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Blogger as Weaver: A Solstice Interview with Blog Mage Heather Blakey

Heather BlakeyI started posting this year at Transformative Blogging in hopes of elucidating some ways bloggers might play and grow, suggesting they try writing a variety of post types; I also hoped to curate a modest library of links to post variations living out on the web. This project brought me to redefine the blogger as pilgrim: one who blogs to transform herself in the company of like-minded others. And blogger as spiritual being/witness: one who blogs at the crossroads of synchronicity and cross-pollination for the greater good of those around her.

Towards that curatorial end, I came humbly to find that years prior Heather Blakey of Soul Food Café created a vibrant communal space in the blogosphere that embodies these ideals (I featured Heather’s work earlier this year in Inquiry Posts, Chaucer, and Blogger as Pilgrim thanks to writer Edith O’Nuallain). Heather wove technology, community, and writing together long before blogging was a verb. In honor of the winter solstice, I welcome you to pull up a virtual armchair with Heather for a rare tour of her blogging lineage and latest online endeavors. I hope you will not only read here but linger at her amazing links.

Heather, why did you start blogging?

The magical world of blogging was opened for me by Cathy Tudor, an inspired American who ran Prairie Den, One Woman’s Writing Retreat. Cathy invited me to be a columnist using the very new blogging technology in early 2000. The concept of multiple users being able to post directly onto a site was revolutionary at the time.

I wrote a series of short articles for her and, when I posted directly onto her blog, a light flashed and an image formed in my mind of what I could do with this technology.

Prior to the inception of Blogger I had been using Dreamweaver to publish my students’ work, and the work of individuals I was meeting in cyber space.  I published this work on early Soul Food features, such as the Student’s Lounge, within the Artist’s Loft and in other places that I curated on the site. This was a laborious process. It involved using forums like Bravenet and emails to gather work but I still had to do all the coding.

Blogger changed all of that! It is hard to describe how significant the introduction of blogging technology was. Blogging enabled real interactivity and changed the way in which we communicated. It freed some of my time and enabled me to expand my reach. I began to teach my English students and members of my Yahoo Group how to use Blogger.

In 2005 I invited a small group of international members of my site to go on a journey with my alter ego, the Enchantress. They were each signed into this blog as authors. This first blog became a portal to the series of blogs, collectively called “Lemuria”, where participants could post their creative works and responses when they arrived, at, for example, the House of the Serpents!

The seed was planted and the harvest was rich. The participants ran with my suggestions and breathed life into the site. From these blogs sprang a series of Advent Calendars which enabled me to preserve and celebrate the journeys we went on.

Looking back I marvel at what we achieved during those early years of blogging and I know the women who engaged all have the warmest memories of happy days spent wandering with Enchanteur to various parts of Lemuria.

They resided in cells (individual blogs) in the Lemurian Abbey, took rooms (individual blogs) in Riversleigh Manor and skipped down to mix with the Gypsies who had encamped near the Murmuring Woods (collaborative blogs). They trekked through mountains to reach the camp of the Amazonians and sailed around the Lemurian Archipelago to the City of Ladies.

It all sounds a bit bizarre now but we were happy playing and, in the process learned just what this technology offered.

Editor’s Note: And here is a poem Heather shares with us by blogger poet Gail Kavanagh from inside that collective blogging world:

 

I drew a door in the air,
A hobbit hole door
Into another world.

I heard a flute on the breeze,
A silver flute
Held by Le Enchanteur.

Like Pan, she calls,
And those who follow
Dance with every step.

And there are many steps,
The highways and byways
Of Lemuria are numerous.

Some will lead down,
To the endless shores
Where white-capped waves break.

Some will lead up,
To peaks of mountains
Where the air is like wine.

Some lead to a wondrous city,
The streets filled with
Colour, aroma and sound.

In this place, this Lemuria,
All roads lead to Le Enchanteur
You will find her wherever you go.

Lemuria is a woman,
Combing her hair in the sun
And singing her siren call

by Gail Kavanagh

 

Where have your years of blogging brought you?

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Where has blogging brought me or, conversely, where did I take blogging?

My applications of blogging proved that I am the computer nerd’s dream. I am one of those who breathes oxygen into the programs they create. The Wild Garden Adventure Calendar which was created in mid 2000 gave me a platform from which to spread the word amongst those who were looking to engage their students using digital devices.

Obviously Blogger or WordPress do not have to attribute their success to me but there is no doubt that for a time I was regarded as a ‘Bloggermistress’.  I showed thousands of teachers that there were uses beyond the early Baghdad Blog that had highlighted that you could be sitting in Baghdad and reach people and share exactly what was happening there.

My firsthand experience, showing people how adaptable these technological containers were thrust me into front line here in Melbourne and I found myself creating a massive online community for the Victorian Education Department and showing teachers, at IT conferences, how they could transform their teaching practice.

It was blogging which was the buzz at the IT conferences then and which revolutionized teachers’ ways of looking at the use of the internet in the classroom. Teachers who I worked with went on to win Innovation Awards for their practice and have continued to be leaders in their field.

I am the sum of all my experiences and Blogging is just one tools that I have gathered in my tool box.

I am of the view that you cannot ignore the technological march and that you have to embrace it.

These days owners of the homes that I make ‘pop up’ websites for as a part of a marketing process are intrigued by how I, a 63 year old woman, found myself doing this. Staff and members of the Art Pathways Course were equally surprised when I created a constellation of blogs with such ease. This was my ‘art installation’ for the end of year project.

How do you perceive women bloggers to be using the medium of blogging? Is there anything unique to women bloggers (I realize this leads to generalization, but it is one of my inquiry lines) or anything about how women approach blogging that inspires you?

I see a lot of people using blogs in very innovative ways. There are, quite literally, millions of blogs.

Women take to blogging in much the way that they took to making baskets to carry what they had gathered to feed the community. Women love baskets. With their many colours, weaves and sizes, they’re versatile. Likewise women see the versatility of blogs. They use them to share their recipes, to show and sell their crafts, as galleries for their art, to tell their stories.

Personally I have enjoyed how communicative, generous, supportive, sharing and open women are in this setting.

What do you see as our strengths, and where do you see women bloggers struggling or in which areas facing challenges (regarding the spiritual/emotional life, technology, visibility, access, power, etc, or any other aspect you’d like to address)?

I see lots of hands up in the air! I see a classroom setting where lots of people, not just women, have their hand up, struggling to be heard. Their strength is their resilience and determination to be heard and to make positive changes.

Women in remote Australian communities have used blogging technology to extend their reach and diminish their sense of isolation. A severely disabled woman lets her fingers free her and uses blogging technology to make contact with the world outside the prison of her aged care facility room. A frail older woman enjoys the anonymity and the ageless environment. Until she shares her truth no one knows how old she is. A mother who chooses to stay at home uses blogging technology to sell her home crafts. And so it goes on!

The women who worked with me at Soul Food came from very diverse backgrounds. Many found Soul Food a retreat, some felt like they were coming home. Others needed to share their poetry, most yearned to write. All longed to be found, to be heard and to genuinely feel a part of something.

The challenge for an individual now is to gain an audience. Sites like Soul Food, groups like the long abandoned Bella Papier, helped provide that. They connected people in relatively small groups. These days there are still plenty of groups but they are bigger and less intimate. People have also turned to Facebook to gather with ‘friends’. Unfortunately being on Facebook is a bit like being in a stadium filled with people. It is harder to have your voice heard, to be truly noticed. Facebook and Twitter posts flit by in seconds! It is easy to feel alienated and to lose a sense of purpose, a reason to bother.

After a long silence I found it hard to motivate myself to engage online. Knowing how hard you have to work to be noticed daunted me. There is just so much out there now. The landscape looks totally different to what it did back in 2000. There were fewer of us then and it was much easier to find kindred spirits.

Then I did a textile course, found Anastasia and re-birthed Creative Foraging. The key is still quite simple! The secret ingredient is a burning passion and establishing a practice. A strength of women is that they have a passion and are willing to push through any obstacles to achieve their dream.

Today I trust that the magnetic field that attracted people to Soul Food will draw a handful of like-minded people to the flame in the window of Creative Foraging. That will be more than enough to sustain the creative flow and enable me to feel I am making a contribution.

In your wildest vision of what blogging can do for humanity, what do you see?

Ever since I read about the lost museum in Alexandria I was on a quest to re-establish a fragment of the ‘House of the Muse’.

The Alexandrian museum was, and remains, a beacon. No one is certain what the great institution looked like, but the Greek geographer, Strabo, describes it as part of a richly decorated complex of buildings and gardens. The whole complex was a center of learning and research, organized into faculties, whose scholars were paid by the royal purse. The library’s broader mission was to rescue Greek literature from decay.

This vision drove Soul Food. It is a vision I still hold in my mind’s eye! What a pity Ptolemy is not around to provide some funds to support it.

You have seeded and shepherded a number of beautiful projects. Please, Heather, choose to address those that move you.

It is an utter joy, all these years later, to look back and love each of my creations. I love the diversity of them. The Magic Writing Tram was created at a time when I was working as a specialist teacher of writing in feeder primary schools. Working with those young children made my heart sing and taught me so much.

A lot of people loved the Chocolate Box. That was actually the first feature that I made and I do love it.

But just as I cannot say I love my son more than my daughter I cannot say which of these projects was the best.

I will say, however, that the final Advent Calendar, The Rookery, was very special. I did not know it was my last hurrah! But what a way to finish!

How did the Advent Calendar project come about?

The first Advent Calendar celebrated all things Australian. It came after I had made the Chocolate Box. At the time I was fascinated by the concept of online generators and online divination tools, where you randomly clicked a link and it took you to some creative stimuli. One of my favorite sites at the time was Willa Cline’s Tea Cup Readings and I stumbled upon a few things that used a similar principle.

Paul McCartney remembered seeing a road sign that became a song. I understand this completely. I took a fragment of an idea, twirled it around in the generator within and, with the help of my talented son the Advent Calendar materialized!

Greg and I were a dynamic team. He seemed to ‘really know me’ and had a way of producing the art work I needed. Each of his templates remain very special! His templates made all the difference. His is true art work! Once we had done one calendar the rest followed quite naturally. They are ‘web installations’ that I am very proud of.

How was Soul Food Café born and where has it evolved now?

Soul Food had its roots back in the day when I was working as an English Teacher at LaTrobe Secondary College. I had been using programs like Microsoft Publisher for years and encouraged my students to use a diverse range of programs to publish their work. Bravenet Forums were one of these settings.

It was during this period that I created ‘The House of the Muse’. My daughter designed that site for me but it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to keep it current then I needed to master the technology.

As I worked my direction changed. Each day my students wrote for twenty minutes. I provided prompts for them but they were free to go in any direction that they liked.  I bought the domain ‘dailywriting.net’ and began publishing the prompts I used with students and their responses to those prompts.

My students took a great interest in what I was doing online. One day we were watching The Blues Brothers as a part of a study of film. The scene where the entrance to the Soul Food Cafe is shown caught the attention of a student and I.

We looked at one another and agreed that this was the perfect name for the site.

And so Soul Food was launched and, with each project I tackled, grew to what you see today.

How about the genesis of the Blogging Salon Project and what you envision it becoming?

The blogging Salon was, quite simply based on the idea of the renowned French Salons. It seemed to me that you could draw like-minded people together in the way it had been done in France and in so many other places. I held highly successful Salons at home where individuals shared creative projects and ideas. We found we were creatively charged after our gatherings.

The Salon, the Lemurian Abbey, Riversleigh Manor, and the Artist’s Loft were each built with the idea of bringing creatives together in the way that we have heard they gathered in places like the Heidleburg School or as a part of the Bloomsbury set.

The desire to creatively flourish and organically grow, within a thriving artistic collective remains a dream of mine. I would love to have an actual Abbey or a vast Manor House, with endless rooms, filled with creative people, a vast garden and gypsies camped by the meandering stream near the Murmuring Woods. Inherently I am fueled by a desire to find and be with ‘my tribe’.

When Tasmanian David Walsh had millions to dispose of he created Mona! A visit to Mona takes your breath away and it is now very clear how much impact he has had on the mainstream art world here in Australia. If I had such a vast amount I would make my dream a reality and encourage unassuming creatives to join me.

Any desire to talk about Just Nous and Creative Foraging? About the beautiful and powerful lens a blogging persona/alterwork provides, as in Anastasia? I’m particularly curious about this as I’m enjoying mask/blog play as a form of transformation. Your blogging persona/alterwork seems like a beautiful, freeing way to engage more deeply. How did you come by this work?

The Soul Food Cafe and I are synonymous. I stopped running it when I found myself creatively empty, when I was silenced by a series of life changing events.

I never felt that I could go back. Life events had changed me. I was emptied! My life bore no resemblance to the life I led when I was building Soul Food.

But doing nothing did not sit comfortably with me.

Just Nous is an ‘information’ based blog that I used as I began to make myself available for consultancy work. Now Creative Goldfields Blogging is my main platform. These blogs are unashamedly forms of self-promotion!

Creative Foraging, on the other hand, is gold. When Anastasia appeared in the Textiles Course I was doing I realised that Enchanteur, Sibyl Riversleigh, the Abbess and the fearless pirate, Ebony Wilder had not died. Pan was not dead! These fun alter egos had simply retreated to their sanctuary and watched and waited for me to renew.

Being Anastasia is freeing. Being Anastasia and gaining insights into who she is reminds me of how much I loved who the Enchantress and Sibyl were, how much I love being unfettered me.

Can you talk to us about the transition from projects you do or did as a labor of love to projects that put bread on the table?

People will find it hard to believe that I have never made money from Soul Food. Over ten years I invested an enormous amount in time and money into the two sites it sprawls over. These days there is more freeware available and you can use a constellation of blogs but I paid to have two major domains hosted and only recently made the decision to pay to keep it all online for another five years.

Monetizing efforts bought little return and while I was still working I did not mind. Soul Food was my gift and I liked to believe I operated using a different, far more valuable currency.

It amused me, therefore, to find a site that puts a value on websites, valued Soul Food at 1.5 million dollars. When I read that I related to people on the Antique Road Show who are told they have, in their possession, some incredibly valuable item, which, we all know will only attract the price if Mercury and Saturn are aligned with an obscure planet in an outer galaxy.

However, while Soul Food has never provided me with an income the skills I acquired as I worked it have led to me being gainfully employed. The Victorian Education Department contracted me to work for them to build an online environment and since I have retired I have worked with a diverse range of people and businesses, assisting with their social media and web operations. I am hoping that the work I do with Creative Goldfields Blogging will continue to bring some financial returns.

What would you say to women bloggers looking to turn their blogs towards the service of earning a living?

I do not want to have it rain on any one’s parade but despite the ‘success’ stories we hear this is highly competitive environment now and my experience is that you will have to work long hours to bring in an income from a solo blog.

I genuinely believe that the blog is just one of the tools in your business marketing basket. If you have a business or are an artist or writer you have to be adept at self-promotion. These days it is ‘Just Nous’ to have a significant web presence.

For those seeking an income I suggest acquiring a book like ‘Blogging for Creatives’ and gleaning as many ideas as possible about how to make contacts, win business and build your success.

There are no short cuts! No free lunches! At the end of the day it is the daily work that brings the rewards.

Which aspects of blogging have brought you the most joy? Which have been the most challenging?

Blogging introduced me to a wonderful group of creative women and we formed an Alleluia Chorus which was pan de cielo, bread of heaven.

Group dynamics are as challenging in an online setting as anywhere! Active leadership is crucial! Zen and the Art of Team Blogging highlights the rewards that came from facing this challenge and actively managing the group setting.

What would you say to someone wishing to start a blog, given all of your years of blogging?

Join a group to help get momentum. Become actively involved in the group and keep producing. Roll your sleeves up and have a go!

Folk are welcome to join my Yahoo Creative Foraging group. I am gearing up to work with people, face to face in my local community but I will welcome people who genuinely want to put in the work and realise the potential of this technology.

Was the Rookery really the last hurrah? Do you have another project in you?

I most certainly do! The challenge is getting my son to find the time to make an inspirational template for me.

And it would be a dream fulfilled if I gained an Arts Grant to fund working with a collective to build it.

 

Heather Blakey, the creator of The Soul Food Cafe, saw the potential of web applications to publish the work of writers and artists and establish an audience for their work.

Heather Blakey describes herself as a purveyor of creative stimuli, an artistic midwife who, like a doula, has stepped out of mainstream. She has devoted herself to providing playgrounds for fledgling artisans as they build a network and extend their reach.

Heather’s experience working with and managing people of all ages, creed and culture has given her invaluable insights into the creative needs of individuals. Her capacity to apply blogging technology to meet some of these needs is well documented. She has a very special bag of acquired skills which are invaluable to meet multiple needs.

Designers, artists, crafters, writers, educationalists, community groups, business people – indeed anyone seeking to network, forge connections and massage the creative impulse will benefit from working alongside her as she continues to Creatively Forage, refashion, re-purpose and apply creative fragments she has gleaned.

 

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    Comments

    1. imogen88 says:

      Wonderful comprehensive article that tells the story of Soul Food Cafe and the evolution of Lemuria, among many other things Heather Blakey has achieved! Well done, and I can speak from experience as avatar Imogen Crest, Nature Hermit resident at the Murmuring Woods, that the realm created in this online setting is exhilarating and creative in a group setting!

    2. Edith says:

      Oh my goodness, what a treat to eavesdrop in on such an inspiring conversation between two of the most creative bloggers I have had the pleasure of meeting online. Heather has long been my mentor and muse, in all her forms, through all her dreamscapes. And though we were always playing in a virtual world, it never felt un-real; somehow it seemed more filled with light and love and joy than anything else ever seen, ever lived through. I am so excited that Heather/Anastasia is finding her voice again! And how perfectly marvellous to hear the different notes and tones modulating two very different, yet complimentary, songs, both ultimately reaching for the sky, albeit hanging out on different stars!

    3. I credit Heather Blakey and the Soul Food Cafe saving my creative soul. Thank you for sharing her story here.