“I am reluctant to show my emotions to others”: Vanilla Chi reveals her true self through story-led illustrations
Personal pain and nostalgia fuel the New York-based illustrator's work. Here, she tells us more about her expressive practice.
- Jyni Ong
- 13 January 2021
By the time Vanilla Chi had learnt to walk in the halls of her childhood house in Shenzhen, China, she was already drawing on the walls. Her parents have told her how she would use any medium accessible, whether that’s coloured pencil, pastel, sand, rock or flowers. Growing up, she recalls the visual stimuli that would go on to inform her illustrative practice to date. Cartoons, comics and magazines were all prosperous material providing inspiration for the young Vanilla, and she specifically remembers a fondness for anything cute or particularly girlish.
This marks the illustrator’s first exposure to art. Currently residing in New York where she’s in her last final year of studies at the School of Visual Arts, Vanilla did not always feel that she was destined for a career in the arts. “Before I turned 20, I was no different from most Chinese students,” she tells us. “I entered a good elementary school, a good junior school, got a good score in the college entrance exams, and finally went on to study clinical medicine, ‘a good profession’.” In time, she realised it was not the life for her, and dropped out of university in China and moved to New York to pursue the thing that she’d always loved: illustration.
Vanilla’s works are undisputedly beautiful. Her illustrations can be seen in different styles from quiet monochrome to jubilantly colourful. However uniting it all, no matter how experimental her work may seem on the surface, is a characteristically calm and tragic mood that suspends the viewer in the tight grip of engagement. Full of absurdity, time seems to stand still in Vanilla’s work. Illustration is an important outlet of expression for her, as she admits: “I am reluctant to show my emotions to others.” Instead, she lets her work speak for herself.
Scenes of contemplation are rife in Vanilla’s work. She aims to strike a delicate balance between tones of straightforwardness and ambiguity. “I prefer to arrange my work as a show, not only in their composition but also in their storytelling,” she adds of her work’s intentions. “I want to hide something, and the real content needs to be presented slowly over time.” In this way, Vanilla achieves an eternal essence to her work as there is always something to uncover in the layers of meaning. It’s a sustainable existence that she hopes all her work beholds.
Lately, it’s feelings of personal pain and nostalgia that fuel her creative practice. Due to the pandemic, Vanilla hasn’t been able to visit her family for two years, something she misses dearly. “In traditional Chinese culture,” she further explains, “we believe everyone has a ‘root’. For me, the root is like an elastic rope – the longer I am away from home, the tighter the elastic rope becomes. Now I almost cannot take the elasticity, so they become my works today.” Communicating how she really feels through illustration, Vanilla takes us through her latest comic series Inside/Outside. Inspired by an experience while taking ID photos, she remembers the way the photographer looked at her as he was about to click the shutter, while Vanilla looked down at her clenching fists to help with the nerves.
The comic, in turn, reveals hidden emotions on how she really feels as opposed to the feelings others think she is experiencing when they observe her. Each page delves into a different scenario from reading, taking medicine, drawing, smoking and cutting hair. Using only black and white and halftone textures, the serene images intend to convey “a simple sense of nothingness” – a reflection of Vanilla’s state of mind. It’s a mood similarly achieved in Edward Yang’s film A One and a Two, which inspired Vanilla to tell her story in this way. In the Taiwanese film, the director depicts a young boy who loves to photograph the back of other people’s heads. In a notable line, the protagonist says: “I’m going to tell people what they don’t know, show them what they can’t see”; something Vanilla subtly reveals through her own works too.
Personal experiences pour into the emotion of Vanilla’s work. She uses illustration as a therapeutic method of exposing past scars in order to re-affirm the person she is today. Bullying and loneliness are vivid themes in her work, harking back to painful memories of being disliked by her childhood classmates. Toys and carnival-themed motifs express her nostalgia for toys and amusement parks and she tends to adorn her characters with expressionless faces to uncover the pain and depression felt inside. “These experiences constitute who I am,” she says, “and I just work with my memories to make an honest expression.”
In Spring, Vanilla is set to graduate and though she thinks the real world may prove tough for the budding artist, she hopes that she can fulfil her desires. Prior to that big step out into the world, however, there are plenty of pending projects on the cards. Currently she is studying Chinese funeral and ritual culture in the hopes of developing a new project around it. Elsewhere, Vanilla and friends have founded an art book and zine studio, Pearl Slug Studio as an outlet for her self-published works. She is also ready to embark on new collaborations, creative endeavours that will help ready the illustrator for the daunting yet exciting possibilities of post-graduation life.
Vanilla Chi: Inside/Outside (Copyright © Vanilla Chi, 2020)
About the Author
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.