Saturday 16 December 2017

Karen O'Kane: 'At first, looking after the kids was fun, like we were on holiday, but it kept going on, and on'

Karen O'Kane (44) is a textile artist and the founder of Koko Designs. Born in Stoke-on-Trent, she lives in Ramelton, Co Donegal, with her husband, Cormac, and their three boys - Malachy (10), Oran (9) and Donnacha (4)

Textile artist Karen O'Kane. Paul McGukian Photography
Textile artist Karen O'Kane. Paul McGukian Photography

Ciara Dwyer

You don't need an alarm when you've got children. We normally wake up with the four-year-old in our bed. He is the last child, so I enjoy it. I get up at 8am, but that's because I go to bed quite late. I have three children, a husband and two dogs. The mornings are hectic. My husband does the school run on the way to work. He is a lecturer in animation.

For breakfast, I usually have toast. Then I have a few minutes peace before I go across the patio to my studio. I try to be in there for 9.30am. I have a list of stuff that I have to make every day. I paint on silk, and I use it to make everything from brooches and jewellery to lampshades, big pieces of lighting, scarves and handbags.

The studio is open to the public. Even though I have set hours, the locals pop in whenever they feel like it. Sometimes they just call in for a cup of tea and a nosy. I never discourage this. People are really good at pushing business to me. I listen to BBC Radio 4 all day.

I use a French technique called serti, which is a cold-resist technique. I draw barrier lines in my paintings with a nib, and then, when I put the paint on, it doesn't run outside these lines. It's very precise. I know what I'm going to draw beforehand. I see everything in shapes, as opposed to fluid colours.

Everything I paint is inspired by my environment. I take the colours that I see in nature and make them brighter. Yesterday I was painting apple-blossoms and blue-tits, wrens and goldfinches. I've got some pieces with kingfishers, too. I paint birds and plants from the island of Ireland. If some people say, 'Tone down the colour', then I'm not the right person for them. When we renovated our cottage, we painted the kitchen bright red. It was the talk of the surroundings for a while. I don't wear bright colours, but I like to live with colour.

People often think that the way I work is very relaxed, but it's not. Sometimes I feel pressurised because I've got to make so much in a certain space of time. I supply to 12 retailers in the UK and Ireland, and I also have an online shop.

But I'm not complaining. It's better than sitting in front of a computer, which is not my thing at all. I started the business in 2010. We relocated from Dublin because we wanted a different kind of lifestyle for the kids. Back then, I was working in homeless services. I'm an all-or-nothing sort of person, and I felt my working hours were too long. I was dropping the kids off at 8am and picking them up at 6.30pm. Also, childcare was costing a fortune. My husband is from the north-west anyway, and he wanted to come back to his mammy.

Everyone in Dublin thought that we had lost our senses. I became a housewife and stay-at-home mum for the first time in my life. It was awful. I'd come from a very high-paced job and I just felt very down. At first, looking after the kids was fun. It felt like we were on holiday, but then it kept going on, and on.

I remember looking for a job, but the local newspaper didn't even have a jobs section. I'd been doing the silk-painting business as a hobby and I thought I'd just carry on and grow it. I did it out of necessity. Also, I really wanted to be able to pick the kids up from school.

I'm not a business person, so it was a real learning curve. My accountant says it's a miracle that I'm still going. I started in a rural area in the middle of a recession, trying to sell luxury goods to people who didn't have any money. But I didn't give up. When you've invested so much time in something, you can't.

Sometimes I got fed up, but then a customer would phone and tell me how much they loved a lampshade that I had made for them. That kept me going.

In the beginning, I felt guilty, because I had worked in worthwhile jobs with people who were vulnerable, and I had given that up to make lampshades in a rural idyll. Even though I'm from Stoke-on-Trent, I always knew that I was a country girl.

My creative side comes from my grandma. She was a watercolour painter and sculptor. I used to stay with her every Friday night, and on Saturday mornings we'd make something. Whenever I said that I wanted - an outfit for my doll or furniture for my doll's house, she'd say, 'We'll make that.' She could turn her hand to anything, and she made all her own outfits, including jewellery to match. I thought everybody did that. Nowadays people do craft as a hobby, but my grandma did it out of necessity. That was the era.

In the afternoons, I pick the kids up from school and I get an hour in the garden with them, and then we might sneak off to the beach. I'm a bad mother, because we tend to do that before we do the homework. I have two dogs and I have to walk them. Being out in nature feeds into my work. It's not just looking at things, but the smells and the sensations. I love being out in rain. I love the smell of it and the feel of it.

I always cook something fresh for the dinner every night. After the kids have gone to bed, I take my work into the kitchen. My husband is at one end of the table, marking papers, and I'm gluing bits and bobs together. That's as much as we see each other. I go to bed at 1am. I read about half a page of a book and then I fall asleep. I'm in a book club called Mammies Who Like To Read. We don't actually read any more, but we like the theory of finishing a book.

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