“Cute, comforting and sometimes funny” – Dana Kearley’s cheery illustrations de-stigmatise disability and chronic illness
The Vancouver-based illustrator uses a light-hearted and colourful visual style to explore the nuances of her experiences living in a sick and disabled body.
- Elfie Thomas
- 22 February 2022
You’ll often find the sinuous forms of worms, turtles and snails in Dana Kearley’s illustrations. “They symbolise the way some of us move though the world, at a slower pace, but we’re still going in the same direction”, the artist tells It’s Nice That. Through her brightly-coloured and fun-filled body of work, Dana explores her experiences of living in a “sick and disabled body”. She has developed a rich visual vocabulary for communicating the nuances of this experience: “Butterflies symbolise the pelvic bone, and the pelvic bone symbolises endometriosis, which is one of the illnesses that I have,” she tells us. “It manifests in my pelvic region and in my uterus and ovaries, so that’s why you may see some reproductive systems in my work as well!”
In her illustrations, imagery associated with disability (mobility aids, beds, medications etc.) is interpreted with Dana's trademark “cute, comforting and sometimes funny” visual style. Seeing her practice as a “healing process” and an acknowledgement of the difficulties she experienced during childhood, she often revisits the comforting imagery of illustrated books, cartoons and the stickers she collected as a child. These influences combine heart-warmingly in Disabled Teddies. Channelling the kitschness of some of her favourite animation shows (including The Gummy Bears and The Care Bears), nine teddies hold walking sticks and smile cheekily at the viewer, radiating from their dark background in a sumptuous range of high contrast colour palettes.
The joyful colour palette in Disabled Teddies, helps to celebrate and normalise the imagery of disability within the illustrative language of children’s books and cartoons – areas in which disability and illness are often under-represented or ignored. Studying colour, gradient and texture always plays an important role in bringing Dana's figures to life. She likes to place colours together “using palettes that you might not commonly see, especially in nature”. The colours, music, fashion and patterns of the 80s provide a “goldmine” of inspiration for her in this respect.
When it comes to composing her ideas, Dana likes to work in Photoshop. “I find digital illustration is the most accessible, as I can work from the couch, bed, or the studio!” But her creative process can vary from day-to-day and is often “dictated” by her health. “Having various ways to work is necessary when you’re sick and disabled”, she tells us. She has delighted in experimenting with many a medium since childhood (drawing, painting, crafting, sewing, and jewellery making, among others) but in 2007 she began honing her practice when she attended art school.
“When I started out I struggled to be seen by my teachers. My paintings and drawings were too “illustrative” for them… but I wanted to be an illustrator, so I didn’t see what the big deal was!” So Dana stuck to her gut, following the lead of artist Marcel Dzama, whose work fluctuates between the disciplines of art and illustration, she continued developing her own unique style. “It was a very slow journey, but I continued to work on my art and illustrations everyday, and eventually it evolved into my career. Illustration just feels natural! I love it.”
Dana Kearley: Bed Scene (Copyright © Dana Kearley, 2021).
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.