Every business has had to adapt since COVID-19 arrived on these shores, but for the family team at the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery, the pandemic was just the latest challenge that had to be faced.
“Even before COVID our business was going through a major change,” says Jo Thomson, who along with brother Andrew runs the popular gallery found perched on the coast in South Ronaldsay, with sweeping views over Scapa Flow.
Jo and Andrew’s mum, Leila, whose incredible tapestries take centre stage at the gallery, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in summer 2019. “Unfortunately, she has had to step down from the business,” says Jo. “Her work is still here to view, but she’s no longer weaving or working in a customer-facing role. With that and the pandemic, we were left feeling pretty overwhelmed.”
Despite the uncertainty, COVID-19 and its series of lockdowns gave the team the chance to rethink their approach – not just to the business, but to their lifestyle as well. Opening hours were refined to include a day off for the first time and both Jo and Leila took the opportunity to get out and about.
“Sadly, it took a global pandemic and mum’s diagnosis for us to realise we had no work/life balance,” reflects Jo. “We had been working seven days a week for so long and we were pretty burned out. With mum stepping back, I knew that my hours would increase and that was just unsustainable.”
As it turned out, it was more a case of ‘sun burn’ than ‘burn out’ for both mother and daughter. “We made sure we got outside as much as possible during lockdown and it was the first time in 25 years that we both had a sun tan,” laughs Jo.
And, aside from the aesthetic benefits, the focus on health and wellbeing has helped inspire Jo professionally too. “It just isn’t realistic to expect yourself to feel continually motivated and creative if you don’t give yourself a break, or allow yourself time to go outside and find new ideas. I hadn’t realised how much my health had suffered over the years, and my work as a result,” she says. “I feel so much better for having some regular time off and my artwork has benefitted massively from it.”
Going forward, the focus at the gallery will be on Jo’s work. Although a painting graduate, she grew up weaving alongside her mum and in the last few years handwoven tapestry has become the focus of her artistic practice. These days, the gallery is full of a mixture of Jo’s original handwoven tapestries, paintings and drawings, all inspired by the stunning scenery and nature of Orkney. Leila’s large, original, handwoven tapestries remain on display in the bright exhibition space too. Meanwhile, Andrew will continue with the gallery’s picture framing and creating handcrafted rugs made from Jo and Leila’s artwork.
Along with most businesses, the team at Hoxa have made sure the visitor experience is as safe as possible, as well as continuing to ensure everyone receives a warm welcome when they arrive. Visits have been by appointment only during the pandemic, but this year it’s hoped to re-open as normal with the new regular opening hours. There is hand sanitiser available at the door and Perspex screens at the counter for both customer and staff safety.
They’re also kindly asking visitors to continue to wear face coverings during their time in the gallery due to Leila’s health.
“It’s about making it as safe as possible for us, for mum and for any customers visiting the gallery,” says Jo. “Folk have been really kind about the things we’ve introduced and are largely used to these safety measures now. It has all worked well for us over the last two years, and there’s still plenty of space for customers to browse safely.”
But there is still uncertainty. Uncertainty over the future course of the pandemic. Uncertainty over how many visitors will return. And uncertainty over the ever-increasing cost of living.
“We’re well supported locally but we do rely on tourism for the bulk of our income,” says Jo. “2021 was certainly better than the previous year, but it was still much quieter than normal. And now with the rise in energy and food bills, people might be thinking twice about spending money on extra items like artwork.”
Jo has been working hard to keep the gallery and the beautiful work created here in the public eye, with more of a focus on social media since the pandemic began, and making sure everyone knows how they can pay the team a visit this year. She hopes visitors will come back to Orkney this summer, and are keen to head over the Churchill Barriers for a browse at the gallery.
“Our main aim is to stay safe and healthy, and to make our customers feel the same,” she says. “I’m still so excited to create new artwork and feel very lucky to be able to earn an income through it. I would just love that to continue.”