Updated: Apr 9, 2021
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."