"Nature seems to come through in everything. Even when I'm not trying to put it into my work, it sometimes ends up there." Garrick Webster interviews the illustrator, designer, art director and artist Deanne Cheuk.
When Deanne Cheuk's art teacher told her that a career in graphic design meant she'd be designing toothpaste packaging, she was sold. As it turns out, her work has leaped far beyond the concept of adding 'Extra Whitening' logotype to tubes of Colgate. Today she's creating stunning ink and watercolour illustrations, publishing her own work and satiating the needs of leading companies in the US and Japan. To cap it off she's in the middle of a two-pronged foray into Chinese creativity which is sponsored by Diesel.
Inspired by art and nature, and continually pushing herself as both a designer and an artist, Deanne's approach is as varied as her skills. Read on and discover the creative thinking of the lady behind The Mushroom Girls Virus Book: A Guide to the Identification and Study of Our Commoner Fungi with Special Emphasis on the Edible Varieties.
CA: When we first dropped you a line, you said you were really busy. What are the principal projects you've been working on lately?
DC: I've been working on new pieces for a group show in Beijing opening on 30 April called The New Grand Tour. That has been taking up most of my time, but I've also been working on the identity for a new store in Japan for the label Navasana, which is part of American Rag Japan, some typography and illustrations for The New York Times' TMagazine, and some textile prints for Urban Outfitters and also for the Australian brand called Something... so it's been a lot of different types of work for me, as usual.
CA: Looking in various places, I've seen you being described as an artist, an illustrator, a graphic designer and an art director. How do you generally describe yourself and how exactly do all those different disciplines fit together in your daily work?
DC: I pretty much call myself all of those things when anyone asks what I do, though lately I've been saying 'artist and art director', but I think that sounds silly. There just isn't an easy definition for the type of work that I do. In terms of how they fit together daily, I think illustration, graphic design and art direction all cross over easily. My graphic design and typography especially are quite illustrative. I try to keep my art more separate though, and that is something that I am still coming into and developing at the moment.
CA: Art direction is one of the themes in our magazine this issue. What would you say is the key to being a good art director these days?
DC: I don't know if there is one key thing - if only it was that easy! As in everything though, I think innovation and originality are very important, and ideas.
CA: My impression is that you love imagery from nature and imaginary settings. How would you describe your own approach and visual style?
DC: I do love nature and fantasy, so a lot of my personal work has those themes. When I'm approached for commercial work, often the client refers back to work that they've seen somewhere and then it ends up having some of that nature or fantasy element in it again. That is basically how it all comes about!
I describe my visual style as being generally many-layered and very laborious, but it all depends. Some weeks my work is looking one way and other weeks it's looking another. CA: What is it about nature and its patterns that inspires you? DC: I love the shapes and shadows, and the complexity of it. Also, nature seems to come through in everything. Even when I'm not trying to put it into my work, it sometimes ends up there.
CA: Which other artists or designers have influenced how you think and work?
DC: Henry Darger is a big influence. His use of collage, found materials, watercolours and storytelling are things that I have been able to really relate to.
CA: You seem to pursue your own projects just as much as paid jobs. How important is that work to you, and why?
DC: It's a very important part of my work and what I do. I have plenty of ideas and I like to be able to take at least some of them through to completion. I think it's part of being productive and staying inspired and enjoying what I do.
CA: Lately, illustrators and designers have been encouraged to branch off into fine art, run exhibitions, collaborate and appreciate less commercial areas as well as the ones that make them money. What do you think of this trend?
DC: I haven't necessarily felt encouraged in that way - that is what I want to do, but I don't think it's easy to be embraced as an artist when you have a background in graphic design. There are a couple of high-profile graphic designers in New York who show their work in galleries, but not many.
CA: What was it like starting your career over in Perth, Australia?
DC: I was born in Perth. When I was working there in the 90s, there was a small creative community where artists and designers put on their own shows or whatever. It was a great do-it-yourself vibe and I think that really instilled in me the sense of independence that I have towards creating my own projects.
CA: And you moved to New York. How was that different?
DC: Honestly, a big part of why I moved here was because I felt like I belonged. I didn't feel the need to adapt in any way.
CA: Do you think you'll stay in New York or experience other creative cities?
DC: I am happy to stay in New York as I really do love it here. But if other opportunities came along, I'd always be open to that too. It would be nice to live somewhere that was nearer to blue water.
CA: Tell us about your trip to China.
DC: I went to China last October with the artists Jos ,Parl, Rostarr and Suitman on an amazing adventure that was made possible by Diesel. We went on a two-week trip through Shanghai, Kunming, Lijiang and then on a road trip to Shangri-La. It was so inspiring and beautiful. We stayed at a monastery, visited schools and then had a mini-show of work inspired by the trip in Hong Kong. In April, we are going to Beijing to open a full show of work that is a reflection of the journey we took. It's The New Grand Tour that I've been working on.
CA: How do you think China's art and design communities will influence the West in the coming years?
DC: I think they will establish a presence. It has hardly been recognised considering how important it is. It has been slowly gaining momentum and big steps keep being made. I just saw the Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York and it was hugely inspiring to see the first retrospective of a Chinese artist there. I think it was the best show I have ever seen there. I couldn't sleep all night thinking about how great it was!
CA: Finally, what is your favourite holiday destination and why?
DC: Going back to Perth at Christmas and getting to see my family and friends, and not having a computer there! It's always nice to have a break from it all.