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Under Lock and Key

by Carmen - Director of The Prop Factory

Tuesday 21st January 2020 09:50:25

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A photo shoot at Dartington Hall about creativity, work and mental health.

I began The Prop Factory back in 2011 with less than the boot of my car full of crockery for hire. To date it has grown to a warehouse over 8,000 sq ft full of thousands of props for hire. Various friends and family have asked me over the years for nuggets of advice about running a business and I’ve always been happy to share tips and my story.But in more recent times I have wondered if my formula for success really can be packaged up and passed on as tangible advice for someone to follow. I’ve felt my answers are perhaps unauthentic and, really, my success just a product of my environment. I question if the company would exist at all if I didn’t have a mental health problem.In 2016 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a lifelong condition that manifests as extreme moods where the highs are so high that you can become delusional to the point of feeling god-like, and the lows so low that you want to take your own life. My diagnosis explained a lot of my life up to that point. It was almost a relief to join together the contrasting feelings in my mind. I’d felt like I was living a double life as two very different people. After I was diagnosed I looked at my life retrospectively and wondered if my world would have been different without mental health issues. One thing in particular that stood out for me was my relentless drive to bring The Prop Factory, as it is today, into fruition.The Prop Factory began life when I was 23, shortly after the breakdown of my marriage where I gave residency of my son, who was two at the time, to his father against my will. My son was away from me for five days a week, which tore me apart. The emotional pain was unbelievable. I felt I wasn't allowed to be happy and enjoy my life. Any happiness I felt would be plagued with guilt. My coping mechanism was to throw myself into work. Work kept me calm and gave me hope. I imagined one day being able to break free of my situation, how I wasn’t sure, but working and working from the moment I got up until I fell asleep felt like it might get me there. To begin with I didn’t have a clue about how to run a business.Some of my ideas were truly useless, but my motivation and overwhelming desire to succeed kept me moving forward. After time my friends - who I hardly saw by then, just as flashes on their social media - began to take note of my determination. People had stopped humouring me and started to believe in me. ‘Driven’ was the word most used to describe my behaviour by all who knew me.At the time of this high intensity I had not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In hindsight I think my very high drive was definitely connected to my illness. My behaviour was chronic to the point where I wouldn’t eat just to squeeze more working hours into a day. The cause of bipolar disorder is not known but it is believed that it can be triggered after severe emotional trauma, which makes sense to me now.My creativity at this time was at an all time high too - also, I believe, a byproduct of my illness. However it did get me into trouble as well as benefit the company. Many times I spent way too much money (and money we didn’t have) on far-fetched projects and big ideas that more often than not amounted to nothing. I also had lots of viable unique ideas and worked hard to bring them into being.That’s what this photo shoot is about. The place where my creativity and ideas come from is also the place that houses my demons. Under Lock and Key draws the parallel between keeping elements of my mental health locked away - the negative thoughts; the erratic and obsessive behaviour. And keeping my ideas that make the company unique - its distinctive products and how we make them - secret. Without one facet of my mind would the other cease to exist too?I designed the elements of the photo shoot alongside Prop Factory stylist, Carys.We used lots of cages to represent houses for ideas but also somewhere to lock demons away. I love the lion cage, it's one of my favourite props! I imagine that perhaps my relentless drive, the beast, lives in the lion's cage. Meg from Mimosa Photography captured the setup and the atmosphere just perfectly, a dark but very creative place.I’m sitting on a circus podium surrounded by empty space. Sitting because opening up about my mental health and past has a certain element of vulnerability. And the empty space is to highlight the aloneness that we all face in our own minds. Nobody will truly know the thoughts that run through anyone else's head. 

I have a crown of pencils, made by Carys, which I love and still have. My creativity is my crowning glory and I wear it with pride, it sat well on top of my head with a loose fish tale plait behind styled by Ellie, The Up Do Girl.My attire is a nod towards the nature of bipolar. I remember hearing that people with bipolar ‘wear bright and patterned clothes or plain dark clothes, depending on their mood’ so their clothes outwardly reflect their minds. This is somewhat true with me. In this shoot I have both dark clothing in the form of my black shawl and contrasting bright pom-poms which I stitched to the bottom of my dress. I was actually three months pregnant in this photo shoot, although I don’t think you can tell!I’m frantically scribbling on paper in some of the photos (it's actually a roll of wallpaper as it worked better for the scale of the shoot) to emphasise how many thoughts and ideas my mind produces when it is running at 100 miles an hour. I often wonder if there will ever be a day when I can’t produce ideas quicker than the prop makers can make them – thus far it is a long way off!Our giant keyhole prop was used to frame the whole shoot. I wanted it to be like peering into somewhere that perhaps you shouldn’t - like behind a locked door. A little insight into my mind, that perhaps you might not get otherwise.This is one of the most thoughtful photo shoots we have created as it follows a different narrative from what we normally do. More usually our props are at the centre of a shoot that is set up especially to show them off. In this shoot, the props are - not quite peripheral - but used more subtly to translate my thoughts and ideas into pictures. It's a very personal shoot, but then I am very personally connected to my work and my props, so it seems to make sense.My uncompromising work ethic continued for more than four years and, at last, I found I was able to allow myself to enjoy achievements associated with work. Then, very suddenly after five years of my son not living with me, he was back full time. It was a bit of a shock to the system and I was suddenly a full-time mum and also completely addicted to work. It was at this time I got my official diagnosis. It probably came not a moment too soon as the medication I eventually settled on regulated my extreme moods and reigned in my intense working. I still love to work and I love the Company but I have found a better balance over the last three years. I can quite honestly say that I don’t think that The Prop Factory would exist without the coinciding of my unmedicated mental health condition and traumatic life events. It really has been my saving grace.See all the props we used in this photo shoot here.

Carmen x


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