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Meet the Inspirational Women In My Life

Donna & Mum

Tuesday 8th March is International Women’s Day. This year I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing with you a selection of the inspirational women in my life – I’m lucky to have had a very long list of women in my life who’ve made me the person I am today!

My mum, Alice Wilson

The first person I’d like to mention is my mum, Alice. 

Her parents were farmers and she went on to marry my dad, who ran our family farm in Banff, Aberdeenshire. As a farmer’s wife, a lot was expected of her – she felt it was her duty to assume a traditional female role, to be the maternal caregiver. She didn’t want her daughters to have that same predestined life ahead of them – she wanted my sister Leanne and I to be able to follow our own paths and interests.

Although we were never pushed to earn money, we did both work from a young age. From my mum’s point of view, life and work was about doing something you enjoy doing. And if you can do something you enjoy and make a living from it, that’s great!

My first boss, Vicky

It was my mum who got me my first job when I was about 15 years old, at the Warehouse Gallery in Banff. She knew I was interested in art, so she went in without me and asked if they needed any weekend staff. That was my first job and the gallery owner, Vicky, was my first boss. 

Vicky was really different. She wasn’t from Banff – she’d moved there from Cumbria in England. She was one of my first, close friends not from this area. She really encouraged my interest in art and, eventually, she would include my work in group exhibitions at the gallery. She really nurtured the artist in me. I thought she was really old at the time, but she was probably only in her 40s, like me now!

As for the job, I had to be the face of the gallery when Vicky wasn’t there, as well as little administrative jobs like writing receipts for customers, and I did a lot of cleaning. One of my responsibilities was to sweep the gallery floor. I had no idea how long it should take – should I do it really well and take half a day, or really quickly and take ten minutes? At that age you’re just clueless about that kind of thing. Even making a cafetiere of coffee sent me into a panic!

I think about Vicky quite often. She gave me my first insight into a working environment. She was such a lovely boss, so understanding.

My art teacher, Mrs Reith

My art teacher at school was a woman named Patricia Reith. She was quite a formidable presence, and if she didn’t like someone she made it quite known. But she really liked me because she could see that I was interested in art, and that I was quite good at it too. Her daughter went to Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen the year before me, so Mrs Reith knew all about the course and the institution. She helped me to realise that going on to art school was the inevitable next step for me. 

My granny, Laura Wilson

I’ve talked about my granny (my dad’s mother) a lot in interviews, as she was one of the key creative influences in my life. She was an incredible woman and I still think about her on a daily basis. 

Donna's Granny

Any paintings or drawing my sister would do at home, she would get them framed and put them into local arts shows. That was the first time I realised I could make money from something I’d created. That was at a really young age – I was only about eight or nine years old. I remember looking at a picture of something I’d drawn hanging on the wall and thinking, ‘Oh this looks really professional!’ – and people wanted it! It was a great first lesson.

My granny was well-travelled and had a worldly view of life and art. She was genuinely interested in people and was a very sociable person with a wide circle of friends. I remember she used to run an art club in her home. The members were all around her age group, but came from all walks of life. They’d usually have a focus or a project, like a still life that they’d paint or draw, and sometimes even life drawing with models. 

She was generous with her time, and accepting and open minded, which made her different from everyone else of that age around me at that time. When she was a bit older, after my grandad had passed away, we hired a lady called Donna to stay with her and care for her. All Donna wanted to do was hair and makeup. She wanted to be a makeup artist, but she’d left school without any qualifications.

She was really lovely but her boyfriend was generally acknowledged to be ‘a bit of an undesirable’. He would hang around out outside my granny’s house and chat with Donna while she was off duty. Everyone was so judgemental about Donna and her boyfriend, but not my granny. She invited him in and taught them both to draw and paint. 

Looking at something closely and drawing or painting it is a kind of meditation. My granny realised the benefits of creativity and intuitively knew how to use this to help her friends, family and even people she didn’t know. She was like an art therapist, but ahead of her time.

Years later, at my granny’s funeral, Donna came up to the family and told us just how amazing my granny was, and that she’d been the one to encourage and inspire her to do what she really wanted to – she’d gone on to set up her own business as a makeup artist. 

My tutors, Freddie Robins and Karen Nicol

After studying at Gray’s, I went on to study for an MA in textiles at the Royal College of Art in London. I loved all of the tutors there – they were a great team (of women!) but two in particular have really continued to inspire me.  

Karen Nicol, an embroidery and mixed media textile artist, was the main breadwinner in her family. Her husband was an artist and she tutored to provide a steady income. She really encouraged me to go for it with my work and my career

My other main influence was textile artist Freddie Robins. Freddie just saw something in my work that resonated with her. She really pushed me to challenge myself, to think outside the box. It was really refreshing and had a huge impact on the direction I ended up taking with my knitted creatures. I had been making these dolls, Donna Dolls, in between my first and second year and she challenged me to think about what I could do next. How could I make them weirder, more original? That’s what she’s all about, subverting the normal stereotypes.

She definitely had a huge impact on the direction of my designs and she gave me the confidence to approach retailers with a view to stocking my work. It was her encouragement that sent me into the London boutique Couverture & The Garbstore with six of my Donna Dolls, which marked the beginning of my creature making career!

Freddie Robins & 15 Year Pop Up

There have been so many women who’ve influenced, and continue to influence me, throughout my life and career – it’s impossible to list them all! I’m so grateful to all of them, and to the fabulous all-woman team I’ve built around me who help me to run my company today.

Happy International Women’s Day to all of you, today and every day!

Donna Wilson Team

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