ANIMALS feature hugely in the life of Dorset artist Sam Cannon, so it’s not surprising they should become the central focus of her art.
Her daily routine starts with a trip round the field clearing up horse poo and checking on her beautiful piebald cob, now 28 and needing feeding every four hours to keep his weight on.
“I do this with my mum and generally by the time we’ve finished we’ve put the world to rights, got out our frustrations with the males in the family and fully woken up,” Sam told readers in one of the short newsletters she started producing last year.
But it’s not only horses that Sam cares about. Badgers and foxes feature prominently in her paintings, along with birds, bumblebees and mice – well, all kinds of wildlife, really.
Living in the Marshwood Vale, close to Lyme Regis in Dorset, Sam is self-deprecating about her work, despite its popularity.
“I’ve always thought of myself as just being a mum who also paints in between all the other things life throws at me,” she says.
She had always loved drawing, encouraged by her grandad, but after A levels enrolled on a course at Reading University in typography and graphic communication.
“It’s an amazing course, the only university course like it in the country,” she explains. Four years on and she knew all about typographic design, the history of printing and typography, and had been on trips to Rome, Florence, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany – but drawing wasn’t a part of the course.
Having worked in a variety of office jobs, including the family business, she spent a couple of years trying to be an artist back in the 90s, specialising in horse-racing pictures, but struggled to make a living, and returned to office work.
But in 2010 when Sam and her parents moved to Dorset she decided to to give art another go. After a couple of years of painting various subjects without success, she decided to incorporate some lettering into her work.
“And as it turns out, it’s the lettering that turned things around for me,” she recalls. “It was only when I started combining lettering with paintings that things started to change. And my pictures with words are nearly always my most popular ones.”
Not that everyone likes this style – and in her posts on Instagram and Facebook, Sam has spoken of the hurt that a chance remark or email can cause.
“I know that some people hate that I combine them – lots have told me so and it is disheartening. But I can’t please everyone,” she says.
“I love painting and I really enjoy painting letters. Planning them out, changing shapes. I spent four years studying letterforms: I’m grateful I get to use them in this way.”
And it’s since then that things have got busier and busier for Sam. At last she is a full-time artist, living near the sea close to Lyme Regis, painting and drawing pictures and turning them into greetings cards, prints and calendars to sell online or through shops and galleries throughout the UK.
Her son is soon off to university and she’s looking forward to learning about how best she can continue to transform the eight acres where they live.
“We’ve been gradually learning about this amazing place where we are located. We’ve stopped taking hay from the field and year on year, seen the orchids flourish,” she says. “The wild flowers are growing back thicker year on year (yarrow, bird’s-foot trefoil, fleabane, honeysuckle, vetch, meadowsweet etc).
“The butterflies and solitary bees are increasing in numbers. We are only cutting the hedges every three years and then sparingly (and in places where the horses eat them, not at all). We’ve introduced red mason bees and seen terrific harvests of fruit on our trees. And apples are left on the ground in abundance for the birds to feed on over winter.
“Bird numbers have really increased too. More blackbirds and thrushes. More of the birds that love the thick hedgerows and dive down into our wild flower meadow to eat the grasshoppers and beetles that are thriving there. Eight acres isn’t a lot but we’ve seen real change. And it inspires my work every day.”
Sam’s time is spent juggling various priorities: running the business, painting new work, nurturing the beautiful place where she lives, and of course, caring for Dylan. “Though not necessarily in that order,” she says.
Part of the steep learning curve has been learning when to say “no” to commissions, exhibitions or other commitments which are simply too much to handle without taking on staff or becoming a much bigger business.
“It doesn’t get any easier to say but if people are kind and understanding, they get it,” she says.
Her subject matter has developed too. “When I first started these lettering pictures it was all about the local Dorset locations. But now, more and more, it’s about nature. I love animals and I’ve tried really hard to get better at watercolour painting and learn new things all the time.”
It would come as no surprise to those who know her that spotting a young seagull entangled in netting above a Bridport shop would end in an avian rescue mission that involved long days of two-hourly feeds, bandages and pecked arms and legs.
But a few weeks later the juvenile was ready to be socialised with other rescued gulls before being released.
Says Sam: “On our way back from taking him to the very kind chap who does this work, we then found a dog lost on the roads too. The whole trip (including reuniting the elderly dog with its owner) took just over five and a half hours. This is why I struggle to get things done!”