Ailsa Johnson has been living in Japan for a couple of years now, and the culture has seeped into her illustrations. Hints of exotic foods, prawns and street vendors, rice and chopsticks, oriental reds and greens, dragons, birds and temples permeate her work. They have strong Asian influences, not only in content but also in style.
Like the Ukiyo-e the illustrations are kept flat, with unusual cropping creating unsettling narratives. Recently the artist has been inspired by the kimono. “There is a very formal system for how to wear a kimono regarding shapes and lines”, she tells us. “But, within that system, there’s this incredible amount of creativity, colour and pattern”. This traditional Japanese garment is symbolic of her own work, which avoids being twee by the use of sharp angles and a rich, vibrant colour palette. These create a slightly fantastical and foreboding undertone.
Ailsa is inspired by everyday magic, the “cultural traditions, festivals, superstitions and rituals that we hold onto just for fun”, she explains. Her illustrations for Culture Trip have a surreal edge, hands float and snakes wind. Colour is the most important aesthetic aspect for Ailsa, and the tones she uses seem smooth and velvety across the page, plum purples and deep reds make the illustrations come to life.
The illustrator often returns to food. “I love reading about food as much as I like eating it”, she explains. “Food history and culture are fascinating to me. That translates into things that I want to portray visually as well”. What we eat is always tied into who we are as a culture, and as chopsticks spookily move in towards tangled octopus legs, we are reminded of how the Japanese eat shellfish alive. The term in Japanese is Odorigui, which literally translates as “dancing eating”; this wriggling ballet is beautifully portrayed in Ailsa’s illustration.
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