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.
In Steveston yesterday we stumbled into this pocket of bizarrely designed houses, one after the other, the faded remnants of some architect’s grand vision of modernity and style.
PechaKucha, Japanese for chit-chat, is a worldwide series of events, started by architects in Tokyo in 2003, that feature speakers presenting a talk and 20 slides for 20 seconds each—that’s six minutes and forty seconds.
The goal of the event is the exchange of ideas, and the conciseness of the presentations encourages quickness and a concentration of many speakers and innovations into one night. Sometimes they are themed, but PechaKucha Night Vancouver Volume 30, the last of the year on 20 November, brought a range of 11 speakers from art, academia, politics and business.
Hannah Epperson: “This is a song about feeling less or more than normal. Somewhere on either side. I think we can all relate to that.”
As musical act Hannah Epperson, with her violin and looping machine, plaintively—and patiently—competed with the shouted conversations of the crowd, I was astounded by the sheer volume of the talking which only ceased when the girl spoke to briefly introduce her next songs. She is obviously vastly talented, producing singlehanded the sounds of a full string ensemble plus voice, and I was a little offended that the audience was missing it; but then I remembered that this was a design crowd—they were not there to hear music. But it still seemed kind of strange and rude.
Paul Dincer: “. . . now we are more aware than ever that our eating habits are a political declaration and ethical stance against a global system. We are in a different era, and we are witnessing a monumental shift in production . . . this new era requires more understanding of food . . . not just based on our eyes and our tastebuds, based on our awareness that we are not the centre of the universe and we are part of something way bigger than us.”
My initial get-a-load-of-this-guy reaction to Koko Monk chocolates founder Paul Dincer’s talk of post-modern and avant-garde chocolates was quelled once he really got going and started waxing academic about food in relation to literature. This man is a scholar, a philosopher, a chocolate-prophet, and he proved his theory when he described the watermelon and sea salt chocolate he created in reference to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and the entire audience was united in a sigh of “ahhh…”.
David Gunawan: “There is something very real about the kitchen, there is madness, and devoid of any social or mental segregation.”
Of Wildebeest fame and having recently opened a new restaurant—Farmer’s Apprentice—in the westside, David Gunawan was hilariously casual in his speaking style, like talking to an awkward kid in his kitchen after he’s had a couple of beers. But he is passionate and active in his profession; he’s lived the true roaming chef lifestyle and has grand ideas about sort of de-evolving food as it is presented on restaurant tables and moving away from the traditional pretentiousness of the upscale food industry: “we don’t want you to like everything about us . . . the obligation of high end food is kind of mediocre to me.”
Alicia Medina Laddaga: I was fully impressed by this young woman; she is an asset to any city that she happens to be living in and Vancouver should kiss the ground that she walks on. Since arriving from her native Mexico in 2008, she has completed a masters degree in advanced studies in architecture, was a steering committee member of Vancouver Design Nerds, and has started LoHA, a non-profit focused on “exploring and building housing alternatives for creative and emerging professionals.” She is excited about the future of our city and she is not alone. She received a rousing round applause when she asked, in closing: rather than the Greenest City in 2040, “what if Vancouver was the Creativest City in the world?”
Wes Regan: “We need to change the paradigm that we live in, push for new solutions, and we need to test the limits of what we’re capable of if we are to survive or flourish. . . . there is an army of people who want something better for Vancouver.”
Another reminder that there is in fact still good in the world. Regan is concerned about the politics of food, and through his position as Executive Director of Hastings Crossing BIA, which he started, he is working to embed food security policy into the bylaws and constitution of the city.
Jonathan Tippett: “We have been dreaming about a man-amplifying, or a body-amplifying mech suit for millennia, probably even before they had robots—but the thing is, nobody thought to race them before.”
Jonathan Tippett is a self-described mad scientist, and as he talks, growing ever more animatedly passionate about his dream of building a “five-meter tall, wearable walking machine that you strap yourself into, ideally wearing a red jumpsuit,” it starts to dawn on you that, holy shit, this man is actually crazy. But it is crazy genius, and when he describes the realization of his dream in two years time as a reality, you believe him. You want to believe him, because he represents wild, unbridled driven creativity just for the sake of doing something huge and real. His philosophy is using machines to re-connect humans with the physicality of their bodies, in an age when physical effort is becoming less and less necessary. His envisioned machines are completely manually controlled: “this is a sports machine, and the pilot is the athlete.”
The skeptic in me tried to see PechaKucha Night as one more way for a bunch of people to promote their own interests under the guise of “sharing ideas.” But, as I listened to these passionate people who are working hard in their respective fields, who understand that big changes start locally, I started to feel optimistic. The more the city can champion people like the above, the better things are going to get, and I went home that night feeling excited about what is possible, not impossible, in the world.
Some people are like conductors of creative vision; they take in their surroundings, convert it to their own aesthetic, and broadcast it into several different mediums. And the lucky ones, such as Vancouver graphic designer Lindsey Hampton, accomplish a style which strikes a chord and is appreciated by an ever-more-receptive audience.
Gravitating towards the music scene, Hampton was the art director of Dischorder Magazine for two years, and her distinctive gig posters have graced the power poles of the city for almost a decade. Also, she has released an ethereal solo album under the moniker Waters, and is part of the “garage” band Failing.
While being paid to creatively design the music industry would be enough for most, Hampton has continued to explore disciplines and has branched into the realm of ceramics, a new venture for her which is already garnering online and local attention.
“It came at a time when I was quite busy with design, I just had this urge to make things,” she says. “I really, really wanted to make three dimensional objects. With design, everything’s flat, even if you design it and later it’s three dimensional, you’re still visualizing it on a flat field or surface. I always really liked ceramics and I like working with my hands so I just decided it was something I wanted to try out, and I loved it.”
Hampton’s ceramics have a distinctive style; clean and modern, striking subtle balance between muted off-whites and soft colours. It is notably reflective of her other design work, indicating an adherence to style which she says is subconscious.
“I think I am drawn to certain colour palettes and certain shapes, and I didn’t purposely go into ceramics with the idea that it would look like my design work, but I think anybody who does any form of art, if they do a different form it’ll probably look like they did it, which I think is really important for any artist to be able to be cohesive with any kind of work that they do. So the fact that people have recognized that [her ceramics] looks like [her design work], I’m super happy that that happened. I think it’s just that I like things to look the way I like. It’s pretty easy, when you’re used to designing, you think in shapes and colour and form, and positive and negative space, and all the design principles and elements. Learning those, you can basically put those into anything you do in life, even if it’s decorating a house, or landscaping a garden. It’s all the same, it’s the same principles throughout everything.”
Hampton made her first cd cover in 2004, then went to the Art Institute for graphic design at age 23. “I think I sort of understood a little bit more that, especially with graphic design and art based stuff, that it’s not about a degree.”
Her first job was for Vancouver production company Sealed With a Kiss, for whom she did overflow poster design work, and now her posters are seen constantly and all over the city. “I just sort of fell in love with it,” she says. “It’s one of those things where everyone sees everything you do because they’re plastered around the city. People start recognizing your work because they see it, and things snowball from there.”
While an admitted web-o-phobe, Hampton admits that her already established reputation and online following has been a catalyst for the attention her ceramics have received. Business has been coming unsolicited through her website and Instagram, including an order for the Craft and Design Museum in San Francisco and One of a Few, a shop in Gastown which was her first wholesale order.
“That’s an interesting world, the internet world, for an artist. Sometimes I feel weird about it, and other times I realize I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for this. I had to get good at talking about myself, it’s not in my nature. The day I signed up for Twitter, I was like, (sighs), I have to be this person now, who’s like ‘I’m doing this today, check out this thing I just did’. You have to do that. Unless you have someone to do it for you.”
Her client base so far is in the U.S. and potentially Australia. “I guess it depends on what you want to do with your career, but if you’re trying to make a living in a small, expensive, not super art-based city, then you have to reach elsewhere, and the internet is how you do that.”
-Art by Lindsey Hampton
Also seen at Trim Projects.
The beautiful chaos of Erin Templeton‘s bag stitching room.
I’ve been trying to capture the essence of the weather we’ve been having—bright blue sky contrasted against the colours of the turning leaves; cool, crisp, true fall days which are so rare around here. I think the extra exposure to bright light is making everyone uncommonly happy. Is it just me or are people being more friendly lately?