Olivia McEwan-Hill’s pastoral practice thrives in charming historical symbolism and childlike wonder
With fundamental principles of happiness, nature and consideration, Olivia McEwan-Hill’s work is sure to make you smile.
- Harry Bennett
- 27 October 2020
Growing up surrounded by fields and wild forests in rural Worcestershire, the now Leeds-based illustrator Olivia McEwan-Hill has found herself wanting to return to the countryside. Despite it being a childhood dream to move to a bustling cityscape, the illustrator tells us that inspiration flows from the en plein air romanticism, vivid beauty and native frivolity of the pastoral, but also the inescapable influence of charming innocence and loveable naivety within growing up in those surroundings.
“I’ve always relied on making things as a way to entertain myself,” Olivia tells us of her introduction to creativity, “cardboard pets, potions, masks, costumes etc.” Picking up art throughout school and furthering her interest in an arts foundation at Plymouth, it was here that Olivia first “heard of illustration as a job,” she explains, “so pretty late to the game.” Thrilled by the prospect, she found Leeds Arts University’s illustration course and made the move further North, explaining how “illustration felt exciting, accessible and progressive,” potentially giving a greater sense of direction to what she had been doing her entire life, simply adding, “I love making pictures.”
Operating a prolific practice, Olivia’s work is a wild exploration of image making and storytelling. With a graphic mixed media approach, which she describes as “a kind of collage of ideas that are different flowers from the same plant,” the illustrator also includes textiles and ceramic pieces, alongside her paintings and drawings. Recently, she’s even included the nostalgic use of Hamma beads in her work “after finding loads of them in our childhood treehouse,” she tells us.
This sense of childhood is almost subliminary across Olivia’s work, with a sense of familiarity and nostalgia for a life that isn’t our own. Perhaps, due to seeing small flavours of instinctive and childlike mark-making, and confident unburdened naivety, we can see some fleeting memory of our own upbringing. “My favourite projects are the ones that remind me of what I like to draw; nostalgia and reminiscing are two magical feelings,” she tells us. “I think the projects I enjoy most usually work around this,” leading to waves of inspiration with repeating lexicons and patterns, such as a recent enthusiasm for medieval symbols.
It’s with these recurring motifs that Olivia creates intelligently fluid narratives across her work, which aren’t always immediately obvious. For instance, the illustrator explains how she’ll “search for a plant that only flowers when I’m making the work, like a kind of date stamp,” through to choosing creatures to illustrate “that are synonymous with the feeling or emotion I want to create.” With this in mind, Olivia’s work has an elevated sense of fundamental simplicity, focusing on natural phenomenon as a consistent source of inspiration. “My visual work always seems to lead back to working with natural elements,” she clarifies, “I think this is partly a result of growing up in the countryside, and generally feeling my happiest when in nature.”
As a result, Olivia finds her creative process is “rooted in reflecting and responding to things around me,” needing lots of outside stimuli, like walks or exploring outside, to keep her creative brain engaged. Time outside, and subsequent disconnect from her laptop or phone, allows Olivia to reset and determine what she wants to make, and how she wants to make it. The impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns have interrupted this practice of course, recalling how at the start of lockdown “I really struggled with making work for myself, and felt drawn into a practice based on instagram which was super negative.” Leading the illustrator to take a small break, in order “to decide where to go with my practice and to refocus my making.”
With this in mind, Olivia’s portfolio comes across as quietly confident, a result of the illustrator’s dedication to personal growth. Recalling how, at first she “definitely spent a lot of time at university being too cautious about my making,” and felt concerns on whether her work “wasn’t the right ‘kind’ of illustration, or that it wouldn’t speak to others,” by trusting her gut she’s overcome these worries. A project which wholly demonstrates this is Triqueta, one Olivia describes as her “biggest and maybe most conceptually unusual project” so far. Creating “an imagined cult with relics telling the stories of rituals and traditions of a utopian community,” the final project features illustrations, ceramics, a creation story penned by Olivia, and an illustrated quilt to match.
Already demonstrating the variety of her practice, Olivia’s expanded even more recently in collaboration with friend, illustrator and writer, Rose Allert. Living together in their second and third years of studying, the collaboration sees the illustrator respond to a poem’s verse written by Rose, a collaboration signifying the strange end to their university experience. Another commission recently manifested into a large hand-painted vase, with the illustrator adding how she “enjoyed how the project grew, over lots of emails discussing themes and symbols that would best reflect the client's personality,” she tells us, becoming “a collaborative piece between me and their relationship.” Featuring symbols of this connection and growth, such as “lilies, stars, dolphins and birds all travelling across the belly of the ceramic,” it’s a piece typical of Olivia’s seemingly archaeological, historically influenced natural approach. As a result the finished ceramic is essentially a conceptual artifact, “a precious relic, for someone to keep and love.” The attitude Olivia takes of this commission is indicative of her body of work; a conference of happiness and consideration, within the ambience of nature.
It’s with this approach too that we’re confident Olivia will continue to overcome the many curveballs already thrown at her this year, concluding how she’s “only just readjusting to not being a student anymore,” the illustrator concludes. With a practice that finds inspiration in environment, it is exciting that Olivia has recently moved into a new house, telling us “I feel positive about this new beginning,” looking forward to continuing to develop her ever-expanding, ever-refreshing practice, as well as “drawing and painting more and staying happy and healthy (lol).” And, although being a countryfile living in a city, Olivia tells us that she’s finding a balance in the “two lovely small gardens which I’m so grateful for and hope to be planting some veggies soon!”
Olivia McEwan-Hill: Harmony (Copyright © Olivia McEwan-Hill, 2020)
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.