“I felt like I wasn’t doing myself justice.”
Many of us who work an ordinary nine-to-five have experienced a niggling voice in our heads telling us to leave the office behind to pursue a passion.
It could be teaching or performing or working with animals – or in the case of Laura Steerman, creating paintings from sonogram pictures.
Laura gave up a successful career as a solicitor to go fulfil her dream of working as an artist and says she hasn’t looked back.
Her business, Quaint Baby, gives her the kind of job she’d been thinking about since her days at school, she tells us.
“I was minded to go towards an art course or interior design or something more creative,” Laura says but when CAO time rolled around, her skill for academics won out and she chose to study business and law, eventually becoming a solicitor.
It was a job she enjoyed, in the beginning at least, and one she was good at.
She worked as a solicitor in a private practice before becoming the in-house counsel at the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and then went to work for the ESB.
She contributed to legislation and helped to set up Energy Law Ireland – but something was off.
Laura uses the metaphor of a runaway train to describe being in a career that didn’t fulfil her.
“There were a lot of high points but I couldn’t help but experience the feeling of being a bit empty,” she says.
“It really felt like it was lacking something but I had gone too far on the train to jump off. I had gotten married, there was a house, I got a mortgage so it was very hard to get off that train.”
Becoming a mum for the first time became a turning point for her.
“I felt like I wasn’t doing myself justice, which I didn’t want (my children) to pick up on.
“I felt that maybe if I was home more and doing something more creative, I thought I could be a more content person.”
“I was really drawn to bringing colour to my sonogram.”
Coincidentally, the inspiration for her ultrasound art came about around the time she was expecting her first child.
“I would always do arts and crafts to relax and when I was pregnant with my own daughter there was a lot of movement scares.
“You’re getting ready to be a parent and then it’s the fright of having no control of what’s going on in your own tummy.”
Luckily, a scan assured her that all was well with baby – but Laura said she was underwhelmed with having just a small black-and-white sonogram picture to celebrate her relief.
“I thought, I can’t just leave this image and put it in a frame and I was really drawn to bringing colour to it.”
She created her first piece of ultrasound art and had no intention of doing any more until friends began to remark on the piece.
Soon people were asking for paintings and business began to grow.
A turning point came when Laura read the story of a woman who had lost her child to stillbirth.
“It dawned on me that the scan is often the only photograph a bereaved parent like that will ever have,” she says.
She got in touch to offer to create a piece for her and the woman was delighted.
The art “took on another meaning,” Laura says, explaining that the paintings could convey more than the beginning of a life – they could also commemorate one that had ended too soon.
The experience put her in touch with Feileacain, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland, and she created more pieces for parents who had lost babies.
Meanwhile, her day job continued to take its toll and so earlier this year she handed in her notice.
“I could have sat at that desk for another thirty years.”
To this day, her only regret about leaving law to pursue art was that she didn’t do it sooner.
“It was a sort of ‘job for life’ and there was a good pension at the end,” she admits of her role in the ESB.
“I could have sat at that desk for another thirty years and I could have looked forward to a retirement with my good ESB pension until I died and I thought – and this is probably really dramatic – a part of my soul would have died before then and that to me was a price I couldn’t pay.”
There are of course trade-offs an entrepreneur has to accept when they go it alone.
She now earns a “fraction” of what she previously made, she tells us, and has had to rethink her retirement plan.
“Now, I could be an 85-year-old still painting; as a self-employed person you have to forward plan because there isn’t a company going to pay you a pension but I certainly have never looked back.”
Laura now works from home with four part-time staff helping her but admits she’s still learning to balance being a mum of three and working for herself.
“There is no rule book. No fairy godmother can wave a wand and prepare you for being self-employed with a young family and to juggle family life and commitments with friends and your finances.
“I’m certainly more tired than I’ve ever been but there’s an energy that keeps you going when it’s something really important.”
Business is steady, though, and she says the potential for her business is huge thanks to social media.
“I now send paintings to America, Austrailia, Asia, all across Europe and it’s all through the wonders of the internet – it’s Facebook, it’s Instagram.
“The world is your market so you don’t have to feel like you’re limited to a small island.”
Looking forward, Laura says she’d love to grow Quaint Baby by taking on more artists.
Having won an award for social entrepreneurship this year at the Woman’s Way Mum of the Year awards, she also wants to continue working with charities that support bereaved parents.
It’s still early days but Laura’s passion means she’s not too worried about the future.
“If I had no commissions tomorrow, I’d still be painting because it’s what I’d like to do.”
Images of Laura by Hazel Coonagh.
We know that Irish businesswomen are a force to be reckoned with so here at Her.ie, we’re making a fuss of the ladies who’ve made a fuss on their journey to success.
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