It would be difficult not to do a double take at Gracia Lam’s illustrations. A man playing a tuba-shaped flower, horses jumping over fork-shaped hurdles and a stork with a pen for a beak – though often working in tandem with words, her powerful and thought provoking images speak volumes themselves.
An artist who, self professed, “loves translating words into images”, Lam attempts to “reinvent everyday objects and mundane environments through pictures.” She initially trained to be a ballerina for 14 years, but had always felt more able to express herself on paper as a visual artist than through movements. She says nostalgically, “At a young age, I remember enjoying moments of solitude, listening to my favourite music and drawing anything that sparked my interest like cartoon characters or other inanimate objects.” Despite the years of hard work put into dancing, she built a portfolio, and instead of applying for dance school, went to interviews for art college.
She believes that although an illustrator may be different from other types of artists aesthetically, they all share the same aim for their work: “I think they’re all similar in that all artists are essentially finding visual solutions for expression”.
As an illustrator, her average day consists of working on preliminary sketches, finalised pieces and doing research for projects with a few meetings with clients, and when she goes home, she enjoys doing light research or sketches for her personal work. For commissioned projects, she explains, “95 per cent of the time, clients reach out to me with either a draft of an article [for publication] or a paragraph summary of the piece and asks me to conceptualise the images.”
Given the freedom to negotiate the key themes of the stories, Lam loves reading articles and conceptualising ideas into images. “My goal is always to generate original work that responds to the problem at hand,” she remarks of the process.
Previously working with oil painting, the illustrator “gradually transitioned into a more digital form” to cater to the demands of the fast-paced industry. But she evolves with every piece of work she creates: “Over each assignment, my practice evolves, little by little. Weaknesses are edited out, my strong suits stick and [they] are repeated in more and more pieces.”
Despite her commissioned work being made to accompany stories in newspapers, books and magazines such as The New York Times, Random House publications and The Atlantic, her personal projects are not any less conceptual. She explains, “Those personal pieces were created because I had an interest in the topic at the time after reading an article, listening podcasts, or watching documentaries.” In an illustration inspired by the documentary Blackfish, a killer whale in captivity forms a foreboding skull, signifying how damaging living in confinement is to orcas. In another, horses with giant three-dimensional fork-shaped hurdles allude to the story of the consumption of horse meat.
However, Lam is in the midst of one of her biggest personal projects yet. Currently creating a book entitled Audrelane Park, the series of illustrations “synthesise children’s playground games with games that adults play”, all narrated through a romantic relationship between two women. Demonstrating how long she has spent contemplating the ideas behind her work, she comments, “Audrelane Park is a book that quietly uncovers how human beings never grow up. Through a collection of 20 playground games, we will witness the evolution of first love from the beginning to its inevitable end.”
Familiar games like the game of tag represent the flirtatious chase between the women upon meeting for the first time, ‘Mother May I’ reveals sociological concerns like the underlying need for our parents approval and ‘Simon Says’ thematically symbolises the power dynamic of the struggle for dominance. Testament to her idea-driven work, she reflects, “These images… emphasise how both playground culture and adult relationships can be simultaneously genuine and cruel.”
Although all of her illustrations are very much determined by concepts, personal projects provide a different challenge for her because they “propel [her] to take on a position beyond [that] of the creator and to actively initiate the roles of a storyteller”. Beyond answering questions for clients through her pictures, Lam acknowledges the autonomy of seeking new meaning and actually posing questions to viewers instead.
We will witness the evolution of first love from the beginning to its inevitable end
Unlike her personal work, her commissioned illustrations operate in conjunction with an article or story. “When an illustration is taken out of context, it becomes such a curious slice of information,” she says, ruminating, “I think that a successful piece should have the viewer want to look into what the story behind the art is.”
Her commissioned work certainly achieves this. In an illustration for The New York Times for an article about depression, a solitary figure holding a clipboard is juxtaposed with cliff faces that have the silhouettes of actual human faces. Though perhaps not as obvious as her other pieces such as that on horse meat as food, the picture is subtle and compelling enough to arouse the reader’s interest, enticing them into reading the article behind the stunning image.
Though Lam admits that being an illustrator is a rather lonely profession, the creative process being quite isolated, her passion for her craft is obvious as she gets excited about “being able to invent new visual dialogues that offer unexpected twists or elements of surprise”.
Indeed, her artistic philosophy is reflected in what she feels is the best advice that she has ever received: “If the reader doesn’t understand your idea, the viewers always think that it’s the artist’s fault.” Constantly mindful that she has to make her concepts accessible to viewers, Lam continues to create art that transcends mere words or pictures to find new life in the realm of concepts.