projects in their spare time while holding down more “ordinary” jobs.

For the first of a new series of posts on everyday creativity, we met Alban Thiery, a high school teacher based in Manchester, UK—the world’s first industrial city.

In his spare time he creates amazing collages of Manchester street scenes. We talked about the city, the process, and what creativity means to him!

Hey Alban! What inspired you to start making your collages?

I moved to Manchester three years ago, having lived in Paris, Glasgow and London before that. I was fascinated by Manchester’s architecture and the constant change in this city.

I’m a high school language teacher, so these collages are completely different to my day job! I started making them back in April 2018, inspired by scenes from my commute to work.

Did you have any kind of background in art or design?

From the ages of 10 to 25, I went to a monthly art workshop. I don’t remember exactly when I started collaging, but what I loved about those workshops was the experimentation. 

We used a variety of techniques, including painting, watercolor, clay, collage, and papier mâché. When I met up with the art teacher few months ago and showed her my collages, she remembered that it was my favorite technique!

What process do you follow? 

I take a lot of photos with my phone, so I have a bank of pictures documenting the city. When I want to start a collage, I look through them and find the one that most excites me. I dive straight in, using a photograph as the model.

Each collage takes around 20 hours to create. When I first started, it took longer, because I had to find the colors I wanted in magazines. Now I have a collection of strips of various colors to choose from. I start by outlining the composition, and then decide which colors I need for each part.

Do you do lots of experimentation to find out what works?

Overall my approach is intuitive, because I like to just dive in to a new project. But I still experiment a lot. Sometimes the colors aren’t right, so I go away and find better match, and other times the perspective is wrong, so I redo that part. It’s about creating something, then stepping back, and deciding whether to continue or to just start over.

What does the creative process mean to you?

It’s a way to focus on something completely different. While collaging, I listen to the radio and just enter a bubble—this really is my “me-time”. I think creativity is a way to express yourself, but there are many ways to be creative. For me it’s not just about art—my creativity also comes through in the kitchen or on holidays (I create travel books, too!).

How do you think creativity impacts your wider life? 

It definitely helps me to relax. At the end of a session, I feel happy to have created something, but also mentally exhausted as I seem to think a lot while doing my collages.

Lots of us are creative as children but then seem to lose interest as we get older. How did you keep your interest alive?

Yes, that happened to me for a while. After I moved to Britain, I got wrapped up in my postgraduate studies, and without the structure of the workshop, I lost the inclination to create. 

However, I always thought that I would create again, and this happened last Spring when I decided to quit my job. All of a sudden I had a lot of time! It was six weeks before I began my next job, but that allowed me to establish a clear time and space to devote to creating art, and I've kept up the habit since then. 

It’s also very important to have space to do the work. I wouldn’t have been able to do these collages in my tiny flat, as space was so precious. 

Do you experience any barriers or blockers in your artwork? 

Teaching is a full-on job, so the main barrier is definitely a lack of time. When working full time, I find it very hard to sit down and create something. Because time is paramount, I’ve now decided to set a time each month when I will make something. 

And in terms of advice to others who would like to get more creative, scheduling when you’re going to enter your creative bubble is definitely my top tip!

What are your plans for the future?

Ideally I would love to carve out a creative career, but I know this is connected to staying disciplined and keeping on creating my art.

I’ve recently opened an Etsy shop with prints of the Manchester collages, so I’ll see where things go next!

Interested in learning design?

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Andrew Wilshere


Designer, Writer, and Mentor

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