This month’s featured artist, Bianca Dunn, is a Mexican/Chinese artist and illustrator from Sacramento, California. I discovered her work in my inbox, when she sent me a selection of gouache pieces, some monochrome, and others an explosion of blues, reds and yellows. Her work is inspired by everything and anything, from Frida Kahlo’s paintings to random sightings from the streets of Brooklyn, New York (Lenapehoking), where she now lives. Bianca finds comfort in being outside of definitions, and was drawn to Vagabond City because of our emphasis on uplifting voices from many different backgrounds, something that is also a mission of hers, as she comes from a mixed race background and from a mix of careers in art and science, which has instilled in her a deep appreciation for the grey areas of life, for seemingly opposing forces, for the non-dualistic nature of life. Bianca’s work, which she started making with no formal artistic education, has been exhibited and featured in many publications–and it is now a pleasure to have her in ours! Over email, she told me about working in labs, traffic cones, and her best teachers, ranging from her former professors to Matisse.
How did you become an illustrator?
I’ve always loved drawing and painting and crafting of all sorts, but never considered it as a career until recently. In college I was interested in learning about science and the natural world around me, so I studied microbiology and worked in labs for 5 years. I’m super grateful for that time and the way it taught me to think critically, but I felt a pull towards doing something that was more artistic. I quit my lab job and started working a slew of odd jobs to pay the bills and take my time creating things I enjoyed. I started up my Instagram and website, family and friends started commissioning me, and I got involved in freelance science illustration, too. A lot of people along the way helped me; I asked so many questions to anyone remotely involved in art for a living. I looked stuff up on YouTube and on the internet… it made me realize that there is so much information at our fingertips and it empowered me to just do it. I also think that living in New York helped me observe how so many people live this sort of freelance “chasing-your-dreams” lifestyle. That visibility does make a difference.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Bright, bold, colorful, graphic. Inspired by nature and texture. Emphasis on negative space, letting shapes breathe. Fluidity. Blobs. Ambiguous. Intertwined with figure. Fun, playful.
How has it evolved over time?
I’m in a big gouache phase right now and the medium has had a strong influence in me finding my style. I used to do a lot of watercolor and pen and ink work, which always veered towards fine detail work. I love doing fine detail work. It’s very soothing to me. I think I was attracted to it because it’s what I knew, and it was very literal. But since learning about gouache, I’ve revelled in the bold color you can achieve with it and my style has evolved in turn. I love color-blocking and gouache lends itself well to that. It also reminds me of being a kid playing with water-based paints, making big abstract shapes.
Who and/or what inspires you?
I love finding color palettes from nature or from the street. I tend to be inspired by small things that go unnoticed. I got very into traffic cones this year (see @bianca.toast on Instagram). Love the neon mixed with the neutrals of the street, their composition with items on the road, their shape, their character, their function. Love that it makes me appreciate small things in life that I wouldn’t normally appreciate.
Artists that have influenced my work — I was inspired by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera early on because of my Mexican family and culture. I also always looked up to my godfather Javier Perez who is an incredible sculptor and jeweler. My Chinese family had lots of ancient Chinese art around their house, and the elegance and composition of those definitely had an influence on me. I’m from Sacramento, so Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos were some of the first contemporary painters prominent in the area that I remember influencing my style when I was younger. Heavy pigment, big color, layering of color, inspiration from nature and commonplace objects. I love Matisse, Monet, Miró, Hilma af Klint, Arp. And more recently, I’m inspired by David Choe, Kusama, Andy Goldsworthy, James Jean, Maria Medem.
What are the different steps in the making of an illustration?
I’m very observant of my surroundings and the people around me. I take a lot of photos of scenes or color palettes or compositions or textures around me, and that constantly inspires my sketches. I doodle and sketch in a small notebook that I carry around with me, or on my iPad with Procreate. It’s super important for me to have drawing time without any project or commissions in mind and to just let myself freely create without expectations. I’ll use those sketches and doodles for all sorts of things, both digital and analog. If I have a commission with specific guidelines, I draw a bunch of thumbnail versions of the sketch (tiny versions of the drawing) so I can test out the composition on a smaller scale. Learning about using thumbnails for drawings was super helpful for me in the illustration process (shoutout to artists Simon Levenson and Grant Shaffer for teaching me). It helps me to put away any art in progress, take a break, then come back with fresh eyes and go at it again. Lots of rearranging, tweaking, repositioning. And I always gotta have music or podcasts or shows or movies in the background.
Would you like to experiment with any other art forms?
Of course! I’m drawn to art and illustration because of the versatility of the field. I have so many different interests and worlds I’d like to work in. Being able to try different media invigorates me.
This past year during the lockdown, I was taking continuing education classes at School of Visual Arts in New York and I became enamored with collage. It was liberating to be thrown into a new medium, fun to switch it up and spend my time cutting and gluing and intertwining. Once again, I tapped into that childlike nature. My teacher Stephen Byram taught me a lot. I love his perspective on how anything can be collage, anything can be art. For example, when we would send in photos of our collages that week, he always got excited about the cords and debris and textures of people’s desks or floors in the background. I really appreciated that, and it makes me look at everything around me differently, like it’s all a collage.
What was your favorite experience in your career so far?
Really tough question… I think my favorite experience this year was to have all these breakthroughs in collage. It was especially powerful to receive so much love for the self-portrait I made because it was so personal and I made it as a sort of fun side project, no expectations. And it turned out that I love that style and it’s influencing my illustration and painting now. The self-portrait also got chosen to be part of the SVA continuing education exhibit at Photoville in Brooklyn, which was symbolic to me for multiple reasons. I grew a lot as an artist through those continuing education classes. Because I don’t have a formal art education, those classes taught me so much and motivated me to make art and introduced me to a special community. On top of that, when I first moved to New York, I went to Photoville and was in awe of everything there. I still thought I was going to do a PhD in microbiology at that time. Art was out of the question. And now so much has changed, and I’m really content with those changes.
What would you like people to feel through your work?
Peaceful thoughtful confused connected fluid joyful colorful ambiguous hungry thirsty invigorated energetic playful vibrational quiet calm bubbly liquid solid grounded light
What have you been reading, listening to, and/or watching lately?
I just got Crisis Zone by Simon Hanselmann, which is a book of all the webcomics he made during the COVID lockdown in 2020. It is hilarious and ridiculous and vulgar and amazing. I enjoyed and learned a lot from We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba. It’s a collection of essays, interviews, and speeches about racial, gender, and transformative justice. Really critical work! Music – I love my emo/pop/punk/indie/folk gals like Soccer Mommy, Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, Waxahatchee, HAIM. I’m into afrobeat/RnB/rappers like ENNY, Odunsi (The Engine), Koffee. I love electronic music, too, and I’m super hyped on everything Discwoman is doing right now. They are a collective/booking agency representing and showcasing women and non-binary artists in the electronic music community. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my dear friends in the Space Milk collective, a music and art collective I’ve been collaborating with over the past year. Such kind, creative, talented, fun people.
What is next for you?
Keep focusing on making things that bring me and others joy! I just made some illustrations for Manna-hatta Fund (mannahattafund.org), which raises money for American Indian Community House (AICH) for Indigenous people in the NYC area (please donate if you can, it takes like 2 minutes and makes a big difference). I want to keep making art for causes that are important to me. I also want to get into the mural world. Maybe design some housewares/ceramics/glassware. I would really love to get into glassblowing one day. Maybe design some clothing. Maybe do some textile collage. Basically just keep trying everything.
Is there a question you wish I had asked you?
Bianca Dunn is a Chinese/Mexican-American artist and illustrator currently based in Brooklyn, NY (Lenni-Lenape land). She finds empowerment and joy in being neither this nor that, and also being all of it — an artist, a scientist, Mexican, Chinese, American, a thinker, a dreamer, a city dweller, a nature lover. This outlook has caused her to be deeply curious about the spaces in between, the marginalized voices, the weird, the overlooked, the little things in life. She loves gouache, watercolor, collage, and digital media. You can find more of her work on her instagram and her website.