Illustrating Windows in Kingsbridge

Published: 14th August, 2020

Emma Jones is sweltering.  She keeps approaching the inside of the window at, what's commonly referred to in Kingsbridge as the old YMCA shop, adding more carefully considered lines to her illustrations. After a few minutes she retreats in to the shade of the shop and we chat some more. 

Emma is illustrating a shop window in full sun, 30 ft wide and 9ft tall in Kingsbridge High Street, South Devon.  It's 10.30am and already 24 degrees. Trying to complete an enormous piece of art, on a public high street in what Emma describes as being "in a gold fish bowl"  can't be easy; let alone in an August heat wave!  Completely exposing her artistic process and the way she works to the passers by takes, to my mind, a particularly positive mind set and Emma certainly comes across as someone with oceans of positivity.

Emma approached Kingsbridge Town Council and the Tourist Information Centre about beginning a project in Kingsbridge after her partner, Simon, who lives with her and her two children, suggested she start to think about how she could get some local work. Simon regularly shops on the High street and had noticed some of the empty shops and the idea was born.  After many months of liaising and tracking down landlords, Emma and the town council came up with the idea of her project in the hope that it would be a way of "cheering up the High Street and encourage some kind of movement back  in to the window."

I like this idea as whether it's Emma literally moving around the window, passers by moving towards her art or local business eventually moving in to the premises because she has re energised it then she is certainly creating movement; of many kinds!

As we are talking I notice the reflection of the seahorses on the carpet in the shop and the old cladding against the wall and take some photos.  It occurs to me that the "movement" she is creating in the shop spreads further than the window and how all the shadows add extra value for money and just generally make everything look wonderful.

Emma admits that "since lockdown some work has been cancelled as some big refurbs have been cancelled, and it's forced me to change some of my work habits and look a bit more locally".  This review of her work life post Covid and her relocation to Kingsbridge from Peckham, London is a familiar story and Emma is refreshingly candid about the challenges of adjusting to a new culture, different work opportunities and the difficulties of balancing self employment with running a family.

It was whilst living in London that Emma first gained a commission to illustrate for restaurant chains. She's bashful about her past work and isn't even tempted to boast about her illustrious career.  She has had an eclectic work life, completed a foundation in Art, studied in Biology and Environmental Science, worked in SE Asia for a Wildlife conservation organisation and has experience of set design for music videos and commercials.

I try to pin Emma down on how she describes her occupation and work and she is again reluctant to  claim the title of Artist, insisting that she's "reticent to call myself an artist. The stuff I do is decorative illustration on a larger scale". When I ask about the reticence she says that "art has a higher purpose". I disagree but am attracted to her lack of arrogance and admiration of others and their art.

It was Emma's friend Shelly whose a member of the Extinction Rebellion group that suggested "why don't you do seahorses?". It makes sense that an illustrator who loves walking on the cliff paths (although she's a little scared of them) and looking in the hedgerows "at botanical stuff"  was keen on the idea of representing the seahorses and anemones found in the Kingsbridge Ria.

In keeping with her love of all things botanical, when I ask her who'd she like to draw a window for she answers: "David Attenborough!" without much hesitation. She said she'd draw "something that took ages so I can chat to him for hours" and that she'd draw a jungle or something with trees on his window. "I love trees".

Emma is kitted up with her POSCA pens, "not uber cheap, but really good for kids", her preparatory drawings, window cleaner, a spirit level which she uses for lettering, the doughnut I bought her for sustenance ( apparently jam doughnuts are her favourite), her shades and her headphones.  Whenever I've passed Emma drawing she is always wearing her headphones so I ask her what she's listening to.

" If I don't have my headphones, I feel really weird."  explains Emma.  She's listening to music  and says she likes "electronic music because it makes me work quicker" and most often she's tuning in to a Spotify playlist.  A fellow artist gave her the idea of using headphones after sharing stories of how to get on with her work and not be distracted.  However, the headphones shouldn't be read as a keep away signal from Emma. She's "very happy to meet people and chat" and says she's had some wonderful conversations with passes by who indicate through the window they'd like to talk.

Whilst I'm talking to her I notice whole rows of tourists pause and consider her illustrations. People stop and point her art out to one another, often taking a moment to register what she's doing and then usually they smile.  The smile is genuinely followed by a thumbs up and Emma says she's felt lucky this week to have "met nice people" that "give me a thumbs up!". 

Some passers by double back after realising something unusual is happening, some are distracted mid conversation and their shopping partner realises their attention is momentarily captured by something unusual.  I am captured by Emma's ability to illustrate across two enormous shop windows and show continuity with her images. Delicately adding detail to her enormous stretches of sea creatures and plants.  Now and then, she picks up a scalpel and cuts away a piece of the acrylic that she's clearly not happy with. I can't tell anything is imperfect. It all looks incredibly skilful and well thought out.

Emma anticipates this recent commission will take 30 to 40 hours, but explains it's taking longer because of the extraordinary heat she's working in.  She has already been approached by a couple of local businesses who are interested in her illustration and explains that this is only a part of why she has done the project with the town council.  Clearly she's happy to be employed but Emma spoke repeatedly about her enthusiasm for collaboration and her overwhelming message was that she wanted to get a message to the local community about how she is "very happy to meet people and chat", talk to people who want to collaborate and "do something together." "Basically, I'm up for ideas!"

Emma is keen to work within her community and with it. She'd like to work on a project with KCC and was very constructive and helpful when I questioned her about how a young person might be able to consider work like hers.  "I should have done an art degree or at least a foundation"  She, whether right or wrong advocates higher level study saying that in her experience the artists she knows have more of a "dogged mindset" and "they don't give up", creating a strong community around them. In her experience, artists have to have another job to make a living. "It's very hard." Emma is self deprecating in an appealing way; I see in her a successful artist who is, despite being a busy Mum and partner,  still trying to tune in to a community, play her part in one and push herself to achieve and learn in ways that she hasn't previously.  She is to my mind, all of the things she admires in others.

Her hints and tips for youngsters are insightful.  She advocates working for free ( at least in the first instance) explaining that the power of allowing people to try before they buy is really worthwhile; a sort of "I'll do this and if you like what I do then you can pay me" approach. She says volunteering pays dividends and illustrators always have to be prepared to work really long hours.  Emma has worked on buildings as tall as the Market Hall, drawn from scaffold towers surrounded by builders, away from home, and carried her kit around from job to job in the panniers of her bike.  She'd like to see a future that gives her more time to do her own printing and painting and dreamily started talking about having more time by herself but quickly qualifies that by saying studio time "sounds dreamlike but it's not always and everyone needs feedback. We need to play off each other."

Strangely, although it was Emma who initiated the project with the town council, it is me that needs to push her to talk about how she can be employed.  After all, the window illustrations are a great advert for her work. You can employ Emma to create anything from small hand drawn pieces to enormous walls or windows.  She favours being contacted by email but also has an Instagram account. She emphasises that where paid work is concerned, her approach is thorough. Clearly a seasoned professional Emma visits clients to give quotations on their ideas and prepares briefs telling me that preparing mood boards alongside the quote is an invaluable part of her design process and an integral one.  "I'll do a mock up and clients will see what they're going to get."  She's currently working on illustrative work for a rum business and I am secretly in awe of her ability to spread her artistic skills across genres.

I could chat to Emma for hours and she has a natural ability to take a question and give a thoughtful answer that grows in to a discussion or an idea.  A natural artist.  However, the heat is rising and she is repeatedly stepping back from the window, clearly struggling to get the job done and I am a distraction. (Not that she has said!)  Maybe she's just thinking about getting stuck in to the doughnut I bought her.  I ask her to tolerate some quick fire questions that don't turn out so quick as she is naturally thoughtful but I did discover some random information...

If Emma could make up one rule that everyone had to follow it would be to "tolerate everyone, tolerate differences."  She thinks" cleaning" takes up too much of her time. The luckiest thing to happen to her this week was" all the thumbs up from passers by."  She would "learn to surf" if she wasn't so" scared of the big waves." If she could have videoed any event in her life it would've been the birth of her children.  If she could unlearn something it would be "worry". "I'm a big worrier". If she had a personal flag it would have a leaf on it. She loves languages and would choose to wake up knowing every language in the world over being able to play every instrument.

I feel like Emma has the ability through her illustration to communicate across language barriers. When the residents of and visitors to Kingsbridge watch her art unravel they are watching hope and energy in a beautiful yet tangible form. She is helping Kingsbridge Town Council open its eyes to need, ears to ideas and arms to community.  She is an invaluable link for the council to new opportunities that the artistic community can offer our neighbourhood and shows the possibilities for collaboration are endless.  The Town Council are thrilled with her displays and hope other local landlords with vacant properties will harness the opportunity to work with Emma and, as she describes it "encourage some kind of movement back in to the window."

I leave Emma donning on her headphones and getting back to the drawing and her playlist of dance tracks.  Throughout the rest of the day, I take great pleasure in sharing her story with my family and friends and busy my brain with all the brilliant possibilities she brings to Kingsbridge.  If you are smitten with Emma's work and approach to community and creativity then please email her.

Article written by Dena Bex - Kingsbridge Town Councillor

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