With a lifelong passion for arts and crafts, it was perhaps inevitable that Mell Oliver would start up her own creative business. But it was a serious health scare several years ago that saw her pick up her pens and turn to art in a bid to aid her ongoing recovery. Little did she know that this slow and mindful self-healing would later morph into a thriving business, based in the beautiful Crewkerne countryside.
Mell: "I have lived in Somerset since I was 14-years-old. We moved over in 2004 from the seaside town of Bridport, as my family relocated their business here. I moved away for university to study Fine Art Photography (BA) at the Arts University Bournemouth in 2008 and graduated in 2011, continuing to live in this vibrant creative town by the sea for another 18-months before returning to 'the shire' of sunny, simple Somerset. I have been based here ever since, moving around to Langport, and a short jaunt down to Swanage in Dorset, and I now live back in Crewkerne again with my wonderful partner."
So has Mell always been creative?
Mell: "I think I have, yes. When I was younger I was always dancing, drawing and writing. I used to have this alphabet game where you traced the letters to improve your hand writing, and I would do this for hours upon hours - my teachers would say how my handwriting was better than theirs, even in primary school! Growing up, I used to journal and write countless diary entries in my growing collection of notebooks, and would make things for friends. As a teenager, art and writing soon became my escape for working things out emotionally, and dealing with the ups and downs that come with growing up - creativity became my go-to when I couldn't figure out how I was feeling. I have actually always been quite shy and anxious growing up too, so I would often spend long hours in the art room or photography studio creating things, as it gave me a bit of a break from social stimulation. My dad is a cobbler so our family business revolved around mending, fixing and making things out of broken and found materials, which I can definitely see has influenced me running my own creative business creating things with my hands! I am very interested in vintage items and second-hand/thrifted clothing, so it makes sense to have this sense of living lightly run as a theme through my business too."
Mell's passion for art and creativity is clear, but how did her business - The Sunshine Bindery - begin?
Mell: "Well, this is a rather personal one actually. It began several years ago, after a very stressful time at work, ending up having to leave my job due to ill health, that had probably been under the radar for years - I was very good at just getting on with things. I was diagnosed with the chronic illness ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephelomyelitis or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) in 2016 after months of debilitating exhaustion, muscle pain, loss of memory and concentration, and a host of other symptoms which left me, on bad days, bed bound in a quiet, dark room, and on slightly better days, able to gently move around the house. It was then that I began a deep inner journey, one of reworking who I was, understanding this illness that had taken over my life, and somehow finding a way out of it again. My lifestyle became calm, quiet and gentle, allowing the stress to gently leave my body, and for my brain to settle enough to let creativity flow again. This was where I first picked up my pens and pencils once more, being some of the few things I had the energy to do as I could sit in bed and let my artistic side begin to come alive again. It began first with mandalas, drawing huge therapeutic designs up to A3 and A2, spending hours, little by little at a time, just to give my brain a bit of breathing space. I fell in love with drawing again, and slowly began to rebuild my sense of self-confidence, and as I started showing people my work, it seemed to make sense to try and make something of this. Around the same sort of time, I had to go on jobseekers' allowance to help with my lack of cash flow, and as I was still not any where near well enough for full or even part time work, I enrolled on a course called NEA (New Enterprise Allowance), aimed at small start-up entrepreneurs who wanted to run their own business. This seemed a perfect fit for me; it gave me time to work out the logistics of my business, write my business plan and understand cash flow, accounting and marketing with the help of some incredibly special people who I hold immense gratitude towards for their help along this journey. It all seemed to be as if life was really helping me out when I needed it most. It gave me an option to earn a small income while working around my condition; if I needed to rest I could, and when I had the energy to work I would make the most of that time I had. So that is how it began, through using art as therapy to rediscover my true creative self, to help with the healing process, as a means of destressing my overwhelmed system and giving my body a change to heal itself over time. This foundation has helped shaped my business in an incredible way; it has slowly and organically grown, and I have gotten stronger in the process and learned how to manage my condition much more sustainably. It has given me a deep heart to give back and help to encourage others in their creative journey too. I saw how powerful the creative process can be, how deeply it can affect our mental state, help to bring us back into balance with ourselves, give us a space for self expression, healing and empowerment. I make books to give people that gift of their own space to just be within, a place to explore their true selves, a private world to express their innermost thoughts, dreams and desires, that perhaps might one day become a reality. I truly believe in the power of creativity and journaling our thoughts down. It helps in so many ways to calm the mind and give our thoughts space to be listened to, heard, valued and cherished, something I learned along the way of my healing journey. This is definitely something I would love to pass on to others, perhaps who are struggling with invisible illnesses themselves, mental health issues, lack of self confidence, or who just would love a space for their own creative journey. I am hoping this will come in the form of teaching workshops, facilitating creative groups, and who knows maybe even one day go on to host a proper therapy and retreat space for others to express themselves and find a love of the creative process for their own journey. For now, my offerings come in the form of beautiful, hand-bound books, uplifting art prints and warm, positive greeting cards, to help spread that message of love and light, as it is so deeply important to nurture and protect the mind, and fill it with life-affirming, loving and cherishing thoughts. I also offer hand-bound travel journals to encourage adventure, getting out into the natural world, and spending time in the healing outdoors which is also incredibly important to me."
Mell's beautiful and heart-felt product range at The Sunshine Bindery is expanding all the time, and sustainability definitely plays an important role.
Mell: "My product range currently includes: ethically hand-bound journals, notebooks, illustrated greeting cards, art prints, tiny book jewellery, gifts and stationery, all made by hand, from scratch, in my studio. [I use] recycled, locally reclaimed and sustainable materials as much as possible, with a vibrant, colourful, positive and uplifting mantra and ethos. I try to be as consciously-minded as possible with my process and sourcing my materials, and use recycled/recyclable packaging, as well as choosing biodegradable and compostable corn starch plastic-free sleeves for my greeting cards and prints."
Mell realised that she was passionate about art and design whilst at school, but it's only recently that she's had the confidence to turn her enthusiasms into employment.
Mell: " I was always doodling, drawing, sketching and taking photos in my spare time and I loved putting projects together in big, over-spilling sketchbooks. It is only in recent years though, with the rising culture of so many incredible independent small businesses, designers and makers, that I have felt encouraged to turn this into a real-life job. I have always had a vast and vivid collection of notebooks, journals and sketchbooks, and after starting my illustration business selling just cards, prints and handmade paper, it made sense to try my hand at book binding to add another string to my bow - and to learn how to make one of my favourite things! Also, journals and sketchbooks are their own little world, so I wanted to make beautiful notebooks that were recycled and sustainably made to offer people that option, away from mass-produced notebooks you can buy from big chain stores. There really is something quite unique about a hand-crafted product, made with patience and love. I think it does influence what you write and draw in it - it becomes a truly special space. So I went on a couple of book making courses to try out a few different styles, bought several how-to books and just sort of picked it up as I've gone along and have been defining my signature style ever since. It's quite funny looking back at some of my first attempts at book making, they were terrible! But also really sweet to see where it began and encouraging to watch how far you have grown since then."
Mell currently has, in her words, "a beautiful, bright colourful space at home" where she makes and creates. Not only is it full of her own work, but also that of others makers that she admires and supports - something that is so important to her.
Mell: "I have actually taken over two of our smaller rooms that weren't really being used, so I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to have access to such an amazing space. The main room is for my studio, where I create all of my products, design, craft and package them up. I have a designated packing space for all of my online orders, and lots of storage space for art supplies and paper - which takes up most of my space. All of the walls are covered in inspiring, colourful and uplifting art work from other artists and makers that I admire and look up to. One of the things I love most about being in this sub-culture is being surrounded by an incredible community of makers and designers who each have something beautiful and unique to share with this world, and I love to be reminded of this by their cards and art work adorning my studio walls. The second little room is designated for my wholesale orders and storage of finished product - I have a whole card wall and a big space for the different products that I stock. I am incredibly blessed to have a wonderfully supportive and patiently partner who has helped build this lovely little world for me to create in, I feel so lucky. Having started my business from a tiny corner of my bedroom to having grown enough to warrant two rooms is slightly mad! But it feels so good to be able to dedicate time and energy to doing something that I adore so much, and can now have the space to allow these dreams to keep growing and blossoming in the way that they crave to. I have a real heart for community and in the future I would love to be involved in creative collectives. It is one of my big dreams to help set up a community art/maker studio, where we can host workshops, talks, fundraisers, skill shares and have a space for makers to come together and support each other."
Where does Mell get her ideas and inspiration from?
Mell: "A lot of my inspiration and ideas I get from looking at other artist's work and their process. There really is an abundance of knowledge and different ways of doing things out there in the world, and I am always being encouraged and inspired to try new mediums and styles out. Art is a never-ending expansive process, the moment you feel you have your style, you feel this pull to shift and change to explore new and exciting ways of doing things, which definitely keeps the process interesting! I try to maintain a sense of consistency throughout though, which is why I focus my work on self-care, love, positive affirmations and uplifting mantras. I am hugely inspired by my love of nature and the wild outdoors too, taking regular time out to go on adventures and explore our beautiful world. Being a serial magpie, I am always collecting bits of leaf, branches, shells or flowers on our nature walks to draw inspiration from - our house is full of weird things we've found on our adventures! A lot of ideas seem to flow from my own inner journey as well, things that I have found helpful and healing, phrases, quotes and dreams that have helped calm my mind and bring me back into balance along the way, which I feel could help lift others up too and bring them some encouragement wherever they may find themselves."
So does Mell have a favourite product from her collection?
Mell: "My favourite product range has to be my Sunshine Journals - they are my collection of hand-stitched, hard cover notebooks ranging in four different sizes. They are bright, bold, colourful and very often nature inspired and floral, which I love! My reclaimed leather adventure journals are probably my favourite to make though - the materials are so tactile and always instill this incredible sense of adventure in my soul, makes me want to take one out on my travels and long walks exploring our gorgeous British countryside. I am a huge fan of the outdoors, and my partner and I regularly take trips camping and exploring the UK. He laughs at me because I always have my journal with me wherever I go and am always whipping it out and drawing something or writing notes about our journey and what we get up to, how it all makes me feel. I love being out in the world and experiencing it first hand, being immersed in the middle of nature and feeling its fullness all around me, and I find carrying my journal and camera with me helps me to capture those memories of how I felt to be alive in that moment."
Mell's determination and hard-working ethos shine through in her work, but has she encountered any problems along the way?
Mell: "One of the biggest challenges that I have had to overcome along this journey is by far dealing with my chronic illness/condition alongside it, especially when it comes to keeping up with orders and attending markets for long hours in all weathers. I do feel a lot more stable in my health now which is wonderful, however it hasn't always been like that. I find it difficult not to feel under pressure to 'keep up appearances' and keep up with the success of other makers who I admire, and I have often found my mental health struggling under the weight of trying to keep pushing when my body has been crying out for me to rest and stop. This has definitely been something I have had to make peace with in my own journey, knowing that everyone walks at their own pace. It is all a wonderful journey for each of us and no one's will ever look the same. One quote that has been my saving grace and mantra is: 'never compare your beginning to someone else's middle'. It is a wonderful daily reminder that it is not a race and we are all doing this within what we can do ourselves with the tools we have on any given day, which will look completely different to the next person. Having my own business has been wonderful in terms of flexibility and being able to continue my healing journey while organically growing and managing my business, but as a maker at heart, my business head is not my strongest part! At times I do find the day-to-day managing of my business a little difficult, due to having to wear so many hats and play so many different roles. However there are so many incredible resources out there now for small business owners and creative makers like myself, from people who really know what you're going through! And of course there is an incredible online community of makers and artists who are supporting and uplifting each other all the time, which is by far one of the most amazing and rewarding parts about our line of work."
Who does Mell count as her role models and where does she get her inspiration?
Mell: "My beautiful maker community! I have made so many friends over the few short years I have been doing this, and I cherish all of them for their unique input and creative offerings to the world. Every day I am deeply inspired by those who put themselves out there, who have the courage to tell their story, who are raw and honest with who they are, and share their vulnerability and heart with the rest of the world. It inspired and encourages me to live my truth, every day, and feel courage to step out there and share my story too. My incredibly supportive and loving partner, Jon, inspires me daily too. He inspires and encourages me to step out of my comfort zone and climb up mountains where I never even imagined I would be able to - physical mountains and metaphorically speaking! I love getting out there and simply being immersed in nature, it is my greatest source of healing and inspiration out there, in the wild and the wilderness. I find I often need a lot of quiet time and space away from the busy chaos and over-stimulation of the modern world, and find that dipping into nature, regular 'forest bathing', gentle walks in the stillness and quiet solitude with just my thoughts, my camera and my sketchbook are sometimes all I need to give me a boost."
What plans does Mell have for the future of The Sunshine Bindery?
Mell: "Keep on keeping on - organically growing, deepening as an artist, stepping out of my comfort zone even more so every day! I would love to spread more sunshine by offering workshops in book binding, journalling, nature sketching and even writing for healing. So many beautiful things I would love to share with others. It is also my deep-heart dream to open up a collective studio/shop/workshop someday, to offer up a space of community, creativity and sharing space together, helping other artists and makers grow in their own journey and develop their practice. Perhaps with a coffee shop and exhibition space too, that would be amazing, and a space to offer up creative retreats. I also love all things 'campervan', so we are hoping to do a big conversion project so I can be on the road more and take our exploration even further! It would be awesome to somehow incorporate this life of adventure and love of the wilderness into my work in some way - watch this space! Wow. For now, I will keep dreaming and allow my dear little sunshine business to keep growing organically and watch as it takes its own shape. I would love to see it be able to offer full-time income, perhaps even to get to the point of hiring staff and becoming a little team. That would be amazing! Maybe to move into a collective studio space out there serving the community (as much as I love my gorgeous little studio space!) so that I can have my own creative space that is big enough to be able to offer workshops and mini-creative retreats. That would be ace. I also have goals of opening up my own online shop - I have an Etsy shop at the moment but would love to get my own shop up and running. [I'd also love to be] a bit more out there with my online offerings, for example newsletters, videos, tutorials, etc. So many ideas and dreams!"
Mell's passion for her craft and her products are clear, but shy does she love Somerset?
Mell: "I love Somerset because of its emphasis on slow living, nature and community, and of course the incredible locally sourced produce you can find! When I first moved back from Bournemouth after finishing university, I began working at the wonderful Trading Post [Farm Shop] and Pip's Railway Carriage cafe. This place will always carry a huge place in my heart, as it was here that I discovered the beautiful world of local, organic food, the power of community and holding space for other people in the cafe, and the slow living ways of the West Country. I discovered beautiful sub-cultures of organic farming and acoustic folk nights in village halls, pop up shops and small creative collectives of people simply wanting to spread sunshine in the community. The endless, glorious fields etched in sunlight in summer and the sound of crisp, golden leaves crunching underfoot in the autumn, and the way you only need to walk out your front door to find somewhere beautiful to walk out in nature to calm your soul and find a little silence. The fact that every time I walk out in the countryside there are birds singing, and dogs being walked, and rabbits bouncing around. And there is always somewhere near to go wild swimming or take the tent out for an impromptu camping adventure. I love how within 20-minutes drive you are at the ocean, or deep in a forest, or at the heart of a vibrant green grass field surrounded by sheep. It's simply pure magic. I am definitely a born and bred countryside girl at heart and that will never change!"