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Conversations with Dongyan Xu

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dongyan Xu.

Hi Dongyan, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I started drawing pretty early; the kindergarten teacher saw me draw and suggested my mother to let me take drawing classes. It was a weird logic to say “oh this kid knows frying pan has a bottom when do coloring book; she must have artistic talent,” but it turned out I did enjoy drawing a lot. At school, I was that weird kid who draw on notebooks, textbooks and tables (and refused to erase them) all the time, and get overzealous when art classes happened.

As much as I loved drawing I did not really see myself as a future artist for a long period of time. When I was little I was like “I’ll be a painter” in the same way as kids say “I’ll be a scientist/astronaut/ruler of the solar system.” When I got older I just told myself it was not possible because “I am not good enough.” There wasn’t anyone in my family who pursued art as career, so I never thought it was really possible. I went to the architecture school at UVa with no knowledge of what people do there, believed that at least I will get to draw and I would be content with that. Turned out I did not have much interest in architecture, and I really should have done my research: They have switched to computer drafting a long while ago. Being depressed since seeing no future in architecture, I took art classes in the Studio Art building nearby. I learned a lot from my professors Lena Carolyn Capps and Dean Dass, and finally gained enough courage to transfer to MICA.

I did both undergraduate and graduate school at MICA: Double majoring in Illustration and Printmaking for BFA, and Illustration Practice for MFA. I also took classes in Fiber and Animation. There were some troubles in the middle of these years, but overall, it was an amazing experience, and I really learned a lot from my professors and classmates. I am graduating this May, and would soon start taking commissions as a professional illustrator.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I would say things have not always gone as smoothly as I wish them to be. There is the case of whether “smooth” is defined by personal feelings, or by comparison. I think most of artists would agree that ideally, we would like to know what we like to do, what we are good at doing, and what we should do to achieve success in life (no matter how it differs for different people) from the very beginning. It is also rather preferable if there is no strange art blocks or mental illness/disorder lazily blocking our way, or hideously extend their tentacles to trip us extra hard when we are running at full speed. In that case, most of us do not manage to dodge all those troubles. However, by comparison, I think I am extremely lucky and privileged. My parents have a lot of concerns and worries about my career choice (the typical “you are good at STEM major you would have a happy life doing computer science and take art as a hobby,”) but they are actually very supportive and negotiable. I am also not in difficult financial situation, and I am extremely grateful of that.

For myself, I consider the worst to be late 2019 and early 2020. I had some serious art blocks: I could not draw even when I wanted to, and drawing in general felt very difficult. There were days that I was not able to leave my bed for hours (well, depression might be another issue.) Then I learned something about some personal relationships that were difficult to take and process. On top of that, Covid happened. This was before any vaccine was invented; I got into a really bad place mentally. After the latter two issues happened, the art block actually partially got away, since drawing was the only thing that distracted me from the anxiety over everything else. Imagine the picture of some much larger monsters squeezing a wolf out of the room. I started to learn digital drawing, which gave me more options to experiment with styles. (It also allowed me to draw in bed in worse days.)

Things improved considerably after graduate school started and the vaccines started to roll out. The Illustration Practice MFA program at MICA really teaches you to draw more freely and find your own voice. I’d say I am really grateful to my teachers, classmates and friends for helping me along the way. I got a better idea of what I love to do, and learned to find motivations and treasure the happiness of creating things.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I am interested in children’s book illustration, editorial & lifestyle illustration, and surface design. Recently I have been experimenting with animated Gif and animated music videos. I enjoy drawing lines, patterns, evil cats (small and big), and weird monsters. Usually, I do line-based illustration, either in black and white or in saturated flat colors.

Part of me really just want to draw things that cheer people up and make them happy. When I was little, my mother regularly bought me children’s books with artworks that she found beautiful and thought I would enjoy (and I LOVED those books). That was probably how I started to draw: I wanted to draw pretty princesses with giant skirt and 20 bow ties on their hair, and those stupid stick figures and wild triangles made me very, very happy. My elementary school friends loved them too; I got lines (good old days) waiting for me to draw princesses with bow ties. It sounds a little bit shallow as an artist to say I want to draw things for people’s pleasure; however, there is something extremely wonderful about make a drawing, feel glad and content about it, and find that it make other people feel the same. From another perspective, I am also drawing how I think life should be and what I want to see in the world, and I would like to think that adds something positive to this imperfect reality.

Some more personal type of artworks do not fall into this category. If the first type of work depicts things I’d like to see, this type of work is more about the sense of unfulfillment caused by the absence of such things. They are done out of spite, created as a reflection of my own anger and frustration at the way real life is filled with disappointments, uncertainty, and irrationality. I am particularly interested in the subject of mental illness/disorder because of what I witnessed & experienced in my family: Basically, people being miserable not only from some mental disorder, but also, if not so much more from, the willful ignorance, fear, and deny of the problem due to the social stigma around the topic. A few years back I would say I use art as a way of self-expression; now when I get more specific over the matter, I’d say I have been using art as a way to meditate over my own negative feelings over unsolvable troubles since childhood. Drawing saved my mind a lot of times: It helps me to reflect on things and release some of the difficult emotions, regaining some peace in that way.

What do you like best about our city? What do you like least?
I really like the architecture in Baltimore. I have been to several other cities; many of them have quite boring and depressing buildings, which is not the case here. Many buildings are really unique and inspiring. As someone without a car, and rather too afraid to drive, I also really like the light rail and the free Purple Line. In general, it is a really nice experience to explore the city on foot or through public transit system.

I think I don’t really like it that there is not a lot of printmaking studios here, but that is the case for most cities. I still hope to do relief printmaking someday when I get more time to carve the blocks. Also sometimes it takes forever for the bus to arrive and that is annoying when it is windy and cold.

I think these are some rather superficial answers from the perspective of someone who does not grow up here. I am still learning new things about the city from experiences and friends.

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Image Credits
Dongyan Xu

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