If there are three prongs to what I do as an artist: fine-art, fashion and commercial work, 2018 was the year all three equally got their biggest break to date. And that’s something that no review I’ve written to date could say.
First I look to the figures, and thank what made it possible that 2018 will be our last year of renting. Fine art success as Miss Aniela, my 12-year-long identity I almost gave up on, was just round the corner after all. Print sales of Surreal Fashion single-handedly not just sustained our livelihood but got us ahead and that’s without official agencies, really any gallerists, or any desire to enter into the flannel of art circles with it. Selling under our own terms, the best kind of autonomy.
But 2018 was also about continuing my second artistic identity, who wants all the things the other doesn’t. To be radical, polemic even, as Natalie Lennard with my series Birth Undisturbed. I wrote at end of 2017 how I was furiously ready to throw caution to the wind for controversy, and yet, in being so positively received, it has not extinguished my pre-existing identity but surprisingly re-nourished it.
I only did 2 Birth Undisturbed images this year – but two of the most solid and considered chapters yet, where I allowed myself time to explore birth philosophy and history to put together a longer, seven-minute video for each. In February, I created ‘Royal Blood’, recreating the Queen giving birth in 1964; and in June, ‘Aquadural’, depicting birth underwater.
Both made more press between them than the series to date. Rich, long, picture-laden articles in the Daily Mail, The Sun, Metro, as well as news and parenting sites in Poland, Croatia, France, USA and Australia. What was different about any press I’ve ever had in my 12 years, is that I proactively pursued these press articles through journalists and press agencies, and wrote the bulk of their content. They feel like a directed achievement – not just some lucky fluke – and inspire me to explore possibilities deeper for playing the press game.
And, the art game. Although 2017 was when I started making Birth Undisturbed, this year I started marketing it: and for the first time in a true sense pursuing what I simply call my long-suppressed, ‘poncey art dream’. In sealing the series halfway, I had a solid six to enter into competitions, entry calls, and all manner of approaches that I don’t have want or need for in my other work. As a result, Birth Undisturbed was shortlisted for Hopper Prize, Mother Art Prize, Kuala Lumpur Portrait Prize, category first prize in Chromatic Awards, and announced the winner of Julia Margaret Cameron Award in October!
The truth is I’ve long starved myself from putting my ‘academic’ side into my work, or to employ a vision for a serious dialogue. It’s like I have only ever used one arm, and bizarrely waited 12 years to use the other. We have finite time and energy in our lives, and for our highest ambitions to soar we must hone in on what we really want – not the distraction opportunities I would normally take up – to which this year I said no.
The feedback I’ve received on Birth Undisturbed has been astounding in a way I can’t yet find words for. The messages from other mothers who have been inspired by my videos and images to think differently about birth, the people who have bought a piece of art for the first time, even the recent slew of reshares of my Nativity piece this festive month – like the one below – have emboldened my desire to make the next images as powerful as I can make them. To really go to town with my love and fascination for the topic of childbirth.
The fashion part of 2018 came in August when Guo Pei, a designer considered the Alexander McQueen of China… whose dresses Matt and I have long ogled, agreed to partake in a collaboration to produce a series of Surreal Fashion artworks. This was not an opportunity that simply fell in our lap, but needed time, organisation, and venturing into another culture. At times not glamorous, an equal punt on both sides, fuelled by the belief that we will create saleable artworks to return the investment later. The highlight, standing on the Great Wall of China shooting a model in Guo Pei dress watched by World Affairs reporter John Simpson, was used in two subsequent features on BBC World News and later that year in The Telegraph Magazine. I have started to release the first pieces through my @missaniela Instagram and Surreal Fashion website, and more will follow in 2019.
The commercial highlight of the year came toward the end October when we pitched for, and won, an advertising campaign involving 3 weeks out with turtles, sunshine and stingrays in the Cayman Islands during the midst of the dreary UK winter. A lot of work, but work we’ve been building experience toward for years, that it should be no surprise how much work the wieldy budget of a ‘dream job’ operation comprises. Literally hundreds of emails, work hours, and a long slog of work before, during, and after the trip itself, to create video and imagery to bring our Surreal Fashion aesthetic into the commercial – and the client’s complex vision to life. Confidential for now, I look forward to unveiling the assignment in early 2019. Excitingly, we have continued to explore CGI this year and it takes a place in both this and the Guo Pei projects.
After slightly exasperated previous years’ reviews, 2018 been a year of rewards and recognition. And a third ‘R’: refinement. 2018 brought successes but it also highlighted how much you have to work for them – both in the short and long term. Angling for them, proactively, without self-consciousness; persevering, persisting without shy affront. I have never had just one dream, but multiple, conflicting dreams. And now, beautifully – as I extolled during a Instagram takeover for RPS Heroines in October – between Natalie Lennard and Miss Aniela, I can chase more than one. Splitting off my identities was the best thing I ever did.
This year involved travelling to Luxembourg, China, Cayman Islands, and holidays in Poland and France. A year that saw Lilith’s 13th trip to her 15th country – and most all whilst pregnant with another. I discovered in June I was expecting our third child. Second daughter, another sibling to Evan in heaven, Lilith’s chance to try her hand at playing doula. And, because the fear of recurrence of Potters Syndrome will never go away, I’m so thankful that the life inside me is again viable and healthy, celebrating Christmas & New Year now 32 weeks pregnant with the first ‘HNNNGHH’ discomforts of a bouncing baby on my bum nerves.
I have found that Lilith turning 3 heralded her biggest transitions: the end of our breastfeeding, end of babywearing, the start of nursery, and her biggest illness – on holiday in France in August – which I look back on now as a kind of developmental milestone. That was followed by a storm of the worst tantrums we’ve seen, amidst which I began to question everything about the ‘attachment’ way I’d raised her, wondering if I’d done right, how to do better for the next child… and at times I’d sink to the floor wondering what the heck the newly developing ears inside my womb will make of the carnage of household sounds.
But that peak of ‘threenager’ clouds cleared, and day by day, out emerged a more intelligible Lilith – calmer, kinder, cheekier, who off the breast – a liberation to us both – seemed finally able to properly cuddle me, tell me several times daily in a sweet whispering little elf voice that she loves me; the most wonderful snuggles to sleep – guiltless this time, me realising that cosleeping is something that is just natural to me, and I cannot imagine doing it any other way with the next. I came to the lukewarm conclusion that the ways we bring up our children must be a lifestyle we believe in, not expect reward from – much of it won’t make them any better, or any worse – they are in a large part predetermined to just be who they are, and the biggest part of parenting is to guide and watchdog it.
Markedly this year brought the most disillusionment from the books, magazines and articles I’ve read on ‘relaxed parenting’, the school of thought that paints children as innocent to the core, spoiled mainly by adults’ ways. Children, these impossible creatures yet to learn empathy, patience or manners, antagonise you, hurt you, ignore you, frustrate you – yes perhaps without malicious conscious intention, but causing heightened emotional tension nonetheless, which a parent only naturally responds to, and often needs to resolve with some kind of boundary, and that dreaded and I believe over-demonised word ‘discipline’.
It has also taken a while to figure out which part of my parenting wishes were pipe dream, and which were achievable. My late twenties were spent figuring out all the ways I’m ‘crunchy’, in my early thirties I am realising all the ways I’m not. I’ve come to terms with the place that the 3 ’S’s play in her life: sugar, screens and shouting; extinguishing the fantasy I could or even wanted to eradicate any of them. All 3 are part of our life instead with a mission to keep them in check. The end of 2018 finds me, surprisingly, feeling quite confident in my mother balance of ‘firm love’ / ‘soft love’, able to police her wrongdoing as easily as I bend over into mummy-horsey and get ‘parked’ by the cupboard.
The highlight of 2018 for me was creating the Royal birth. The daunting and expensive prospect of recreating historical characters in a scene of multiple characters we’d never done in this way before. The excitement of prepping costume and trying different Queen wigs during the fitting, reassuring me of my hunch that the model, Laura, not only bore uncanny resemblance to the Queen’s facial features but had the wacky confidence to pull birthing poses and expressions with zero inhibition. Lilith on set waving her fluffy ‘Royal’ dog on a stick, Matt’s sister stepping in to save the day and play midwife, whilst I smeared hummus over Boris the fake baby and talked to the camera with more passion I think than I’ve ever talked to one before. Then getting into the Mail Online intentionally timely for Kate Middleton’s April birth, with a writeup better than I’d dreamed of – literally, I dreamt sweatily fearing I’d missed ‘the moment’ – until journalist Jo Tweedy presented that extensive write-up in Femail. I also cherish this interview with Royal reporter Tom Sykes in the Daily Beast, and the Royal birth video on YouTube, to date incredulously stands at half a million views.
2019 sees birth of all kinds, a motherhood mash-up of babies and art… The Feb due week of our new baby is the same week I’ll hear the result of a grant application to create the second half of Birth Undisturbed… whether with arts funding or my own money, I am aching fervently to move forward with the series, explosively, boldly, with everything I’ve got. Spring heralds two exhibitions for existing images (both related to awards, in London and Barcelona). And, some people dear to me are having their first babies.