Julia Harris & Sarah Valentin | Founders at The Sustainable Studios | Cardiff

Julia Harris & Sarah Valentin | Founders at The Sustainable Studios | Cardiff

On a sunny Saturday morning we caught up with sisters, mothers and entrepreneurs Julia Harris ‒ accompanied by beautiful baby Esme, and Sarah Valentin, to find out more about how The Sustainable Studio was born, the underlying ethos behind their collaborative initiatives, the creative scene in Cardiff and their current projects.

For those who do not know you, who are Julia and Sarah behind The Sustainable Studio?

Julia: A musician, a mother, a person loving life, the beach and seeing new things.

Sarah: As we’ve grown up together it’s going to be quite similar answer – I love travel, I’m a Mum of three boys, fashion designer, creative person, love community, love to see people become the best they can become.

How do you influence each other creatively and what are your strengths as a team of creatives?

J: I think we’ve always stood back to back and that’s one of our biggest strengths, when one of us is down and needs inspiring the other is strong enough to do things and vice versa. We’ve got a great dynamic of being there for each other and supporting each other in ventures and we haven’t worked together but we’re always there for each other.

S: We’re team players in our personal and professional lives, our family has taught us how to be creative and we’ve explored lots of different things. We had a lot of freedom growing up so we were able to try things out, have adventures that influenced our creativity.

How did the idea of The Sustainable Studio come to be?

J: We needed new studio space and we’ve always had the idea of wanting to share space with a few people and what we soon discovered is that there were actually quite a lot of people needing space in the city as well, so rather than looking for ourselves – we came upon a warehouse and thought ‘yeh, why not?’ and put the word out there and realised there were a handful of people who could cover the rent. It wasn’t really a plan as such, more an idea and a dream that we had to get off the ground. If anyone was going to do it, it was us, and it was the right time to do it.

S: I think there was always a gap to do something in Cardiff as well, there wasn’t a place for creatives to start up a business or be part of a community as such. There’s other places but it felt there was something lacking in the community and it could be something bigger.

What attracted you initially to this space, both as artists and entrepreneurs?

S: When we first walked into the space I was overwhelmed at just how big it was, the vastness of it and the light you got coming in. The old structures that had been there all that time and it was very interesting to imagine the history of it and it looked like a building to create something interesting in.

J: I think we felt a connection as our grandparents had worked there and it seemed like when you buy your first house and you get ‘the feeling’ or when you meet the love of your life, there was just a connection that felt right and it had potential too. Beautiful floors that just needed sanding, yellow walls that needed to be whiter and you could just see it in your third eye that all the potential was there, it just needed someone to come along and breathe life into it. We’re grateful that we were those people that took it on.

Would you say that this space is a good representation of your vision as both artists and entrepreneurs?

S: The way it’s been designed is a reflection of the different personalities we encompass, especially in our background of sustainability, upcycling, recycling and reuse. Julia’s love of collecting vintage chairs and the interiors she loves is a big influence. It’s a combination of personal taste – we love colour, bright colours so they are painted on doors, walls and in the art we put up.

J: The way it’s set out, we wanted to create a space for people to work together and we put communal areas in – kitchens and seating areas and the spaces face in to these spaces so people talk to one another and make partnerships and long life friendships and that’s one of the best things that comes out of it: the friendships and family atmosphere.

S: When you enter you feel home from home and it’s not a space that is sparse and immaculately clean, you can be yourself in the space.

J: You can have a nana nap if you need to!

And what is the underlying philosophy behind this exciting initiative?

S: Ultimately, it’s to bring people together, it’s as corny as that. Bringing together people from all different backgrounds, walks of life and different creative journeys.

J: It’s working for us. Some people have described it as a church but I don’t think there’s many churches that would survive the amount of differences there are in that space.

S: Acceptance and inclusivity.

J: Everyone is entitled to opportunity and there’s a level playing field. Every person should be supported in their journey.

S: It doesn’t matter what experiences you’ve had either, so if you’re a student that’s hardly got experience or a professional then you’re all equal.

How was your idea received by the local community of creatives?

J: All in all, positively, everyone always says ‘there was a need for this in Cardiff’ and there still is. Lots of local higher educational institutions like Cardiff and the Vale College and University of South Wales were hungry for their students to have opportunity, as they’re the next generation of creatives.

S: For us to provide a space for creatives – perhaps three or four years ahead in their creative journey – was an absolute Godsend for them to send their students to us for work experience and internships. Also, for other creatives running hubs across Cardiff it was knowing we’re on the same journey rather than being protective of their idea. We found that Cardiff is a small city so people are very generous with help and ideas.

Can you tell us more about the interior design of the space? What are the design principles and inspirations behind it?

J: We wanted to build a space that could essentially be used somewhere else so it could pop up somewhere else made from recycled materials. It was designed in a way so that people face each other, so there’s respect whilst people are working but as soon as someone’s chair creaks and they come out for a cup of tea it means that people are being inclusive. It makes people intentional of how they use their studio, there’s periods of work but they can connect with one another.

S: Our fixtures and furnishings have stories behind them and each floor has got a unique feel. We’ve kept objects left in the space such as lampshades and chairs, used pallets from the warehouse opposite our building to create pods. Our furniture is upcycled, recycled, reused.

J: One of our biggest accomplishments has been setting it up on the tiniest of budgets and it feels very homely and thoughtful. Pod City was inspired by a visit I made to a hub in Madrid and we actually collaborated with first year interior design students giving them a brief to create the pods that could be made to be taken down and put up again.

S: It’s got a designer look about it and we researched hubs and online spaces before we decorated so taking the best of what we’ve seen in UK and Europe.

Under the Sustainable Studio’s roof one can find a wide variety of creatives, from fashion designers and ceramicists to script writers and aromatherapists. What is it that creatives find appealing and exciting about this space?

J: Diversity and the wealth of experience and openness that people have to share and what you find in business is that people have their own contacts and little black book and they don’t want to share but people here are really open and accessible. We have a Facebook and Whatsapp group that our members join so they can ask questions and get answers to problems and they feel cared for and part of a family run space.

Are there any similar spaces in Cardiff?

J: There are lots of co-working spaces in Cardiff: Rabble Studio, Tramshed Tech and The Bone Yard but the one we have been most struck by is Printhaus in Canton. We’ve known Jude and Tom for a long time and we’ve supported what they’ve done and tried to curate which is being accessible to community. I went to see Tom before we set up the space as we wanted to do something similar but with our take on it. I think ours was focused on maker space rather than one practice.

S: They’ve really inspired us, especially the Snapped Up markets which have been crucial in connecting people, sharing skills and creatives meeting other creatives that they wouldn’t necessarily meet. It’s good to see that underground thing going on in Cardiff.

Creativity, community and collaboration seem to be key concepts in both your work and lifestyle. What keeps you motivated and how do you select your residents?

J: What has kept me motivated in my creative journey is getting out there, meeting people, seeing new cities and cultures whether that’s food and music, and that’s what inspired us over the last two years. Seeing people we’ve mentored and had friendships springboard off and make things happen whether it’s a new business and getting satisfaction seeing people chasing their dreams and thriving. The studio is a platform for that, there’s no doubt about it.

S: Also working with different communities over the last ten years has been another inspiration. We’ve always strived to be around like minded people who’ve got the same vision to see Cardiff be more collaborative and engaging.

J: Residents that affiliate themselves with us are interested in community, learning new things and passing on their knowledge, and people that haven’t quite fit have moved on but we’re left with a really strong community.

S: People tend to find us by all sorts of different ways and we would never discourage people to join us, we want to make sure the space is the right environment for them. By being ‘selective’ you’re limiting yourself and we just wouldn’t do that, we’re really inclusive.

As long-time Cardiff residents, what do you think is driving the transformation of the arts and culture scene in the city?

S: The underground movement is a key driver especially since we had the Womanby Street campaign to keep the bars and clubs open and live music happening there. Chapter and Printhaus drive forward in the Canton area and it's definitely people led.

J: It’s definitely people led, whether it’s festivals like Swn, getting bigger bands in to Wales and growing the Welsh music scene. If you wait for someone else to do it, it may never happen so it’s about people encouraging and supporting one another to do things.

How did Cardiff’s creative network develop since The Sustainable Studio started?

J: In 2016 there were loads of things going on behind the scene, Creative Cardiff as part of Cardiff University was being born, Rabble and Tramshed Tech opened the same time. None of us knew each other at that point but we were all opening similar spaces with similar goals. Creative Cardiff is something that has brought us together to talk, share and develop our experience. It’s a strong network and Cardiff is too small to be competitive and you need to be open to sharing and I think we all cater to different markets.

S: I think we’re beginning to see the real developments happening, we’ve all been through similar experiences but now it's time to go forward.

What are some of the major setbacks to starting a creative business in Cardiff?

S: Finance, I think it’s one of the major setbacks for a creative business whether you’re a hub or a small business. Funding definitely helps you move forward.

J: It’s bloody forms and red tape, creatives just want to create and when they get an idea they want to do that straight away and act on it, not to have to wait three or four months to get a letter to say you’re successful. It’s not large amounts of money that help get people off the ground and just a little of money can help someone. Large organisations with funding capabilities have had the same people in them for years and they aren’t necessarily connected to what’s going on, on the ground. There needs to be more support for the up and coming, rather than investing in the same people, ideas and organisations – there needs to be a shift to support new ideas and people for the city to be fresh and vibrant.

What are some of the challenges to running a collaborative space?

J: People management has been the biggest challenge.

S: All the different personalities you come across, obviously not everyone has the same opinions and viewpoints so you have to have a strong backbone and be strong minded.

J: It’s like living in one, big student house share with 38 people, some people don’t do the dishes, shut the windows and it takes a major part of everyone working together sometimes to make the hub happen and it can’t be left to one or two people to run. It’s also about having the right team to support you and being honest and transparent and taking help when you need it.

What was the most exciting event hosted by The Sustainable Studio so far?

S: Aidan Myers solo exhibition ‘Labyrinth’ was amazing, he hung 6ft and 7ft abstract oil paintings in our event space and just transformed it. He was never given the platform to do it anywhere else, he was always turned away so it was exciting to see him excited. It was a highlight this year, it was breathtaking.

J: The Christmas Market was so overwhelming, we had over 500 people come in to the space and the opportunity for people to sell their homemade craft was brilliant. Also when local composer John Rea performed in what now is Pod City was amazing, he played synths for ‘Disco Concrete’ as part of the Ffotogalley ‘Diffusion’ photography exhibition. The sound reverberating from the walls and high ceilings was incredible.

What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Cardiff, that is, beside The Sustainable Studio, of course!

J: I miss hanging out, what is that?! I like a ride down to Bute Park just by the river, that’s a lush place to hang out. I think Cardiff is spoilt by green spaces, we’ve got a young family so we like getting out to parks, like Roath Lake. I’ve always regularly gone to Clwb Ifor Bach (especially before the baby was born). We love Brod, The Danish Bakery, the food and atmosphere is amazing.

S: I like the Printhaus, the Snapped Up maker markets are great and it’s somewhere where all the family can go and Dusty Knuckle is great. Also, The Bone Yard is cool. Independent places. We’re lucky to live down the Bay so we cycle across the Barrage, it’s amazing that we can access these places in five or ten minutes and it’s just easy. I like our independent arcades and having a wander, it’s always inspiring to see what’s going on. There’s always a couple of shops that pop up, I love fashion so I like exploring.

Where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired?

J: West Wales, St David’s, the beach, any beach. Anything in nature.

S: I love gardens, Dyffryn Garden is just green and amazing. (J: You can tell she’s getting old!) We took our families to North Wales and it was great, we enjoyed escaping for a bit.

J: Nature is inspiring, it never ceases to disappoint or inspire and you can get out in to a green space and it makes you feel better.

What are you working on at the moment?

S: The studio… (they both laugh)

S: Yeh, we’ve been working on developing our relationships with students from collaborating on different projects and briefs. We’ve done a project with Bridgend College students, they helped us design and build the new tiered seating area.

J: Our own workshops like Wake Up and Make are aimed at people that perhaps can’t afford to access creative workshops, one of my gripes is that as a parent you have to pay for each child to access drama, arts and sport. It’s about making something accessible for families to come along and be creative either for free or a small donation.

S: We’re bringing RE:FASH workshops back which is about upcycling, reuse and zero waste fashion. It’s about seeing your wardrobe in a new way, why not reinvent rather than throw away? I support people to refashion their clothes into more wearable pieces, whether that be adding embellishments, shortening, re-design and teaching new skills too.

What other exciting things can we expect from TSS in the near future?

J: We’re offering subsidised spaces for graduates so we’re in talks with Cardiff Met and Cardiff Uni about offering more than spaces, mentoring and experience. We want to encourage our graduates to stay in Cardiff and benefit from spaces like ours with people who can support them in whatever they want to do next. We also want to offer internships and mentoring.

S: We want to finally launch our ethical fashion brand DATI, fingers crossed.

J: We want to give our members a platform to share their work and expose them to more opportunities so will be launching member events very soon from the space.

S: We’re hosting our first wedding in August which is exciting!

In your opinion, how can we learn how to work better together and create something great together?

J: Good things come out of good relationships, openness and flexibility. Put pride and ego aside and not coming with an agenda – seeing yourselves as equals, rather than coming in with an agenda. Rather than ‘I’m better than you’ see how you can work together to create something bigger and better that goes beyond just you.

And how do you see The Sustainable Studio evolving in the next 5 years?

S: That’s a big question!

J: We know the building we are in won’t last forever, it’s difficult to plan that far ahead when you don’t know the immediate future of our space. However we have learnt that a building means nothing without people, the relationships and community in that space are far more important than the space itself.

S: We’d like to see more collaboration between us and the local area, so working more with people, groups, communities outside of the studio. We’d like to do this more internationally too, exchanges with other hubs and creatives. We’ve had visitors from Estonia, China, Thailand, Dubai and we’d like to do the same.

What about your personal dreams and ambitions?

S: I want to see us launch DATI, we’ve had to out our fashion brand on the side whilst we develop the studio and it can be hard seeing others launch their next venture and I’m excited about doing this.

J: I want the studio to give opportunities to my children so they can be part of it in the future and that’s something I’m really passionate about. I’ve also got a whole new album on my phone I haven’t touched for three years and I want to record it. Travel more, connect with friends that live abroad.

And finally, can you recommend us a film, a song and a recipe?

S: A film: Teen Wolf. A song: I’ve been listening to an artist from Jamaica called Chronixx and the song is Smile Jamaica because I just love it, it reminds me of summer. A recipe: My husband’s creole fish from the Seychelles.

J: A film: The Goonies. A song: one of my all time favourites is Graceland by Paul Simon. As for a recipe, my mum’s home cooked dinner with a homemade rhubarb crumble.

Thank you, both for sharing with us the story of TSS and for the wonderful insight into the city's creative scene. 

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