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Friday interview | Why losing your speech is no barrier to progress

When Gail Curry lost her speech earlier this year, it didn’t stop her pushing forward. She draws inspiration from her life for her creations and teaches others to create for their own mental health.

By Helen Bowman

Tell us a little bit about your background and how your business came about

I was born and bred in the North East and love the area. When I was 16, on the day I collected my O-level results, my family threw me out for being gay. The following three years were spent sleeping rough in London and the South East until I met two women at Greenham Common, who offered me a place to stay. They changed my life. I got a part-time job, and my new friends put me through college, where I trained as a social worker.

After 21 years in social work, I decided to pursue my passion for photography. I spent two years in New York before setting up an art photography company based between Berlin and the UK. After eight years, I planned to move to New Zealand with my wife. We wanted to live a life of self-sufficiency and art. Sadly, eight weeks before our scheduled departure, my wife was killed in an accident. Only a few weeks later, my home was burgled, and I was attacked.

I struggled severely, and I was diagnosed with several mental health issues, including severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I knew I needed purpose and structure to lift myself up again, so I added some life to the plans my wife and I had drawn up for the shop we’d dreamed of.

I taught myself to felt and rented a studio. It all feels like a lifetime ago, but it was only six years ago next February. I moved into my current shop three years ago. I lost my speech earlier this year as a result of the PTSD, and I now communicate through speech apps on my phone and tablet.

That’s an incredible story, which I’m sure has inspired much of your work. Where else do you find inspiration?

My felt making is my inner child’s domain. I create things that make me smile, and that tends to engage my customers’ inner child too, as they spend time laughing and smiling in my shop. I use hand-dyed British wool from small suppliers that I have been using for a long time. Ethical working is fundamental to me, and it’s where the name of my business (Happy Planet) comes from. I don’t want to profit from harm to people or the planet.

I’m very fortunate that I don’t run out of ideas and love making quality handmade goods.

My painting is driven by pursuing my recovery. I also have an inquisitive mind. I work in abstract and paint my thoughts and experiences in a studio, away from distractions, so that I can really connect with and communicate through the canvas. The process is energising as well as enlightening.

As a teacher of crafting, how do you overcome the challenge of having no speech?

Very carefully. It’s a process I’m still working on. The first part of the challenge was to find the right communication aid that would speak for me. It wasn’t an easy task as most speech aids are made for people who also have cognitive impairment and/or fine motor issues. I have neither, I just can’t use my own voice.

I began by using a tablet with some text to speech software, but I soon developed RSI as a result of using it. The next step was better software and a Bluetooth keyboard. I pre-write all of my workshops and save them into my tablet. It now takes me four times longer to prepare a workshop than it used to. I need both my tablet to run the workshop plus another device to communicate and answer questions. I’ve always run small workshops for five people, but I’ve had to reduce that further as a result of losing my speech.

I don’t think many people realise how tiring it is, communicating as I do. When we speak, we almost do so subconsciously – you don’t have to think of every word before you say it, which is what I need to do before I type my responses.

I love teaching, and I don’t want to give it up, but I will be taking a break during December and January to review the process and see how to improve it.

What has been the highlight of your business journey so far?

It used to be moving into the shop in Whitley Bay, but last month I won the North East Entrepreneurial Spirit Award 2019. I’m not usually a fan of awards, but this one was judged by successful entrepreneurs who have walked the walk, such as Cath Kidston. I know how much I’ve achieved since the early days and I’m much stronger than I was. My creativity not only helps with my craftwork but with solving problems and growing my business.

How has your creativity helped with your own mental health?

Working creatively has helped me immeasurably. In the very early days, walking to my studio was a win, even if I’d just cry when I got there. Eventually, I started making things when I got there, and it became easier. It’s a step by step process.

I’ve also been a writer since my early twenties, but I stopped when my wife died. Recently I’ve picked it up again to make sense of what I’m going through. In 2017 I published a book of poetry in aid of Rape Crisis, which tells the story of my relationship and my recovery up to the point where I regained hope.

Do you have any tips for people who want to embrace their own creativity to aid their wellbeing?

Creativity covers a vast spectrum of activities from gardening and cooking to drawing, journaling, flower arranging and embroidery. It doesn’t matter which creative form you choose, only that you enjoy it.

Try not to care about the end product, learn to embrace the process. Give your inner child time to play – they will reward you with joy and dissolve your daily stresses.

What’s your favourite thing to do in the North East?

So many of my favourite pastimes aren’t options for me anymore; socialising in restaurants is exhausting, gigs and concerts are too loud and are beyond me. I can get to the cinema if I’m careful about my choice of film as noise levels and the dark are both barriers for me.

My coffee shop of choice is Mr Woods on the Broadway in Tynemouth – the staff are friendly and welcoming, and the coffee is fantastic – it’s one of my vices.

Other than that, I love to fly kites and drive sports cars. My perfect day out is a drive to Holy Island in Northumberland, roof down, a few hours of catching the wind and absorbing the beautiful landscape.

Our favourite products from Happy Planet

All products are available in the Whitley Bay store. 

Happy Planet

3A Ilfracombe Gardens

Whitley Bay

NE26 3ND

https://happyplanetstudio.co.uk

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