I’ve got something a little unusual for this month’s Man Crafts interview, which I’m really excited to share with you guys! I’m talking to the amazing Lee John Phillips, who is embarking on a one-man mission to draw every single item in his late grandfather’s cluttered shed. Aptly named The Toolshed Project, the task involves three simple rules:
- If the item can be picked up and doesn’t crumble – draw it.
- If the packet/container has been opened, then empty it, draw the items, replace them and then draw the container full.
- If the packet/container has not been opened, do not open it and drawn as found.
- If there are multiples of the same items (eg a pack of nails) – draw them all.
With an estimated 100,000 items in the toolshed, this is no simple task! So far, the project has resulted in a spinoff colouring book and journal (I was lucky enough to receive copied of both and they are incredible!), with many more things in the pipeline.
Man Crafts interview with Lee John Phillips of The Toolshed Project
Hi Lee! First up, tell us a little about how the Toolshed Project began; what inspired you to start drawing all of these items?
Hi Mike! The Shed Project started in 2013, when I set myself the task to fill a sketchbook with one drawing a day, using my late grandfather’s shed as resource for inspiration. He died 22 years ago and my grandmother has treated his old shed as a mausoleum ever since. It has remained relatively untouched for decades.
I began drawing items from the shed in 2014 and realised that the items in jars and tins were actually more interesting than the tools themselves. It also became clear that the format of my sketchbook was unsustainable for the project – I wanted to draw more than just one ‘thing’ per day. That initial sketchbook developed into pages of random objects and I began to enjoy the pattern and repetition that emerged.
At first, I didn’t intend to draw every single item – I thought this was a little unnecessary and a bit excessive. However, my job as an art teacher truly helped sculpt the project into what it is today. I was frustrated by the demise in work ethic I’ve noticed in recent years. People (and pupils) have less patience. They want things instantly. Very few people realise the time that needs to be spent on creating something of value. I thought, foolishly, “I’ll show them!“. So I made the decision to catalogue everything, even multiples, and have not regretted it since.
Your illustrations have been turned into an adult colouring book and a journal (which I love, by the way!). Did you ever envisage that the Toolshed Project would lead to a product range, or was it initially just a passion project?
The project was initially only going to be a personal collection of drawings, a catalogue for my close family. I saw it being just another sketchbook that, once filled, would sit on a shelf in my studio with all the others. I did want to keep some distance between the personal aspect of the project and the commercial applications – that’s why it’s stated that the colouring book is only ‘based’ on The Shed Project. It has a few pages lifted directly from my shed sketchbooks but the majority of the illustrations are of items donated by close friends and family.
Your style of illustration is incredible – what is your background; where did you learn to draw so well?
I completed a BA (Hons) in General Illustration in Swansea followed by a MA Visual Communication. I’ve always drawn, and if The Shed Project weren’t in my life I would still be drawing something. My style, drawing speed and finish have undoubtedly improved through the project. Someone has suggested that’s it’s my 10,000 hours to mastery. I’d never heard that expression before – but I guess it’s fitting.
What’s your process for drawing the toolshed items – do you work with pencil and paper, or use digital programmes?
There are no rulers, guides or software allowed anywhere near the project! I draw each composition or collection in an A4 moleskin sketchbook. I don’t lay the items out first as I don’t have time to procrastinate about alternate arrangements. I ensure I have a selection of various sized objects to work with so pages can be ‘filled’. I simply start at the top-left, work my way across, then down the page.
Some of the illustrations in the book are pretty detailed! Which have been the trickiest items to draw so far?
Some small items in large volumes have been tricky to draw for obvious reasons. I do enjoy the challenge of detailed objects, as it’s always pleasing to see the outcome. Some larger, cylindrical items have been challenging without pencil guides. I do enjoy the difficulty in recreating ellipses freehand. A jam jar is particularly pleasing if I manage to get it (almost) right.
You started the project back in 2013 – that’s some serious dedication! Have there been any moments that you’ve lost motivation to complete all 100,000 items?
Thankfully, I’ve not yet had any wobbly moments to date. I have been teaching for a huge portion of that time so I’m actually struggling to spend more hours on the project than I do at present. The more I see the project progress, the more fuel it gives me to push on!
For all the aspiring artists and makers out there, what advice have you got for starting a creative project or business idea?
Personally, I feel that there’s no substitute for putting the time in. Sacrifices have to be made. I remortgaged my property and took a sabbatical from my teaching post to focus on this project. It took a lot of sleepless nights, making tough decisions and realising I needed to spend more time on social media promotion. I feel fortunate that this work has been self-initiated. I would still do this even if I didn’t have public interest. The project was born as a labour of love and it’s the reason I still retain my enthusiasm for it.
In addition to the adult colouring book and journal, have you got any other plans in mind for the Toolshed Project?
I still have exhibitions planned for the work and I’m looking at completing a 3D, 1:1 scale installation of the shed from cutouts of my illustrations. That will be a significant number of years down the line, but I see it as my outcome to support the completed inventory. I would also like to produce some patterns for fabric. I want a tool-based quilt cover for my camper van!
And finally, lets end on something fun – tell me one surprising thing about yourself, or about the Toolshed Project!
It’s ruining my body! Physically, I’m a mess. I thought the mental challenge and focus would be the difficult bit. I’ve had tests for arthritis, nerve conductivity, x-rays, physiotherapy, acupuncture and I still can’t sleep through the night for pins and needles and burning sensations in shoulders and elbows! Not a fun shed-fact, but something that was very much a surprise to me.
Thanks so much to Lee for talking to me about the amazing Toolshed Project. I’m still in awe of his work, especially the Toolshed Journal! As always, you can read previous Man Crafts interviews in my archives. Until next time! – Mike.