Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Juana Medina: An Illustrated Life

My first encounter with Juana Medina was through Twitter. I started following her and became enchanted with her illustrations. So much so, I asked how I could get a print of the image that first appears on her website, a cat curled up in an orange chair.
"Gato" by Juana Medina

The bio on her website revealed the following on her background: 
Juana was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. She studied at the Corcoran College of Art+Design and at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she has also been a Faculty member.
She has been awarded by the National Cartoonists Society and has illustrated books for Random House, Alfaguara Editores, Texas University Press and Editorial Norma.
Juana currently lives between Washington, DC and Providence, RI. She is working on multiple collaborations and is always eager to explore different venues to tell stories

I learned more about Juana and her work through her answers to my questions...

"Cling" by Juana Medina

Q. How do you describe your work to people?

A. Most of my illustration work relies on very simple traces and economic -but expressive- use of line. I like using ink and gouache color sparingly. Simplicity is very important to me. My design and animation work rely a little more on color and line, but humor and lightheartedness tend to be a constant.  
"Gala Night" by Juana Medina

Q. What lead you to the work you do today?
A. Life gave me as a present the ability to draw, I was stubborn on realizing it was a gift and took it for granted for a very long time. Little by little, life has shown me that I better take care of that ability, enjoy it and use it for good.

Now, there's a less glamorous but more detailed story behind this. As I was growing up, I would easily get in trouble for doodling on my books and notebooks. For creating collages and cartoons that were not always seen positively by my teachers (but were enjoyed by my peers). As I grew older, I ended up studying Physical Therapy; while doing so, I found great difficulty memorizing the verbal description of muscle insertions and the paths of nerves, veins and arteries. So more than once, I made agreements with professors where for exams, I would draw in great detail anatomical structures and physiological mechanism, instead of writing long descriptions as responses. Not everything went smoothly then though, more than once I was frowned upon when they (my professors) would see cartoons I would draw of them. Drawing just came naturally and it was and has been since I can remember, a language I rely on constantly to get my point across.

After years of drawing bones and muscles (and working with patients, too), life brought me to the United States. That gave me a fresh start and I opted to take art more seriously. I studied at the Corcoran College of Art + Design and then finished my studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) -- both spaces* granted me opportunities to explore further what I wanted to do; they challenged me and offered completely new conversations and platforms to explore my capabilities as an artist.
That lead to the work I do. That, and having a highly encouraging family.

*Both spaces have also offered me great inspiration and challenges, while working at them as a teacher.  

"Chrysler Building" by Juana Medina

Q. How did creativity emerge in your life?
A. I was lucky to be born in a family where everyone has some sort of artistic outlet, so for a long time, I took the ability to draw for granted and the creative nature of my work as something everyone could do. Little by little I started learning how, just as I was not so good at math and music, some others were not that prone to drawing. That made me see I had to explore my abilities further, be more disciplined and challenge myself much more when it came to drawing and creating. 

"Little Red" by Juana Medina

Q.  What is the source of your inspiration?
A. There are many, many things that will get me inspired to work. Music, seeing other people's w’rk, watching dancers perform, nature… the most minuscule thing, like watching a leaf fall, can turn into inspiration for work.  
"Dancer" by Juana Medina

Q. What other creative outlets do you have?
A. Besides illustration, design and animation, I write a lot. I have great interest in storytelling and how it happens. Illustration and design can offer great tools to tell stories, I find animation as more of a vehicle for it, but writing -whe–her it appears in the final product or not- is the hemming and springboard for most of my stories.  

"Hectic Plant" by Juana Medina

Q. Who are your favorite artists?
A. This is a tough question to answer. As I learn of more artists, I admire each a little more. But here are a few that come to mind right now (and why I admire them):

Alfred Hitchcock’s attention to detail is staggering.

The richness in color, emotions and narrative on Julie Taymor’s productions is quite moving.

I grew up loving Mafalda and I’m still in awe of Quino’s work, his ability to express emotion through line and the intelligence of his observations on society are simply masterful.

Chavela Varga’s force and passion are admirable, her voice holds strength, character and power. It can make you empathize, believe and be moved.  

Eva Zeisel is a great model of a thoughtful designer, a gracious artist and a playful creator. Her work is delightful and her ethics are something to look up to.

Reading is another way to be humbled and fall in great admiration for people’s work. Murakami, Neruda, García Márquez… that’s a whole other list.   
"Feet on the Ground" by Juana Medina

Q. What are a few of your own favorite pieces/works and why?
A. There have been pieces I love because they have implied overcoming great challenges, they might not be the most appealing ones, but they are highly significant. There are some others that were great fun to work on. 

I have a drawing of a black, bold brushstroke of ink that I love. People look at it with some pity, thinking I’m pulling their leg saying it is one of my favorite pieces. But, after drawing many, many circles with brushes dipped in ink, there was something that seemed to work well on this one and that makes me love it.  

Most of my favorite work has come from collaborations, because they always allow me to see my work through a different perspective. Collaborations to me, are about communicating effectively and creating something where two or more voices have to be represented in great balance, that isn’t always easy, but gosh, they’re fun experiences! 

"Drafting Table" by Juana Medina

Q. What music is moving you these days, and why?
A. Lately I have been listening to Latin music more than usual. Cold months are always a bit hard on me, Latin music helps me stay warm. I’ve also been listening a lot to Feist’s Metals album and in a very nostalgic way, to Cesaria Evora. 

Q. When people see your work, what will they know about you?
A. Hm. Good question. I think we’d have to ask them.   

Q. What question do you wish people would ask you?
A. Would you like to grab some tea*?
*I'd take ice cream, too. 

Q. What are a few of your favorite things?
White, crisp paper. 

"Theodore" by Juana Medina

Q. How do you curate your life?
A. Had I been asked this question a couple years ago, my answer would probably have been quite eloquent and seemingly wise. But this last year has been very different from many others; there have been many unexpected changes that have forced me to see life in a very different way. I’m learning to take life slowly. I am learning to be patient. I am trying to learn from those who inspire me and not be affected by those who hurt me. I am appreciating humbleness and modesty. I am redesigning my life. 
I have thought of how to answer this question over and over again. My final conclusion is, I could answer graciously and shortly and move on to the next question. Or I could be frank and share openly a little about my life. This is not easy to do so; one, because I enjoy keeping my personal life private and two, because I wonder how the world would take an answer like the one –I have already decided- I will write below. So for the faint of heart, please proceed to the following question. 

For those who might be going through hardship and need to know some others have been there too, here it goes: In the last 18 months or so, I have lost a number of dear friends and family without being able to go to their funerals; I had to go through major surgery, had an accident that left me for many weeks on crutches, lost my job, experienced a major break-in, had to switch cities… being an immigrant, I am waiting to hear on a visa application that will define whether I can stay in the country I love or not. It has been hectic, it has been painful and it has been tough, very tough. It has implied tears, moments of doubt, and forced a difficult situation where uncertainty is the main constant. There’s very little glamour to what I just shared. But here’s the cool part: A couple months ago, after saying goodbye to a friend, I had to walk back to my car through a flight of slippery stairs. It had been raining, it was pitch dark black and to add to this lethal mix: I am extremely clumsy. She knows me well, and from her door she asked if I was okay. I replied loudly “I’ll be fine” and waved back at her. With all factors combined, chances were, I’d slip and fall and crack my head open, but I didn’t. And the words “I’ll be fine” echoed in my mind for a while. I have decided to believe I will be fine and in order for that to happen, I am arming myself with courage, good will and passion, to make fantastic things happen. I am lucky to have wonderful friends, to hold faculties to see, read, talk, express and experience… 

So I have decided I will be fine by redesigning my life and taking this year as a year zero, where life has granted me (in a not-so-fancy way) a perfectly blank slate to make of it the best I can. So I am working hard on things I love to do, taking a day at a time and allowing myself to be mesmerized by inspiring books, thoughts and people.  

"Reading in Barcelona" by Juana Medina
Q. Any advice for people trying to follow their dreams?
A. Remain curious.  

Q. What would you want for your last meal?
A. My mom’s lasagna.   

Q. What is your favorite cocktail or beverage?
A. Sorbete de Curuba*. Have you tried curubas? They are fruits that grow –mainly- in Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. They have a soft –but thick- skin (the outside feels a little like peaches to the touch) that is green and yellow when ripe. But the inside is pink! When you open them, it’s like a color explosion taking place in front of your eyes.

In Colombia, they take the seedy inside of this fruit and grind it to make juice, then they add milk and sugar and serve it in tall glasses with a straw. It’s smooth, refreshing and sweet. Highly recommended if you visit my homeland.

*sp. Sor-beh-teh   deh    coo-roo-bah, I think it is translated as Banana passionfruit, but that does not sound half as good as “curuba”

"DC Cityscape" by Juana Medina

Q. What is your philosophy of life in 12 words or less?
A. Work hard, be kind, have fun.  

Q. Where can we find you online?
A. At www.juanamedina.com please come over anytime! The doors are always wide open.  

Many thanks Juana for your heartfelt honesty and the beauty and positivity you bring to the world. (You can also follow Juana on Twitter here)

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