Johanna Basford's sabbatical diary, weeks 17-18: The final furlong

As Johanna's four-month break from commissions comes to an end, she launches her Wonderbeasts show at DCA in Dundee.

Johanna Basford is on a four-month sabbatical from paid work to concentrate on making herself a better artist, illustrator and all-round creative person.

Every week Johanna aims to publish a diary entry, which we'll be running on Digital Arts so you can follow the ups and downs – hopefully mainly ups – as she pushes her creativity and vision into new areas.

Weeks 17 & 18

The last 14 days of my four-month sabbatical rocketed past at speeds even CERN would be impressed by.

We hired a van, crammed it full of ink and headed south to Dundee.

I spent the entire journey worrying that Posca Pup would emerge the other end like some battered Mexican street mutt, luckily he survived unscathed.

The DCA install team had everything unloaded and into the gallery with ferocious efficiency. I consider them the art equivalent of a Formula 1 team.

Suddenly the gallery looked very, very big… and very, very bare. And my work sitting in it - very, very small.

I’ve always thought  hoped that fear inspires the best in me. So I kicked the terror to one side and got stuck in. Wallpaper was hung, floors were painted, sailing boats positioned and cuckoos hidden.

The technical challenges of actually installing all the work were far greater than I had ever anticipated. Had it not been for the amazing install team, there would be no exhibition.


For the first time I experienced commuting; driving from our home in Aberdeenshire down to the gallery daily. It wasn’t pleasant and I sorely missed my 12-step shuffle from bed to desk.

It made this Ted talk by Jason Fried all the more poignant. And I now get why people buy those Thermos cups.

As the show gradually began to take shape, I felt increasingly anxious about the opening night. The work that had occupied every nook and cranny of my studio for the last four months was suddenly engulfed by the vast, empty space of the gallery.

I felt very exposed. I wished that I’d made more work – or at least bigger work.

At Art School you get crits. In commercial practice you get client feedback. With this sabbatical and exhibition malarkey, I was in no man’s land right up until the last minute, when suddenly anyone and their nan could judge me.

I guess it’s like singing in the shower one minute, then appearing on the X Factor final the next (ignoring the part of that analogy that would have you naked in front of Simon Cowell *shudder*).

Opening night approached. I panicked, considered pulling a sickie or making a run for Aberdeen.

I worried that people wouldn’t come. I worried that those who did wouldn’t like the show. I worried that I’d be heckled during the Meet the Artist talk. I worried that I’d let the DCA down, wasted four months and just generally embarrassed myself on the Internet, in real life and in front of my friends and family. I worried that I’d be found out – that I’d somehow blagged my way into this gallery and it had all been a terrible, terrible mistake.

Plus, there was torrential rain.

I drank half a bottle of Rescue Remedy and grabbed an umbrella.

As it happens, 100s of people came, the show seemed to go down well, I didn’t get heckled and the DCA gave me a thumbs up.


So for now, the show is open and the sabbatical is over. Next week I’ll be posting a de-brief: The good, the bad and the ugly of taking four months off and how it’s changed my practice.

And believe me, it’s changed.

Wonderlands is open every day until Sunday 7th July. Go judge me.

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