As an actress, reading aloud is second nature to Pene Herman-Smith. As a mother, it goes against the grain to talk about your child in the past tense.

These two facts collided in a crackle of emotion last week as I sat in Pene’s cosy nest of a kitchen in the west end of Glasgow drinking freshly-brewed strong coffee and leafing through old photographs. I had come to talk to Pene about a forthcoming exhibition of work by her artist daughter Emma Herman-Smith, which opens next Sunday at Gayfield Creative Spaces in Edinburgh.

Emma was just 47 when she died suddenly in October 2014. The breast cancer which had first been diagnosed in 2009 returned with a vengeance and claimed her just as she was coming into her own as an artist. According to her mother, Emma felt this keenly.

“Just days before she died, Emma said to me, ‘Mum, this cancer is the best thing that has happened to me,’” says Pene.

“When she said that, my first reaction was shock. But I could see what she was getting at. As we started to look through the work she left behind, seeing thoughts and ideas coming to life in texts and drawings—distinctive and prolific – it was clear that there was a thread running through her last work.

“After she was told about the cancer, she continued her work; moving more and more towards exposing the damage being done to the environment – to small creatures and to ourselves.”

One of Emma’s "coming-of-age" projects was a year-long residency on the Isle of Mull in 2011-2012, which culminated in an exhibition called For All It Has Become in early 2013 at An Tobar in Tobermory.

As an end-piece to the undoubted connection the artist felt to the island, an art and heritage site she initiated not long before her death, called The Fank, was completed earlier this year by a community volunteers. As Pene reads aloud from the letter she recently wrote to the editor of a local newsletter about Fank, her voice suddenly cracks as she reads: “I urge you to take it to your hearts, Mull, in memory of my daughter Emma, whose vision and determination have given you a gift to be handled with love.”

This rebuilt 18th century sheep pen in the heart of Lettermore Forest near Salen, may be hard-to-find but the fact it now exists again, with a sculpture by Emma’s friend Andrea Geile at its heart, is testament to the playfully serious art-in-action approach to her work which Emma made her own.

At another site on the island, near Bunessan, with no plaque or reference point, stands a bronze Stoor Post. For this work, Emma cast a wooden post (a familiar sight on the island’s fields) in bronze. In doing so, all at once, she arrested the decay caused by 50 years of weathering. This fascination with the way the natural world and man’s intervention collide which underscored much of Herman-Smith’s late work.

A Life in Art has been orchestrated by Pene, who vowed when Emma died that she would bring together an exhibition to celebrate her life’s philosophy and her love of the natural world. The selection of work has been curated by Mull-based colleagues Dawn Reade and Mike Darling and will include bronze sculpture, original framed drawings, limited edition prints and "viral hankies" which Emma created during her treatment for cancer. Some work will be for sale on Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 November, raising funds for The John Muir Trust and the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres.

The John Muir connection comes from a spell spent in Dunbar, East Lothian in the summer of 2013. Unbowed by the fact she had terminal cancer, Emma decided to trace local hero, John Muir’s 1867 Gulf of Mexico path. Sadly this 1000 mile journey was a giant step too far.

One of three sisters, Emma grew up in Helensburgh and studied sculpture at Glasgow school of Art from 1990 – 1994. Her achievements were many. She was awarded a number of major scholarships and residencies which took her to Florence, Rome and Paris at the beginning of her career and more recently to Albany, Western Australia in 2007 and Mino, Japan in 2008.

On her return from Japan, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she underwent intense surgery and treatment. During this period, she fulfilled a commitment to create paper wallhangings for the Mino Washi Museum, and showed new works in Portobello, Patriothall in Edinburgh, Cupar in Fife, Bangkok and Houston, Texas.

She refused to lie down to her illness, but after eighteen months the cancer returned. Emma continued to work at a high level, involving herself in the research and creative interpretation of environmental issues with reference to both the earth and to its many and varied animal inhabitants.

Emma’s residency on Mull offered a perfect opportunity to focus this new impetus. Her love of the outdoors had grown to include climbing Scotland’s mountains and hiking over remote ground.

In 2011 she bought a vintage caravan, reviving it with fresh fabrics, art and paint. On Mull, she used it as mobile studio as well as her home. The Forestry Commission invited her to pitch it on the Sea Eagle track at Glen Seilisdeir, with its view of rolling hills, loch, and farmland.

This exhibition brings together Emma’s unique response to a life lived in Australia, Japan, the Scottish Highlands, Cornwall and the Island of Mull. Working variously in bronze, ceramics, wood, paper, fabric, metal, film and photography, she latterly began to draw with charcoal made by her sister-in-law from wood gathered in Devon.

One of the most affecting and beautiful works on show is a charcoal drawing of a rowan tree she saw in Tobermory. The tree is emerging from a gate post – giving new life to a felled piece of wood. For me the work sums up the unquenchable optimism of Emma Herman-Smith’s fiercely creative and beautiful spirit.

Emma Herman-Smith: A Life in Art, Gayfield Creative Spaces, Gayfield Square, Edinburgh, November 15 - November 22