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August 24 2019
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Laura Carlin at work.

Ten years ago, Laura Carlin was an award-winning illustrator, creating imaginary worlds of melancholic beauty for children’s books. Then boredom set in. “There’s an illusion that if you’re doing something creative, you’re inspired all the time,” says Carlin. So she tried her hand at ceramics, hand-painting tiles with exotic animals and conjuring up funny little figures that one could imagine living under mushrooms.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, Carlin began selling her wares as a means of earning extra income. Today, she is as in-demand for her ceramics as for her illustrations. With gallery representation in her native London, as well as in Hong Kong, she works on both picture books (King of the Sky and The Promise, for example) and private commissions. Unlike many illustrators, who now work on a computer, Carlin draws each image by hand to retain a sense of wistful naïveté. A children’s book, such as the forthcoming History of London or The Nightingale (Walker Books), can easily take her one year to finish. Equally rare for an illustrator, Carlin switches tools depending on the commission, toggling between materials such as watercolors, charcoal, and ink. “There’s a slight arrogance to it,” Carlin says. “When the project comes, I find that a medium tends to suit it more than another one. It keeps me guessing, so I don’t make predictable images.”

Carlin’s tile animal mural, available at the New Craftsmen, in London.

Although she has a three-year-old son, Carlin says that motherhood hasn’t had much effect on her influences. “I’ve always felt quite closely in contact with the child in me,” she says, citing venerable characters from children’s literature such as Little Tim, Brambly Hedge, and illustrator John Burningham as constant sources of inspiration. (Don’t expect any Paw Patrol in Carlin’s son’s repertoire.)

Instead, she says, her dream is for someone to come along and commission a “massive” mural for a public building. She recently completed an installation for the hip Bankside Hotel, in London, depicting elements of city life in the neighborhood, including a Louise Bourgeois-style spider sculpture and antique boats on the Thames. And a large-scale rendering of England’s history is currently on view at the Blackwell Arts & Crafts House. “It seemed enormous at the time, but now I want to go bigger,” Carlin says. “You get greedy, don’t you?” —Whitney Vargas

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