Since doing this interview with me for TRIM Projects back in 2012, Vancouver based illustrator Janice Wu has had her work on Canada Post stamps and postcards and on the pages of New York Times Magazine, to name a just a few high-profile commission projects. Above is the cover she contributed to Ricepaper‘s Winter 2013 issue.
Wu’s realist illustrations of the mundane are being exhibited at the Burnaby Art Gallery from February 3 for two months.
Originally seen at TRIM Projects.
The café where Janice Wu suggests to meet is a reflection of her art in many ways; bright, stylistically pleasing, and minimal. A perpetually spinning chandelier hangs from the high ceiling; she points this out to us with amusement. As we sit down, Janice excitedly produces her brand new copies of The Walrus, which contain her commissioned illustrations. She has the glow of someone who’s hitting her stride, tempered with a humility that comes from years of hard work and self-examination.
It’s taken her almost a lifetime of practice to get here. As a child, she would trail behind her grandmother in the park and assemble bits of debris and trash into little “assemblage sculptures” as she calls them; a precursor to her present habit of collecting bits of junk for artistic purposes.
“That’s something that I felt that I just needed to do, it was some sort of creative impulse,” she says. “That still resonates today. Even now in my room, I’ll have bags of things that I’ve collected that I want to draw, and a lot of it is junk, it is trash, it is these discarded materials that I just find really interesting.”
Her parents saw this creative streak in their daughter and sent her to classical painting and drawing tutors. “[Taking art classes] was incredibly influential to what I do now,” she says. “I think without that traditional learning, I wouldn’t have gotten to the skills that I have today.”
So would you call yourself a classical artist?
I wouldn’t use that term, but I definitely value skill in contemporary art. I think that art is valuable when it’s not only strong conceptually, but also in heart, and in technique. I think all those three things make really interesting and powerful art. When an artwork is just all about a concept, it is not as appealing to me. Yet when it’s just all craftsmanship and there’s no idea, then it lacks substance, and it is not as thought provoking.
Where does your imagination come into play in your artwork?
I guess there really isn’t much imagination (laughing). I work from real life. I wouldn’t say it’s photorealistic, but it’s definitely in realism. I don’t feel like I’m creating another world. I feel if anything that the creative part lies in sort of pointing out a narrative potential, or a poetic potential in something that’s so everyday. I think that that’s just the nature of the work that I make, is that I want to place attention to the things that are banal, and the only way to do that is to actually portray the things that are banal, to put it out there.
Who, artist or otherwise, do you identify with?
A lot of the older, botanical illustration masters, like James Sowerby, just their technique and their style, I think I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from. I admire the way that drawing is a form of observation and study for them, it’s something that I try to do with my practice as well. And one of my favorite contemporary visual artists is Aurel Schmidt, who does these fantastic pencil colour drawings that are in high realism but they’re also very interesting and very transformative, and I think that a lot of her work has influenced me today; the whole idea of transforming something ugly or dull into something beautiful just through exquisite rendering. Different artists who work with watercolour––Marcel Dzama, I love his illustrations, I guess I get that minimalist aesthetic from him, with the white background, always, and Andrea Wan, who is also an illustrator from Vancouver, she studied at Emily Carr too. She does these really great watercolour narrative illustrations, very childlike fairytale, and she’s got an amazing sense of colour.
Janice was a typical girl in that she took art classes and kept sketch books full of magazine clippings and drawings of her friends, but she was different in that she knew singularly what she wanted to do from a young age. “I always identified myself as an artist. I was very satisfied creating things,” she says of her childhood and of high school. “I just knew that I wanted to pursue art, I knew that I wanted to go to Emily Carr when I graduated.”
Janice and her brother were raised in large part by her grandmother, who, along with her parents, immigrated from Hong Kong. She instilled in them her sense of morals and hard work. “She was a really big influence on me, in terms of valuing hard work … and to never fool yourself into thinking that opportunities will just come to you. That it’s always through this relentless pursuit that will bring you success. I think that’s a very immigrant attitude, in a way, so that’s had a huge influence on me growing up … at the same time our family was very Canadian, and my parents wanted me to learn English and to assimilate into Canadian culture, and so there’s always been that kind of in between for me growing up.”
What is the first piece that really saw the development of your new signature style? How long did it take you to get there?
Lost & Found. Forever (laughs). It took me a really long time to get to a place where I felt personally satisfied with my work. I was actually in Industrial Design at Emily Carr for two whole years, and it’s bizarre for me to think that I was in that program now, but I was really confused as to what I wanted to do. I took one year of design, [then] I went to Trinity Western for a year, did all art classes; I was a visiting student there. When I got back to Emily Carr, I decided to give Design one last chance and see if I really wanted to pursue it, and I gave it another two semesters. I knew that it wasn’t creatively satisfying for me. I knew then that I needed to get out and pursue what I really felt passionate about, which was creating art. So I left Industrial Design, just as I was about to finish; I literally had two semesters left and I would have graduated with a degree, and instead I chose to completely switch gears and go back into art making, into visual arts, and that was a huge shift for me.
Was that a hard decision to make?
It was a hard decision and I think it was also a relief. I felt for so long that I was denying what I really wanted to do. Even in design, in certain projects that I did for school, I’d always gravitate towards doing illustrations for the design project or something more visual or creative. I was really into the beginning stages of research and coming up with ideas, but the actual designing part I wasn’t as intrigued about.
Lost & Found, Janice’s first arrival at her stark but beautiful new style, is a series of almost photorealistic watercolour drawings of thirteen small, everyday items, accompanied by bits of narrative––thoughts and memories associated with each item. An extension of the project is a limited series of hand-printed silk crop tops, made in collaboration with artist Amanda Jex, and a slim book, resembling a simple but finely crafted children’s book.
More art followed, expanding on the theme of closely examined ordinary or throwaway objects, such as Compulsive Obsessive Assortment, a meticulous arrangement of what appears to be the contents of somebody’s pocket, and Fragments, a reproduction of torn bits of junk mail, which was used by The Walrus.
Jeff Hamada posted Janice’s work on his widely popular art blog Booooooom, where it was spotted by an art director from The Walrus. She contacted Janice for a commission, and since then there have been more commissions, and media attention from local and international media outlets such as Hypebeast, Juxtapoz, and The Huffington Post. Most recently, she has been commissioned by BUST Magazine, and for two issues of New York Magazine.
What gave you the idea for Lost & Found?
It was really funny, actually. It was last year, I was just walking home from school, and I came across the saddest lost and found poster, for a puppy. I come across a lot of those lost and found posters in my neighbourhood … when I got home I started thinking of the whole idea of lost and found, and I thought that it would be interesting to apply something like that to objects, because, for myself, I’m constantly losing things, I’m constantly losing my belongings, and I remember growing up, just always losing one earring. As soon as I got my ears pierced it always seemed like I was perpetually only having one earring on, the other one would be like, at the bottom of some swimming pool, floating around. So that whole theme to me, the concept of lost and found, was very personal and familiar, because I always had that fear of losing something really precious, and never being able to find it again, of something of mine being lost in the world. It actually was originally going to be a poster project, where I would do lost and found posters of inanimate objects, and have a story that was connected to each one. And so it would be like, oh, I lost my mini cactus, last seen on a park bench in Stanley Park, if found please return to, and then a fake telephone number or something, and thought that it would be a really humourous project to do. And then I started drawing these objects, and the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that the things that I chose actually had some sort of connection to me. They had a personal narrative, and when I really thought about it, they linked back to particular memories of mine. So that’s when the whole idea sort of shifted, and transformed to what it is now. I’m really happy with it, and I think that in many ways, Lost & Found has influenced my practice now, and the ideas that I’m still working with kind of originate with this project.
While your art is meticulous, it is also very childlike in it’s simplicity of subject and its use of colour. There is almost an innocence to it. Is this something that you want to come across in your work?
I think that the childlike part of it comes from the humour that’s in my work. I hope that people find my drawings funny, because I find them really funny. I think that in humour there’s playfulness … in some of my drawings more than others there’s that sense of whimsy, like in Happy Drawing, which is a face constructed of two short little pencil stubs and pencil shavings––that’s very childlike, it reminds me of when I was younger and I would just play around with different boring objects and make something. Also in Sweet & Sour, you can see these different expressions of faces through cherry pits and stems; it kind of comes from the sense of play, which I think makes it childlike, which I’m okay with because I think there’s a lot of creativity in play and in humour.
Janice describes her art as a “combination of high realism and minimalist aesthetics.” Through mindful observation, she explores the hidden meaning found in ignored, forgotten, or boring things. For her, “looking” becomes a kind of practice; the act of continually training her attention to seek out the monotonous in her everyday world. Upon finding these items, she deliberately spotlights them as a way to speak about the human condition and its relationship to objects.
By exploring how value and associations are placed upon things in the material realm, she questions what is considered mediocre and aims to reveal the poetic possibilities within the ordinary. She relates her work to a sort of anthropology, and finds artifacts in a museum inspiring. “A lot of the most precious artifacts, in their contexts, were completely ordinary to the culture that they were from––but are considered esteemed treasures now. It’s interesting for me to be looking at very ordinary objects, because perhaps in the future they could be these treasured artifacts.”
Janice’s naturalistic illustrations draw attention to the beauty that can be found upon the inspection and contemplation of the pedestrian. But, they also serve as a cultural statement, in that they point out the excessive amount of transient material surrounding us.
In your artist’s statement you state that you’d like to construct ethnographic experiences through your work. Can you explain what this means?
I want to create an ethnographic experience through my drawings that reveal an understanding of the way humans relate to objects in contemporary culture. In this day and age there’s just so much stuff that surrounds us, we’re overwhelmed by the amount of objects that exist in our lives. What does it mean to focus on the most mundane, the most banal, the most overlooked of all these objects, and to place that kind of contemplation on them? I think that it really is up to the viewer to determine what that means. Does it mean to waste not, or does it mean that there is some sort of value in these objects? A lot of the materials that I highlight are mass produced, cheap, not very special objects, but I render them in a really sentimental way. So I think that my work addresses how value is placed on stuff, and how meaning is placed on the objects that surround us.
If you can imagine it, where do you think that your art might go?
With me, I want to pursue both commercial illustration and visual art, and they’re two different practices. They overlap in some ways, but they are different. I want to be an exhibiting artist and have shows in galleries and work on my own, self-initiated projects. But I also really like doing commission work for different publications and having projects assigned to me and working with people. So I hope that in the future I can do both and that I can succeed in both. I like to think that my work can exist within both realms.