What if bacteria celebrated Christmas? Illustrator Wenjing Yang investigates

Creating work that explores the “what ifs”, the New York-based illustrator Wenjing Yang tells us how speculative fiction serves as her biggest inspiration.

27 May 2022

Like many creatives, illustrator Wenjing Yang is broadly inspired by her adjacent mediums. From graphic design, photography and even fashion design, she tells us how, as an art school student, she “enjoys absorbing any form of visual art”. But, perhaps her biggest inspiration comes from the written word, specifically speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction is a genre that explores imaginary, otherworldly concepts whilst still maintaining a level of ‘rationality’ throughout the plot. Or, as Wenjing describes it, “the author always starts from a small change and imagines how the world will be turned upside down”. It’s this way of thinking (or storytelling) that most inspires the illustrator’s work, which has resulted in a Christmas-themed world built from a small “what if”. Throughout the project, Wenjing imagined “what it would be like if bacteria and viruses also celebrated the holiday”. Christmas Dinner, for example, sees Wenjing create a truly toxic looking table top scene, with bacteria ridden jelly and fungus in abundance – her luminescent style lending perfectly to the scene. And, in the witty Christmas Menu, a rib cage provides the backbone of a menu, various parts of the anatomy listed as edible substances. “I like visual storylines that have an eeriness and uncanny feeling”, Wenjing summarises, “in which something in the story is counterintuitive and makes audiences a bit uncomfortable.”

As previously mentioned, it’s Wenjing’s brilliant use of colour that really highlights and accentuates the themes and feelings throughout her work. Interestingly, this aptitude with colour arose when Wenjing was experimenting with oil painting in her sophomore year of college. “I was obsessed with painting dramatic lighting back then, and the primary colours of light red, green and blue still dominate my illustrations now,” Wenjing says. “I also love using complementary colours to create visual conflicts; I don't exactly know why, but I just feel satisfied placing complementary colours next to each other.”


Wenjing Yang: Christmas Dinner (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2021)

From an early age, Wenjing knew that she wanted to make a career out of her drawings. So much so that when majoring in illustration at School of Visual Arts in New York, she didn’t really know what illustration actually constituted, she just knew it meant she could draw and paint for home work – “like a dream come true”. Immersing herself in learning techniques and the joy of creating, it wasn’t long before Wenjing realised that she had “totally ignored the role of this major in the industry, and how to be an illustrator”. Wenjing then hit a wall when she realised she didn’t know how to complete her thesis assignment for her junior year, and the things she did produce, she “didn’t like at all”. It was this emotional setback that Wenjing now sees as having triggered her illustration career. “I took a gap year in 2021 because of the pandemic, so I had a break to organise what I had learned in the past three years and learn what the illustration field is like”, Wenjing explains. Taking on a number of commission-like assignments from her senior instructor, it was then that Wenjing felt her style beginning to solidify.

Now an assignment whiz, Wenjing cites one of her favourite recent pieces named El Cosmico. Created in response to a brief, Wenjing was tasked with creating an illustration based off one of three perfumes. Choosing a fragrance with a “woody” aroma that was inspired the “desert airs of Marfa” – a desert located beneath “the cosmic axis" – Wenjing was eager to base her work off the “desert air”. Showing showers of shooting stars and constellations, a burning fire and a lone figure standing in wait, the scene could easily have been plucked from a film. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a speculative fiction novel.


Wenjing Yang: Our Body Is Our Garden (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2022)


Wenjing Yang: Christmas Menu (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2021)


Wenjing Yang: Specimen Workshop (Copyrig ht © Wenjing Yang, 2021)


Wenjing Yang: El Cosmico (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2022)


Wenjing Yang: Still Life #1 (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2021)


Wenjing Yang: Covid Insomnia (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2021)


Wenjing Yang: What Can I Hold You with (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2022)


Wenjing Yang: Still Life #2 (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2021)

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Wenjing Yang: Unsafe (Copyright © Wenjing Yang, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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