Inspired by Tibetan Buddhist thangkas, Mellow Meadow’s hypnotic and swirling depictions explore motherhood and nature

Learning from the unbridled freedom of outsider art, the illustrator explores the notion of motherhood, weighing up the beauty of nature’s process with societal expectations.

13 September 2021

Mellow Meadow, otherwise known as Yue Li, is a New York-based illustrator who has born in Shanghai. Currently studying at the prestigious School of Visual Arts, Mellow’s creations appear above and beyond her years. One reason for this, she tells us, is that she thinks she has “an old heart”. She tells us about her beautifully intricate artworks which express a nuanced view of femininity and expectations of women. “I believe art that is able to travel through time is unique to its fullest,” she tells us. In this way, she looks to global ancient wall paintings and folk art to inform her illustrations; a resemblance you can see in her mural-like, almost religious and hypnotic swirling depictions.

Inspired by the originality of folk and outsider art, Mellow is drawn to creative expression that is fulfilled outside of an academic context. It “has much life and originality in it,” says the illustrator, pointing to Danhuang wall painting, Ukiyo-e, and Southeast Asian Islamic painting, just to name a few. She likes to collect books and publications revealing the histories of these ancestral artefacts, particularly keen to study how people from those times documented their harmonious existence with animals and nature, a stark contrast to modern life abundant with cement and concrete jungles.

Hand drawn textures are key for Mellow when tapping into these creative flows as she believes “it can communicate a sense of warmth through the paper and it requires intimate participation with the material.” This started out with coloured pencils, and gradually, she started working with watercolours. Drawing with coloured pencils remains a “meditative” material for Mellow – “it feels like weaving to me,” she says, nodding to its soft and repetitive movements which lock her into the zone. Then, when she includes the fluidity of the brush, she introduces an element of unpredictability and spontaneity which contrasts the control of the defined pencil, “which I feel excited about,” she adds.


Mellow Meadow: Chaotic Symphony (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)

Growing up, Mellow often thought of herself as an outsider. Though she enjoyed being around people, she maintained a distance from them which consequently, gave her more time to nurture her creativity. This duality in socialisation also seeps into her illustration work as on one hand, she wants to create an artistic world that invites people into the immersive landscapes. At the same time, however, she rejects the audience in a similar vein to outsider artists, and channels themes of intimacy, femininity, nature, biology and spirituality, purely for herself. “I like to imagine a surreal world in my head,” she adds, “away from the daily life with myself inside it, sometimes as a molecule, sometimes as a creature, sometimes as the creator.”

Humans, animals and nature intertwine as one in Mellow’s illustrations. These entities exist as one: “they live humbly and worship Mother Nature,” says Mellow on her utopian illustrations. “They love each other and cherish the friendship of women. They are comfortable with their body, their identities and are confident with expressing their desires,” adds Mellow on her colourful paradises which project her own desires and fantasies. She talks us through a couple of recent works, the first being a roll of watercolour drawings titled Genesis and inspired by thangka, a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk appliqué representing a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala. Combining elements of bagnu, yin yang and a myriad of creatures in the sky, water and land, the illustration is made with the hope that “women within this world are capable of owning their full autonomy, owning their body and identity.”

Through these works, Mellow explores her own internalised opinions of maternity. “I have a very complicated view on the idea,” she tells us. “On one hand, I think the idea of maternity is beautiful. It leads to the continuation of species and the new birth of life.” All aspects of the birthing process happen inside a female-born person’s body; pregnancy, gestation and birth, and when Mellow thinks about this she feels powerful. By contrast, she also acknowledges the social pressures of motherhood and the wider expectations that sometimes come with this role. In Genesis, Mellow captures both these ideas. She illustrates a womb at the centre of the artwork which connects a manner of living creatures connected to the organ. Entwined in the detailed imagery, however, is the image of both human and tiger. This female animal has children dancing in its womb and a grotesque head connected to an umbilical cord jumping out its body, representing “the unescapable gender roles and responsibilities women might have to take to take to become a mother.”


Mellow Meadow: Genesis (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: Falling Down (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: Pride (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: Queendom (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: Tear Sento (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: The Womb (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: Fire of Love (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)


Mellow Meadow: Girls Bathhouse Diptych (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)

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Mellow Meadow: Secret Love (Copyright © Mellow Meadow, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

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