How mum Lorna conquered creative block

Little mice licking ice-cream, frogs dribbling footballs, parachuting dogs dropping from the sky . . . they're the tangible result of persistence and faith.

Steven Russell

Little mice licking ice-cream, frogs dribbling footballs, parachuting dogs dropping from the sky . . . they're the tangible result of persistence and faith. Lorna Maxwell tells Steven Russell how she overcame 'artists' block' to produce her first children's picture-book

STUCK on mirrors, doors and pillars in Lorna Maxwell's home are strips of card with sums like “6 x 4 = 24” written on them - aides to help her children commit their times-tables to memory. Stuck on the walls of her light and airy studio are strips of card bearing such maxims as “Happy thoughts equal happy body” and “Focus on what you want, not what you don't want” - philosophical nuggets to remind mum of positive thinking. For shoving unhelpful thoughts into a mental suitcase and banishing them to the corner of a virtual attic really works - or has in Lorna's case. After falling pregnant, she barely drew a picture for aeons, convincing herself she was a hopeless artist and enduring creative inertia for five or six years.

Happily, a school reunion provided some momentum, which was further spun by a wise lady from Essex, and the creativity started flowing again.

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It has poured itself into Lorna's first published picture-book - The Amazing ABC Adventure - which is aimed at youngsters aged between three and seven and blends busy and quirky illustrations with novel description: “Indian (with an Ipod) and identical Inuits ice-skating on the ice” or a nurse with a large needle “making the naked man very nervous and nauseous”.

On each page, too, is a wiggly worm on an ongoing search for love. (Electrical leads, ropes and even octopi tentacles had better brace themselves!)

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“I could never do 'A is for apple!' That's just not me,” she laughs. “I draw lots of stuff!”

Lorna reckons her style is raw and na�ve compared to the bright and brash nature of many children's books, but she's not losing any sleep over it. Frankly, it's been triumph enough to begin drawing again and produce something she's happy with. The fact it had sold a few hundred copies not long after release is simply the icing on the cake. “I have no expectations, and I have got so much further than I ever thought, so it's a huge joy. The book is really a journey of such fun for me - not because I've got a big ego and want to take over the world, but because what you really want at the end of the day is for someone to have enjoyed what you've enjoyed.”

Born in 1968, Lorna lived in London until the age of five. Then came a move to the Cotswolds, to live alongside her grandfather. Raoul Millais was a well-known artist, whose own grandfather was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, no less.

Lorna counts herself incredibly lucky to have enjoyed a bucolic upbringing among wildlife and tumbling hills. “Pony, fields stretching as far as the eye can see . . . parents used to say 'Out you go; see you later.' So different now, isn't it?” She and her twin brother were “as thick as thieves” and used to play Tarzan and Jane in the great outdoors.

Her grandfather was “a marvellous man. He never had a bad word about anyone; always joking and laughing. Such a gent.” He was also rooted in rural life - often sketching little hedgehogs and moles. “He used to do these little drawings for me and I'd do them back for him. I've been drawing animals as long as I can remember.”

Grandfather's influence stretched over many years. Lorna recalls getting involved later with Art for Youth in London - an annual exhibition that enabled young artists to show their work and gave enthusiasts the chance to buy from contemporary artists at the start of their careers. A slice of the sale price went towards youth-work.

Her first piece took a long time to complete and Raoul had seen her toiling away. “It was the story of the tortoise and the hare in cartoon-like segments. It was in the days when rollerblades were just coming in, and the last scene is the tortoise going past the hare on rollerblades.” When it went on show, grandfather called the gallery and arranged to buy it if it wasn't snapped up by someone else.

“I had no idea,” she says today. “I didn't know for 10 years or something. When he died (in 1999) I went into his dressing room and there it was on the wall. It was him just trying to keep me positive and encouraging me. He was amazing.”

Her drawings are dominated by anthropomorphic animals. “If you wanted me to sit down and draw a portrait of your child, a proper one, I couldn't do that!” A massive childhood influence was author and illustrator Richard Scarry, who produced countless books featuring animals with human characteristics.

Lorna can even recall a picture of a hippo in a pink tutu on a cupboard back home in London, “with big teeth, big eyelashes and a big smile. I must have been influenced by her!”

Then there was Lorna's father's mother, a skilled draughtswoman who during the war would decorate her photograph albums with watercolours and sketches.

At prep school, in Gloucestershire, Lorna took art A-level. “They used to say to me 'You ought to do book illustration,' but in those days I didn't have much confidence and didn't really believe in myself, and so I would brush it off and not really listen.

“I left that school being told I should be a Norland nanny. But I didn't do that, obviously. It wasn't for me.” Norland's a long-established Bath college that trains people to care for children. It has to be said that the uniforms and hats make the students look a bit Mary Poppins-ish . . . “There's actually one on my 'N' page, in her brown outfit!”

After working as a secretary for a couple of years, Lorna joined a London-based specialist interior decorator. She painted special effects and murals in clients' homes in the UK and abroad - places such as Kuwait and Italy - and found it hugely satisfying.

Around the same time she was also drawing her quirky little animal characters and selling them as prints.

Lorna met husband-to-be Robert at a wedding and they got married 10 years ago. When children Tashy and Maxi were about two years and six months old (they're now approaching 10 and eight) the family swapped the capital for the rural beauty of a spot near the Stour. Home is a glorious pile metres the Essex side of the county boundary, not far from Colchester. It's handily placed for Robert, who works in insurance, to commute to Liverpool Street, and one of Lorna's brothers lives nearby.

She'd pretty much stopped the mural projects and other artwork after becoming a mother.

“After I had my kids, I didn't so much lose confidence, but you know when people talk about writers' block? Well, I had a block. I went to an old schoolgirls' reunion and my friends said 'How's your drawing? Are you doing any?' And I said (in a defeated monotone) 'I can't do it . . . I've got a block . . . I'm not inspired.' I kept hearing myself repeating this story. I got so bored with it.

“One of the girls I saw at the reunion was a yoga teacher and she had a lot of self-esteem and confidence. I was very inspired by her.

“The moment I decided I was fed up of hearing myself saying 'I can't do it anymore', my path led me to doing this course run by a lady called Maggie Dewis, who is a kinesiologist in Fordham. She teaches you something called 'the three principles', which is by Sydney Banks (a philosopher and author) and gives you a good understanding of why your thoughts affect you. I suddenly realised that a lot of my stress I was creating myself, by how I was thinking about things.

“It was a huge awakening moment for me, that. I had a list as long as my arm: I'm not a professional; I haven't been to art school; I can't draw humans; I can't do this, I can't do that; I can't do backgrounds . . . I had loads of reasons why I couldn't possibly do something.

“So I thought 'OK, I'm going to put them all over there and not listen to them.' And the moment I did that, it just started flowing through. Suddenly it didn't matter what the outcome would be - there was no expectation, if you like.”

With the clearance of an outbuilding that had become something of a dumping ground, a graveyard for unwanted furniture, she had an attractive studio and was able to start creating once more.

Then came a slice of good fortune when, at Lorna's mother's house, author and publisher Susan Hill saw some of Lorna's artwork and liked it. The idea was born of a new ABC book.

“Bless her; she didn't realise how long it takes me to do these things,” laughs the artist. “After three months I was still doing preliminary drawings for page A!

“The book took me about two years. I kept on redoing pages, being a bit of a perfectionist; and she said 'I'm terribly sorry; I can't do it now because of the credit crunch. No-one's buying children's books.' I then spent another six or eight months sending it off to all the publishing houses, but never losing faith it would happen.

“They kept coming back. 'Never mind . . . next one.'” Happily, after some months, Susan Hill's Long Barn Books imprint then found itself in a position to publish.

Once she'd started drawing again, Lorna had gone for it big-time. “My social life became non-existent. I even did it after supper. I'd say to my husband 'Honey, hope you don't mind; I'm going to the studio for two hours.' Bless him, he never complained - not even about the occasional burnt dinner - and sometimes I'd be there until one o'clock in the morning.

“Because I've never been trained, and it's so detailed, it just took hours and hours, and if I got it wrong I'd have to do it again. But it didn't matter; it was such a pleasure to do, and I'm hoping that's what comes across when people read it.”

The Amazing ABC Adventure is �6.99. ISBN 978 1 902421 50 6

WITH one book out - finally! - Lorna Maxwell's thoughts turn to the future. “There's another one in me that I really want to get out, but it's very different.” Give us a clue . . . “No! Someone might steal my idea!” Oh go on . . .

“It's educating again, but it's more along the lines of what you and I have been talking about: fame and fortune is not important. Having a bit of joy in your life, that's all that is essential. It's a message I learned through my course. (The one with Maggie Dewis.) It did open up a whole new world for me.

“It wasn't so much about positive thinking, because, in fact, if you say to someone who's really miserable 'You must stop thinking that, and think “I am wonderful, I am beautiful”,' you can't suddenly change, can you? That creates more of a stressful situation than before, I would imagine.

“It's more about having an understanding that your thoughts are only words that are going through your head. You and your thoughts are separate; you're not the same. And once you have that awareness, and can hear your thoughts better, you can then choose the ones you're going to take on board: 'There's no need to think that. Let's put that thought over there. I used to think that as a child; I don't need to think that now - I'm 20 years older,' for example.

“It's incredibly liberating. All you need to know are that 'Thoughts are just words and it's up to me if I take them on or not.' I realised I was the only one holding myself back. No-one else was.

“I had a French teacher who told me I was useless when I was about nine, but that was years ago - and only in her thinking. Doesn't mean I'm useless today! If you think you're useless, your life path is then carved out for you. You just think 'I can't do anything . . .'

“So I think if I were to do anything else (as in a book) it would be along those lines, because I look at kids and they come back from school - not only mine but other people's children - distraught: 'They don't like me; no-one cares about me' . . . . negative, negative, negative. 'Hello! You are an amazing human being!' That's what you have to know!”

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