Catriona McLaughlin meets Lee May Foster, who creates jewellery and printed pieces from her studio based in Truro, Cornwall.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and how Bonbi Forest began.
I’m an artist and designer hailing from the Cornish countryside, a little village near the sea to be precise. I trained in Fine Art Painting and always knew I would do something creative as my career. I come from a family of business owners and it was inevitable that my creative side would collide with this at some point! I started Bonbi Forest after a particularly skint Christmas shortly after graduating from university. To save a little money I decided to make some hand stencilled t-shirts as gifts. They went down really well and I realised that I could combine my love of image making with things that would be covetable that I could sell and Bonbi Forest was born!
Where did the name Bonbi Forest come from?
It came from couple of things! Forest is an anagram of one of my names - Foster - and loving the outdoors and nature as I do, it was an obvious choice as part of the business name. Bonbi comes from a mash-up of some letters from the original business name that I had, which is a bit twee and embarrassing now so I won't mention it. I like the word Bonbi and after checking it wasn't offensive at all it stuck. I like how ambiguous it is, like it could be a person or a place.
What inspires your work?
I am inspired by animals and the natural world. I grew up in the countryside and after some years living in Brighton, I came back as I realised that I missed it so much. I think the rhythms of nature, the seasons, passing of the days, patterns in natural forms and things like that all infiltrate my work. I am also very inspired by reading, listening to music and the radio. Sometimes something I have read or heard such as a random lyric will stick with me as an idea and become something I have to get down in a painting or as a design. One of my most recent locket designs 'Always over the Mountain' is inspired by an Iron and Wine song called 'Upward over the Mountain' about mothers and sons. It makes me think of my mother-in-law and her two sons and was something I really wanted to use as an idea.
Can you tell us a bit about your creative space?
I am very lucky and have a lovely studio which is a converted barn at my parents’ house. When I moved back from Brighton I lived there for a while. My dad was amazing and completely transformed it from a dark dumping ground into a bright white studio for me. It has a sink in one corner, work surfaces all around a lovely big table in the middle. The studio is divided into a section for jewellery making and has a wide, long surface which is the screen printing bench. Another stretch of surface dedicated to the heat setting and it also has shelves of books and ink pots. I tend to do all of my painting at home (a 5 minute drive away), I have a little cubby hole under the stairs for that!
You use water based inks for your screen prints and ethical clothing suppliers. Is this environmental & ethical approach important to you in life as well as for your business?
Yes I like to think so. I think it is important to try and support local and independent retailers where possible so I try to do that as much as I realistically can. I do have to use a car quite a lot here which I feel a bit guilty about on an environmental level. It is very rural here, there is only four buses a day through the village I live in and it just isn't realistic for me to use them, especially seeing as they don't go anywhere near my studio, which is right out in the sticks.
With the business it is important to me to make sure I use ethical suppliers, recycled materials where possible and I try to re-use as much of the waste packaging that comes with my supplies as I can. Customers who order prints and cards will find their order comes with a piece of cut down cardboard box as an envelope stiffener rather than ready-made card envelopes!
Do you prefer to work digitally or with sketchbooks/pen & paper when working on a design?
I do all of my initial sketches and idea work with a good old fashioned pen in a sketchbook. This usually involves lots of writing as well as sketching and I sometimes like to draw stuff straight out or paint it too before it makes it to the design stage. Sometimes these drawings and paintings get scanned into the computer as a basis for a design and other times I will re-draw the ideas straight into the computer with my Wacom tablet. All the designs are refined in Photoshop before being transformed into jewellery images or made into negatives to make silk screens. I don't really have a preference between pen and paper or digital as I think they both lend themselves very well for different tasks, but having said that I couldn't be without my sketchbook!
What's next for your business?
I am currently working on new designs for my illustrated jewellery range, new lockets and bracelets as well as some other pieces. I also have a range of home wares I have been itching to get working on for quite some time now as well as new ideas for scarf prints. I also have a couple of secret projects on the go that I am hoping will come to fruition. I only wish there were more hours in the day!
What advice would you give to someone starting a creative business?
Starting a business can be quite a daunting prospect, but I would say you just have to go for it and not to wait for everything to be perfect before setting up. There is so much to learn along the way so you just have to get on and do it and sometimes refine as you go. The nice thing about the internet is that you can very easily start at your own pace and grow the business to fit with what you can cope with. Creatively, stick to your own vision. It is very easy to get distracted by everything else that is going on and what appears to be popular right now, but if you are true to yourself then I don't think you can go wrong.
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