The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved with the One World Artist Gallery from their various places around the globe.
Today, I talk with Chinese-born/Paris-based illustrator & architect Caring Wong.
John: Hey Caring! You know… you’re the only “Caring” that I know. Who gave you that name?
Caring:My parents, haha. It’s the same pronunciation of my name in Chinese (Cantonese).
John: And what’s the meaning?
Caring:It means “novelty”!
John: Okay, Ms. Novelty. Where’s your hometown and how did you end up in Paris? If your name is Cantonese, then you’ve given me a good clue.
Caring:I grew up in Guangzhou and went to Paris to continue my study of architecture after university.
John: I don’t remember if I told you or not… but I lived for a few years in Guangzhou. It’s where I learned to design and manufacture the first DrawBag. I used to go to Sanyuanli market and look for sample materials all the time, or reference bags for inspiration.
Caring:I grew up in Panyu, in the south of Guangzhou. And the university where I studied architecture is in Tianhe.
John: Ah, Tianhe. We laowai (foreigners) know it well. So what are your first memories of art?
Caring:I’ve been addicted to watching and drawing cartoons since I was a child. I love all types of Japanese anime and Disney animation. They had a great influence on my growth as an artist.
John: This sounds familiar. I was into anime as well growing up, and collected tons of comic books. Which cartoons or anime specifically influenced you?
Caring:I remember watching Cinderella and all the films of Studio Ghibli countless times.
John: And did you watch the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) cartoons growing up?
John: Just the other day a Chinese friend told me about the new Ne Zha animated film. Sadly, it’s not subtitled in English here. I didn’t even know this character or story, but grew more interested the more I read about him.
So are Hiyao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli films some of your biggest influences?
Caring:Yes. I was attracted to the setting and the story of Ghibli films when I first watched Totoro. To paint a scene full of dreams like that became my hobby at the time.
John: You know, I think it can be challenging to present worlds that inspire our dreams and imagination these days. The danger is in appearing escapist or falsely sentimental. But I think your work definitely has a quality of sincere beauty and wonder to it.
Caring:Oh, and Monet is also a great influence. In Paris, I’ve been given so many more opportunities to get in touch with art than ever before. The exhibitions, the museums, and my journeys through Europe have helped me find more inspiration.
John: What was it about Monet in particular that has inspired you?
John: Okay, duh. And what do you do when you aren’t studying or making art?
Caring:In addition to being a freelance illustrator, in fact, another part of my life is with architecture.
John: Yeah, you know… many of your images remind me of scenes from Hong Kong or Guangzhou. They have these tight spaces packed with life and detail.
How much are you doing architecture these days? And who are your favorite architects?
“Land of the Rising Zine” cover art by Natsuki Otani from the charity zine for the Japan tsunami appeal by Illustration Rally blog.
The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery from their various places around the globe.
<- – – – –
Today, I talk with Japanese born/Sweden-based illustrator Natsuki Otani.
– – – – ->
Journey to the West
John: Kon’nichiwa and Hej! Let’s start with your growing up in Japan and eventually ending up in Sweden.
Natsuki: Sure. I was born in Tokyo and was living with my parents and brother when I was very young. Unfortunately my father passed away when I was fourteen and I guess that event shaped me to be a bit more independent than other girls my age.
When I was twenty-one, I enrolled in Norwich University of the Arts (in England) to study graphic design, and that’s where I met my husband. He’s a game designer, and people in the games industry seem to work everywhere in Europe. So the same happened with him. After getting married in England we moved to Portugal, Germany, and then finally Sweden because of his work. And all during that time, I was freelancing as an artist.
John: When did you begin drawing?
Natsuki: No one in my family was the artsy type, so I’m not sure where my interest in art came from! But I remember drawing some anime characters for friends when I was a kindergartner, and getting some nice praise! That definitely encouraged me to like drawing more.
Most of the prefectures in Japan have some high schools that focus solely on music or art courses. So when I was in my teens, I decided to go to an art high school in Tokyo. My first formal art training would have actually been in preparation for this school’s entrance exam. It involved pencil drawing and still life watercolor painting.
In my art high school we studied all kinds of art, including sculpture, oil painting, and traditional Japanese painting. I originally intended to go to a Japanese art university upon graduation, so again I focused hard on drawing for several years. I would need to pass yet another entrance exam for university! It was common back then for Japanese art student wannabes to spend years training before they actually got into an art uni. But at that point I had had enough of it, so I decided to study in England instead.
By the way, I really liked the first year of the graphic design course at Norwich back then. It allowed students to experience graphic design, editorial design, photography, animation, and illustration before choosing one to continue further in our second and third years.
Style & Influences
John: Your work interweaves floral patterns, figures, and animals using a dreamy mix of vibrant, yet muted colors. How did those technical elements come about for you?
Natsuki: I think I always try to create something that can exist only in a piece of artwork. I try to draw visions that I can’t see in the real world but I wish I could see.
John: And you seem to combine elements of the real with the surreal… or beauty with the sinister. What’s the motivation for these sharp contrasts?
Natsuki: The contrast is intended to give viewers something that is familiar amidst the unrecognizable. I think familiarity is very important for illustration and design. That isn’t always the case for fine art. But for design I always like to embed something “real” no matter how surreal my drawings can appear.
John: What other artists have influenced you in your journey?
Natsuki: There are countless artistic influences over time, but I try to avoid looking at others’ drawing when searching for inspiration. Instead, I look to things like the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the music of Perfume Genius. They give me so many ideas without limiting my thinking about how to express myself.
John: Several generations of westerners were impacted growing up with Nintendo, Akira, and Studio Ghibli films. Can you comment on the fertility of these unique Japanese creators and innovators?
Natsuki: I think Japanese creators are quite fortunate. They have an accepting environment in which to enjoy anime, manga, or even computer games without being discriminated against. They’re also able to use these subcultures to express their artistic creativity.
John: You and I began brainstorming months ago about a print for the LunchKraft lunchbox. We talked back and forth through various ideas, and you sketched about a dozen possible designs over three rounds of development. The final design will be released in early September 2019.
John: Ultimately, you settled on one that incorporated a fantastical taiyaki fish bearing a boy and a girl aloft. How did you navigate through that process of development?
Natsuki: Originally you and I had discussed creating a design with a theme like “girl power”. But this then shifted to a more inclusive design for both boys and girls.
John. Yeah. I liked the idea of encouraging boys and girls to really partner together in adventures to make the world a more beautiful place.
Natsuki: Right. But I still wanted to draw something to say that girls can be leaders or heroes in a subtle way. It’s great to have a story that has a clear strong female character such as Wonder Woman but I think it’s also nice to see a more natural representation of girls in leadership roles. Hopefully in time this will simply become the norm.
So I simply drew the girl in the front of their taiyaki airship, to show that she is the one who leads this food adventure they are on! It’s a really simple bit of visual language, but I’d prefer to leave the space for people to read or think about what the design could mean.
I also knew you liked the idea of something a bit like Howl’s Moving Castle so that was one of the visual inspirations. My idea was to draw something to encourage children (and adults) to enjoy lunch or any mealtime, so I drew the boy and the girl in this taiyaki airship as explorers and… evangelists of food in some way to represent that.
John: You know, my interest in portraying boys and girls this way comes in part out of a sense that the sexes don’t seem to get along very well these days. The expectations on one another have grown more and more unrealistic, while the satisfaction in what is delivered has diminished. Things like social media, pop music, Hollywood, and mass media advertising could be blamed for this. But I think these are just the outward expressions of something that has gone wrong inwardly.
A few years ago, I read an article where a number of Japanese young men were expressing great anticipation for better AI and sex-bots. They hoped new advances would produce female companions indistinguishable from their human counterparts (except for being more compliant). This feel a part of movement in recent decades away from flesh-and-blood relationship through on-demand internet pornography, virtual reality, and simulation in things like Gatebox’s “virtual girlfriend” Azuma Hikari.
John: And I know this is not just an issue in Japan, with its decline in romantic relationships and birthrates. We seem to be wrestling at this moment with a tension between the virtual (or imagined) and the real. The former entices us with the promise of engineered perfection to replace the challenges and natural “shortcomings” of our everyday experience.
Our minds have always been able to imagine a more perfect partner when engaged in a dualistic kind of overthinking. But now technology is poised to realize those imaginings through physical forms. But I think that will only lead to more disappointment in the end, rather than satisfaction. I believe that deep satisfaction in life comes from letting go completely of expectations and enjoying the journey, rather than trying to guarantee outcomes we imagine will bring us pleasure.
In short… adventures are what make life meaningful and satisfying! And adventures must have significantly difficult challenges along the way.
Attempting to Define One’s Culture
Getting back on track, haha… you’ve travelled to, lived in, and interacted with a number of other cultures. How much do you feel a part of, or not of, Japanese culture?
Natsuki: It may be that I didn’t know how to appreciate my cultural background in my artwork until I started living overseas. For some time I avoiding drawing things that were overtly Japanese in my work unless I was specifically asked to include them. This was because I felt I was taking advantage of something I hadn’t earned myself.
However, now I think Japanese culture is a part of me whether I intend it to be or not. And that culture is something to both cherish as well as experiment with. My artwork is ultimately more an expression of myself than of my country or nationality. But I wouldn’t have learnt this without traveling outside of my own country.
John: And how does that specifically play out in your work?
Natsuki: That’s such a hard question, and I honestly don’t know if it has changed anything in terms of my visual style. It’s definitely influenced my way of thinking and seeing things, though. I think only viewers of my artwork could comment on this, and it would all depend on their personal perspectives of me.
People often find something they would call “Japanese” in my work even though I’ve had no intention of doing this. I left Japan thirteen years ago and rarely speak Japanese these days. It seems to me that my real life journey is lost in translation. But it’s fine to me when this kind of interpretation happens. I like people to interpret my work in their own ways.
John: As creative people, do you and your husband want to get all kinds of fantastic art into your daughter’s life? So she can say she did have an “artsy” family?
Natsuki: Of course we do, but we also want her to experience everything else! As a kid I used to learn about and enjoy Math, English, calligraphy, piano, tennis, kendo, and softball outside of regular school time… some of them I was pretty bad at, but it was still awesome to get to experience so many different things. I’d actually be more than happy if she ends up being sporty instead of artsy!
John: Do you think having a daughter will affect the substance of your art-making in any way?
Natsuki: It’s only been two months since my daughter arrived in our life so it’s a little hard to say what impact she has made to my creativity. I think I’m purely focused on making sure she’s alright at the moment! I never thought about my work being seen by my own children before her, obviously. I’m guessing I’ll be more conscious about creating work that she can be proud of or inspired by.
The design for LunchKraft is the first job I’ve finished since her birth, and I have some wishes for her future within that. I do want her to be a strong girl who can stand on her own two legs, lead her own life, and be able to enjoy and appreciate what she eats. To my husband and me, cooking and sharing a meal together is very important. I believe it’s a celebration of our life so I really can’t wait for her to join us and start using her lunchbox!
Mario: Haha. I mean the djinn or genie. A demon or spirit… like a soul. For me, the meaning was like another way to be myself. Another form in which to express myself.
John: And where did you grow up and do that early tagging?
Mario: I was born in Milan and grew up in the southwestern suburbs there. Now I’m living right here in the city as a senior designer for my firm. It’s my home for now. But I’ve been feeling the need to travel and find and live in new places, too. In the future I don’t know where I will call home.
John: if you could paint a wall anywhere in the world, where would that be?
Mario: Anywhere! Really. Anywhere.
John: Who do you collaborate with in Milan?
Mario: In Milan there are a lot of great artists I regularly work with. Most of the time it’s Foskia, Yems, Prosa, Daste, Trust, Plinio, Zelig, Draks, Close, Tawa e Dada, Poms, Mr. Pollo, and the 10G crew. We just paint walls together for fun.
John: And how did you get started painting?
Mario: My aunt was a painter and teacher of art. When I was in her home as a kid I would get alot of inspiration. I was also influenced by manga and hentai growing up. And I started with graffiti in the streets in 1998.
Later I started to redraw my friends and brothers in an anime style. And when I discovered graffiti, it opened a new world of inspiration, colors, and ways of expressing myself.
John: And being Italian, have you been influenced by any of the greats from the past?
Mario: A lot influenced me. I don’t have any specific preferences, but for sure I remember moments like the first time I saw Caravaggio’s paintings or one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces.
John: What are you communicating through your work? Are you?
Mario: Sometimes I work in freestyle simply as pure expression. Other times I think about the sick world in which we live and how I would like to change it. Or maybe that’s just a way I take refuge from it.
John: What do you mean by the world being “sick”?
Mario: I’m talking about a world full of pollution causing global climate change. I’m talking about bad vibes like hate and racism. I feel many people are thinking only for themselves these days.
John: Yes, I remember our first conversation about your design for the LunchKraft lunchbox. I asked you to just come up with something you felt strongly about and would want to communicate even through the canvas of a lunchbox.
Mario: I was thinking about our overuse of natural resources at the time, while also the respect for nature that people can and do have.
John: So the gas-masked figure is trying to protect that fragile bit of nature under the domed glass.
John: I also asked you about drawing that LunchKraft lunchbox into the design itself, because I have some of the same concerns about our use of resources in a consumer culture. Sometimes I wonder if I’m helping or harming by manufacturing anything at this stage in history. I’m hoping to change a certain consciousness about fashion in small ways, but I still wonder.
John: Currently, we don’t really play up the eco-friendly elements of the bags much in marketing. We focus on the art. But maybe we should. It’s been more of an attempted baseline rather than a marketing angle, and in some ways using it to market would feel deceptive to me.
Anyway, yeah… I’m trying to figure these things out.
Changing topics… you and I were talking recently about Playdead’s video game Limbo as well as their (somewhat) more recent release Inside. I brought it up because you had devoted a wall to the former. What is it about these games that have inspired you to reinterpret them in your work?
Mario: Yes, I really like these games. The world and characters are so simple yet wonderful at the same time. But the gameplay and the stories are the best things about them. You have to think about how to overcome puzzles all the way up to the end. And the stories are speaking into the darkness of the world that the characters are entering.
I like how their stories inspire my imagination… and not in a way just meant to get you to buy the next episode. They really made me think. I did a piece of work based on Limbo. I think I’ll do another one about Inside also.
Designed for German alpine troops, the original Gebirgsjäger is recognized as a classic bit of military gear. In recent years, it’s been replicated and manufactured in China, with original packs harder to find.
I bought my first Gebirgsjäger rucksack as an undergraduate art student, and then sold it nearly two decades later to a mate in Sydney after traveling with it all over the world. It had barely aged.
About a year ago, I purchased a second from (the famous) Jim Korn of Kaufman’s Army & Navy in Hell’s Kitchen. This one became the source material for my re-envisioning process.
Why is the Bundeswehr rucksack a classic? Here are three of my favorite features:
Firstly, (thanks to some clever stitching) the side pouches allow for skis or poles to be inserted vertically behind them. Not a common feature on a civilian pack, but maybe it would be of use when returning from the Home Depot with a pair of baseboards.
Secondly, the internal sleeve at the rear of the pack accepts a folding sleeping mat which also doubles as back support when inserted. This seems a spiritual predecessor to the now hip FjällRäven Kånken, which was originally designed for students. The Kånken No.2 includes a siting pad placed in a similar position.
Thirdly, the overall style is similar to the packs my G.I. Joes used to hump around the battlefield of my bedroom floor in the eighties. And that’s pretty dope.
In July of 2018 I took the first prototype of a paper version with me to Bali for a bit of field testing.
It was a good first outing, and provided some useful insights. My plan is to refine the pack in the next few months, and then give it a second field test over four weeks in August while patrolling on my Santa Cruz Chameleon in SE Asia.
I also drafted four lines that explain what the pack ultimately represents in its re-envisioning:
It’s not about what you have, but what you leave behind. It’s not about seeking comfort, but embracing the tension. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but being where you are. It’s not about what’s currently trending; it’s about what is ultimately timeless.
The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery (OWAG) from their various places around the globe.
<- – – – –
Today, I talk with Spanish illustrator and photographer María Uve.
– – – – ->
John: Hi Maria! I was excited when you first contacted me through Instagram about collaborating on a DrawBag.
María: John! Sorry for the delay in finishing everything.
John: No, no, you weren’t late. Everything is in it’s right time. I’m just happy to have connected with you.
John: I’ve recently made more contact with artists in Spain as there is quite a wealth of talent there. Elena Pancorbo had just finished an original design on a DrawBag before you and I first spoke, and Jesuso Ortiz was also a collaborator early on. What is the artistic community like where you are in Vigo?
María: Well… the truth is that I live in a part of my country with a very small artistic community. The larger groups of artists in Spain are really in the capital, but thanks to online social networks I have met artists of many nationalities and that has enriched me a lot.
John: The idea of community is continually being redefined in terms of its borders through technology, isn’t it?
María: Yes, and I think we should really support one other instead of competing because if our related community wins… really, we all win.
John: Where did you get your training as an artist and with what different media do you work?
María: I studied illustration, photography, and graphic design at EASD Antonio Faílde (School of Art & Design) in Ourense, Spain and have spent the past year and a half dedicating myself professionally to my profession– illustrating book covers, being exhibited in galleries, publishing my own book, and collaborating with various magazines.
John: Your style is quite recognizable. Were there other artists whose work influenced you in your own development of this style?
María: I think we are all influenced by everything. By other artists for their music, by the cinema, etc… I could not tell you specific names, though, because I try to escape the similarities.
John: I’ve been really inspired by a handful of female artists who I’ve discovered this past year primarily through Instagram… #zipcy and #littlethunder being two others beside yourself.
You are all quite different in expression, but seem to be similar in that your artwork embraces love, sexuality, the body, and emotional intimacy in ways that are neither prudish nor porn. Your work celebrates a genuine and nuanced eroticism that I think has otherwise been cheapened over time by happy endings to romantic comedies, free streaming porn, and the convenience store of online dating. Truly falling in love with oneself or others is not something we click to purchase, but must engage in with our whole being to experience both its heights and depths. But that’s my perspective, of course, haha. What is it that you are doing when you create your artwork? What are you communicating through it?
María: Obviously, artists expose themselves to having a free interpretation on the part of the receiver and that is inevitable. But yes… I am communicating precisely that which you just expressed: the importance of feeling good about oneself, experiencing love in healthy ways, de-objectifying the body as only a sexual object, making relationship a natural part of our conversation, respecting all kinds of people and all types of relationships, and breaking conventions and traditional values.
John: There are quite a few symbols and motifs you return to in your work, including what I assume to be the red thread of fate from Chinese folklore, creeping yellow vines, tiny phrases in blue on the body, the serpent, skeletons, and various images of the galaxy.
Can you share a bit about your wider perspective on life and why we are here? Where we are going? And how that is reflected in your current stage of art making?
María: Well, I wish I knew why we are here! I guess my perspective is as simple as finding happiness and satisfaction within myself, without hurting anyone or anything else.
John: Fair enough. I think a lot of young artists would be very jealous of the 300K followers you currently have on Instagram. How did you gather that global following? Did it take long for people to find your work on Instagram?
María: I think there are no jealous artists. We are all non-conformists. Perhaps we can get too focused on how things are going with others, but I always encourage artists to support one another and help share one another’s work with the world. I think everyone deserves to have the same possibilities for success.
And the truth is that I do not know how all my followers came about… but it was fast. In just over a year I suddenly went from having 150 “friends” to 300,000.
John: There can be fine line between genuine expression of oneself and finding a strong following in that… and then monetizing that expression into a product for sale which loses its original intent. How have you kept your artistic journey genuine and connected to its source?
María: I didn’t monetize my work until recently, when my first book was published. I always have some prints available for sale in case someone wanted them but I never advertised until now, because it has been important to grow my work first.
John: And how many new pieces of work do you make… say, per week?
María: One or two.
John: Tell me more about the book Nosotros which you recently published.
María: It’s about self-improvement after failed relationships. At the moment I do not have a version in English… only in Spanish. Everything in time, though.
John: What else fills your life besides from art making?
María: I love animals and nature in general… music, movies, reading, and traveling. Too many things and only one life!
The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery (OWAG) from their various places around the globe.
<- – – – –
Today, I talk with American illustrator, animator, and artist Zharia Shinn.
– – – – ->
John: Your paper and fabric work is stunning!
I want to ask first about the design you created on your DrawBag, because it was linked to the AfroPunk Festival in Brooklyn that occurred this past summer. Can you tell us a bit about that event and your design?
Zharia: The AfroPunk Festival is, “an annual arts festival that includes live music, film, fashion, and art produced by black artists,” originating in Brooklyn, New York. At the heart of this incredible gathering is a celebration of difference, acceptance, blackness, and empowerment. I have always been an admirer of the movement and festival over the years, so finally getting a chance to attend this summer ’18 was incredible to say the least.
I am in awe of the fashion and creativity that is made in preparation for AfroPunk, which ultimately inspired my bag. The patterns, colors, and lines all speak to my take on the colorfulness and vast array of personality that oozes from the punks, outcasts, rejects, geeks, freaks, and everyone in between whom this movement fosters. My style is very shape-based and involves collaging materials from multiple sources that ultimately become one design. An abstracted face with my initials “Z.S.” camouflaged in the background creates the overall design with the phrase “The Future Is Afro And Punk” below. The incorporation of hand sewn thread is a new addition to my style that I wanted to experiment with. I am happy with the outcome and I hope to experiment in this way again in the future.
John: Where did you grow up and what were your first experiences of art?
Zharia: My childhood and early stages of my life were mostly rooted in parts of Florida, and California.
Art has always been with me since I can remember. I was constantly drawing on something. A piece of paper and a pencil was all I needed and I would still be where you left me, drawing for hours on end. My mother loves to recount a day when I was little where I came up to her when she was working and told her, “Mommy, I am an artist.” She said she knew then and there, I was telling her who I am and that has never changed.
A lot of my art experiences were at pubic school and art institutions during the summer at the Academy of Art University. My craft didn’t become more than a passion until high school, when I made the decision to apply to art school. The way that I currently work and collage did not come into fruition until the later years of my undergrad at Rhode Island School of Design, with the support of my instructors and peers.
John: You’ve been an art instructor as well yourself, yes? What has that been like? Do you think of that as a natural outgrowth of being an artist?
Zharia: My instructor experience has been very informal and I’m realizing over the years that I think this type of education is what I enjoy the most so far. From the role of an art camp counselor to collage workshop instructor, I have learned much more about not only being an educator but a student. It is a role that truly takes someone who wants to leave a situation better than they left it. Someone that wants change, both in their classroom and in themselves. Education will do that to you, and I look forward to immersing myself in more educational roles down the line.
Attending RISD and other art institutions has shown me that not only are there countless ways to receive education and knowledge, but to educate, you first need to understand your audience. Just like an artist should try and understand who their art is touching, so should an educator understand their student and how to better reach them.
John: Earlier this year you had an exhibition in Vienna. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Zharia: I honestly do not know where to start with answering this question. I could go on and on about Vienna but I will try to keep it short.
In the months leading to graduation, I was approached by the Canadian illustrator Peter Diamond based in Vienna to be a part of a group exhibition of 16 illustrators called “Go West!”. The goal of the show was to bring American illustration to Vienna in hopes to create a larger conversation surrounding the importance and integrity of this tool of communication. Furthermore, showcasing the many facets, and varied visual culture coming out of the states was a piece of the puzzle as well. Another illustrator and myself were the only artists straight out of school so having pieces in a line up of story tellers who are renowned and highly qualified was intimidating, to say the least. But remembering that my work stood with theirs was one of the biggest compliments I could ever receive being so new to illustration myself. I appreciate what Peter Diamond saw in my work and I plan to have others see it too.
My works from the series “Fabric Lineage” were included in the show, accompanied by fabric swatches used to create the series in 2016. In addition, I had the privilege to be able to help with press of the show, give a small speech at the opening, and create and instruct a collage workshop hosted at Designaustria.
Designaustia, housed inside of the MuseumQuartier, made a lot of this possible and having the chance to be in such an incredibly creative place such as Vienna, Austria is something I will never forget. This trip was also my first time being outside of the county so I look forward to expanding my horizons and making more memories outside of the states.
John: There is one clear element you share with a number of the artists you have referenced as influences (such as Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas) which is a strong use of pattern in portraiture. What does pattern mean to you in the context of portraiture?
Zharia: Pattern is one of the many tools I use in my abstracted portraits to get my message across. As I experiment with it over the years, I’ve leaned that it can be useful in distorting what the eye sees and redirecting a focus. Every pattern tends to have the same level of “importance’ and works on the same plane field in pieces of mine. I like to use it as an alternative to color and a way to break up the surface to bring life and tactility to the flatness created in my portraits. In more symbolic terms, pattern is also a chance for me to abstract the way we see something so familiar to us, such as the human face.
John: Euan Uglow is also an artist you’ve mentioned as an influence. On the surface his work seems quite different, but I get a sense that both his use of color and the very constrained, intentional backgrounds or contexts of his nude portraits may have been a point of contact. Am I way off?
Zharia: Euan Uglow is a loose influence of mine because of my introduction to him during my foundation lessons of oil painting at RISD. I admire the way he breaks up the human body in geometric shapes of colors and its slight gradients. In the same vein, I have found ways to abstract the human face in my own way with organic shapes. His use of restrained color is also phenomenal and I am inspired to experiment with how I use color in expressive ways too.
John: One of your works I really love is Fabric Lineage. Can you tell me more about the women depicted as well as your choice of fabric to create the piece?
Zharia: It all started with my liberal arts course, “Black Female Body”, taught by Bolaji Campbell I took a few years ago. One of our lectures focused on the history of quilting and the fascinating role African-American women had in it’s sustain- ability and life long craftsmanship. Traditionally sold and created for white households, slave quilters rarely had the opportunity to create personal quilts for themselves. They collected scraps of fabric and materials that were discard- ed and sewed elaborate designs for personal use and necessity.
I was in awe of these accounts of history I never knew before and began personal research and exploration into this art form. This birthed my interest in collaging portraits of the women in my family out of found materials and discarded fabrics a few years back. Each portrait was a collection of designs, colors, and textures I deemed suitable in describing each member; Big Mama (great grandmother), Mom, Laura (cousin), Marta (step-mother). Created in that order, Marta was the last of the Fabric Lineage Series, where I grew comfortable in this experimental approach.
Elevating black women through materials seen as mundane and unattractive spurred a conversation that was new and engaging to me. The importance of this notion is one of admiration, awareness, and acknowledgment. Admiration of the role these women have had in my life, showing me what strength truly looks like. Awareness of black history and what my people are capable of, even through the worst possible circumstances. Acknowledgment of the hardships my ancestors and black people today go through, trying to heal piece by piece. Tackling such a dark past is never easy but creating this therapeutic series pushed me to reach deeper into subject matter that I am very passionate about.
The Fabric Lineage was the beginning of a major change in my artistic style, voice and reason “why?”
John: How essential is color to your work? Could you survive if you were forced into blue or grey period of your own?
Zharia: The erratic use of color is a distinctive quality to my expression and ultimate style of collage. Although my work is anything but, I really admire minimalism and works that are limited and restrained. Creating pieces that are emotional with color, and yet disciplined in how they come together is something I am very interested in. The use of color is admittedly unpredictable, but there is a method to my madness.
John: Afrofuturism may be something a lot of readers aren’t aware of, although they probably know Tribe, Kendrick Lamar, and the recent Black Panther film. What has been your interest in and connection to it?
Zharia: Afrofuturism is a “philosophy of science…and history that explores the developing intersection of African culture and technology.” The major aspects of this movement celebrate and explore black culture, African roots, technology, and innovation. Names that come to mind when I think of this movement are Sun Ra, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, and Octavia E. Butler. My fascination with Afrofutursim started a few years back in a course I took during college about the relationship between racism and location. Ever since, I have grown interest in consuming media that investigates empowering philosophies such as these.
John: How do you think stereotypes can be used (rather than denied) in conversation about our differences? Is it a constructive tool, or one to dismantle? Or maybe both?
Zharia: Stereotypes, positive or negative, will always be a narrow view that do not show the whole picture of a group. They are dangerous tools that people constantly face and subconsciously or consciously try to counteract, and at times, feed into. I believe it’s important to acknowledge stereotypes, understand how they undermine a said group, find ways to subvert them in conversations, and ultimately empower, not disfranchise. A simple way to start is to do personal research, ask questions, and listen. Gaining personal knowledge of a group that you are referring to or in conversation with will always foster understanding, which can help disrupt violence from ignorance.
John: If you had to state it in one sentence, why are you an artist?
Zharia: I am an artist because this is my soul purpose on this Earth, and God gave me this gift for reasons bigger than myself.
John: Part of the larger woven pattern of the universe…
Some years ago I was cycling through a SE Asian country with a small group and stopped at a rural monastery. A local guide we were riding with told us that the temple there was well-known for a Buddhist monk that many years before had died but whose body had not decomposed after death. In fact, he looked just as fresh as the day he died, and the flower petals that had been sprinkled upon his body at death had likewise remained fresh and fragrant to the present.
Intrigued, we asked if it were possible to see the body of the deceased monk.
“Of course,” the guide replied, and led us to a temple structure where we removed our shoes before entering.
Inside, the walls were adorned with beautiful carvings and paintings. At the back sat an elderly monk, meditating in lotus position. He was as still as death, and yet his eyes seemed to penetrate us when we crossed the beam of their gaze. In the center on the small temple was a glass case on a dais, and within rested the deceased monk.
Stealing up to the case with some awkward reverence and nervousness, the group looked in on the body silently. Fresh flower petals indeed garnished the orange-garbed monk’s corpse as he lay still on his back, hands folded over his belly.
After a time, each of us slipped back outside and replaced our shoes in silence. After a time, a few began to speak.
“Do you think it was real?”
“He did look good for so long dead…”
“Could those flowers really be..?”
Seeing the local guide nearby, I drew him aside and spoke.
“Hey… that monk is as dead as any other. Well-preserved, maybe, but dead just the same… he doesn’t look as fresh as the day he died.”
“Yes,” the guide said, motioning for me to speak quietly. “Of course. And the flowers are replaced daily.”
“Then, why..?” I asked.
“It is not easy to see through delusion,” he replied. “But a good joke is still the best way.”