Our first solo graphic art show at, Possible Worlds, is Orientations, featuring the work of Toronto-based illustrator Vanessa (“Ness”) Lee. Ness is a recent graduate from OCAD University in Toronto, but in a few short years has become recognized for her distinctive illustration style and subject matter. Selected as a top illustrator by American Illustration, Society of Illustrators and CMYK magazines, Ness has shown at exhibitions and fairs in Canada and internationally. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Lucky Peach, BUST and Maisonneuve.
Ness’ illustrations, ceramics and prints at first glance can be viewed as playful and humorous renditions of familiar Asian icons, from sumo wrestlers to lucky cats to noodle bowls. A closer look reveals a body of work that explores the complex relationship between self and one’s place in contemporary culture and society.
In her show Orientations, Ness draws on her personal experiences – negotiating what it means to be Hakka-Chinese Canadian, a person of colour, an artist, a young female, a daughter – to portray multifaceted characters, often in vulnerable positions and contexts. At the same time, Ness subtly brings attention to and challenges traditional perceptions of Asian beauty, sexuality, nudity and power, bringing together pieces of her cultural heritage to create a strong and candid visual narrative of her own.
Here’s what Ness had to say about her work:
1. Describe your path to what you’re doing now. What got you interested in illustration?
My path was actually kind of unplanned when it comes to how I arrived at the decision to study illustration. I always knew that my future would involve art and design in someway.
It was actually after working at an art store I had a coworker explain to me the concept about what illustration is – how you are creating these images to convey a message, designing, conceptualizing and conceiving a illustration that is not only pleasing to the eye but also strongly compliments its accompanied content . I just thought that was simply amazing because it was everything I wanted to tackle when it comes to art and creation.
So later on that year I applied to OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto) for illustration, and through my learning and meeting amazingly talent friends I have come to be obsessed with experimentation with materials and creating art and illustration.
2. What or who are some of your influences?
I am very into Asian folk art and Japanese wood block printing. What influences me is work that is visually striking in concept and aesthetic. The more “feels”, the better. Work that is personal and that comes from a deep and honest place is something that I find so endearing when it comes to art.
3. Describe your creative process. What techniques/tools/materials do you use to translate your ideas into your work?
As of late I have been doing more and more ink drawings with my illustrations. Keeping to simple black and white is something I have been thoroughly enjoying doing at the moment. I also paint my work often with acrylics or acrylic gouache and I love to experiment with different materials and surfaces such as fabrics and ceramics.
My creative process differs depending on the material/project. At times- especially with my ceramics- creation and the glazing has been in the moment and instinctual. In a stream of consciousness sort of way, I have been exercising personal expression in a more instant manner with ceramics.
With illustration it is different. A lot of planning, roughs and conceptual development. I find most of my creative process is within my sketchbook whether it be drawing or diary entries.
4. Could you describe your typical day for us? And what’s one tip you could offer to aspiring illustrators in organizing their work?
Strangely I have no typical days – I have a strange schedule that is packed in. Between teaching, serving and putting my art in order, things get really chaotic.
I definitely do encourage a well-organized space because it really does a world of a difference in productivity and well-being. That of course is something I should follow as well – my studio is in a constant disarray!
5. Your show, Orientations, shows the exploration of your personal reflections on culture, society and self over the last few years. Could you tell us more a bit about these works in particular? Where did you draw your inspiration from?
For Orientations, I wanted to extend the dialogue from my last series, I Don’t Speak Chinese, to a more present reflection and response. In my earlier work I was, in short, having trouble finding where I fit in culturally and socially. I was Asian and at the same time I didn’t feel like I belonged to that category. I would be involved in a group of predominantly Asian people and never felt comfortable. I didn’t speak a drop of Chinese and was struggling with the idea of tradition from a culture that I felt at the time didn’t love me back.
Those feelings, the displacement- although still quite present – have subsided into how I want to expand in my work about being an Asian artist and finding my way of identity. In a way, it’s a more matured approach to I Don’t Speak Chinese.
6. How have you seen your work develop or change over the years?
Over the years I found I have done a lot of experimentation with different mediums and have really expanded on my conceptual thinking, applying illustration using those different mediums and thinking about the medium and surface itself and what it means to have an illustration applied -an added depth of meaning along with (at most times) an additional layer in functionality- whether it be a ceramic dish- or a soft sumo plushie.
I think in terms of development I have grown in decisiveness in expression. My lines are stronger and confidence in the subtleties I want in expression are being conveyed.
I still have a desire for really dense pieces but at the same time enjoying the exploration of simpler, more sparse work packed with a stillness in the moment.
6. As part of your practice, you also coordinate Small Ass Zines. Could you tell us a bit more about SAZ and how it fits in with your practice?
SAZ is a project that was birthed based on my desire for community and collaboration. I wanted to create a connection with other creatives using zines as a creative outlet while at the same time spreading the work as far and wide as I possibly can. I also love a challenge and am a sucker for teeny tiny cute things.
I think as a creative it is so important to have collaborations, support each other and continue to have unique interactions in order to grow- I am a strong believer of surrounding yourself with people that inspire and motivate and hopefully SAZ does that in someway!
7. Currently you’re based in Toronto. How’s it like living there as an artist?
I love Toronto. There is something about the city that is so cold (literally and metaphorically ) and so comforting. I feel like sometimes to love Toronto you have to find the ‘secret’ whether it be good friends, great communities or amazing adventures. Then again, that same idea can be applied to something such as school, work, anything where It’s all about what you make of it. Toronto is yours for the taking only if you want it. Living here as an artist is great! I think Toronto is a bustling hub for art and you have ample opportunity to be inspired everyday.
8. What creative projects are up next for you?
I have currently sent SAZ to the Zine Society Library Exhibition in Dallas, Texas at Central Trak’s Artist Residency and Gallery and will also be showing the tiny zines at Canzine in Toronto this year.
As for myself, I am looking to expand my work onto different products like apparel and further explore ceramics in terms of reproduction. I will be continuing to illustrate and explore different and larger surfaces.
Also later in the year I will be part of Grumpy Bert’s 3rd Year Anniversary Show and will be bringing my works with a new zine to Zine Friends at The Cotton Candy Machine Factory as part of Comic Arts Brooklyn! Also hopefully I will be doing a Christmas show selling my wares and things as well.
9. Top 3 artists/illustrators/designers you’re into right now?
Ahh! There are too many! Sophie Calle has been an artist I have been admiring for a while now. Recently I have been very into Ray Johnson‘s work. In terms of illustration there are just too many! Ahh!