Originally published on White Noise

September 2018

YouTuber, writer and podcast host Debra Oludare is a woman on a mission. After hitting rock bottom two years ago, she decided to turn her pain into a passion project.

Oludare created Trusting the Process, a podcast show that celebrates successful black women by providing an insight into their journey. Listeners can expect laid-back and inspiring conversation where Debra effortlessly directs her curiosity, with a touch of Nigerian flavour.

You were born in Nigeria, before moving to Birmingham via Northern Ireland, Scotland and Cumbria. Now you work just over the West Cross Route at the Monsoon Accessorize HQ as social media executive. How did you get into that?

After being made redundant from a role six months in, I was in a very difficult place. I decided to use the unfavourable circumstances to propel myself into the career in London I had always wanted. The journey wasn’t easy. I was looking for work for a year. Numerous interviews, over 100 applications, and a lot of ‘no’s. My current role originally sent me an email saying I had been unsuccessful in my application, but I have this belief that no is not always the final answer, and so I looked for a back door to knock on. Two years later and here I am.

What was the pivotal point where you thought: this 9 to 5 isn’t enough, I want to write, be on YouTube, and motivate people?

I’ve always been the kind of person who loves to create. Over the years, what that looks like is all that has changed. As a child, I was never without a book. I wrote short stories and diaries and believed one day I would be a published author. For me, I believe life is lived to its fullest when we walk in alignment with our gifts. Our gifts are there for a purpose bigger than us. When you create, it inspires someone else to create and, likewise, when you are open and honest about a topic, it comforts someone else to know that they are not alone. That’s what motivates me.

Tell me more about your writing?

Once upon a time, I found it bizarre to call myself a writer. It seemed pompous and misplaced, but over the years I have learnt to wear the title proudly. The truth is, throughout my career, education and passion projects, writing is a thread that flows throughout. I find expressing myself through words incredibly therapeutic.

The first three recordings of your podcast Trusting the Process were recorded at White City Place. What was the catalyst behind it?

During the year 2015, I was in a very dark place. I had been unemployed for a year, was dealing with mental health attacks in my family, and experienced the weight of heartbreak – all at the same time. I began to research other black women who had navigated difficulties and risen to success against the odds. I needed to trust the process, and their stories gave me the strength to do so. A lot of the women I followed were over the pond, such as Ngozi Opara, the founder of Heat Free Hair, and Zim Ogochukwu, the founder of Travel Noire. I could see so many great stories, but I knew they needed to be more easily accessible here in the UK. And thus, the idea to create Trusting the Process – the show that celebrates black women doing big things – was born.

You recently spoke at an event called Coffee & Prayer. Tell me more about that, and the role of faith within your life.

Coffee & Prayer is a monthly forum that is set to equip and empower women from different walks of life, founded by my friend and amazing author Susan Deborahs. I had so much fun hosting the panel and Q&A, where we spoke about relationships, comparison and identity – topics we as women all navigate in our daily walks.

As a young women who gave my life to Christ aged 16, faith for me is everything. I wholeheartedly don’t know where I would be if not for the influence and presence of God in my life. My faith is my strength, my hope, my direction for today and tomorrow. There’s truly nothing like experiencing the love of Christ and I consider it a great privilege that we as humans get to walk and live in that daily.

What’s the ultimate goal for you?

First and foremost, it’s to be happy, fulfilled, and live my purpose by giving all of my gifts to others. It’s to boldly be myself and push towards the best version of me, to live life, intentionally. If I could say one thing about trusting the process, it would be that it is entirely worthwhile. We will all face situations and seasons that challenge our trust. When I hit rock bottom, I didn’t understand the purpose at the time, but I can now see the fruit that came from it. Trusting the process is about trusting the direction of your life. Believing that everything, from the little details to the bigger picture, are working together for your good. It’s not always easy, but it is entirely worthwhile.

Originally published on White Noise

September 2018

Each year, QPR in the Community Trust  touches the lives of over 20,000 people. One of those was James Calling, who credits the Trust for saving his life after he attempted suicide. James got in touch to share his story. I went to meet him.

This interview contains in-depth coverage of suicide.

A young man with an array of beautiful tattoos on both arms is sat outside the BBC offices in White City. He’s got 18 in total: five roses (his dad’s favourite flower), rosary beads as a tribute to his maternal grandparents and Catholic upbringing, as well as the Latin quote “morte et dabo” which translates as “dead and gone.” His latest addition is a series of strikes at the back of his ear to commemorate each year since his dad passed.

One of the most striking, perhaps, is the word “broken” just above his Adam’s apple. He explains: “Being broken isn’t bad. After everything, I’m able to love a lot more. I try not to judge as much as I would have. I look at the world through clearer eyes.”

James Casling’s story has been well documented. He appeared on the BBC to tell the story of how his life changed on his 15th birthday, when his dad took his own life. In the years that followed, James attempted suicide on several occasions, and was sectioned to the Park Royal Mental Health Centre three weeks after his 18th birthday. He credits QPR for saving his life. After being introduced to the team’s Healthy Kickers football therapy programme, he’s become the top goal scorer for three seasons in a row, and gone on to coach children with disabilities.

I’m interested to know why football turned his life around. “I didn’t want [mental illness] to be my legacy. I’ve been on national television and said I have a mental illness; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. My family know that I’ve been a good person and helped people. It gave me something to make them proud. That’s all I wanted.”

In 2013, James was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Sufferers struggle to cope with strong emotions, which can lead to self-harming and suicidal thoughts, both of which he knows too well. “It feels hell, but then some days it feels like its heaven,” James explains. “There’s no in between. I’m always happy or I’m always sad. I’m always feeling too much emotion or too little.”

Although the disorder affects 1 in 100 people and seems to affect both genders equally, men are less likely to be diagnosed, according to Rethink. He says, “A boy being emotionally unstable is something that no one really talks about. They think, ‘Oh you’re a boy, you should man up.’… The last time I checked, 75% of people [diagnosed] with BPD are female. It’s being a male in a female’s world.” The 23-year-old shares one of its emotional symptoms. “I cry at little things, I cry quite a lot. I can’t control it. Not many men will say they cry. If I watch a video of me, I cry because all I can see is the pain.”

After being admitted to Park Royal Mental Health centre aged 18, James spent three months there. “I was surrounded by older people who’d suffered their whole lives and I couldn’t escape that.” It was a steep learning curve. “Some of the adults were aggressive and violent and constantly getting restrained. It opened my eyes up to reality. Before I went there, I didn’t love myself. I didn’t care about my wellbeing. But I learnt to love myself and that the darkness does end at some stage.”

His next statement almost seems telepathic, just as I’ve been thinking how mature he is for the duration of our conversation. “People say to me: ‘You’ve got the knowledge of someone who’s a hundred and has lived their whole life.’ I haven’t matured through age, love or happiness. I’ve matured because of pain.”

James hones in on the importance of mental illness awareness, especially in men. His dad, for instance, never sought help: “Knowing him, he probably ignored it and pretended it never existed, but it cost him his life.” The following statistics shock me. “You don’t see that suicide is the biggest killer for men under 45. I learnt in Park Royal that it’s okay to talk. How many men must die before someone stands up and says: let’s do something about it? Suicide destroys someone before it kills them. Someone taking their own life is the last step.”

Over the last five years, James has learnt coping mechanisms: working, riding his motorbike and sitting out the bad thoughts. There’s one friend that’s stood by James for the last eight years, who he visits almost daily, his ‘little brother’. He says, “He got a motorbike for his 18th birthday and I’d always wanted one. My dad had one. That was one thing we bonded over.” The pair are known to spend 16 to 17 hours a day on their motorbikes together. “There were times when we didn’t know where we were riding. He would always look over his shoulder and see that I’m behind him and I’d look in front and he always there.”

While James admits that he still feels the same as he did eight years ago, but there’s a pivotal difference: “I can manage it better. If I went to a cash machine and couldn’t get money, that would make me feel down and I’d go and do stupid stuff to myself. But now, I’m more at peace with myself.” He explains his personal philosophy: “It sounds clichéd, but I understand that everything happens for a reason. Why would I get upset about something I cannot change? The struggles you face today are the strengths you have tomorrow.” What does the future look like? “If I can make someone smile, then all the pain and misery I’ve been through is worth it. We need more love in the world, there’s enough bad as it is. If I’m still here in five years, that’s all I can dream.”

If you or someone you know is in need of mental health support, Time to Change and Mind have good resources for UK-based organisations. More info about QPR’s Healthy Kickers programme is here.

Originally published on White Noise

September 2018

Have you ever felt like you’re losing your mind? Photographic artist, lecturer and RCA researcher Sharon Boothroyd draws on our experiences of ‘madness’ to subvert society’s ideas of normal.

Her haunting visual series have created photographic interpretations of prayersasked strangers to critique her work and plunged the viewer into the fantasies of fictional characters.

With my own love for photography and the human psyche, I was excited to delve into Sharon’s with some email questions about her work. Putney-based Boothroyd talks about making fictional friends, the difficulties of living with unanswered questions, and why romance makes her cringe.

How did you get into photographic art?

My dad is a photography enthusiast. I remember being bored waiting for him while he took pictures in the countryside where we lived in Northern Ireland. At the same time, I was intrigued and envious that he got to climb over fences and disappear for what seemed like ages so he could “get a good shot” while the rest of us had to play by the rules. From early on, I learnt that photography gave you a licence and could take you places.

It wasn’t until I got into the darkroom at school and saw the magic of developer trays and later at university that I discovered the conceptual power of photography as a medium. It was then, when I was introduced to artists who were making photographs that spoke of identity or politics, for example, that I got a sense of how far it could go. I was hooked from pretty early on, probably because it was the only thing I was really good at.

You’re studying a PhD with the Royal College of Art called ‘Boundaries and Slippages of the Self: Photography and autobiographical fiction in the performance of female fantasy and delusion’. What does that involve?

It involves, as with any research, following a hunch and then working hard to provide evidence to back up that hunch. For me, I had a hunch that photography and fiction could work well together to enhance public understanding of ‘madness’. I wanted to challenge fixed ideas about ‘correct’ ways of fitting in to societal structures. I’m doing this by developing a fictional character who is going through an episode of delusion. I want viewers to see my work and have empathy towards her, and for them to respond by thinking, “It could easily be me,” rather than stigmatise and dismiss her.

Most of us have probably gone through times when we have felt like we were losing our minds, and I wanted to draw upon that. I use my own experiences – although I have no diagnosis or personal history of psychosis, I identify with the feeling of being an unreliable narrator of my own life. I also work in collaboration with a psychiatrist and psychotherapist to ensure the work is made within an ethical framework.

Photography is well-suited to the precarious job of describing reality, because photographs can only exist due to a connection to an actual moment in time. There is no way of telling anything about whatthat moment in time was really about. There is so much more to the context than what we see in the frame, even if it is an ‘accurate’ depiction of what was literally there. There is an inherent ambiguity at work in photography that I want to play with. Photography can allow truth and fiction to merge and ambiguity to be enhanced, questioning how any of us can know what is real, and how photography can be trusted at all.

Your book, The Subtext of a Dream, centres around the experiences of a fictional character, Madame Beauvais. Is she your favourite character? What would she be doing on a typical day?

I can’t say a favourite. The thing I love most about reading fiction is the new friends I make. I really miss them when I finish the book.

My character Madame Beauvais is derived from Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a tragic female character who was prone to depression and ‘flights of fantasy’. Flaubert famously commented “Madame Bovary, C’est moi!” It is this self-identification of male author with female subject that attracts me to this particular example.

On a normal day Madame Beauvais would be sitting in her hotel room, where she lives, making books, or writing a lecture, preparing a conference or having a conversation with a jug or a dead philosopher. We never know if any of the lectures are real or not. In a sense, it doesn’t matter.

Despite the element of fiction that you use, it’s all very real in its setting. Is that part of the reason why you chose that element of artifice, in order for us to emotionally detach and just observe?

That’s an interesting take. It might have that impact, yes. Ursula Le Guin asks, “Why do we huddle round the campfire?” in her essay of the same name and concludes that it’s simply human nature to tell stories. To understand ourselves and our histories. I think that’s why I do it too – to seek understanding. To try and make sense of things and yes, perhaps some of that understanding comes from an ability to make more sense of things that are not so close to home.

One of the hardest and possibly one of the most important things we can do is to learn to live with unanswered questions. Perhaps fiction is a way of helping with that. You can tell a story a hundred times and each time hear a slightly different one depending on what you ‘need’ each time.

Despite the erotic material, your work isn’t overtly explicit, but beautiful – romantic almost. What is the aim of that?

It’s an illusion! I think romance and falling in love is an illusion, but it’s very seductive and tempting to fall into that delusion. I think that’s why I’m drawn to recreating that beauty or romance in the imagery. However, I do always want there to be something within the work that punctures that illusion, for example the violence of the erotic literature in The Subtext of a Dreamor the madness of Madame Beauvais. Romance for romance sake makes me cringe a bit.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

In an image-saturated world, the most I can ask is that they are glad to have encountered it.

How do you want to be remembered as an artist, a lecturer or a psycho-socio artist?

I want to be taken seriously. I want to be making relevant work that makes people think. I also want to make people smile and to make meaningful connections through my work, which I regularly do and am very thankful for. It’s why I do it.

As a lecturer and tutor, my main aim is to enable students to develop their own voice as artists. I hope I do this by listening to them and asking the right questions in order to open them up and perhaps by suggesting pertinent literature or strategies. Ultimately, it’s up to them. I want students to come away from my sessions feeling inspired and able to do anything they put their minds to. I also want to release them from academic restraints that have often been ingrained since school. I hope to engage them in a process of unlearning and relearning.

Sharon is a Photography Lecturer at Ithaca College, London Centre and Roehampton University and Visiting Lecturer on the MA across-school group at the Royal College of Art where she teaches Language: Transparency and Concealment.

Originally published on White Noise

August 2018

Sat on a pair of bar stools in Huckletree West, Monika Kamycka is wearing a selection of dainty pieces, illuminated by the warm August sunshine. It’s the perfect way for East Acton-based jewellery maker to showcase her brand, Mona Pink.

The part-time ethical jeweller and part-time accountant began her journey in 2011. I’m impressed that Monika’s able to use both her head and her hands harmoniously. She agrees: “You work with your head and you work with your hands, and that keeps me balanced.” As logical as she may be, embarking on a new career wasn’t a calculated move. “It seems like everything in my life happens by accident,” she laughs. “I was given a voucher for my birthday from a friend to make my own silver ring,” she explains. “I just got hooked on the metal. You see how it reacts; when it heats up it comes alive and I just couldn’t get enough of that. I discovered a whole new world.”

Not only did Monika discover a new world, but an alter ego too, which you can see on the header of her website. “It’s Mona Pink. She’s not grown up. She can be an older woman, but not necessarily taking life seriously. She’s got that little bit of cheekiness.” Is Mona Pink to Monika what Sasha Fierce is to Beyoncé? “It’s a person outside of me. I always think, ‘Would she say that? Would she wear that?’”

Monika works exclusively with 100% recycled Argentium silver and enamel. She explains that Argentium has a different chemical composition from traditional sterling silver, and is entirely produced from recycled sources. It’s whiter than platinum, tarnish resistant, and hypoallergenic, meaning your skin won’t react to it. “I like how it behaves. I find the process of working with it rewarding, and I got addicted,” she says.

Despite the beautiful creations, Monika assures me that being a trained silversmith isn’t glamorous at all: “It’s a dirty job. I can’t grow my nails, but smashing and banging the metal is a good stress-reliever.” As a jeweller who makes all her own items by hand, being Fairtrade-registered is important to Monika. “I’m certain they’re not working with mercury with their bare hands, and I can sleep nicely at night.”

On the day we meet, she happens to be wearing her favourite piece. It’s the first ring she made, a brown circular gem set in silver. She twists the ring around her finger playfully as she talks. “It’s not perfect, but I wear it as a reminder of how I started.” The jeweller took a break from silversmithing as she struggled to balance her two occupations. “[The ring] really reminded me that I can actually still do this. I wouldn’t sell it.”

The inspiration behind her Luminous collection was architecture, which she feels lies within nature. “Nature has everything, all the shapes and lines you can think of. The feeling I was trying to evoke was calmness in understated jewellery. It’s simple, but it’s not. If somebody wants to see something simple, then they will. If they don’t, they won’t.”

Clients also have the option to design unique, one-off items with Monika, which can be challenging. “People know they’d like something, but it’s hard to get an exact idea of what they want because it’s in their heads, and I’m not there!” She laughs. Despite this, there is one particular client that she remembers fondly, a woman who wanted a non-traditional engagement ring. “They weren’t going to get married, but they wanted a symbol of their relationship,” Monika explains. “They had a story in their relationship about the film Nightmare Before Christmas, so the spiral in the movie had to be on the piece.” The jeweller was left with the creative freedom to work her magic. “She loved it. She was so happy. She sent me a picture of it on her hand and it was the best feeling ever. I was really happy to know that I’m a part of their happiness. Part of me is going to stay with them forever.”

Originally published on White Noise

August 2018

Imagine Secret Cinema, but… sweatier. Our Huckletree West studio-mates Sweat & Sound have found a way to blend fitness, live music and intriguing locations from forests to historic churches. Arnelle Paterson had a chat with founder Ariana Alexander-Sefre.

It’s a dreary Tuesday afternoon, and I could do with an energy boost. “Arnelle?” An unfamiliar voice interrupts my train of thought. As I turn my head to investigate, a sudden gush of energy fills the space. It looks like my shot of Lucozade has come dressed in work-out leggings.

Ariana Alexander-Sefre is the founder of Sweat & Sound. She creates live music fitness experiences to engage all the senses, complete with storylines and themes to offer an escape from reality in secret locations.

Ariana’s spent the last ten years in the events industry, working with companies like Nike, Coca Cola and Sofar Sounds. After moving to Bristol for university, she started to “spot missing pockets of experience” and began catering for the under-represented. She says, “The music scene there is very middle class and white, especially in the uni. There were no hip-hop nights and I was like, ‘Let’s just do one.’ We got a few local artists in and it was a hit!”

She set up her first business aged just 19, running underground music gigs and club nights. “It was all cash-in-hand and I was cycling around Bristol with ten grand of cash in my backpack at 4 am about to get mugged and then I got to the bank the next day like, ‘Would you mind cashing this into my account please?’” she laughs. “And they were like, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ So I’d end up stashing it in my room. This is money I owed people as well; I wasn’t this super-rich student.” The entire operation lasted two years.

After university, Ariana emigrated to New York, where she worked for a bank and ran events for their ultra-high net worth clients. “It was ridiculous. I was booking private jets from Switzerland to the Bahamas so they could go to a golf tournament.” Despite the initial excitement, Ariana realised it wasn’t for her. “I hated the corporate world. You become a robot and a bit depressed, and you manage it with drugs and that’s what everyone does,” she admits. “75% of New York’s on Xanax; they prescribed me Xanax.” The idea for Sweat & Sound was niggling away, but visa constraints held her back. “I didn’t want to be one of those British people in New York working in a bar. I thought, ‘I’m going to go back to where I came from, set up this business and hopefully move it back to New York one day.”

Sweat & Sound experiences combine the mind and body, and tap into emotion for escapism. I’m interested to know why this combination works. “It’s been scientifically proven,” she says. “They proved that when you listen to live music, your happy hormones increase and it makes you feel better. When you’re doing exercise and movements, the same thing happens. When you combine the two, they increase even more than they would otherwise.” She tells me that exercise and music are being used for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Ariana describes a study on multi-sensory immersion using VR and the senses (example) that’s being used to ease post-traumatic stress disorder. “We’re so used to living these one-dimensional lives where we go from work to transport to office block. We’re sitting for eight to nine hours a day in fake light, fake air,” she explains. “All these senses we were using 500 years ago on a daily basis, we don’t use them any more. Anxiety and depression are increasing every single day in major cities.”

Aurora is one of Sweat and Sound’s most popular events. It’s yoga and meditation in a historic church with a live orchestra. Expect a journey into outer space with the help of projected visuals. “Ahhh, it’s so beautiful!” Ariana clasps her hands together with satisfaction as she beams. “I look around and there’s tears streaming down people’s faces. We have other experiences where everyone’s really happy and laughing. By tapping into these little emotions, it’s your body saying, ‘Thank you for engaging these senses that I don’t engage with every day.’”

The effects that these experiences have on people are pretty profound. “People have said that the event stayed with them for a couple of days. They’ve described the experiences like a mini-retreat, like they’ve been there for a day or two. It’s an extra way to disconnect people from a far more mundane reality for that two or three hours. With what we’re doing, the biggest angle is the mental over physical.”

It’s no surprise that mental health is important to Ariana, as the Londoner has had her own battle. “My anxiety was linked to my purpose and what I was doing. You can probably tell I’ve got a lot of energy, so I need to put it into something that’s going to matter to me and make a difference,” she says. “I work so much harder and I’m probably a lot more stressed, but it’s good stress, rather than negative, depressed stress. I still get anxious and overwhelmed and I’ve got coping techniques, but setting up this business has been one of my biggest helps.”

Ariana’s got a pretty jam-packed schedule, with a session last week for White City Place’s Not-So-Sporty Sports Day, a space-themed event in Seven Sisters, as well as some retro Bollywood yoga in the mix. Her closing sentence makes me smile: “I’ve got the yoga and live orchestra at the beginning of October in New York.” 18 months after moving back to London, this logical dreamer has realised her dream.