A fine misty rain was falling over the city when Lara Hawthorne, barefoot and cereal bowl in hand, opened the door for us with a warm and welcoming smile. We swiftly engaged in a lively conversation about García Márquez, magic realism and The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, and then Lara showed us her amazing collection of toys and trinkets and some of her favourite books and original artworks. Reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s naïve and primitivist paintings, Lara creates elegantly-painted visuals that are depicting colourful and enchanting worlds that can also be seen as recipes of escaping the humdrum reality.
Later in the morning, we walked through the rain to The Hamilton House to see her studio space and more of the treasured items that make up her world, amongst which her mother’s beautifully handknitted woollen hats. We stopped for lunch at The Canteen, sharing a delicious vegan sandwich and chatting about her dreams and ambitions and the future of Stokes Croft, and parted ways unbothered by the rain, entirely captivated by Lara’s genuine humility, sweetness of spirit and all-around sense of astonishment.
For those who do not know you, who is Lara Hawthorne?
I’m 26 years old, half Slovenian and half English. I grew up in Oxford and moved to Falmouth to study a foundation course and illustration degree. I’ve lived in Bristol for the last few years, and now have a studio in Hamilton house. I love children’s books, radio, podcasts, cinema-trips and finding out about funny creatures like elephant shrews and mouse deer.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
The first one that came to mind was one of me thinking it was a brilliant idea to spoon feed the VHS player pink yogurt, and feeling surprised when I was told off for it. Lots of memories of exploring ponds, gardens, rivers, rock pools etc. I loved imagining small patches of garden as a vast world. I’d fill plant pot saucers with water, and decorate them with moss, stones and leaves and put insects in them to make ‘miniature insect swimming pools’.
“I daydream about vast natural spaces like rainforests and deep seas, or the mysteries of the hidden ‘microlife’ you can find in your garden.”
How did you get into art? What or who inspired you to pursue illustration?
I grew up in a creative environment, both my parents were very encouraging. My mum’s love of writing, painting and travel all played a large part in my creative life. She took great care in choosing lots of beautiful children’s books, all of which I still cherish today, for example, works by: Marlekna Stupica, Maurice Sendak, Marija Vogelnikova and Marjan Manček. My dad is a tropical botanist with a love of photography, who has really inspired my love of the natural world. He has helped me focus on ways to combine my love of art and nature, often bringing back exciting fruits and seeds. I would then create detailed drawings from these, and I even got some work experience with botanical illustrator Rosemary Wise. In my art foundation course in Falmouth I was put into the illustration group, which I loved so much, and it made me realise I definitely wanted to pursue it further as a degree. It allowed me the space to explore different art forms, from taxidermy and model making to photography and graphic design, whilst also focusing on my interest in children’s books and learning generally about the commercial aspects of illustration.
What are your major sources of inspiration? Is there an artist or artistic movement that influenced you the most?
The book Any Moomin by Tove Jansson never fails to inspire me! There is so much humour and warmth in her work, I enjoy it as an adult just as much as a child, if not more. Animation has also worked well if I’m feeling creatively drained, I’ve recently been exploring lots of exciting short films on The National Film Board of Canada. Ancient Egyptian art, medieval manuscript illustrations and tapestries have also been influential on my work. As have artists such as Bill Traylor, Jan Svankmajer, Ladislaw Staverwicz, Henri Rousseau and Henri Matisse. Travel has also been a great source of inspiration; I visited Benin with my mum a few years ago and I fell in love with their tradition of Appliquéd cloth and bronze work.
In my room you’ll find a lot of trinkets: I love to collect dollhouse sized things which really have no practical use, like miniature telephones or tiny inedible food. They’re useful to draw from, you can construct a miniature still life, and they remind me of the joy I had playing as a child. Lastly, Pinterest, Instagram, New Scientist and Radio 4 have also all helped for general research or artist inspiration!
Your meticulous illustrations seem reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s naïve and primitivist bold pictures of the jungle, teeming with flora and fauna. What is it that you find fascinating about the natural world?
Animal and plant life can be so bizarre, funny and beautiful which is why I love to paint them. Living in a city means that I daydream about vast natural spaces like rainforests and deep seas, or the mysteries of the hidden "microlife" you can find in your garden. I love the romantic, dream-like quality of Henri Rousseau’s paintings and I try and transfer these qualities into my own work. His decorative scenes are a celebration of the natural world and a wonderful mix of menace, beauty, playfulness and humour.
You are passionate about children’s illustrations and storytelling. Why is that?
I grew up loving to read, write, telling and listening to stories and would often make little illustrated books and comics. I would read and be read a lot of children’s books, some of my favourites were Pippi Longstocking, Wind and the Willows, The Northern Lights trilogy and various anthologies of folk tales from around the world, such as Margaret Mayo’s Magical Tales from Many Lands beautifully illustrated by Jane Ray. I've never grown out of children's books, they’ve always brought me a lot of joy.
You illustrated Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “The King of Christmas”, published by Picador in 2016. How did you come by this commission and what was the creative process behind it?
My work was found by the designer through specific tags relating to a medieval theme, she said they found my work on DesignInspiration.net. It made me realise how useful it is to tag your work and to put it up on a variety of social media platforms. I find it tricky to start painting without research, so for this project I would go through and find pictures and facts relating to, for instance, a ‘medieval banquet’. I would then make lists of the possible types of medieval food, cutlery, decor, clothing etc. References photos are necessary to get me started, no matter how much I stylise or simplify it later on.
I have a Dorling Kindersley Picturepedia which is a brilliant encyclopaedia with summarised facts and useful references photos, the internet is too distracting! After I got my feedback from the roughs I started on the finals. Some of the pieces were painted as one whole painting but would still be edited a bit in Photoshop. The other more detailed scenes, like the banquet scene, had separate painted layers so I could edit and play around with each layer more easily in Photoshop.
“I love to collect dollhouse sized things which really have no practical use, like miniature telephones or tiny inedible food.”
When it comes to commissioned work, how do you draw the line between your own aesthetic taste and the expectations of a client?
I often agree with the feedback I get on my work. Even if I’m not sure about an edit at the time, I often tend to like it more when I’ve looked at it again with fresh eyes. If I'm really not sure something’s a good idea, I would say so and offer other possible suggestions.
You moved to Bristol a few years ago. What made you choose this city to be your home and what do you love about living here?
There's a very strong arts, music and 'green' culture, with lot of independent shops and art spaces. This makes it a very accessible city for putting your work out there. Bristol is the perfect size for me because you can get to know it very quickly, yet I feel there's still a lot to discover. I also chose it because it’s not too far from where I grew up, and many of my friends from university moved here too.
How did you find your current studio at Hamilton House and what do you like about this creative space?
I found out about it through word of mouth, and decided to apply because I’d heard such great things about it. I love the community here so much; working here is such a joy. Hamilton House is run by Coexist, a community-focused organisation and home to some amazing creative projects, businesses, charities, events, therapists, artists, community kitchen work and so on. Right now the building is under threat of being turned into flats which is really scary and upsetting. It’s such a brilliant, affordable, creative community space it would be really bad for the area if it had to go.
Where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired in the city?
Going to watch a film with friends is my favourite thing to do, there are lots of lovely cinemas in Bristol. There’s a small cinema room you can rent with friends at the 20th Century Flicks shop on the Christmas steps. The room is decorated in the style of The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks! There’s also a cat that prowls around and an amazing collection of films to choose from. I’m also a fan of the Bristol Museum, there’s lots of taxidermy animals, beautifully decorated pots and unusual looking mummified cats in the ancient Egyptian section.
Can you tell us about a typical day in your life?
In the morning I love listening to music whilst walking to my studio. I then spend half an hour catching up on news and drinking a coffee. Whilst I work in the studio, I listen to the radio and various podcasts all day. I break up my time by pestering friends in their studio for a chat. At the end of the day I sit in the garden, catching up with my housemates.
What book would you love to illustrate the most?
Illustrating an encyclopedia would be fun, you would learn so much at the same time!
What would you be doing if you weren't making art?
I like the idea of being a specialist in something very particular, for instance: an expert of the Giant Rat of the Mount Bosavi Volcano in Papua New Guinea!
Are there any global or local issues you are currently interested in?
Locally, I’m focused on the issue of Hamilton House possibly turning into flats, it’s such an important community hub in Bristol. Globally, I get really upset about global warming. I’d really like to work on an illustration project about deforestation with an environmental organisation.
What would we find in your wardrobe? How would you define your personal style?
Usually patterned dresses, desert boots, personalised knitted jumpers made by my mum! I have lots of colourful tights too. I sometimes accidentally wear all purple and end up looking like a berry.
What is your favourite dish? Can you share with us your favourite recipe?
I’m not a very confident cook, I think you can’t go wrong with a fish finger sandwich or baked beans on toast. My favourite meal to cook is a Prawn Pad Thai with lots of lime!
Are there any artists you currently follow for inspiration?
I love Vincent Pianina and Lilli Carré for their experimental and varied approaches to making work. I also love Laura Carlin’s beautiful drawings and Jon Klassen’s brilliant sense of humour.
What advice would you give to someone deciding to pursue a career in illustration?
Before rushing into agreeing a job with client, don’t be afraid to ask for advice about things such as pricing and copyright before accepting work. I recommend reading The AOI’s Illustrator’s Guide to Law and Business practice ‒ it has some useful tips and price guides in there.
A way of working that I’ve found useful is splitting my time between making new work and the admin and organisation of printed products. If I’m not feeling particularly creative, I’ve found it helpful to carve out a whole day to focus on the more practical side of my business. For instance, packaging cards or distributing them around different shops in Bristol. I love working on these two different sides to my work.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on two books at the moment which I’m really enjoying. I love having long projects to focus on. One is a non-fiction book about a desert which will be published in January 2018. The other is a Christmas book which will be published late next year.
“It would be really fun to go on an art residency or to collaborate on a conservation programme. I’d also like to see a hippo in the wild.”
Where can we currently find your work?
My work can be found on my online shop, or in Bristol all year round at the Here Gallery, Blaze Shop and Hamilton House in Bristol. Some of my prints are stocked by Betty & Dupree, which can be found online or in various art shops throughout the UK and internationally.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
To keep writing and illustrating children's books and adding to my trinket collection! I’d also like to explore different ways of applying my illustrations: animation, textiles, murals and so on. It would be really fun to go on an art residency or to collaborate on a conservation programme. I’d also like to see a hippo in the wild.
Thank you, Lara for the warm welcome and for the inspiring insight into your creative and personal world.