Lily Kong on bringing themes of loneliness and vulnerability into her work since the lockdowns
The London-based illustrator tells us about how the pandemic has affected her work, particularly, and how she manages to hold onto her sense of humour.
- Ruby Boddington
- 14 September 2021
We all learned a lot about ourselves during the lockdowns and London-based illustrator Lily Kong was no different. “Despite being rather introverted, I noticed that I do crave socialising with people,” she recalls. The loneliness she felt during that time of isolation has significantly impacted the work she’s produced since. Luckily, with all the extra time on her hands, she was able to spend a lot of time drawing, something which proved to be an outlet and turned a “chaotic and confusing” time into a productive one.
Since we last wrote about Lily, she’s completed an MA in Graphic Communication Design at Central Saint Martins, thinking that she would end up working as a graphic designer. “Surprise, surprise,” she jokes, “I learnt that I was much more interested in wonky drawings, developing relatable stories and exploring my visual language. I could not give up making meme drawings.”
Since the pandemic, themes of loneliness and vulnerability have crept into Lily’s practice, as the two have had a bigger presence in her life. “During the MA, I was often asked to find a ‘line of enquiry’ for my projects – which is kind of a summary of what you were working towards,” she explains. “Mine was to ‘explore the humour that can be found in loneliness and how we can feel better by exchanging intimate stories.’”
This idea formed the basis of one of Lily’s most recent projects, I’m Fine. Having always loved “taking the piss out of daily life,” and as a way to “ease the pain from feeling lonely,” Lily began to directly document conversations overheard on buses, or stories told to her by strangers as a series of postcards. Each participant received one postcard as an exchange, meaning they were not just interacting with Lily but with someone else in the project too. “I would post an Instagram story with question stickers, asking strangers to share their day. I would then use these inputs to make new drawings, comics and even little poems as responses,” she explains. The aim, however, was to always find the humour in these stories: “Since making myself feel better became particularly essential in the year of the pandemic, I wanted to introduce this same care to my friends and my audience, hoping that they will feel better in these tough times.”
GalleryLily Kong: I’m Fine (Copyright © Lily Kong, 2021)
On how she straddles sensitively telling difficult stories while attempting to make people laugh, Lily says it’s all about empathy. She adds that you have to design the process for how a piece is going to be received, not just what it looks like. “It’s like having a conversation with your mates in the pub,” she says. “You chat about shit in life and your friends take the piss out of it, but only visually!”
Aesthetically, Lily opted to avoid illustrating the event at the heart of each story, and instead pulled individual elements from them. “I reimagine what would happen if things were taken slightly out of context, like creating a sequel from a TV show,” she explains. “This approach often changes the focus of the narrative, making a joke out of it but not making fun of other’s pain.” The stories are then often depicted in “a minimal space, populated by nervous-looking human characters that suggest the vulnerability of the protagonists and ridiculous-ness of being alive.” Tying all of the postcards together is the ending phrase “I’m fine” – one Lily describes as “full of denial and self-affirmation. It suggests closure to their stories and acts as a reminder that they want to believe that they are going to be fine.” Ending a story with “I’m fine” also “validates their wishes to feel better” she adds.
On the client side of things, Lily has also been working hard. She was asked to create illustrations for Sogo Seibu’s campaign which was centred around nature, sustainability and green lifestyles. “Finding the balance between a delicately painted nature scene and a clean vector design was challenging,” Lily explains. “I was constantly debating on how wonky the trees can be, how much texture the bushes can have without losing much harmony.” It was a new challenge for her, therefore, and she describes the process as somewhat foreign. Wanting to maintain the same qualities in the flat illustrations as the window displays, Lily chose to create lots of layers in the work: “They not only hint at the space of the forest scenes, but also create a bigger ‘shock’ when looking at a giant glass-box-canvas from far.”
She also designed T-shirts and bags for Gas As Interface, who launched the For Earth For Us campaign to raise awareness of the climate crisis and sustainability in Japan. Lily, in turn, imagined planet earth as a living being that can speak for itself, once again using humour as a device to grasp “the attention of the audience and introduce them to the related issues.” It’s for this reason, she explains, the “illustration consists of cute characters, bright colours, and a piece of blunt but sassy text.”
Looking to the future, Lily is open to taking more submissions for I’m Fine, so make sure you reach out if you would like to be involved. With plenty of other projects on the go, she’s open to any new commissions and collaborations and says she’ll be spending a large chunk of her in-between time reading: “My current read is Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.”
Lily Kong: For Earth For Us (Copyright ©Gas As Interface, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.