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Moving to Edinburgh made Northern Ireland artist Alison a name in world of publishing

Talented artist Alison Soye has enjoyed a spectacular 2017, the pinacle of which was securing her first book deal as an illustrator. Alison (24), from Waringstown, tells Stephanie Bell about her creative success and her fascinating childhood in Africa

What a difference a year has made to talented artist Alison Soye. This time last year Alison was contemplating her future after returning home for Christmas after two months as a charity volunteer in South Africa.

In January, in what she describes as "a leap of faith", she decided to move to Edinburgh to launch a career as a freelance illustrator.

Fast forward 12 months and, back home to spend Christmas with her family in Waringstown, she can't quite believe just how big a success 2017 has been.

Within months of making the move to Scotland, Alison has become a recognised name in publishing.

Offered her first book deal, she was thrilled to do the illustrations for Maggie's Mittens, which has been taking Scotland by storm.

Chosen as Waterstone's Scottish Children's Book of the Month, it was also selected by Scotland's The Herald newspaper as one of the 12 unmissable books for children and teens.

With her first book such a runaway success, Alison has just signed a contract for her second - Maggie's Monster - which is due out in June of next year.

The whirlwind start to her career also saw her being invited to be Artist in Residence at Stewart's Melville College, a top private school in Edinburgh. She enjoys painting a wide range of subjects including buildings, nature, animals, people and collections of little 'things'.

As well as her book this year, she has been busy with many projects such as logo and wedding designs, murals, editorial illustration and her very own "Favourite Things" prints - a signature creation which proved so popular this Christmas she has had to turn commissions down.

She says: "It has been pretty crazy. This year has been brilliant for me. I feel really fortunate that I haven't had to seek out work; it just seems to have come to me, which I know is unusual for an artist. I just hope to keep doing more of the same in the New Year."

Alison enjoyed an interesting childhood, living for several years in Malawi and Rwanda.

She is one of three children. Her brother Mark (21) is studying economics, while her sister Emma (26) studied English literature.

Before retiring, her dad Andy worked in overseas development with the charity CMSI, a Christian mission society, and the Presbyterian Church.

Her mum Debbie is a teacher in Kingspark Primary School in Lurgan.

She says her brother and sister both loved art at school and, since retiring, her dad has become an award-winning poet.

Alison went to Waringston Primary and attended secondary school at Banbridge Academy and in-between was home schooled by her mother in Africa, where she also attended an international school in her early teens.

She says: "We all love Africa. Mum and dad met in Kenya and when I was about seven we lived in Rwanda for a couple of years.

"It was very rural and we were home schooled by mum.

"Then from the age of 11 until 14 we lived in Malawi, where I went to an international school.

"I loved it. We were always outside and I was really gutted to have to leave.

"I have a lot of international friends as a result. It gives you a different perspective on life and it is what brought me back to South Africa for a couple of months last year."

Alison signed up with the global volunteering charity International Citizen Service, which is aimed at young people and sees volunteers from the UK work alongside volunteers from the region they are visiting.

ICS works with projects that have specifically requested help, with the emphasis placed on measures that combat poverty.

Alison spent three months working in a number of schools and at an HIV wellness clinic near Durban, where she was able to share her love of art with local children.

She says: "I was able to use my art during the trip to paint murals and walls at local clinics and community centres as well as document my experiences there through an illustrated diary.

"I loved being able to offer my creativity to these projects, and work alongside in-country volunteers to make lasting, positive impacts on the community we lived in."

With so many of her university friends in Scotland, Alison decided in January that she wanted to live in Edinburgh.

While studying for an art degree at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, she travelled often to Edinburgh to visit friends and fell in love with the city.

She says: "I knew it was where I wanted to live and this time last year I decided to take a leap of faith and move there, even though I had no idea what I would do.

"It was during my foundation year for my degree that I discovered illustration.

"I didn't know much about it before that and I was surprised by just how much you can do with it from print-making to photography, mixed media.

"After I graduated in 2015 I came home to Northern Ireland and did a few different kinds of illustration projects, mainly in local primary schools.

"After moving to Edinburgh I got some freelance projects, doing personalised illustrations for people and kids' murals."

It was while painting a mural in a local cafe that she got her big break.

The head of art at Stewart's Melville College was so impressed by her work that he put her in touch with a colleague who was writing her first children's book.

Alison explains: "I was asked to take a scene from the book and illustrate it and also work on developing Maggie's character. After I submitted it I signed the contract pretty quickly after that.

"I did the cover for the book first and then the rest of the illustrations over a six month period.

"The book is aimed at three-to seven-year-olds and is about a little girl called Maggie who refuses to wear her mittens.

"She and her mum travel around Scotland and everywhere they go Maggie tries to get rid of her mittens. The book features a lot of landmarks in Scotland.

"It was quite a whirlwind to work on and a great experience and I'm delighted that I will be doing the second book in January."

Private commissions have also kept Alison busy, in particular what she refers to as her "favourite things" prints, which have proved very popular.

This very personal gift is an illustrated collection of a list of up to 12 of the favourite things enjoyed by the person it is being created for.

Says Alison: "I've always loved doing little collections of things and I don't even know when I did the first one, but they just took off and people love them.

"It could be their favourite places, food, hobbies or whatever anyone wants. They are really popular as gifts. I think it is the personal aspect of the print that features your own unique collecting of things which in turn makes them unique.

"In fact, I had so many requests for them coming up to Christmas that I had to turn some down."

Alison works mainly with watercolours and Gouache paint to create her unusual prints and illustrations.

She describes her style as "relaxed and quite fun and free" and enjoys using a bit of artistic licence, which adds to the characteristic look of her work.

Networking and building her portfolio have been a big part of building her new business and she is reaching out to a growing audience through social media and Instagram in particular.

Outside growing her business she relaxes by running and is currently training for the Edinburgh Half Marathon.

As well as her book deal, the new year is shaping up to be just as exciting, with plans to share her work with local children during a tour of schools in Northern Ireland.

Ultimately, her dream is to not only illustrate but write her own children's book.

She says: "I like creative writing although I don't know how good I am at it, but I would love to possibly write and illustrate my own book.

"I just want to continue to build my career and illustration business and I would love to do more children's books."

Maggie's Mittens, Black and White Publishing, by Coo Clayton (author) and Alison Soye (illustrator), £6.99

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