#BrightonArtists – Mia Underwood
Here at Bigman our passion for art is not just limited to animation and CGI. We are based in the heart of Brighton’s creative hub and are surrounded by inspiring artists. We wanted to celebrate this and launch a new series on our blog, #BrightonArtists, sharing with you some of our favourite local artists that we would love to collaborate with!
We’re starting our feature off with a bang and would like to introduce you to the talented Mia Underwood, local artist, author and creative mother. Mia creates work in a diverse range of styles and mediums, from unique needle felted pieces to spray painted murals. Her work can be spotted at The Specky Wren, and in independent boutiques and cafes throughout Brighton. She is inspired by her creative family and Danish folk art roots.
One of our favourite styles of yours is needle felting, please could you tell us how your felted friends series came about?
I was curating an artist open house in Brighton called Into The Woods in 2010. I had some of my needle felted animals for sale including a scene of dogs playing poker, which was used for a window display for a boutique in Brighton called Florentin. An editor from Making magazine had seen my work at my open house and wanted me to create a step-by-step tutorial “How to Make a Needle Felted Sparrow”. Then, a few months later after the issue came out, CICO Books saw the article and got in contact with me, asking if I would like to do a “How to make” needle felted animals book with them. I immediately said yes (even though I was heavily pregnant and my due date was in two weeks). Sure enough after a lot of sweat, blood and tears I completed the book three months later with 35 different animal tutorials. Phew!
I really enjoyed making this book, it was a big challenge and a big change to sitting in an office doing graphics for e-learning companies. It was incredibly stressful with a newborn baby with colic but it is incredible what mums can do! Looking at the creatures I had created I felt they would make a great children’s picture book, the way they are pictured in scenes, what is their story. When my book was launched in Waterstones later that year, Allison Green Book’s Art Director, Zoe Tucker, approached me and said that she thought my characters would make an amazing children’s picture book… which is my ultimate dream. A few years later, that is what I am currently working on with two stories I have written myself. I am off to Bologna Children’s Book Fair this April to approach publishers with my stories. When I get back from my trip I will upload some of my illustrations to my website, keeping it a secret for now.
A lot of your work focuses on animals, what is it about them that inspires you?
I have loved painting birds for many years, which stems from my childhood sitting on my Danish grandparent’s porch watching many blue tits, sparrows, ducks and blackbirds in their wonderful garden. Happy memories. Although my recent woodland animal theme comes from my artist open house Into The Woods, where I focus on a different woodland animal each year. I designed and illustrated all the posters, flyers and website myself. I collected over twenty different artists from around Sussex and a few from London – all the work was under the same theme – when you saw the work together, it created a magical experience, sounds a bit cheesy but the atmosphere really was fantastic. I had a big garden at the time which I transformed into a farmers market with my mum selling her delicious cakes and savouries and a bell tent at the back used for workshops. We also had a wood whittler carving axe handles and spoons, who, as a forestry school teacher, demonstrated a few skills like how to make a fire. It was a great atmosphere with hay bales to sit on and chickens roaming around. I hope to put on another Into The Woods event on soon when I can find the right venue in Brighton, if anyone has a special venue in mind please do get in contact.
We loved your David Bowie tribute piece, what was your favourite thing that he did and why?
Thank you, the Ziggy Owl was commissioned by The Specky Wren opticians in Brighton for their advertising campaign. They asked for a surreal owl and so I decided to do a tribute to David Bowie as he had recently passed away, it was the perfect way for me to grieve. The Specky Wren decided that the owl didn’t need glasses after all once I showed them my sketch, they loved it. I would say my most favourite thing David Bowie did for me is the way he was so good at surprising people. Creating such striking characters that blew your mind using weird and wonderful theatrical costumes combined with witty and sometimes risky lyrics, he created something powerful, something special and something unique. One of my favourite videos is Ashes To Ashes – I love all of David Bowie’s theatrical costumes. His hat in this video inspired my logo.
David was my dad’s life-long friend, and he has so many unbelievable and amazing stories to tell, there is a great article about my dad that appeared in the Guardian recently to give you an idea: George Underwood: the artist who led Bowie to make music. David once said to me when I was a teenager that I am great at writing imaginative stories – and, he encouraged me to write. Together with the whole family we used to play fun writing games like consequences and the dictionary game. He was such fun. His words have really stuck in my head recently, and has given me the confidence to persevere with my own stories. To find the strength from within and be confident with who I am and create my own imaginative stories and characters, staying true to myself.
Do you have any plans to produce stop motion animation in the future? Your articulated figurines are just screaming out to be animated!
I would love to animate my characters, my brother Tas Underwood is a talented cameraman/video editor. Perhaps we will do a collaboration with you at Bigman?
Does your art and creativity influence your parenting?
Yes, I always love making things with my kids, but that is just what comes to me naturally I suppose and I enjoy doing it. And, yes we make a great big mess but that is part of the process with kids. We always create things in the kitchen where it is easier to clean up afterwards. I keep a cupboard full of craft materials just like my Danish grandmother did. The recycling box is usually a good source for cardboard or plastic shapes to make robots, unicorns… whatever my kids decide they want to make, or it might even be something for their homework. I have written a few craft blogs for a lovely children’s clothes company called The Wee Department Store, where you can find a few simple tutorials that I like to do with the kids.
Unlike a lot of illustrators you have resisted the temptation to be typecast in a certain working style, has this been a conscious choice?
Well that has happened naturally. I absolutely love trying out new techniques and materials. I think it is good for the creative mind to try something new rather than doing the same thing all the time. I really enjoy the beginning phase of a new project, the creative process you go through thinking up ideas, exploring different mediums and techniques. I love a challenge! I have had some unusual commissions, but I have always stayed true to who I am. The outcome is still Mia Underwood.
Why do you think that traditional crafts are still so popular and versatile today?
Handmade is never going to go out of fashion, you just cannot replicate it in machine made products. I am constantly inspired and blown away by the talent I see day-to-day on Instagram and Pinterest. For me it is not so much the finished product but the process that I go through, from creating the idea of what I want to make to sourcing the right materials to creating the piece, I enjoy learning along the way and this handmade process leaves a unique story.
Are there any new styles you would like to try?
I am trying a new style right now with the 3D scenes for my children’s picture books, similar to my book My Felted Friends, with characters that have wire armatures so that they can be repositioned which would work well for animations. Watch this space!
What was it like working with Req (Brighton’s very own spray-paint impressionist)?
Great fun! He is such a nice guy and super talented. I contacted Req for a bit of help after I was asked to do an Into The Woods style piece on a massive wall at Downs Infants School in Brighton. Req is keen to give girls spray painting lessons as he thinks it is the girls turn now as there are too much negative and aggressive images about. He showed me how he uses spray paints like oil paints, building up transparent layers that look blurred up close, then if you step back a bit, the figure or animal is beautifully shaded with so much detail. It is wonderful to watch a true master at work.
You come from a very creative family, could you tell us more about them?
My mum and dad are both creative in different ways. My dad, George Underwood, is a fine artist who has had several paintings accepted in the Royal Academy Summer Show. For many years he was a commercial illustrator with FOLIO as his agent. He has painted hundreds of book covers, adverts for billboards and magazines. Before this he designed some of the most famous record sleeve covers including: David Bowie, Marc Bolan, The Fixx, Gentle Giant…the list goes on and on.
My mum, Birgit Underwood is Danish, a self taught chef, she had her own company called Twenty-Two doing corporate catering for high brow clients, such as The Danish Embassy and The BBC. She now concentrates on making a traditional Scandinavian almond cake/biscuit called Kransekage. In my mum’s spare time she loves to garden, do pottery and knit beautiful jumpers for my kids and socks for the adults. My mum has an art for putting things together that look pleasing to the eye and she is a real perfectionist, which I try to live up to. I am definitely a mixture of my mum and dad.
How has your family’s nordic heritage influenced you? We sense a lovely folk art feeling in your work.
My Danish grandmother, Lilly Graversen, was a very special person to me. She always encouraged me with my artwork, and gave me fun projects to create as a kid whenever we visited. It can be a pleasurable and therapeutic thing to do together as a family and it helped build my confidence and self esteem. There is an appreciation with handmade crafts in Scandinavian countries that you don’t get so much over here. There is a particular boutique called Damhuset I used to love to visit in Denmark which has stunning, quirky handmade clothes! The sort of clothes I dreamed of and this has inspired my Into The Woods characters. They also have ceramics, sculpture and functional things for the home all handmade by different artists set in a beautiful old building by a stream. Every trip I would return to the UK bursting at the seams with new ideas. I always have a sketchbook on me, and have ever since I was little. It is like a visual diary but also I want to make sure I get my idea down on paper when it strikes to make sure it doesn’t fly away.
Who has been your greatest influence as an artist?
My dad made the biggest impression on me when I was young, he taught me how to draw and paint. He continues to inspire me today with his detailed oil paintings of imaginative people, warriors and landscapes. You begin to question who are these people? What is their story? Is it a man or a woman? But it is not only the subject matter I find inspiring but the sheer scale of the paintings and illustrations that he has achieved in the last 50 years, simply mind blowing. The amount of painstaking detail he puts into each piece is phenomenal, whether it is the patterns on the metal of a warrior’s helmet or the iris of an eye. The lighting on these imaginative figures brings them all to life, very clever. He also has the most amazing art book collection on hundreds of different artists from abstract to surreal. Before the internet it was my main source of inspiration looking through these books and going to art exhibitions around London. My particular favourites as a teenager were; Max Ernst, Hieronymus Bosch and Paul Klee. I would also say my mum and my grandmother have influenced the style and confidence of my artwork. I am always inspired by Scandinavian art, design and handmade crafts, it is where my heart is. My favourite place to draw and paint was always in the kitchen while my mum/grandmother were cooking, it was so comforting and cosy.
We love Mia’s work and are extremely excited to see her unique style develop further. Traditional 3D techniques like needle felting lend themselves perfectly to animation and could be great way to develop bespoke branding and create a memorable campaign (check out our 8 Ways to Brand Animation blog post). We look forward to one day collaborating with Mia and experimenting with another groundbreaking blend of digital CGI and traditional mediums.