With near 20 years experience in making constructed costume for the likes of Luc Besson, Warner Bros and the BBC, Catherine Taylor didn’t seem the obvious choice to drive a small, local sock business forward, but it’s often curious how chance encounters seem to happen just at the right moment. This is a story about how that one chance encounter prompted not just one single project, but a complete transformation with a strong emphasis on community development.
Following a long and challenging production run of dinosaurs for the Dinosaur Train stage show, Catherine was questioning whether 20 years was long enough, did she really want to be doing this for another 20? “It was disastrous,” she says, rather wearily, sitting in her small but impressively equipped workshop in the heart of Fremantle, “we overran, costs spiralled and then after we’d produced something that looked fabulous, the entire show was cancelled!”
The show to which she refers, was supposed to tour Australia but it wasn’t to be and the costumes now sit in shiny, galvanised steel trunks ready for shipping and storage. “I was exhausted and decided I needed a break, a chance to focus on where I was going and what I wanted to do. I also looked at the amount of waste produced and I found it so depressing. That was significant because it started me questioning everything, not just whether I enjoyed the challenge of the job any more but the environmental impact and the contribution it made to others.”
One of the benefits of working in a cooperative with many studios housing many varied artists and creatives is the shared inspiration and opportunity for collaboration. One of the other tenants, a recent addition and incidental visitor during the dino-construction was Sophie and her mum Geraldine and their interactions grew from congenial conversation to something a lot more serious, interesting and a new challenge. “I thought the idea of Sophie’s Sox was wonderful and just perfect for me to focus energy in a different direction.” Catherine says, positively. “Right from the start the brief was to find a process that Sophie could engage in, that would help develop new skills for her and ultimately, create a sock design that was marketable. This wasn’t to be some token gesture, the suggestion of Sophie making a contribution, this had to be authentic and meaningful, they are after all, Sophie’s Sox, not Catherine’s.”
So how does a professional like Catherine, with little experience of teaching or creative development with someone like Sophie, someone with autism and Down Syndrome and very different communication begin?
“Trust was a big issue. It became clear in the early days of working together that Sophie was only going to engage on her own terms. I needed her support workers to interpret her non-verbal cues for me but quickly, as we played and experimented I learnt what worked and what didn’t. Sophie’s sensory stimulus appears so much more sensitive and sophisticated than mine. Things that I simply dismissed or accepted seemed challenging or fascinating for Sophie.”
Catherine speaks with genuine curiosity about her interactions with Sophie and it becomes clear that the teacher and student relationship was often alternating. “One day I’d introduced a wax relief dyeing process but it was immediately clear that Sophie wasn’t happy. The texture between her fingers was just too challenging for her and she was very uncomfortable. That was amazing because not only was I instantly able to dismiss that particular process but Sophie allowed me to consider what was happening on a much deeper level than I would ordinarily. I slowed down, took the time to experience it as Sophie might and I was stunned, if I tried to remove my own sensory filter I began to realise how challenging an experience that might be. It allowed me to better plan and think not just about the process and the result but the whole journey – smell, sound, how things felt and the number of steps required to maintain engagement and interest without becoming dull.”
So how long did the process take and what were the results?
“It was remarkably quick for us to crack. We found a technique that Sophie was not only happy with but also produced a unique and very cool looking product. The most important aspect for me personally though was the realisation that I genuinely had something to offer, that I could actually make a real, tangible difference.”
So, no more costumes then?
“Actually yes, but nothing like I’ve done in the past. I realised that I wanted to impact my community more, I wanted to use my skills for the benefit of others. Another chance meeting led me to a project for The Smith Family in Mirrabooka. They’d held a competition with primary school children to design a costume for the Paint the Town REaD initiative and I was thrilled to be involved. In addition to creating the costume we also incorporated a storytelling teepee to be revealed with the costume for Harmony Day and that led to projects working with the Ishar Multicultural Women’s Health group making cushions for the event. It’s working with my community that really nourishes me. The skills I’ve learnt over my career mean nothing if they don’t make a difference to others.”
Looking around Catherine’s workshop now there’s little evidence of any production, it’s a great space but it’s not obvious what happens here. Rolls of fabric, boxes of foams and stacks of bright, multi-coloured threads cover shelves like an old fashioned candy store but there’s no evidence of any costumes.
“I still make costumes but the process is so different now. I’m spending more time in the community, helping organisations engage and collaborate. For a costume or mascot to have meaning it has to come from the community and for the community to make a contribution. I’m more interested in discovery and learning, in using my skills to support and develop those who are marginalised, dismissed, hidden. If I can make a difference, if only in a small way, it’s worth doing. Sophie’s Sox is a fantastic idea for a microenterprise but who’s to say that someone in the Ishar group doesn’t begin their own microenterprise making cushions or someone in one of my other projects doesn’t discover their own creative talent and begins, I don’t know, creating amazing tapestries?”
And what about the environmental impact you said was so important to you now?
“The fashion industry is one of the most environmentally damaging industries in the world and that also includes the fabrics, dyes and textiles I use. I’m acutely aware of this and it influences a great deal of what I now do. I work locally so much more now but I also help those I work with make informed decisions about materials, glues, dyes and techniques. It’s amazing how many people, once they understand the environmental implications, will make a complete u-turn and find a different way. The result and the aesthetic are important, for sure, but that’s no longer at any cost. We overcome the environmental challenges together and so the learning experience is incredibly rich.”
For Catherine, the past 18 months have been transformative. From supporting one amazing young woman’s sock business she is beginning to carve out a role sharing all of her years of experience and knowledge for the benefit of others. I get the sense that Catherine is a trunk full of creative ideas and learning and she’s starting to unpack it and distribute it amongst our community and she’s loving every minute.
Sophie’s Sox was featured in last months edition, you can read all about Sophie, a young, independent woman starting her own microenterprise here.