Pursuing a creative passion

Meet Vanessa Dennett, owner of The Simpson Sisters, a small business which runs creative workshops in relaxed and collaborative settings in Bristol and North Somerset. Like many women, Vanessa put her career ambitions on hold whilst raising her children, but now she is finally able to pursue her passion and showcase her creative talent through her blog and the workshops she runs.

Tell us about yourself 

I grew up in a small village in North Somerset and had a pretty idyllic early childhood. I went to the village primary school and then onto the local comprehensive where the idyll ended. I became pretty unmotivated and much more interested in horses and boys than anything academic. I was however considered bright enough to be studying the sciences at O-level and consequently wasn’t allowed to continue with the more creative subjects which I enjoyed.

Vanessa Dennett

Suffice to say that I was not successful at O-level, and after an unhappy start at a new school for A-levels I persuaded my parents to let me leave and go to secretarial college instead. I never particularly wanted to become a secretary, rather it seemed a good escape route. A couple of years temping and travelling persuaded me that office life was not for me and I applied for nurse training because I liked people and didn’t have sufficient qualifications to do anything else medical. It’s fair to say I could have given these decisions a little more consideration!

The following years were spent nursing and, following a knee injury, in various medically oriented sales and admin jobs – I recruited Australian nurses for the UK and sold plaster casts amongst other things! During this time I met my husband and we have lived and travelled around the world as he has pursued his career. Australia, Germany, South Africa, Belgium and Sweden have all been home at various times.

Since the birth of our two daughters I have explored a number of potential careers, largely based upon what I could fit around the demands of caring for children while living overseas without any established network and a husband who travelled. I drew upon my secretarial skills typing at home in the evenings, my knowledge of anatomy as a massage therapist and my sewing skills as a technician in a school’s textiles department, but nothing left me feeling very fulfilled or enthusiastic.

How did the idea for your business come about?

While living in Belgium I was offered the opportunity to participate in a pilot online coaching programme by a friend establishing her business. I finally spent a bit of time thinking about who I am, my skills and my interests and concluded that what I would really like to do would be ‘something creative with other people’. At this point we moved again twice in short succession and I put these thoughts on hold. We returned to the UK and I found a job almost next door at St Peter’s Hospice where I helped manage their hospice based volunteers on a short-term contract. At the end of this contract I again felt the frustration and entrapment that I have so often experienced in office environments, and much as I love the hospice I looked again at the outcome of the coaching programme and thought “I just have to try something, anything, more creative”. It was at this point that several threads began to weave together.

simpsons workshops

  • While overseas we had bought a small disused barn from my parents when they downsized from our family home and I had begun to blog very sporadically about the project, simply as a personal record and a way of family seeing what was going on. I had great intentions but too many moves got in the way and I never really got going.
  • While at the hospice I undertook a Digital Mums social media management course in order to up-skill a bit and with the notion that this type of flexible working might suit me. During the course I attended an Instagram workshop at The Forge with Emily Quinton and was introduced to Makelight and the online world of creatives which had somehow been a secret to me until then.
  • Originally a Simpson, I thought that The Simpson Sisters would make a great name for a business. Though I wasn’t sure what business I could possibly run I had bought the domain name a few years ago.
  • Attending creative workshops of all sorts, from cake decorating to pottery, watercolours and stage make-up has been how I have met some of my best friends in various locations over the years and I have spent many happy hours learning new skills in this way.

It suddenly occurred to me that workshops were just exactly doing something creative with other people and that I could either keep attending them, or I could start running them. Being interested in so many different creative pursuits it seemed to me that collaborating with others would be a really great way to do this.

It has taken me a while to nail exactly what it is that I’ve been creating, but I’ve loved finding my way over the last year and can now confidently tell people that The Simpson Sisters is a small creative business whose aims are to encourage and enable creativity by offering a variety of creative workshops in a warm, friendly and relaxed environment, and by providing a small attractive venue for other creatives to use for similar purposes. I love sharing my home with people and workshop days are my absolute favourites. In fact, I’m teaching my first sewing workshop in September and have often wondered how different my life might have been if I had pursued textiles as a subject at school!

How are you embracing social media?

Social media has been a huge learning curve for me over the last 18 months, I didn’t even have an Instagram account until last year and had never tweeted until then either! However, it has proved a wonderful resource and I have benefitted enormously from so many of the lovely people I have met online. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are where I’m found regularly and although I sometimes find three platforms challenging I believe that they each offer something quite different to me. I would love to grow my audiences and have worked hard to improve my photography to this end.


Vanessa is following…

me and orla

Me and Orla : I love Sarah’s honesty and no nonsense approach, her Hashtag Authentic podcast has been one of my favourites.

simple and season

Simple and Season: I had followed Kayte’s blog for a while and jumped at the chance to hear her speak at Blogtacular. I was not disappointed and found her marketing advice invaluable.

makelight

Makelight: without some of Emily and Stef’s courses I would never have pursued Instagram, updated my website or begun sending a newsletter.


Vanessa’s work…

thesimpsonsisters.co.uk
eventbrite.co.uk/o/the-simpson-sisters-11355703362
instagram.com/simpsonsisters

Curator of colour

Jessica Siggers is a photographer, social media influencer and Instagram consultant who lives in Bristol with her family. I first encountered Jess via her Instagram account Porthjess, a platform which has helped to build and cement her profile as a photographer. In person Jess is refreshingly humble and honest about her influencer status. It brings with it a whole host of opportunities which some people may feel unable to turn down. However, Jess is in the self-confessed “privileged position” of being able to select commercial collaborators that fit with her sense of identity (she has worked with Farrow & Ball, Pret A Manger, Canon, Cross Country Trains and Finisterre). But she’s also realistic about why others may choose a different path. There is a lot of judgement on social media which has given rise to the “armchair warrior”, but like anyone who has an online presence she has learned to turn the other cheek and focus on the positives and what she’s really passionate about – creating photographs that inspire others.

Jessica Siggers Porthjess Instagram photographer
“When I was trying to think up a name for my business a few years ago, I wanted something which contained my name but also tied in with me living on a harbour plus my love of the sea. ‘Porth’ means ‘harbour’ in Cornish! Et voila.”

A love of Bristol, rainbow colours, the coast and cars are what has made her loved by over 40k followers on Instagram. This strong sense of creative identity is what Jess intends to build on in 2017. So this year Jess will be returning her focus to the art of photography and establishing different ways to earn income. As a respected Instagram influencer Jess has started to run a series of workshops ‘Unleash your Instagram potential’, run in conjunction with Bristol Media and she is also involved in Digital Gaggle (marketing meet-ups and conferences in Bristol).

Jessica Siggers Porthjess colourful bristol street

Alongside her Porthjess persona Jess also runs the the official Instagram network for Bristol: IgersBristol. This is a photography showcase of Bristol and a job which keeps Jess’s feet firmly on the ground. Although she sometimes feels like “a dinosaur” amongst the young Instagram crowd it’s a good way to keep track of the latest photography trends and what is popular online. But that doesn’t impact on her signature style, if anything seeing what is trending has only reaffirmed what subjects she loves to photograph and makes her happy.

Jessica Siggers Porthjess Instagram photographer bristol street

One thing I respect and admire is Jess’s strong sense of identity when it comes to work and family life. Although the two need to coexist in a practical sense they aren’t linked in Jess’s mind: she’s not an Insta-mum. Whilst being a mother is an integral part of who she is, it’s not what makes Jess a successful photographer. I for one am looking forward to seeing how Jess’s career develops in 2017 and I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of her popular Instagram workshops.

JESS’S TOP TECHNICAL TIPS

1) Do you use your phone as well as your camera? If so how do you use them differently?

“I never leave the house without my compact Canon M3 DSLR and crummy old Samsung phone, permanently set to camera mode. I tend to use my phone for those quick shots where timing is everything (in my case usually an old car going past) and the camera for more structured shots where picture quality is important. I also have my ‘Big Camera’, i.e. my Canon 5D, which I use when specific shots are required for clients.”

Jessica Siggers Porthjess Instagram photographer stokes croft bristol beetle car

2) Do you alter the images at all for use on Instagram?

“There are three things I always do before any of my photos make it to Instagram: run them through the auto-straighten feature on the Snapseed app, to tidy up any wonky horizons; crop out any unnecessary bits, again through Snapseed; use one of two filters from the brilliant ‘A Color Story’ app. My filters of choice just lighten the photo and enhance the colours to how I like them so that my Instagram grid always looks cohesive.”

Jessica Siggers Porthjess Instagram photographer ss great britain bristol

3) Hashtags are an important part of Instagram: how do you choose the ones you use and are there specific ones you like to use?

“I have a list of my favourite hashtags saved in the Notes function on my phone (for ultimate Instageekery, they’re also saved into different categories such as ‘Doors’, ‘Cars’ and ‘Colour’). These are all either hashtags which have worked previously and continue to work for me and my style or hashtags which I’m just using for now but may drop in future (e.g. seasonal tags). It’s good to mix them up a bit and find new ones from time to time. Helps you find great new accounts to follow too.”

Jessica Siggers Porthjess Instagram photographer bristol street scene

4) What’s your top photographic tip for people who take photos using their phones and uploading direct to Instagram?

“Turn your gridlines on in your camera settings. Helps you to align your shot perfectly and avoids too many of those wonky horizons!”

Jessica Siggers Porthjess Instagram photographer harbourside bristol

5) What advice would you give aspiring photographers looking to grow their online profile?

1) “Look up the local Igers (Instagrammers) network for your area such as Igers Bristol. We host regular free photowalks or ‘Instameets’ where lots of like-minded photographers get together and provide support and fresh inspiration!”

2) “Find a hashtag which relates to your style of work, e.g. I like #candyminimal, or even the hashtag for your area, e.g. #Bristol. Like and leave nice comments on photos that you like and others might do the same to you. This helps build followers.”

3) “Come to one of my Instagram workshops!”


Jess is following…

Valuable Content bristol logo

@valuablecontent (aka @sonjajefferson and @sjtanton): “Two clever, brilliant fellow Bristol Media members who are at the top of the content marketing consultancy game and also happen to be mothers. I’m also lucky enough to have them as my neighbours and my career took a big turn for the better when I took their advice over pastries at Sharon’s kitchen table one morning last year. They’re like my business fairy godmothers.”

Dolly Land

@dollyland“’Dolly is Sharon, a mum of five who lives in Clovelly, Devon. We became friends through Instagram via our love of the sea and met just before Sharon became social media manager for @2minutebeachclean, a +20k strong community of barefoot warriors taking two minutes out of their day to keep our beaches clean of rubbish. My family and I now never leave a beach or riverside without having a quick litter-pick first and that’s largely down to Sharon.”

Sara Venn Edible Bristol

Sara Venn, aka @saralimback“I’m ridiculously proud to call Sara my friend. She runs @ediblebristol, a branch of the Incredible Edible movement, launched to make Bristol the UK’s first edible city. In most areas of Bristol you’ll now come across an edible garden planted by Sara and her team. She’s also mum to one daughter like me and gives the best hugs.


Jess’s work…

porthjess.com
bristolcolourcapital.org
instagram.com/porthjess
instagram.com/igersbristol

Interview with Amy White