Laura Bee on overcoming adversity, fighting to survive in New York, and realising illustration is her passion

Laura Bee, aka Bohill, is an illustrator and commercial artist originally from Durham who started her career in graphic design before realising where her true passion lies.

Since graduation, she's only ever worked for herself as a freelance illustrator. She found herself living in New York City for a while, serving clients like Bloomingdales, Google, Time, and Slack. During her time in the Big Apple, she also became a partner of the Ghostly Ferns, a collaborative family of freelancers, "making things happen together and separately".

She's recently returned home to the UK, choosing Manchester as her new home. And she's brought some of that Ghostly Ferns magic back, helping to set up These Friends of Mine – a community and studio space for local creatives.

It's been an epic decade for someone who graduated just as the global recession hit: a time many of us grimly remember and resonate with again during the current coronavirus pandemic. Under lockdown, we chatted with Laura about her adventure so far. We unearthed some helpful advice for any of you facing an uncertain future and hoping to enjoy a similar path.

How did you get started?

I studied graphic design at college/university, and on our course, we covered crafts related to design, like, photography, sculpting, life drawing and illustration. As soon as we did that first class on illustration, I was hooked! Every project that followed, I found a way to include illustrative elements in my work. For example, if I designed a magazine, the cover would be illustration rather than photography.

After graduating, I left with a portfolio that was very illustration-heavy. It went with me to a few interviews for design jobs – remember the big folders we'd carry around? Our physical websites? I never got a job offer. I assume because my work featured so much illustration that I'd pigeonholed myself out of the typical design agency.

This setback forced me to look at alternatives. Everyone said, "Don't become a freelancer until you have five years of industry experience!" So what did I do? I started freelancing! I've never liked being told what to do.

There was a co-working space in Newcastle called Ignite 100, which was mostly home to early-stage startups. As a lot of these companies were just starting, they were all looking for design of some kind; a logo, landing page, icons, business cards, T-shirts. The young, cheap designer sat in the corner who always smiled and said hi (me) was worth taking a chance on. I said yes to everything and learnt a lot very quickly. I often wonder if I hadn't taken up a desk there, would I have figured out how to get the ball rolling on my freelance career?

So is it true you've never worked for anyone else?

It's true! It's become a badge of honour now that I've hit the 10-year mark on my career. The first five years were a steep learning curve and hard financially - freelancing always has the tendency of fluctuating between busy and quiet, but when you're young and don't have a lot of savings, it can be stressful.

I could have given up and tried again for a job, but I just kept going. One thing that helped was that I've always been part of a co-working space or studio. Having a community of peers around to talk to, learn from and make friends with has always been a lifeline. Freelancing can be a lonely road, so I've always made an effort to find some friendly company.

With every year that has gone by I've felt less like I'd be able to work for anyone full-time. I love the independence, and the variety of work is fun! I even enjoy the downtime when client work is quieter. I've also started painting in the last year and keep trying to find the time to do more. Plus, I'm not a morning person and would never be able to commute to work and be at a desk by 9am.

Butterfly, personal work by Laura Bee

Butterfly, personal work by Laura Bee

Jars by Laura Bee

Jars by Laura Bee

How did you find yourself in New York then?

It was something me and my previous partner had daydreamed of from time to time, leaping across the pond to the States. We felt so drawn to go out there but had no idea how to make it a reality. Call it luck manifesting or the universe answering our call, but he got a job offer in New York! There were no 'ifs' or 'buts' about it! We made our plans and left the UK.

Moving to New York was the single greatest thing I've done for both myself and my career. I'll be forever grateful to my previous partner for being the catalyst for this chapter.

As you can tell, we separated a couple of years into life in America, but despite that, I decided to stay. New York was starting to feel like home. I'd joined a studio space where I found a bunch of truly amazing friends, and we rode the wild rollercoaster of NYC together. I ended up living there for six years!

There were a lot of "pinch myself" moments, like, standing on the red carpet at an event, or looking up at a giant mural I'd just designed. Other times I'd be crying on my bedroom floor from a bed bug scare or wondering how my neighbours could consistently make so much noise in the middle of the night (one time I threw my shoe at the ceiling)! I wouldn't change a thing. It was amazing!

What made you return to the UK?

I had been feeling unsettled for a while. Probably from the sum of a few things, plus I'd had a rough year. I'd been to the UK, living with and caring for my dying grandma so she could stay home in her bed. Going through that trauma was the straw that broke the camel's back, and I was ready for a different lifestyle. New York takes a lot of energy, and I didn't have it in me at the time. When I was getting ready to leave I remember one of my friends saying, "Laura is going home to heal", and I think she was right.

It wasn't that I didn't love New York anymore; I just knew it was the end of that chapter. I get such a buzz out of the chapters that inevitably form in life, and I was excited by the possibilities of the next one. Moving to New York made me feel like I could move anywhere.

Empathy for Intercom by Laura Bee

Empathy for Intercom by Laura Bee

Why Manchester?

When I moved back to the UK, I had no idea what was next and decided that it was ok. I took a pit stop at my family home and started going to therapy while I figured things out.

The UK was always top of my list; I wanted to be close to family. So moving to another country was ruled out. I made a list of the cities I love in the UK, like, Bristol, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Nottingham. I'd ruled out London early on because I'd left a big city for a reason. Manchester was interesting to me because on paper it was ticking all the boxes: the thriving design community, lots of independent businesses, a two-hour drive from my family. The only catch was I'd never visited the city before.

I went to Manchester in the summer of 2018 and fell in love! Everyone I met was so welcoming. Even just sitting down in a coffee shop on my own, I'd find myself talking to strangers. It was also good timing, as the weather was glorious! Which you and I both know isn't the case for most of the year here.

It does indeed rain a lot. Going back to that need to be surrounded by other creatives, you're one of the co-founders of These Friends of Mine?

Yes, I am! These Friends of Mine is a shared studio space I'm creating with Jane Bowyer, Loz Ives and Andy Gott. The four of us all work for ourselves, so either has to work from home or find a workspace.

We've had a lot of conversations about how the kind of space we want to work from doesn't exist here in Manchester. We don't want to be a co-working space; we want to be a studio that's just as own-able by each member. We've found a space with enough room to comfortably fit eight people that we can grow into once lockdown has lifted. We want this to be a space for friends, for collaboration, sharing lunch and work troubles, then enjoying Happy Hour at the end of the week or even on a Monday!

We want to create this space for us, but we also want to give back to the beautiful and thriving creative community of Manchester. We have ideas for workshops and talks, portfolio reviews with local students and a good knees-up social every once in a while.

We're in the very early stages of all this, as we only got our desks set up a couple of weeks before lockdown and we're all just about bubbling over with anticipation to get it moving again.

Wake Up by Laura Bee

Wake Up by Laura Bee

How is lockdown life treating you?

The beginning and the realisation of everything was hard. I went into lockdown a couple of weeks before the government made it a requirement and was watching the news constantly, wanting to stay informed. I got incredibly anxious and scared, as I saw it all unfold. But I realised this was unhealthy and that I needed to ignore the news altogether, to check out mentally. Now I only tune in when there's an important announcement scheduled.

But lockdown is ok! I live in an apartment in Ancoats in Manchester city centre that doesn't have any outdoor space, which has been the hardest aspect, especially since we've had such beautiful spring weather! To my surprise, work has been quite busy, so I have some sense of normality for now. And I've generally been trying to make the most of this quiet moment we'll likely/hopefully never have to experience again.

Let's talk about your work. How would you describe it?

I've recently taken to saying I make illustration two ways as I have two very distinct types of project that come my way. You'll usually find me working with companies like eBay, Nest and Dropbox to craft icon systems for their brands. It's my more technical work where I'm thinking like a designer and problem-solving. I get to geek out massively, and I love it! It's great fun to work so closely with the design teams at these companies and feel like part of the family for a while. It's probably the closest I'll get to a full-time job.

The rest of the time I'm working on commercial art projects with clients like The NY Knicks, Adidas and Zipcar, making giant pieces of art for murals and advertising campaigns. It's, of course, different from my icon work. These commercial art projects are great because I get to dig into and develop my style of art.

My style is full of bold shapes, bright colours and gritty textures – the tone and imagery I include are often equal measures of mystical and cute, dark and fun. Those things sound odd together, but I think it's unexpected combinations that make someone's style feel own-able to them.

Zipcar by Laura Bee

Zipcar by Laura Bee

Can you talk us through a favourite project?

Absolute favourite? That is a tough one! After some serious deliberating I'm going to say the mural I worked on for Adidas as part of its campaign to launch a new running shoe, the Pureboost DPR.

This mural was giant, measuring around 10 by 50 feet! Very exciting. The central theme of the campaign was street running, specifically in Brooklyn. The fascinating thing about running in a city like this is that no matter how many times you take the same route, run down the same street, you always come across something new. New York being New York, there are surprises around every corner. You're always bumping into the unexpected. With that in mind, I created this artwork in a way that seems almost chaotic. It's full to the brim with references of the city and running that when presented together in a vibrant composition, speak to the essence of the campaign.

It was the first big commercial art project I worked on and was a turning point in my career. The project won an Obie award for illustration and led to more mural and installation projects. It's one of those moments I look back on and feel super thankful for the opportunity.

Mural for Adidas

Mural for Adidas

Finally, what advice would you give to budding illustrators hoping to have similar success?

My late grandma, Iris (who I mentioned before), always said "Hard work, is work worth doing", and I think that's excellent advice as there's no substitute for putting in the serious graft.

Unless you're super lucky, success will probably come slowly, and that's ok. It's good actually because it gives you the time to learn, evolve and grow into yourself as an illustrator.

Along the way, I think it's essential to take every project you work on seriously regardless of how big or small. Treat your clients well by being punctual, showing initiative, being respectful and empathetic. On the flip side of that, make sure you are treated well by your client. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself and set boundaries or reason for a higher budget. At first, pushing back with a client can feel scary; it did for me. It's when having a community around you for support is super helpful. Whether that be online or in person, try and find your people: those you can ask for advice. But make sure you give just as much as you receive, it's a two-way street.

With all that said, I don't think this is advice for becoming successful because what is success? Once you reach one goal, another one appears. I don't think there's ever a moment when you stop pushing to be better. We're creatives and with that comes a level of being dissatisfied with your work, it's how we develop our craft over time. So make sure you find a way to enjoy what you're doing because it's a long road but bloody good fun!


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