Serendipity was at play in September 2020, but we weren’t to know it then – which is of course the whole point of serendipity.
After the coronavirus pandemic changed life profoundly in Scotland in March last year, we were all living if not in fear, then in apprehension. By September the brief respite of summer was fading, the infection rate was climbing once more, and another hard lockdown loomed.
Against this backdrop the Weekend Magazine relaunched on October 3, with all of us working from home. In search of the most creative mind we could think of, we turned to Boo Paterson for help with our cover.
The result, of course, was stunning, a collaboration our archives team especially loved, seeing historic DC Thomson pictures so stylishly combined with fun, playful images and icons from Mary Quant’s era. It captured a moment – that exhibition was then at the V&A Dundee and Boo had done some work for them, too.
Soon after that the Boo entered her Weekend Magazine cover design into the American Illustration Awards; after all her hard-hitting political artworks had made the shortlist for the World Illustration Awards twice, in 2018 and 2016.
Serendipity took a bow in April 2021 when her design was voted a winner, one of just 426 from more than 7,000 submissions. The judging panel was drawn from the top creative and art directors in the USA, from advertising agencies and publications such as the New Yorker and The Washington Post.
Boo’s cover design will be published in the American Illustration 40th anniversary annual award book, representing the best pictures and images of 2020. That’s quite a journey for an idea born in Dundee and brought to life in Fife in lockdown 2020.
And now fate beckons again, because after a year of living locked away the Dundee-born creative powerhouse that is Boo Paterson is going back to her other home, New York, for an extended stay. The author, artist, designer, creative director, stylist, ex-journalist and former circus ringmaster needs a change.
“I really need to be surrounded by a lot of people,” she says. “I need to be where the action is, and the jazz, and the speakeasies, and the art…”
Possessed of acute intelligence as well as an abundance of talent she, like so many, has found the year isolating and difficult.
She yearns for the vibrancy of her beloved “Boo York City”, a place where people like her thrive. “There are so many possibilities in New York,” she says. “I’m just following all the Scots before me, who have reached out beyond our shores. I’m just one of a long line.”
Actually, truth be told, Boo is one of a kind. Like many successful people who make their own way armed with little more than talent, courage and determination, her life has not always been easy. It is fair to say every opportunity she’s had, she has made for herself.
Born in the Dundee Royal Infirmary, Boo variously lived in Monifieth, Edinburgh, Morpeth and Dundee before moving to Edinburgh aged 21.
Her life story is long and varied but more recently, in 2017, she made an astonishing called Papercut This Book, which was published by Batsford, the team behind the multi-million-selling Millie Marotta colouring books.
Papercut helped re-ignite a craft revolution and is one of the few books you can actually cut up and make into sculptures. That was the point of it.
Now, in lockdown, Boo has completed First Art Kit: 25 Papercraft Remedies for What Ails You, a book that pairs psychology and craft, designed to help the Covid generation cope with mental health problems brought on by the pandemic.
Published by Simon &Schuster later this month, it is styled like a vintage first aid kit and offers practical solutions to common psychological problems using evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Schema Therapy.
Simply put, it outlines the issue – say anxiety, or insomnia – the psychological ‘cure’ and the papercraft ‘remedy’ in craft projects you can undertake – and make – for your mental health.
Again it has that Boo twist. For example, her remedy for insomnia is to imagine you are in a completely white room, where you put all your troubles into a box one by one. In this case the box is a cartoon TNT plunger, which you make yourself. If your worries don’t recede after you’ve carefully packed them away, just push the plunger and blow them up. Yes, really.
It is a project born of her own long experience with depression. “Craft allows you to enter a flow state, it’s a release from stress,” she explains. “I’m hoping it will help people get a handle on why things are happening. It’s not about blaming people, but it’s a way to move on.”
And she should know. As a 14-year-old pupil at Harris Academy in Dundee, with two alcoholic parents at a time when no support or mechanism for identifying troubled children existed, she was, she says candidly, a “lost child”.
Already 6ft tall as a teenager, her refuge from a dysfunctional home life became pubs, where she wasn’t even asked for ID. Pubs were warmer and safer. Her friends were, she says, other “lost children” and she has a vivid memory of playing truant one day, sitting in Balgay Cemetery, “being half cut, watching all my schoolmates doing gym on the playing fields, and me sitting alone with my half bottle of vodka.”
She still has to manage her depression and has had 23 years of therapy. Like many who survive such situations, she has successfully understood the dysfunction of her childhood in order to understand herself.
“I was living with two people who demonstrated that was how you coped,” she says. “In lockdown I thought of all those kids who couldn’t escape their alcoholic parents. It’s hard enough even without that.”
A feature of her charming home in Fife is a little escape place she’s built herself. A bookshelf opens to reveal a secret room, a private speakeasy, with a bar set into a 1920s mahogany wardrobe and cushioned seats made from scaffold boards and old piano. A gold leaf ceiling completes the picture.
It’s cosy, entirely secret – unless she chooses to show you – and a manifestation, perhaps, of the days she needed to hide away in bars. But now it’s her place, and she made it with her own hands.
That, really, is the essence of Boo.
She won the Dux for art at the Harris but was told it wasn’t a good career option. She was good at English too so, at age 21 in Edinburgh with no university degree, she muscled her way into journalism.
“I got a job as a waitress – that well-known route – and worked in a bar with a girl whose dad worked at the Scotsman.” He got her a shift on the sub editors’ desk – she remembers newspapers were so well-staffed in those days a seasoned sub handed her a book to read during her shift. You’ll be needing this, he said. It was Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. She devoured it.
Journalism, jazz and dreams
A career on the Daily Record, Evening Times and the Sun followed – at the latter she wrote a vintage car column. She knew whereof she spoke, she drove vintage MGB GTs by then and had learnt to do a lot of the maintenance herself (although she recommends a good mechanic as a preferred option).
But even then, she was coming home after a shift and making art. She says a lot of her art is political, a form of journalism anyway.
She also drifted into jazz clubs and ended up managing Sophie Bancroft, the jazz singer. That happened because “I am really organised.” At a show she’d noticed the CDs outside weren’t properly set up or displayed, so she left a bit early, found a table, set it up, and by the time the audience filed out, Boo was selling CDs for Sophie Bancroft.
She also ran a cabaret and burlesque club, all while holding down her journalism job and also selling vintage clothes, another great love. She started the Acme Workers Club with the DJ Lenny Love as her co-producer. She’d get changed in the toilets after work for a night’s work there.
They’d sell a pint for a pound, and you could win a frozen chicken. “They loved the frozen chickens,” notes Boo. “It was the best of the working man’s clubs.”
Prompted by a change of editor at the Sun, she moved into PR and managing singers full time, and then the crash of 2008 came and she lost her business. There was no work, anywhere.
Life as a starving artist
She became a “putter onner” placing bets for a maths whiz whose algorithmic genius got him banned from betting shops. He paid Boo £50 a day to place his bets – between 35 and 40 bets in four hours. She’d have about £4,000 strapped to her legs for a day’s work.
But she was starving, literally. She could afford a baked potato a day if she was lucky. So what to do? Sitting in cafes, waiting for the punter’s word, she was always doodling on napkins. Inevitably she drew New York.
So, with nothing to lose, she took out a huge credit card loan and headed for the Big Apple. That, too, was the best of times and the worst of times, living in the cheapest dives and hanging out at night, looking fabulous in vintage clothing, in the bars and speakeasies of the city she came to love.
By now the narrative of Boo’s life must be emerging – never be sure you know what will happen next. So of course she joined the circus. Specifically, the Famous Spiegeltent, owned by Australian impresario David Bates since 2005 and well known on the Edinburgh Fringe.
The European Spiegeltents or ‘tents of mirrors’ were created in the early 20th Century, travelling entertainment pavilions made of wood, mirrors and leaded glass, and finished with lavish velvet and brocade. It was entertainment in style and ‘The Famous’ is the Grande Dame of them all. Marilyn Monroe sang Falling In Love Again in it. Besides doing the hard physical work by day, and the PR, Boo became the ringmaster. Of course she did.
“Ringmasters existed before amplified sound, to build up excitement,” she explains. “It’s also about managing the audience and getting a lot of people to sit down really quickly. You need to be able to project your voice, and I can.”
Her time with The Famous took her to Australia – “I couldn’t believe it, the colours, the light, the laid-backness” and she stayed with the circus until 2014. But again, she was unfulfilled. So she wrote a list of what she wanted from her life.
She bought the domain name Boo York City and started writing about New York (her very readable guide the city is on her website) and made more art. She showed a piece she’d done on the Glasgow School of Art fire to Tony Morrow (he of the Desperate Dan and Dragon statues in Dundee), and he persuaded her to submit it to the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy show. It got pre-selected. The next year her work, Sea Sick, got selected for the open exhibition.
If we go back to serendipity, it was a sign she could make a full time career from her art and her ideas. It was around this time the idea for Papercut This Book was born, and she got an agent in New York.
Now, as lockdown eases, she is standing in the wings awaiting her next curtain call. Time will tell what the next act brings, but if ever there is anyone who makes their own luck, it’s Boo Paterson.