One of the most vivid images that stuck to our memory when we first entered the city of Bristol from Ashley Road years ago was the flying bunnies and pineapples mural painted on the front of the building at the junction between Stokes Croft and lower Cheltenham Road. Little did we know at the time that nearly five years later we were going to meet with the two artists who spent seven days painting it for the launch of a new independent shop that has now become an iconic Bristolian landmark.
We caught up with Alex and Amber on the day of their relaunch safari themed party at the end of January and had a leisurely chat about their long-lasting partnership, the importance of supporting emerging artists and makers and how the creative scene in Bristol evolved since they joined forces and opened the shop in September 2013. We continued our conversation enjoying a soul-warming Triple Co roast coffee at the nearby Elemental Cafe and then went for a wander around the lively Stokes Croft, browsed the wonderfully weird stuff inside the Vintage Market and stopped for a while under the scaffolding covering Alex’s recently completed coral reef mural on the Chapel Building. Saying goodbye to Alex and Amber, we parted ways thinking how deeply embedded they are in the local creative scene and how splendidly The Little Shop continues to thrive as an iconic hub of community, enterprise and creativity in the heart of Stokes Croft.
Who are Alex and Amber, the creative duo behind The Little Shop?
We both work as freelance artists and illustrators, based in Bristol and London. Alex has a background in graphics and textile design, her street art can be seen all over the city of Bristol. Amber creates bright, bold and colourful designs, bringing these to life through screen-printing. We both have a passion for painting murals.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Amber: Chucking avocados out the kitchen window at a gang of ginger kids, it was intense!
Alex: Burning my bum on the exhaust pipe of a car, that was intense, too!
How did you two meet and what is the most inspiring side of your collaboration?
We first met through screen printing. Amber was the first to join a print studio Alex was building in Bristol. Working as freelance illustrators we became firm friends, we spent hours shacked up in the studio together, late night drawing sessions, glasses of vino and dancing on the tables.
You both share a passion for painting murals. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s a real pleasure ride to create something that everyone can enjoy, you get to interact with the public and share your vision with people. You can’t beat painting designs on a large scale, taking a step back and feeling proud!
What is the guiding ethos behind The Little Shop?
Giving artists an opportunity to reach a wider audience, we give help and advice to new artists and makers just starting out. Five words that represent our ethos are: Handmade – Independent – Unique – Exclusive & Community.
What are your strengths as a team of creatives and business partners?
We talk and talk and talk. We can’t help but talk shop. Alongside life, giggles and our own personal endeavours we drink wine, cuddle and talk shop. This has been our life for the last 5 years!
Alex, can you tell us what sparked your interest in Art Therapy?
I took a real interest in why we are drawn to certain images and how images affect us in our everyday life. I feel like being creative is what keeps me sane.
What makes Stokes Croft the perfect site for your gallery?
Stokes Croft is a wonderful melting pot of individuals from all walks of life and there are a lot of people who value creativity and like supporting local business.
How has the creative scene in Bristol changed since you opened The Little Shop and what do you think is driving the transformation of the city’s creative culture?
It’s amazing, it was amazing and it still is – the fact that it keeps changing and evolving is testament to the creativity and thirst for transformation this city has. Bristol has a lot of artists and the people that reside here are very open minded and welcome thoughtful artistic expression, this contributes to the transformation and evolution of Bristol’s creative scene.
What are the overarching aesthetic criteria that inform your choices in terms of exhibited artists and stocked items?
It’s quite simple, we choose what we like and think will sell. We’ve built up an understanding of what our customers want and we pride ourselves on offering an eclectic mix. It’s really important to showcase artists that aren’t available anywhere else in Bristol. We don’t bow down to just one style, which means we hopefully have something for everyone.
To what extent does your artistic background enhances your success in working as curators and establishing dialogues with contemporary artists and makers?
Working as artists ourselves has given us an insight into the art and craft world and means we know the struggles when you’re first starting out. We hope the shop has created opportunities for artists to move forward with their profession and given them confidence to grow their practice. We both love shopping, often spotting artists while we are out and about and also through social media channels. We both have wide-ranging tastes in art and adore being surrounded by creativity that’s fun and enjoyable!
What is the most challenging aspect of running a creative business?
It’s an exciting place to be and we’re always trying to stay one step ahead which can be challenging. Keeping the shop looking fresh, we have a theme every three months and completely transform the space, coming up with new ideas, decorations and ways to make the space look bigger can be tough.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to embark on a similar venture?
Go into business with someone you know well and trust. We don’t always agree but we are comfortable at challenging each other’s ideas and chewing the fat until we come to a decision, together!
Going solo – get organised, get planning and get advice, ultimately don’t give up on your dreams but make sure there’s a need for what you’ll be offering. In this digital age, information is at your fingertips, use it. Finally, be original.
Running your own business and being involved in a variety of other projects can be stressful at times. What do you do to relax?
Dressing up and listening to really fun music, pouring a large glass of wine, going dancing, catching an exhibition, eating yummy food or something as simple as running a hot bath with candles.
Amber: Having a good dance! Whether it’s a rave or just at home, shaking it all out, getting a bit dizzy. I’ve just started tap dancing, tippiteee tap tap!
Alex: I love stomping up a big hill and feeling elevated. Usually, I feel quite stressed thinking about deadlines looming but once I actually start drawing, I feel a lot better. I’m also getting a dog… !
Where do you go for inspiration?
Amber: I have a large collection of picture books, I love flicking through those and sometimes old folders of work, what was I up to 5 years ago? Exhibitions, films, music, they all inspire me but I don’t feel like I go seeking inspiration, you’re soaking it up all time.
Alex: I look around me! I find the strange behaviour and comedy of everyday life, people and animals enough! Plus I also like looking at eyebrows that have been drawn on dogs (Google search it…)!
What does the future hold for The Little Shop?
We’ll be launching Little Shop Membership at the end of April. This has been in the pipeline for almost 8 months and we are super excited about rolling out our shiny new idea. Keep your eyes on our social media and website as we’ll be giving a full year’s free membership away to a few lucky peeps.
What about your personal dreams and ambitions?
Amber: To keep doing what I’m doing, I feel very lucky to work for myself and be in business with Alex, not just my partner but a best friend. I’d like to paint some more murals in London, a few projects in the making, fingers firmly crossed they happen.
Alex: Ditto with Amber – I couldn’t be with a better business partner and friend. A personal dream is I hope to paint all over the world right into my nineties!
Can you tell us about a song, a film and a book that mean something to you?
Amber: I read very slowly and always have about three things on the go. The last book I finished was Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery short little read, I really like his style and wit.
I got married to ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ by Talking Heads, it’s got a real happy beat and if I need a pick me up I whack this on, also ‘Baby I’m Scared of You’ by Womak and Womak is a favourite.
‘Purple Rain’ by Albert Magnolsi staring Prince – my first sexy film, I’ve always loved it. All the nineties cult classics, ‘Clueless’ never gets old!
Alex: I read a lot of graphic novels, just finished a great one by Hamish Steel, Pantheon absolutely mental! I have also finished an incredible novel by Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole, I couldn’t put it down, amazing! ‘Pata Pata’ by Miriam Makeba is on repeat at the moment on my stereo. Anything by Wes Anderson! I love his whimsical style and the use of silence in the script and thoughtful characters. I recently watched Blade Runner which blew me away!