From childhood birds’ nest collections to interpretation boards and book covers (via life-size rhinos and Gromit), Maria Burns shares with Edwina Baines how her love of the Dorset countryside has shaped her career.
As children, we talk about what we want to be ‘when we grow up’. It’s a dream of the future, something we can put off for years before it becomes a reality. The majority of us have no idea what the future actually holds. But for a lucky few, it’s a straightforward answer: having spent her childhood in Purbeck exploring the stunning natural habitats and wildlife around her and painting what she could see, Maria Burns was never in any doubt about what she would do.
We chatted in the garden of her home near Wareham, in the “sanctuary” of her beautiful studio: “My father was a policeman. He joined the force at the age of 15 and was posted to Wareham when I was four: I get my strong work ethic from him.
Getting a ‘proper job’
“As children we went on lots of walks. We spent all our childhood on the beaches, looking in rock pools and developing an interest in nature. “I had a friend whose father was an ecologist and we made a little museum in his garage out of our collections of fossils and old bird’s nest. We used to charge the neighbours to come
and look! I was always drawing at school and would get told off for doodling all the time.”
Despite her father’s misgivings about her earning ability and the need for a ‘proper job’, she went on to train as a natural history illustrator at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. On leaving college, Maria worked as a graphic designer for Poole Tourism, which “gave me a good grounding”.
She subsequently set up Maria Burns Illustration & Design and now has 30 years of freelance illustration and graphic design experience behind her.
From nature to Gromit
Rather than work in London (as most illustrators do), Maria is at home in the Purbecks, where the variety of coast and countryside provides her with everything she needs for inspiration: “It just feels right being here.” she says. Maria’s talent and versatility enable her to be involved in a huge range of fascinating projects and her body of work incorporates a variety of styles.
As well as the more traditional watercolour natural history and historical illustrations, she ranges from decorative bold images using mixed media collage techniques to, more recently, digitally produced artwork.
In Bristol, the Wallace and Gromit Grand Appeal “Gromit Unleashed 2” Public Art Trail featured Maria as one of the official artists who decorated the Shaun the Sheep figures and other Gromit characters.
The Trail featured giant fibreglass sculptures which were positioned in high footfall and iconic locations around Bristol and the surrounding area.
Maria’s ‘Tropi-canis’ Gromit (above) , sponsored by the House of Fraser, raised £37,000 for Bristol Children’s
Hospital. The model was “filled with zingy colours, sweet fruits, agile flamingos, and a friendly toucan, to provide a dash of the Caribbean’!” There is also a T-shirt, which comes with a set of pens for children to colour him in “It was a wonderful project to be part of,” chuckled Maria, “But it began to get out of control when I had endless animals delivered to the house. The worst part was when my husband came home
from work to find, in the lounge, two life-size rhinos that I was painting for Paignton Zoo and two Aardman animation ducks in the kitchen! I didn’t have my own space at the time so the animals had to be in the house. At that point my husband decided to build my studio. He thought it was the end of the animals – but
I had to tell him that I’d also agreed to do an elephant, anotter, a pig and a giant bear …
These have been lovely projects to be part of because so much money has been raised for charity and wildlife causes.”
Boards and books
Maria has ‘found her niche’ by combining all her interests, skills and knowledge to specialise in producing
natural history and interpretation boards sited on footpaths, nature reserves and historical sites. Working with the Broadstone Neighbourhood Forum to create five large interpretation boards detailing the history and natural history of Broadstone Village was a year- long project and involved a huge amount of research before she could start the design and illustration.
There are now interpretation boards at various locations in Dorset including Holton Heath Station and the Wareham Walls Trail – it gives Maria great pleasure to walk past and see visitors reading the information.
One of my own favourite summer walks is along the Priest’s Way from Worth Matravers to Swanage
(included in the BV’s stunning coastal walk featured in the January issue here). Little did I know that it was Maria who had designed the waymarkers, leaflets and information boards along the route.
A regular contract involves painting stunning illustrations in The English Garden magazine for garden landscaper and writer Non Morris’s monthly column; and an exciting current project in Maria’s busy timetable is to design dust jackets and illustrations for successful novelist Rachel McLean, whose six books in the Dorset Crime series include The Corfe Castle Murders and The Fossil Beach Murders.
Maria feels that her already- wide-ranging skills are constantly adapting and changing; she is always learning.
Where to find Maria’s work
Purbeck Arts Week (28th May – 12th June) will involve a joint exhibition at Rollington Barn. Maria’s work can also be found at Purbeck Artisan Yard, Wareham. A visit to her Etsy shop gives an idea of what will be on show – you can purchase Maria’s most popular designs on prints, illustrated maps, greetings cards, cushion covers and even a mindfulness book – ‘Unclouding – Clearing the Way to a Brighter Outlook’ – something we can all hope for at the moment.
Interview by Edwina Baines firstname.lastname@example.org