Intrigued by the beautiful depiction of Plato’s dialogue The Symposium, we eagerly headed to Bristol to meet with its creator, the talented illustrator Harriet Lee-Merrion. Influenced by old botanical engravings, Japanese woodblock prints, Surrealism and magical realist fiction, Harriet creates meditative, poetic and deeply evocative visual narratives exploring the themes of identity and femininity.
Radiating warmth and tranquillity, Harriet welcomed us in her home to show us some of her original artworks and later on she invited us to her studio space at Hamilton House, where she opened up about her journey into illustration and the inspiration behind her profound and reach metaphorical visual language.
We continued our conversation about Harriet’s dreams and plans for the future under the moody foliage at Westonbirt Arboretum, enjoying the air's autumnal earthiness and stooping every now and then to get a good look at a golden leaf or a blade of grass.
How did you become an artist? Was there an existential turning-point that made you follow this path?
I’ve always felt happiest when working on artistic projects, and I think it was a progression of small decisions based around the desire to be creative that led me to become an illustrator. I feel fortunate to be able to make a living from it.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
One of my earliest memories is of searching for my brothers, and scaling a ladder that reached up into the attic of our house. I remember feeling amazed for climbing so high, shortly followed by fear upon realising they weren’t up there after all.
What are your major sources of inspiration? Is there an artist or artistic movement that influenced you the most throughout your existential explorations and artistic experiments?
My work has a handful of different influences. My visual inspiration includes Indian miniature paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, Modernist architecture, Surrealism, old medical diagrams, botanical drawings, pre-Raphaelite paintings, and old theatre posters. One of my favourite animations is the 1970’s hand-drawn masterpiece Fantastic Planet. My work is also influenced by literature; I love the magic realism found in books by Haruki Murakami, Mikhail Bulgakov and Gabriel García Márquez. I’m also interested in writer’s work that dissect matters of the heart, such as A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes, and books that examine themes of identity and femininity, such as The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
Your work shows a wide spectrum of themes, from science, religion and social issues to poetry and philosophy. How do you approach a new project and what informs your artistic vision?
Approaching a project can often feel a bit like working on a puzzle, where the aim is to create an image that reflects and builds on the subject in hand. I’m interested in creating conceptual imagery by using visual metaphors, which can often give my work a dreamlike and surreal quality.
Identity and selfhood seem to be major themes that thread through your body of work. Why is that? Do you ever feel that you are wearing a mask that can never be removed or that you are endlessly putting on another mask, and another, and another?
I’m interested in literature that explores human consciousness, and I think this in turn influences themes within my illustrations. I’m fascinated by masks and have often used this as a reoccurring motif. In the age of social media, identity and selfhood are especially interesting. The self we present online is often pre-meditated and manicured and upon posting it becomes infinitely available for the world to see.
Along with cosmological and botanical motifs, womanhood and the female body seem to be constant elements in your work. Can the viewer interpret this as a feminist statement?
My interest in feminism and female identity has filtered into my work in a subtle way. After reading The Beauty Myth I made a few illustrations that were a playful satire on beauty regimes and excessive modes of femininity, while other work has touched on fertility, or motherhood. I loved illustrating a poem by Carol Anne Duffy, Before You Were Mine, in which she imagines the kind of person her mother was before she was born. Some illustrations, accompanying articles for Inside Housing magazine, have dealt with more political themes such as safe social housing provided for sex workers and also support for women escaping abusive relationships. I still feel there are many important topics I haven’t yet had the chance to engage with, such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues and violence against women.
In regards to the female body, as an illustrator I think it’s important to depict women (and people in general) of different ages, sizes, abilities and ethnicities. I strive to show this more in my work as I feel this kind of diversity is generally underrepresented in the mainstream media.
You created a series of illustrations based on Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium. Why this ancient philosophical text in particular? And what is it about Ancient Philosophy that you find interesting and inspiring?
Initially The Symposium sparked my interest as its central theme is about love. Previously I hadn’t studied anything like it before, so it was also my introduction to philosophy and a history lesson in itself. The thing I found particularly interesting was its insight into ancient Athenian life, and also its many references to Greek myths.
Have you considered illustrating any contemporary philosophical texts? If so, which one and why?
I’d be interested in tackling a text that explores the self. I’ve been wanting to read Mary Midgley’s book Are you an illusion? in which she defends feelings, thoughts and imagination against scientific convention that suggests the self is just an elaborate illusion.
You have become a very successful illustrator in a short period of time. Why do you think this is?
Social media has been fundamental in getting my work out there and I think the momentum of the online world advances the popularity of many people’s creative work. The beauty of illustration as an industry is that there are so many avenues to venture down. I’m still striving to achieve goals I’ve set myself and I feel like there’s a lot more to succeed in.
Is there anything that you find frustrating about the industry? How would you change it?
Sometimes it’s easy to get pigeonholed into doing the same of one thing. While I love the work I do currently, I think it would be great to engage with a project that has a totally different end context. Within the industry there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario: an organisation may only consider you for a commission if there’s existing examples of it in your portfolio (which is fair enough as it can be a risk to take a chance on something completely different). This leads on to my answer to the next question!
What was the best advice you have ever received?
Create your own work. Someone once told me that if you’re not attracting the kind of work you want, don’t wait. Make it yourself and in turn it will attract the kind of organisations you’d like to work with and your audience will find you.
How do you make your surroundings more beautiful? How would you define your personal style?
Perhaps like a librarian with a taste for the 60’s or 70’s: lots of turtlenecks, wool jumpers, patterns, block colours, and suede loafers.
The walls of my house feature artwork by my friends and family. I’ve got a taste for mid-century furniture, bright walls and lots of oxygenating plants; I have a monstera deliciosa taking over my bedroom and a beloved money tree grown from a cutting originally from my Nanny.
Do you have a special place where you allow yourself to dream in peace, a space that both shelters and enhances your imaginary escapes?
I find that the moments before falling asleep or just after waking up allow ideas and inspiration to arise in a less self-critical way than during the day.
What poem or novel inspired you the most?
I always seem to revisit this poem by Cid Corman. It’s similar to the philosophical thought experiment about observation and perception: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The poet’s work exists only in the moment that you are there to experience it in.
It isn’t for want
of something to say–
something to tell you–
something you should know–
but to detain you–
keep you from going–
feeling myself here
as long as you are–
as long as you are.
What book can we find on your bedside table?
Darkness in Summer, by Takeshi Kaikō. I recently designed a cover for the new Spanish edition. It’s a slow moving narrative in poetic prose, following the day-to-day lives of two Japanese expatriates living in Germany after the Second World War.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a magazine cover for a feature about Canada’s investment in AI technology.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
I’d like to write and illustrate a story. I’d also love a design project that breaks out of the two dimensional context that I’m used to. I’ve always felt inspired by the Bauhaus notion of artists as multifaceted designers. It would be fantastic to design an architectural space or some furniture.
Thank you, Harriet for for the wonderful glimpse into your life and work.