Looking back, it seems written in the stars that UK-based artist and illustrator Lee May Foster-Wilson would grow up to do something creative. “I kind of pigeonholed myself quite early on at school,” she says, remembering how art heavily influenced her course selections. “I chose geography because I could color in the maps.” Post-primary school, Lee went all in on her passion, exploring photography and drama before studying fine art painting at Brighton University. “It was inevitable, really,” she explains. “There was no other way out.”
Today, Lee’s artistic endeavours have found a loyal following of fans around the world, bolstered by her imagination-fueled Instagram feed, a recent book release, and the limited-edition collections she unveils every few months on Etsy. From enamel pins that declare “Magic is real” to scarves adorned with lush florals (printed by hand in her off-the-grid studio), Lee’s line, Bonbi Forest, includes work across several different mediums, all boasting her signature whimsical illustrations. “I like working on new things,” she says. “I’m constantly drawing and thinking up ideas. I can’t help it.”
The shapes and colors of nature are such a great source of inspiration. I live in a really rural area in Cornwall, surrounded by fields and sheep. I’ve mostly always lived in a rural place, and even when I lived in a city, I was always looking for the nature there. I’m inspired by song lyrics, books I’m reading, and things my children see when we’re out and about. Their little imaginations are such a good source of inspiration—they make up stories about twigs and things.
How do you keep track of the things that inspire you?
I take pictures with my phone. I have a folder that’s called “Inspiration” and it’s full of all sorts of random stuff like tiles, moldy walls, loads and loads of flowers, leaf shapes, and animals. We recently went to Australia on holiday and while my poor family was trying to walk around parks and things I just kept stopping to take pictures. I also sketch a lot.
What does your creative process look like?
Each collection starts with a vague idea: maybe a color palette I‘ve seen or the corner of a painting that I find really beautiful. Then I’ll get on Pinterest, pin lots of things that have that same theme, and make a mood board. From there, I’ll do a mood board analysis where I’ll look at all the colors, shapes, patterns, and imagery, and then start drawing.
Quite often, I’ll have that vague theme and it will completely change by the time the collection’s done. Things just kind of work out. The last part is deciding what I want to make—I’ll need to do a hand-painted scarf, pins, jewelry, a card, and a print for the collection’s sake, so I’ll work the drawings into designs for those pieces.
Yes, I like exploring different materials. In pin design or screenprinting, you have limited colors to work with so they kind of inform each other, whereas with the drawings I can really go for it. There are lots of different things to make and do. I’m not very good at sticking with one thing. I know a lot of people who say, “Well, I make this,” and I really admire them because I’d love to be that focused.
What are some of your most popular items?
It all varies, really. I’ve got quite a wide customer base. Some people collect the cards, and if I release a new card, they’ll buy them all. Other people have everything I’ve ever made. Even one or two people having a bit of everything makes me feel really happy that my work is inspiring people like that.
That came off the back of one of the limited-edition collections I did, which was based around creatures of the night. I really wanted to do something with a dark background and foliage; originally, it was going to be lots of little creatures that come out at night, like foxes and badgers and hedgehogs, but the moth is the one that stuck. The pin sold out quickly, which really surprised me. So many people got in touch and said, “Please make more moth things! I really like the moths, and I really need this pin!”
I love how intricate and detailed the pin is. It’s beautiful.
Thank you. I’m not very good at minimalism, I have to say.
Where do you work?
At the moment, I have two places where I work. I’ve got my studio, which is basically a converted shed in an old stone building where I keep my stock, do my screenprinting, and pack orders. It’s nice because the studio doesn’t have any internet, so I can go out there and not be distracted at all. But I’ve also got a desk in my house, which has a big window next to it. That’s where I do all my drawing, because it’s warmer than my studio.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned since you started your business?
Since I’ve had children, I’ve learned that time is quite precious. I don’t have as much time to work anymore, and I wasted a lot of time when I was younger just doing research—or pretending to research—and not getting much done. I used to spend so much time procrastinating, but now I just start and see where it goes, especially with my drawing. Just make a mess, and see what gems you can find inside. That’s my approach.
Do you ever get into a creative rut? What do you do when that happens?
Yes—I had one recently, actually. I was trying to come up with my next collection, and I had a vague idea but it wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t really see my way through it, so I left it to one side for a couple of weeks and did something else. I do a lot of classes, especially with illustration, where I pay to take a course and get briefs. Under those circumstances, you’re constantly drawing new things, so I did some of that and just drew for myself. When I came back to the collection, I could see a new way into it.
In the past when I’d get into a creative rut, I’d look online and keep scrolling and scrolling and getting intimidated that what I was eventually going to create wouldn’t be up to scratch. I’ve learned not to do that now.
Can you tell me the story behind the name of your shop, Bonbi Forest?
‘Forest’ is an anagram of one of my names, Foster, which my dad figured out ages ago. When he told me, I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant! I think I can use that.” Woodland animals were a big deal in the handmade community when I started, but I couldn’t just call it Forest because that was too ubiquitous.
I was working at a call center at the time, and I used to draw these little birds that said “bonjour” in a little speech bubble, so I said to myself, “Ooh, ‘Bonjour Bird,’ how can I work with that?” I was twenty-something at the time, and I thought when I was older, Bonjour Bird might be a bit too twee. So I shortened Bonjour Bird into Bonbi, and added Forest. I liked how it sounded—it could be a place, a person, or a designer.
You started selling on Etsy in 2009. Did you ever think that your shop would grow this big?
No! I didn’t really have any expectations when I joined Etsy. I just put some things on the site to see how they would go, really. This platform has been such a big part of my business—actually, it’s the biggest part of my business! I know a lot of people who buy stuff through Etsy and follow me on Instagram. They get in touch there and say, “I just bought this from you,” which is really lovely to hear.
What are some of your goals for the future?
I want to carry on making the limited-edition pieces, grow my illustration practice, and take on more commissions. Last year, I wrote a book called Creative Marker Art and Beyond, which was really great. I’d love to do another one—I’m actually pitching some ideas at the moment. Fingers crossed!