22 August 2018
Inspired by her experiences of having travelled to over 40 countries in the last 20 years, Vix Harris talks to WE THE OUTLIERS about her inclusive and feminist approach to art.
Having lived in many different countries, in your opinion are there any differences in the way that people from different cultures engage with art?
I’ve spent a lot of time living and working in Asia – over a decade so far – and I think art is more a way of life here. You see beautiful carvings and paintings almost everywhere, especially in temples, but also on just regular buildings. Pretty much everywhere I look in Singapore, where I’ve been living for the last 3 years, there are patterns, colours and shapes that inspire me and give me ideas for my designs. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in African countries like Tanzania and the culture is so vibrant that I think it’s fair to say that their life is art, from the stunning patterns on the kangas the women wear to the intricate Maasai jewellery. I think it’s mainly in the Western world where we see art as something separate, something that you can choose to engage in or not. In other cultures, art is just part of how they live, it’s all around them, and that’s one of the things I love most about living and working abroad.
Has growing up in Kenya and Malawi influenced your work?
I was very small when I was first introduced to the beauty of Africa, but it got inside my soul and hasn’t left. I don’t remember much about actually living in Kenya and Malawi, but I have vague memories of being barefoot a lot, feeling the dust beneath my feet and feeling this incredible connection to my surroundings and the nature there. I remember all my art at school having some kind of African connection or influence and during my second year at art college I won a design competition with a whole interiors collection based on African textiles. In 2007 I went to live in Tanzania to teach at a primary school there and as soon as I arrived I felt at home again. It was like I’d never left. Since then I’ve been back five times and it’s easily my favourite continent in the world. In terms of my art, these days the influence is quite clear to see in the patterns that come to me and the images I use. It’s the colours and vibrancy that I love, and the people I’ve met there, especially in Tanzania, are the most beautiful souls I’ve ever encountered. It’s very hard to put into words, but I have such a strong connection with the place. It really is my second home.
Where does your creative inspiration come from?
It comes from every country I’ve ever visited and every artist I’ve ever loved and from all my natural surroundings. I think as an artist it’s really hard to say where your inspiration comes from because I believe that a lot of it is already inside you and is inseparable from who you are as a person. But, of course, you also see things that catch your eye and think: “Wow, those colours go so well together” or “Those road markings make such a great pattern.” And you make a mental note of it, or do a quick sketch, and maybe use it in your next piece. I find Instagram incredibly important for my creative inspiration and follow some amazing artists and photographers on there who push me to do more and do better. I’m constantly taking screenshots on my phone and I sometimes print them out and put them in mini scrapbooks to play around with. I also love going to galleries and exhibitions, of course, but I don’t get to do that as often as I’d like. I have a trip to London coming up so I’m very excited about getting my fix of art inspiration.
How would you describe your work?
For me, it’s not so much about what it looks like, although of course that’s important, but more about the stages I go through to create it. It’s about the feelings that come up when I look at the image and think about the woman I am going to illustrate. I think some of my best pieces are the ones where I have felt a strong connection to the spirit of the woman I’m illustrating. What appears on the page is a kind of visual representation of what I feel when I look at the image. A few people have seen my work and recognised the spiritual element whereas others just appreciate the colours and the patterns. As an artist, I think it’s quite hard to separate yourself from your work and try to look at it as other people might see it – I still struggle with that. I’m never really sure if a piece is ‘good’ or not. I just know how I felt when I made it. Sometimes I make something which I consider to be quite average and everyone will rave about it, and then I’ll create something I’m really happy with and it’ll get a lukewarm reception. So now I just focus on the process rather than the outcome.
How do you create your works?
First, I source an image that inspires me and then print it out onto white art card. I then draw out the black outline of the design using Micron pens and fill in the colour with Sharpies and Copic brush pens. It’s a pretty simple process, but my favourite part is deciding where to start and using the contours of the image to inform the design. I don’t plan anything out beforehand, I just get started and see where the pens take me. The joy for me is in the process. It’s a series of little decisions I make as a I go along, and I have no idea what the finished piece is going to look like when I start. For me, this is the magic of creating something. You may have an idea in your head of what you want to end up with, but the reality is always different. Sometimes I absolutely love what I produce, sometimes I’m disappointed, sometimes I think it’s just okay. But the process is always fun and rewarding. It’s the process, not the finished piece, that brings that feeling of joy and satisfaction.
Can you explain the recurring motifs that appear in your work?
The leaves represent my love of nature and the strong connection to nature that we have as human beings, and this has definitely become more important to me as I get older. Being in nature calms me and restores me so it’s essential to my wellbeing. The flowers I draw are connected to that, but I think they’re also there because of my background in textile design. If you study fabrics for interiors, you almost always see flower motifs on curtains, bedding, etc. Old habits die hard!
A lot of my designs also feature what I like to call power lines emanating from the women’s mouths and these represent the importance of speaking our truth and the powerful nature of a woman speaking openly about her reality. Throughout history, women have been silenced so it’s important now that we celebrate and uplift the women who are speaking out and determined to be heard.
Another recurring motif is the little rainbows that pop up here and there. I love rainbows just because of their mysterious beauty (I still can’t quite believe my eyes when I see a fully-formed rainbow in the sky) and of course the range of colours, but I also include them to represent my support for the LGBTQ community and my belief in inclusivity in general.
Your strapline is art to celebrate and empower women, how does your art achieve that?
I think that if you look at any of my designs, especially the ‘#50RebelWomen’ series, it’s clear that I am celebrating women by the way I illustrate them. I hope that this is empowering for young girls and for women of all ages. My goal, though, is to become much more involved in communities and organisations which are lifting women from all cultures and backgrounds. That’s starting to happen now, but I would like to get to a place where I am collaborating with magazines like gal-dem and Womankind and get involved with organisations like She Has Hope and Bloody Good Period. I don’t think there’s much point in being an artist if you can’t affect change with your work, and community and collaboration is definitely the way forward so watch this space!
YOUR WORK REFLECTS GREAT LEVELS OF DIVERSITY IN WOMANHOOD. IS THAT SOMETHING THAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Yes, it’s incredibly important to me. Because of the family I was born into, I’m fortunate enough to have been introduced to different nationalities and cultures from a very young age and over the last 20 years I have lived and worked in ten countries and explored many more. I have met and become friends with women from all walks of life and these friendships have nourished me as a person and taught me a lot about privilege, prejudice, and discrimination. As I mentioned before, my art is a part of who I am as a person, so my experiences are going to be reflected in the work I create. When I embarked on my year-long ‘#50RebelWomen’ project, I knew that it had to be inclusive and represent women from all walks of life, otherwise what would be the point?
This project is essentially a love letter to my four young nieces. It came about because I wanted to get better at what I was doing and knew that the only way to do that was to produce more work and hold myself accountable. I decided to embark on a year-long project, producing a new design each week, but it had to be something which was going to be of personal interest to me to hold my attention for that length of time. I already had an interest in intersectional feminism, so I came up with the idea to research and illustrate 50 different women from all walks of life, along with some information about what they had achieved and their philosophy on life. What was great about it being a year-long project was that I got to choose a few of the women myself initially and then as I started to share the pieces and the project took off, other people started suggesting women who had inspired them and it became this organic process that just developed naturally.
Hidden in Plain Sight
At the moment I’m collaborating with Kur Lewis (aka Black History Buff) on Instagram and Facebook. I’m illustrating a series called ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ about women of colour throughout history who have achieved great things and challenged the status quo but may not have been given the recognition they deserved, purely because of their gender and the colour of their skin. Kur does extensive research for all his posts and creates amazing podcasts and videos which make great educational tools. My first design featured Coretta Scott King and I now know so much more about her because of the research that Kur has done. It’s a fascinating project to be involved with.