Beijing-born, Berlin-based artist and illustrator, Ruohan Wang, is a master of many mediums. Dabbling in painting, print, public art, animation, clothing, and now footwear, whatever canvas she decides to work on becomes home to a vibrant frenzy of colour, movement and life. Made up of varying shapes, text, collage-style photography and cheeky anthropomorphic figures, her work is never boring, never takes itself too seriously, and is never not evolving, as she explains in our interview.
This is clear with the new Nike Earth Day collaboration, through which she has collaborated with Nike to rework three classic pairs of trainers – the Air Force 1, Blazer 77 and Air Max 90. With an emphasis on celebrating the environment using Nike’s unique sustainable Flyleather material, Wang has managed to produce three designs that capture her vivid, whimsical view of planet Earth, allowing us to see the world and why we should cherish it through rainbow-tinted glasses.
Hey Ruohan, first things first: could you please introduce yourself to our readers for those who don’t know you yet?
I’m Ruohan Wang, an illustrator, painter and visual artist based in Berlin, Germany. I studied illustration with professor Henning Wagenbreth at the Universität der Künste Berlin (UdK). After graduating in 2017, I worked as a freelance artist on various projects – prints, painting, public art, installation, fashion and objects. My work focuses on the interactive experiment between illustration, objective and improvisational aesthetics.
Your art makes use of a variety of multimedia, many pieces consisting of frenetic animation paired with bold shapes and static illustration, as well as apparel, prints and more. Is this plethora of mediums the result of a desire to be constantly evolving, or are you somebody who feels restless in the same space for too long?
It’s the result of a desire to be constantly evolving. As an artist who studied illustration, I wouldn’t express my ideas only on paper. I think the contents and characters on my works are always the same regardless of the medium or scale.
From 2017 to 2020, every medium I worked on (giant walls, fashion design, installation, etc.) was almost like my first experience, but I did my best as it was the first and also the last piece I was working on at that time. And they turned out successful! I found out that there are no walls or limits to my visuals, but there are so many surprises in my work. The possibilities of each medium motivate me to explore how far is too far.
Would you say your creative direction shifted along with your change in environment when you arrived in Berlin? How does your current work differ from the work you produced in Beijing?
I began my studies, work and career in Berlin, and learned a lot here. I think that wherever I am (far from my original culture), I could compare which way works better for me or think why something is easier or harder. Berlin is a city that gives people time to learn about different disciplines, fosters making quality work, and supports an independent spirit. Also, people here care about diversity, disadvantaged groups, sustainability, etc.
As freelancers, we always need to drive life and work with initiative. Last time, I was inspired by groups of people and families who were exercising around Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which is a free public building – as a resident of the city, my daily life is about working and improving my health level. People here redesign the form of a fitness studio. It’s not about economic status or time structure; it’s about using the resources we already have in other ways.
Such scenes in public are always inspiring me to look at things from a different perspective and check out alternative possibilities for work and solving problems. And the nice coexistence of humans and nature is the best image for me.
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Congratulations on the release of the Ruohan Wang x Nike collaboration! Looking at the shoes, you have managed to perfectly capture your colourful trademark style without taking away from the trainers’ iconic design. How was it using a pair of shoes as a canvas compared to your usual mediums?
Thank you! The design for Flyleather pack was very special – using artwork on a 3D model. The whole process was very impressive and fun for me because every image on every trim and cut, especially on Air Force 1 and Air Max 90, should work together whether you see them from afar or take a closer look. The look from each angle should be singular, but overall, they look smooth and fluent. There are so many angles to pay attention to! I think that’s the main difference from my usual mediums.
The collaboration is in celebration of Earth Day, encouraging us to reflect on the future of our planet, sustainability and the environment. As well as the shoes being made from Nike’s revolutionary Flyleather material, a sustainable fabric produced from surplus leather fibres that is 40% lighter and five times more durable than usual leather, your designs also represent what is at the heart of Earth Day. Why do you think your work was chosen to portray Earth Day’s message?
As I got the invitation for the Flyleather pack project, I instantly had the idea to design something striking by using the power of colours because the material can present ink colour very well. Behind these colours, people will ask and discover the meaning of the recycled materials as well as the messages behind the visuals: first, embrace Earth the same way it embraces us with magic nature; and second, the beautiful coexistence of humankind and nature. Also, the way I worked resembles the way Flyleather is made: I shredded/cut the whole artwork and reordered all the elements, which became an entirely new piece.
How do sustainability and your awareness of the environment play a role in your practice as an artist? Is it something you tend to think about when creating?
The content in my work is always about the simplistic nature of humankind, the positive interaction between humans and nature, and some objects’ essential properties and functions – such as legs for moving non-stop and having a sustainable, vital force. And yes, I bring these three keys to the design when creating.
On the topic of the environment, would you say that your work is more inspired by the inanimate landscape around you or by human presence? Or is it a mixture of both?
I am inspired by simple and fun scenes in the landscapes I see, and human presence makes the images lively.
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Your work is gloriously fun, as can be seen in the designs you have conceived for Nike; for example, the detail on the tongue of each of the trainers, which is playfully written in your own handwriting. Is this observation totally accurate, or do you also try to convey a more sombre message through some of your creations?
Thank you! Yes, I enjoy using handwriting because it looks integrated into the whole image. One is the running legs with growing plants from the earth surface, and the other one is the Nike swoosh I drew. There are no sombre messages.
In a similar vein, is the joviality of your work representative of you as a person or do you feel that your personality counterbalances your art?
I think my work represents who I am and what I want. I’m a person with a lot of passion and gratitude inside, but being responsible for people and work is always in the first place. I put the intensity of love in my work.
During a time of such uncertainty and change, have you found yourself producing art in new ways over the last few months?
I was thinking about what should I do as an artist if I could only stay inside. Slowly, I’m producing art focusing more on the Anthropocene.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline or are you going to take a well-deserved rest after the collaboration is released?
I have some ideas coming out, such as a jacket from sponge for matching my giant leg-installation. And I’m also preparing for my first museum show next year in China.
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