1st May 2020

Craft / Featured / Lee John Philips

The Shed Project by Lee John Philips

37 10 mins 0

LLee John Phillip is an illustrator, designer and teacher. In 2013, Lee successfully drew one sketch a day for a year and had enjoyed the longevity and discipline needed for such an undertaking. In late 2013, Lee ventured into his late grandfather’s shed, realising the potential that the items in there had to be the focus of his next sketchbook project. The following year the Shed Project began: an idea that would form and grow along the way.
Today, six years later, The Shed Project has reached far beyond a ‘one sketch a day’ venture and has turned into Lee’s life work. To date, he has drawn over 7,400 items and estimates there to be over 100,000 in total.

Lee John Phillips: I wrote these rules at the start of the Shed Project. They were easy to write, and they have not been changed since. Writing these marked the official start of the project as it stands today, and they are:

  1. If the object doesn’t crumble in my hands if I rub it, I draw it.
  2. If the jar/container has previously been opened by my grandfather, I empty the contents, draw them, replace them, then draw the container full.
  3. If the jar/container hasn’t been opened by my grandfather, I won’t open them, I draw them as found.
  4. If there are multiples of the same item, draw them all.

During the summer of 2015, I was spending some time in rural France with very minimum internet access. A friend messaged me asking who was doing my marketing. I stated that it was just me and Instagram and she told me the Shed Project was on all of the top 5 design/creative blogs on the planet. When I did get internet, I found my social media was going crazy and I had offers and requests for work hourly. It was a really strange week.

I knew I needed to keep a level head and I was (still am) very weary as to whom I allow into this very personal project.

My first completed Shed sketchbook was selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize and from that travelling exhibition, I was approached by Laurence King Publishing to work on a semi-illustrated journal and adult colouring book. At present, I’m working on a sixth book.

I feel I would not be in this position if it was not for the love for my personal project. I have had – and still have – imposter syndrome of being a ‘real’ illustrator. I don’t know what it’ll take to shake that off once and for all.

Being a freelance illustrator with a mortgage I’m solely responsible for is a challenge. And things are going to get very difficult with the uncertainty of the pandemic. I’ve lost two fair-sized commissions already, but I am fortunate that I am working on one slightly longer-term project. People have been very kind in the past week buying prints and carved spoons (whittling has been a hobby for three years now). I think it’s important us makers help each other out as much as possible. I’m purchasing seats on online courses and I’m in the process of making spoon blanks that I can send out for free for people to start a hobby to help with their mental wellbeing. I can imagine how some people will suffer from cabin fever.

Some Good Ideas: How do you select the items to draw? Have you ever inadvertently drawn the same item twice?

LJP: This process, like the project itself, was an organic one. My grandmother’s possessive attitude towards the shed shaped my initial approach. My parents (who live a few houses away) would ring and invite her for a cup of tea. I would quickly skirt around the back of the houses and remove (and photographically document) a container. This could be a biscuit An, a few jam jars or an old toolbox. I began with taking items that were simply easy to remove quickly so I didn’t get caught!

Now that the project has required interest, my grandmother seems more comfortable with its attention. Today I have a clear vision and direction for the project, so I’m slightly more organised. The shed now has ‘zones’ and I try and work more methodically. Sometimes I will pick an item at random and work out of sync, simply to refrain from getting bored.

My cataloguing process has become quite organised. Completed jars are labelled and numbered with its contents. Medium to larger items have stickers placed on them with a corresponding index.

When I’m drawing multiples, I lay them out in groups of 10 in rows of 10. Once an item has been handled and drawn, it’s moved to a lower group of finished objects. I can then count the drawings against the final rows to ensure that they correspond before replacing them back into their original container.

To date, I am confident that I have not missed or duplicated an item.

However, I have thought about this extensively. I have resigned myself to the fact I will, one day, find myself in a position where I will be undecided about the cataloguing of a particular item. I have decided that if in doubt, I’ll draw it. I would rather do one extra than miss one.

SGI: Of course, artists don’t have to explain their work. But what would you say when asked to explain the deeper meaning of the Shed Project?

LJP: An obvious drive for me is the environment I grew up in. The male members of my family all have masculine, practical jobs. Plumbers, engineers, steel fabricators, electricians and miners. I’m a vegetarian, educated in the arts. When the drink gets the better of me, I feel a pang of irrational guilt about this. I see this project is a way I can atone for my sins.

As well as the obvious personal and emotional links to the shed, I feel it’s an important part of our industrial heritage that is sadly being eroded. Consumer products are becoming disposable and cheap and things end their short lives as landfill. I admire the make-do-and-mend ethos of my grandfather’s generation and have adopted it as much as possible. I want this project to echo that ethos. I want it to be born of patience, discipline and integrity.

SGI: What would your grandfather think about the Shed Project?

LJP: I’m not sure; my opinion changes. I’m often concerned that he may not appreciate his personal space being made so public. I’d like to think he’d be proud of my focus and dedication. I do genuinely believe he would be critical of my approach and my cataloguing strategies. When I was younger, I would often take drawings to him that I was particularly pleased with. I always remembered coming away feeling frustrated and slightly angry. His response was always critical. At that time, I didn’t realise exactly what he was doing. I now realise, as an adult and an educator, he was teaching me to look, teaching me to be critical and evaluative of my performance. I wish I had more of an awareness of this.

I now realise, as an adult and an educator, he was teaching me to look, teaching me to be critical and evaluative of my performance.

Lee John Philips

SGI: When and how did the media discover the Shed Project?

LJP: In June 2014, Wales Online and a few local papers covered the story. I initially responded to an article containing a photograph of my late uncle. He was a miner in the South Wales Valley and an image of him, taken at a local pit-closure in the early 1980s, was used on the cover of the newspaper. The article asked if anyone knew the miners they should get in touch. I did and we began to discuss my ideas for the project. I was interviewed for the national radio soon after.

Media attention went a little quiet over the following year until July 2015. An online lifestyle magazine from Buenos Aires emailed me to ask if they could cover my story. I obviously said yes and was pleased with the interest.

It wasn’t until August that things appeared to snowball. The project appeared on a number of international design blogs such as Design Taxi and Bored Panda, and my Instagram account seemed to gain 10,000 followers almost overnight. About that time, I had my first shed sketchbook selected for the Jerwood drawing prize. The project has taken over my life since that summer.

SGI: You have been interviewed many times about the Shed Project. Is there one question you always wanted to be asked but no one ever did? What is the question and what is the answer?

LJP: Many people have asked how I deal with the project mentally – no one has asked how I manage with the physical issues. I have RSI from prolonged drawing time, I suffer severe pins and needles through the night in arms and hands. My shoulders burn for no reason. I’ve had sports therapy, acupuncture, X-rays, nerve tests and massage. Nothing to date has alleviated the issues.

I had no idea that I would be affected this way. I’ve not had a decent, natural nights’ sleep in over 4 years. I’m exhausted!

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Lee is an illustrator, designer and teacher. He is an avid sketchbook keeper currently 4 years into his life’s work, The Shed Project. Lee is illustrating and cataloguing every item in his late grandfather’s toolshed. He has currently drawn over 7,300 items and estimates the total to be near 100,000.

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