Inspired by tragedies and nostalgia, Vanilla Chi – the New York City-based illustrator – has the power to translate negative feelings into beautiful, delicate and peaceful drawings. She uses art as a weapon to talk about the transcendence and harsh reality that women, and more specifically, Asian women, still have to go through, all from her own experience and perspective. “I’m a female. I’m Asian. I like girls and Asian culture, so that's what I draw. The more I grew up, the more I realised it’s so important to express my original identity,” she says.
Her latest work We Stand As One is like a dance between this harsh reality, that has been emphasised by the rise of anti-Asian racism around the Western world, and traditional Asian aesthetic references. Certainly, talking to Vanilla Chi has been a healing and inspiring experience, and during this interview, we chat about her art, her origins and mental health in general. Are you ready to meet her?
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 9.jpg
Who’s behind Vanilla Chi’s illustrations? Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m a Chinese freelance illustrator, designer, independent publisher, and a Sunday painter currently working in New York City. I graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration last year. I have worked for The New York Times, VICE, It’s Nice That, Olympic, Kiblind, and in advertising, publishing, packaging, etc. Tragedies and nostalgia are always the main themes in my work.
When was the first time that you defined yourself as an artist?
Honestly, I never defined myself as an ‘artist,’ even though my study fields and artistic expressions usually fall under the category of ‘fine art.’ One of my teachers once said that creative people end up with a huge ego, so I try to put myself down and avoid using the so-called ‘artist’ to label myself. From my very personal perspective, people who enter the art system are not pure in their creative work, they don't do ‘pure art’ under my definition. Even if they do, it is tough to achieve.
And that’s why I admire outsider and folk artists, who truly do observe, record, and create without being held hostage by marketing, without thinking about “Where is my audience?,” and “How do I cater to my audience?” I don’t think I have done good enough so far, but at least, becoming such an artist is my ultimate goal.
I’ve read that you express your emotions better through your pieces than with words, and your imagery speaks a lot about anxiety, pain and nostalgia. What made you realise that you found inspiration in these kinds of emotions?
It’s pretty natural and it sounds clichéd (laughs). I have lived with bipolar disorder for 7 years but hardly told my story to others. When I first came to New York to study illustration, I realised that I was the only person who could show my pain and experience to try and get help and comfort.
Doing emotionally relevant work is sometimes a risky move. There is no way to create when you are in terrible shape. You can only do self-analysis when your state is relatively stable, and then calmly deal with composition, shapes and colours. I don't think a venting piece is good enough for me. The real good work should be the therapist.
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 14.jpg
Aren’t you afraid to express these feelings in such a public way?
Of course, I grew up in an environment that stigmatised mental illness. Public expression definitely enlarges this insecurity. But I know I’m just being honest, so I don’t care anymore.
Do you think people know how to identify them? Is it something important for you?
It doesn’t matter. If somebody relates to it or if somebody feels the beauty... it’s all fine.
If there is one thing that speaks for itself, it’s your delicate and detailed aesthetic. How would you define it? What are the values you like to transmit as an artist?
The delicate and detailed aesthetic is genuinely my personal preference! I am generally inspired by traditional East Asian art, I'm especially fascinated by the ‘architectural’ aesthetics of order. Maybe because I previously majored in clinical medicine? I love the beauty of mathematics, physics and experimental diagrams, so my works are usually geometric. At the same time, I appreciate the vitality conveyed by maximalism.
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 13.jpg
One of your works, Museum of Friendship, features many types of girls’ appearance represented through room decorations for their different personalities, but who live in the same house that you named as ‘museum’ in the title. Could you tell us more about the idea behind this?
Museum of Friendship is a pop-up store campaign for an exhibition of a Chinese clothing brand I was involved with in the summer of 2021. This clothing brand has many sub-brands for different girls (travel, every day, jewellery, y2k, etc.) So I came up with the idea to do a dollhouse presenting the idea that girls’ appearance can vary. We are not defined by age, outfit, or lifestyle. Interestingly, the dollhouse is miniature art, and the predecessor of the museum is the Cabinet of Curiosities, so I believe this approach is perfect for this brand.
Besides, you always take female characters as the protagonists of all of your works. From what perspective do you work on femininity? Or do you just get so involved in your drawings that they are self-portraits?
Most of the female characters in my works are more or less self-portraits or the projection I want to achieve. I’m a female. I’m Asian. I like girls and Asian culture, so that's what I draw. The more I grew up, the more I realised it’s so important to express my original identity.
You mentioned that for you it’s important to express your identity in your work. You launched a project with It's Nice That, a comic book called We Stand As One in which you delve into the representation and inequalities of Asian women in today's society. How did this project come about?
I started working on this back when the Covid-19 had been spreading in the United States for a year. Since the beginning of the epidemic, the Asian community has suffered a lot of discrimination and hate crimes. Until then, I had rarely paid deliberate attention to the Asian community in the United States and its history and status of it, until hate crimes actually started happening all around me, and it was too close for me to remain silent. It so happened that Jyni Ong, the editor of It's Nice That, came to me to do this feature and we hit it off immediately.
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 26.jpg
Was it vital for you to work on a project like this?
It was a dilemma for me to work on this project because when doing a topic about racial discrimination as an Asian, it may be necessary to select specific elements to show that Asians are being discriminated against and show one's racial identity at the same time. I use some irony in my projects, but there are still viewers who feel offended by it. I think it's important not to shy away from words that are used to discriminate against Asians, but to reverse stereotypes.
So, in the end, I chose to do it my own way. Was it ever intended otherwise? This is not a new story. This text, comic and poster are, as Audre Lorde said, an expression of “No new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
Working on projects like this is important to me, and I think these kinds of topics are issues that no one in the Asian community can afford to ignore. But how to interpret it becomes my long-term challenge, I don't want to do propaganda type of work, I still want a natural expression, like I am just a documentarian.
Tell us a little about the creative process of We Stand As One.
This series was conceived and created in a relatively short period of time (14 days). It was quite a challenge to create five comics and a poster in such a time frame. I adopted an ‘object-based’ approach. I often use metaphors in my work, and this series is the most obvious. I chose as words/concepts puppet, face, panda kettle, copper pot, octagonal moon lyre, pandas, octagonal moon lute, butterfly cage, magpie, lantern, funeral candle, lantern and lucky ball to refer to Asians, stereotype, prejudice, silence, isolation, targeting, killing and solidarity. The physical elements I have chosen are all familiar to us from East Asian culture and form an implicit connection with the intention of pointing to a kind of ‘tacit understanding’ for us.
How would you describe this work in a few words?
I created this work from the personal perspective of a Chinese person living in the US, by researching and selecting objects with so-called oriental elements and attaching them to metaphors in a quiet, fragile, glassy atmosphere. I sincerely hope that my comic story can bring empathy, humanistic care and courage to our community. We stand together, we make our voices heard. We are in this together.
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 11.jpg
We can read really harsh phrases such as: “We are expected to be silent, isolated” in the illustrations, written out in pastel tones. Tell us, is there any relation between these phrases and the drawings?
In the “We are expected to be silent” panel, I drew a traditional Chinese musical instrument called octagonal moon lyre, which symbolises the ‘Asian voice’ that is ‘cut’ by the scissors around it. In the “isolated” panel, I drew a butterfly cage, which symbolises the isolation of Asians, as if they were imprisoned. This was evident from the start of the pandemic, where many times the injustices suffered by Asian groups were generalised and not labelled as crimes against Asians by the media, and even my close teachers and American friends didn't see anything special about it.
These objects are beautiful, beautiful depictions of my Asian community, and I think the viewer can be aware of their own beauty when they see such imagery, that we have a beautiful history and personal stories. Don't try to destroy beautiful things, understand them and make some voice. There is very little I can do, and it would be nice if I could raise awareness towards this, as well as allow groups outside of Asia to see what we feel and experience.
We live in a world where people take mental health issues such as depression or anxiety as taboo. Do you think your work helps to normalise having a conversation around them or is it something that you aren't interested in? Many artists hate these questions because they just do what they want to do, without the need to carry these social responsibilities. What’s your take on this?
Our understanding of mental illness has improved so much from 50 years ago, I think we should not be ashamed of having a mental disorder because it’s so common already, right? As for my work, personal expression is of course the first priority, while the social responsibility and various significant meanings are incidental to it. Sometimes you hold a big vision of social responsibility, and the work fails to impress people instead. Because artists can usually only make sincere work from a very small personal perspective unless they want to make propaganda. Art is paradoxical, useful but also useless. I do feel frustrated. However, if one speaks, then that one matters. The accumulation of subtle voices could make something change, I just tend to insist on it.
And where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I wish to have a personal studio space, not worry about the living expense and do whatever I want. Maybe pursuing a new Master in Fine Arts, or maybe run away to a small village to be a real folk artist (laughs).
Last but not least, Vanilla, will we be able to see some of your work exhibited soon?
I might have an NFT exhibition soon.
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 12.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 21.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 18.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 1.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 7.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 2.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 20.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 25.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 24.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 4.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 19.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 15.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 10.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 6.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 16.jpg
Vanilla Chi Metalmagazine 17.jpg