At home with local artist Emma Lawrence
“In the NHS, I would be straight out to work at 8am. I’d check a huge pile of messages in my in-tray, with hundreds of emails every day. There would be people knocking at the door wanting to speak to me, secretaries needing me to sign things, patients to see, reports overdue, phone calls to make, meetings about finance or strategy. I would always be late home, then I’d get the girls to bed and work until midnight, sleep, get up and start all over again. It was non-stop.”
Artist Emma Lawrence recalls her ‘old life’, managing community neuro-rehabilitation services across Shropshire, before she gave it up in 2015 to devote all her time to drawing.
Now she works as an illustrator from a studio at home overlooking the Shropshire Hills, near Shrewsbury, producing distinctive designs of animals, birds and insects, for greeting card manufacturers and giftware companies across the world, with her cockapoo asleep at her feet.
Her time is her own and she can make it to the school gate to pick up her children at the end of each day. But managing the business side of things has been a steep learning curve.
“I worked in a world where everything was very private and confidential,” Emma said, “This was the biggest challenge, having to promote myself. Initially, I had no idea how I was going to make my new business work. Thankfully, my husband is very supportive.”
Thanks to Emma’s commitment, tireless work ethic and love for what she does, things are working out. She has had considerable success at trade fairs and managed to secure several potentially lucrative licensing deals.
Emma, who grew up in Cheshire, was always a creative child. She loved Richard Scarry’s make and do books and could often be found drawing, painting, picking flowers and making things with shells: “I was always outside, in nature or making something,” she said.
But teachers steered her away from Art, towards a ‘proper degree’. She studied Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, followed by a three-year doctorate at Liverpool University, setting a path that would see her practise as a Clinical Neuropsychologist, specialising in brain injuries, for over 20 years.
“I was very conscientious and committed to my career. I really enjoyed making a difference to people’s lives and their families. I often used my creativity in rehabilitation strategies, drawing pictures for patients if their visual memory was better than their verbal memory.”
Art began to demand more of her attention after she had her two children and was introduced to picture books: “I felt there was nothing out there for younger children which sparked a real interest in nature,” she said. “I wanted to encourage them to explore outside and appreciate all the little creatures and bugs that can be found in any garden, hedgerow or back yard.”
This led to the Little Nature Explorers® series and Emma’s first illustrated children’s book The Worm was published in 2015 by Brambleby Books, when she was still working. At about the same time a friend and colleague, Anni Kelsey, had asked her to provide illustrations for her book, Edible Perennial Gardening, published by Permanent Publications, which increased her confidence.
Emma had to stop work at the end of 2015, to recover from an operation. She had always been concerned about leaving her patients, but this forced the issue and allowed her to make the big decision, she says.
One of Emma’s first commissions after leaving her job was from her previous employer, the Shropshire Community Health Trust! She had designed their logo and was asked to create a booklet on perinatal mental health.
Emma started by selling greetings cards in local shops which were very popular. (She now has a range of greetings cards and gifts based on her Little Nature Explorers® series of books such as colour-in cards, notebooks, stickers and magnets). Then came two further books, Slugs and Snails and Butterflies. Emma won a trade stand at Manchester Stationery Show in 2017 and was runner-up in the national Gift of the Year Competition in 2018, with her nature-themed gifts for children. Next came two licensing deals resulting from the NEC Spring Fair in 2018. “I was so excited driving back, that people actually wanted to license my designs, I nearly went the wrong way and was heading towards the Birmingham toll road!” Emma laughed.
Leading UK homewares and ceramics company ECP Design now offers Emma’s ‘Animals Wearing Wellies’ illustrations on mugs, jugs, coasters, chalk boards and tea towels for sale all over the UK. Smart Fox Gifting sell her children’s bug hunting, discovery and art and activity sets, and adult gifts featuring bird illustrations. Last year, she was again runner up in Gift of the Year with her new necklace collection on cards. Her most recent collaboration is with Spanish company Materia Rica which hand make a beautiful range of jewellery based on Emma’s designs, made from English walnut wood. She also undertakes commissions for a wide range of clients, big or small - you might have seen her huge mural in Darwin’s Den play area in the town’s shopping centre. You will also find her designs on Christmas cards for Lingen Davies Cancer Fund and Severn Hospice.
Emma is never short on new ideas: “They come from all around me, often inspired by nature. I like to draw in the garden and woods near my home. I enjoy noticing all the small details – the berries, the leaves, different shapes and the changing colours. I can take the dog for a walk but be working in my head.”
For the My Shrewsbury cover she researched what would be flowering at this time of the year: “I try to represent flowers or animals so that they are identifiable. I suppose that’s my scientific background! I particularly like detail – everything is drawn in pencil then black ink. I then either colour it using pencils and crayons or digitally.”
It is remarkable that Emma’s life has come full circle and she has ended up doing what she always loved as a child.
Does she regret her 20 years in the NHS?
“No. It has been incredibly rewarding and enjoyable and I wouldn’t take that back. But I don’t regret leaving. I haven’t looked back. Doing what I love and being there for my girls as they grow up is so important to me and my family.
“Now I drop them off, take the dog for a walk. As soon as I’m back, I get to work. I have no problem being motivated. I’m always really keen to get in there. I might be drawing all morning, scanning images, colouring digitally, taking calls from a licensing manager about a progress check, emailing, or doing my invoices. I’ll have a short break to take the dog for a walk at lunchtime, then work until the girls come home. If I’m in the middle of something, I’ll encourage them to do their homework so I can do an extra hour or two. Then I’ll work all evening whilst they are asleep. I work every spare minute when they are not with me but the key thing is that now I do things when I like.”
Find Emma’s cards and gifts in Shrewsbury in Write Here on the High Street, Vinterior at the top of Wyle Cop and Daisy and Tilly’s in Bayston Hill. Cards and gifts can also be found at Battlefield Farm Shop, Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, Hawkstone Park and Shropshire Hill’s Discovery Centre. Emma has collaborated with Shrewsbury based Buttonbury, who sells a range of handmade cosmetic bags and purses made from Emma’s unique fabrics.
My Shrewsbury magazine
My Shrewsbury is our town's dedicated, bi-monthly local magazine, packed with quirky features about personalities, places and events and showcasing the very best local writers, artists and photographers. It has a bold aim to be the best hyper-local magazine in the country and always loves to hear from readers!