It’s Grim Up North: Sarah Cowan

How could we ever decipher whether it’s Grim northward or not if we didn’t interrogate the owl loving, mushroom hunting and mug brandishing lady of the lakes? 

Living and working in the Lake District, in the ever comically named town of Cockermouth, this previous city dweller packed in public transport, trendy burger shops and continental Christmas markets for hills, rain and quiet evenings. As a freelance designer and illustrator in a modern age, you can truly work from anywhere—assuming that ‘anywhere’ has a wifi connection and ample electricity for thirsty shiny light boxes known as Macintosh Computers.

Even though my current adoptive home of Carlisle isn’t many more miles north than Cockermouth (HA!) and barely clings at it’s city status when comparing it to other northern powerhouses, I found the idea of a creative working amidst the hills totally bizarre and somewhat crazed. It’s a weighing game between quality of life and quality of clients; which by the look of Sarah’s work, she seems to be guiding that fine balance quite well.

With a basket full of foraged goods and a British wildlife observers book in our coat pockets, we squelch down the tree lined muddy track to the nucleus of Sarah’s creative reasoning. Can you smell scent of animal droppings and a post-city lifestyle? Smells great doesn’t it?

Sarah Cowan

Who are you, where do you come from and where do you live?
I’m Sarah Cowan, designer, illustrator, owl enthusiast. I was living and working in Manchester for the past 5 years but returned back to the rolling fells of the Lake District last year.

Who or what are your biggest influences?
I think nature has always been my biggest influence. I started drawing as soon as I could fit a pen into my grubby little baby fist, and my favourite thing to draw was animals. If I didn’t feel like drawing animals, I’d make some up instead (the terrifying evidence of which is shut away in random drawers in my parents’ house).

There is a lot of inspiration to tap into when you’re out for a walk, or even just staring at a tree. Colour palettes, patterns, forms and shapes are all there to harness if we take the time to stop and look.

What items that you work with, could you not work without?
Pencil and rubber, and a computer helps too. Even when I work on something digital I always start with pencil and paper. The rubber’s worth a mention because I always find the ones on mechanical pencils wear down too rapidly. It’s taken me years to find the best one—one that doesn’t rip your paper or make weird smears, or smells weird. It’s a Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser by the way. Beware, the link is strictly NSFW.

Being that London is the centre of British design, why here?
Design happens regardless of where its ‘centre‘ is.

I tend to look at design based on how it functions and looks rather than where it’s from, and I’ve seen amazing design work coming from all around the world. With the power of the internet we have more inspiration, tools and resources at our fingertips than ever before, regardless of where we’re based. There are exciting things happening in design in other places outside London, in and out of cities. Manchester for one is a thriving creative hub with an amazing community and its people rock, it’s the reason I moved there after university and why I still consider it my second home.

If I was given the option to move to London, I would still rather be among the lakes, forests and fells of the countryside. It’s a place that fuels creativity through its landscape and nature. I’m also too much of a country bumpkin to survive in a city the size of London. As much as I enjoy visiting it, the horror stories alone about rentable accommodation from my friends there are enough to put me off. I think I’ll stick to my little cottage in Cumbria. Good choice.

What is the worst part of being away from London?
There’s a downside to being away from London?
No, but really, I see more and more designers opting for a less stressful and creative life outside of the city. There’s really no worse part once you’ve built your contacts and client base.

Do you feel The North lacks culture and/or support for design?
It depends how you define culture. 
Is there a cronut bakery or theatre on every street corner? No.
Are there creative people doing an array of amazing things? Heck yes!

I think the North lacks support in a lot of things as well as design and the creative sector, but the people have a spirit all of their own.

What (design) work would you never do?
Work that would contradict my own values. I realise this a privilege, as not everyone can afford to turn down paid work in this way, but stick to your guns where you can!

Where does the north begin (or end)?
There was a time when I considered only Cumbria and Northumbria ‘The North’, as they’re the only two counties that literally touch the Scottish border. But then I met people from places like Yorkshire and Lancashire who insisted that they too were ‘The North’. This confused me initially, as compared to Cumbria, they were technically “The South” or “The Midlands” at most (this caused a great deal of anger when I told them this).

I then realised that “The North” is in relation to London – that people who are north of London consider themselves Northern. I’ve since changed my narrow-minded view and now refer to anyone outside of London as Northern, including my friend from Dorset. Dorset and Cornwall are honorary Northerners since it’s mostly countryside there (i.e. the natural habitat of the Northerner).

How do you have your tea? (Brand, sugar, strength, milk?)
The closer to He-Man’s skin tone the better. The first thing I do in the morning is boil the kettle and leave the tea to brew while I get on with my morning routine. I’ve been known to leave tea brewing for at least 10 or 20 minutes.

What is the name for this?

I seem to be one of the few people that doesn’t pop a vein when this debate rears its head. I call it a variety of names, I think it’s the filling that dictates which. Bun, bap, teacake, roll are all fair game. The one I couldn’t get my head around was “barm” when I was living in Manchester. When someone asked me to get them a “chip barm”, I thought they said “barn” because they were hungry enough to eat a barn full of chips.

Wouldn’t that be a glorious thing to behold? Yes, a thing of obese glory.

If you have liked what you’ve seen, please see my previous bout in interrogating people where I quizzed the ever lovely Lydia Leith and the deadly trendy Gary Bovill.