Community Spotlight: Emily Brunner

Community Spotlight: Emily Brunner

For the past three years, Emily Brunner (a.k.a. Barefoot Seeker) has been “doing a lot of stuff and seeing what sticks.” What has stuck is a uniquely perfect career path for a zoologist and childhood art lover.

I met Emily at her neighborhood North Hollywood Groundwork cafe, where she first got hooked on specialty tea. She usually orders a steeped tea, or a matcha latte on special occasions (like today). 

“My husband always calls me a tea snob,” Emily laughs. She first was turned on to specialty tea several years ago when Groundwork hosted a tea preparation and history class at the cafe. She kept coming back for our for-here teapot and to work among the “pleasant buzz” of her neighbors. Emily spent most of her time writing and illustrating her first book here.

A natural progression into animal-themed illustration

Emily won her first art contest as a kindergartner in Washington, and art has been her side hustle ever since. She went from selling pet portraits as a kid to now selling animal-themed art, painting murals, hosting nature-themed paint parties, designing logos for wildlife rehabilitation and environmental groups, and illustrating children’s books. 

Emily painting a canvas at a table full of painting supplies for the paint party


Emily worked in veterinary care in high school and went on to major in zoology with a minor in creative writing in college.

Just out of college, Emily’s zoology career had been rewarding but marred with frustrating politics surrounding endangered bird conservation, embittering stories in animal rescue, underfunding in wildlife rehabilitation, and stressful workloads in veterinary medicine. 

Working as an inventory manager at a veterinary hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic finally burned Emily out. She quit and dove into her artistic passion projects, notably a children’s book about New Zealand birds that she had been casually storyboarding for a couple of years. 

close up of "Kiwi & Little Blue" book


Emily’s artistic career took flight with Kiwi & Little Blue

Emily wrote, illustrated, and self-published her first book in 2021: Kiwi & Little Blue: And what makes a bird a bird? 

The inspiration for the book started way back when Emily had her first pet duck at age three, which sparked a lifelong fascination with birds. In college, she wrote multiple reports on New Zealand birds in ornithology class.

“The birds of New Zealand are very unique because it's been an island for so long that there are species that are found nowhere else in the world,” Emily explains. ‘I'm obsessed with some of the species down there.”

She especially loves flightless birds – and she couldn’t stop drawing them. 

“I did a birthday card for somebody with a bunch of flightless birds flying using balloons. And thought, oh that's cute!”

She started to develop the characters, her favorite being a kiwi bird and a penguin who became friends.

“I did a drawing of the two of them in a hot air balloon, and I was like, so what's the story?” Emily recalls. “If flightless birds could fly, what would they do?” 

She found inspiration for other characters in the book from New Zealand bird rescues and sanctuaries whose online photos give a glimpse into the personalities of different bird species. 

To explore the lesson “What is a bird? If it can't fly, is it still a bird?" Emily packed the story with scientific facts balanced with whimsy. The book quickly earned five-star reviews across multiple online marketplaces.

The success of Kiwi & Little Blue created a stream of authors contacting Emily to illustrate their books and helped her land a job as an illustrator for Lawley Publishing. She’s illustrated eight books already and is currently illustrating the fourth book of the series The Traveling Tales of Nacho and Lola.   

Emily is happily surprised that, even with no formal art training, she continues to sell copies of Kiwi & Little Blue, juggle many art commissions, and attract crowds to her paint parties. 

“It's working,” she laughs. “It keeps getting better.” 

Close up of all the books Emily has illustrated so far


Using art to inspire Los Angelenos’ appreciation for wildlife and tighter communities

In contrast to other places Emily called home – from Washington to Alaska – Los Angelenos aren’t as knowledgeable about local wildlife. 

“People don't even know what the birds are in their backyard,” Emily says. So, she’s set on learning her local flora and fauna and helping people to appreciate the city’s nature.  

“We live in a concrete jungle, but there are still cool animals and plants,” she says. 

Emily aims to make this education fun, especially for kids in hopes that learning the animals that live in their backyard will inspire lifelong appreciation and responsibility for them. Her approach is to make education available and let her audience decide if they take action. For example, she is 142 weeks into her endeavor to paint an endangered species every week for every country in the world. She posts the paintings on Instagram under the hashtag #MyEndangeredBackyard, along with information on the animal, threats to its survival, and what people can do to help. 

many rows of mini canvases in tile pattern that Emily painted with one endangered species on each canvas


Emily’s work inspires care for all animals, birds, and humans alike, as she fosters in-person communities through art.

“Community is the most important part of life,” Emily says. “Without it, what's the point? You can do it alone only to a certain point.” For Emily, the pandemic proved how much everyone needs human connection. As she’s watched American culture become more lonely, Emily says forming relationships is more valuable than ever.

“Art is therapy for a lot of people and animals are therapy for a lot of people, so trying to share that is really important to me,” she says. 

Whereas Emily witnessed individualistic mentalities and organizational silos within the many fields she’s worked in, she’s found Los Angeles’ small-business artist community to be incredibly supportive. 

“Everybody's so encouraging,” she says. “I've never been in a community that was like that.”

For Emily, Groundwork is a perfect place to support each other in person. She points to a large banquet-style table in the corner of the back room where we sit: 

“That table was always a writer's group and I'd be over here listening to people exchanging ideas,” Emily says.  

People-watching inspires the personality traits and facial expressions Emily incorporates into bird characters. 

“I love being a fly on the wall in coffee shops. I sit here and I'm doing my thing and hear everybody's lives happening around you,” she says. 

She expects that soon she’ll be doing just that even more to finish storyboarding the sequel to Kiwi & Little Blue.

Painting of native birds of Los Angeles with labels on each bird



Curious about how you can support birds?


Written by
Melina Devoney
Barista & Coffee Journalist