China-born and New York-based illustrator Mao Tianhua has an uncanny ability to effortlessly pull viewers into her imaginative world. Graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 2015, she has been conjuring up otherworldly landscapes, surreal organisms, futuristic architecture, and surreal stories ever since. Tianhua’s role in every piece of her art is unchanging; she plays the role of an omniscient being, a creator of worlds.
In Tianhua’s illustration series, A Brief History of Puffisland, she tells a story about a small barren island. In the tale, the quiet island began experiencing a tumultuous series of events: organisms begin appearing, they evolve over time, but stronger creature come along and began eating the weaker creatures, even more powerful creatures come along and devour everything before finally starving to death. The island then reverts to its original state as a quiet and barren landscape. Like her other works, for example Museum of Tomorrow or The Monsters, Tianhua seems always to be capable of dreaming up new fantastical illustrations filled with an air of mystery, her lively imagination knowing no bounds.
She attributes her fascination with mystery and the unknown to her childhood days, when she was first exposed to Asian art. When she was a small child, her grandfather already began to teach her about traditional Chinese painting, but at such a young age, she only appreciated how pretty a drawing was, without fully understanding the artistic concepts behind the work. Later in Beijing, she went to Tsinghua University for a BFA in textile and weaving art. She copied and painted countless Dunhuang murals as part of her studies – she felt quite disheartened and passionless. At that time, she also felt that contemporary designs were far superior. Later as she grew older, Tianhua started favoring Asian arts and realized that a deep appreciation for Eastern aesthetics had always been ingrained in her. Elaborating on how the arts from Asia influenced her, Tianhua says, “This influence doesn’t involve me directly using these elements and techniques. It’s more about the way I establish the atmosphere and tell the story.”
Tianhua’s creation process first begins with a hand-drawn sketch. After that is finished, she then transfers the image onto her computer for coloring. She pays close attention to textures, and every illustration is evidence of this. She tells us, “In order to have the right textures, I would have to experiment quite a bit. For example, I once coated my fingers in paint and rolled it until the paint became little balls. I then dipped a sponge in paint and used it to scrub over the canvas. Lastly, I sprinkled ink onto the damp canvas and would let the droplets of ink expand on the surface. This approach led to some surprising results.”
Originally from Wuxi, a land of many lakes and rivers, it makes sense that Tianhua would be greatly inspired by nature. “The warm color of opals, the many different forms of microorganisms, the soft texture of jellyfishes, and the smooth tactile feeling of snake scales – these are just some of the things that have appeared in my art,” she says. Her vivid imagination is a culmination of different things she has seen in Wuxi. In addition to Wuxi, the other cities she has lived in, such as Beijing and New York, have also left their mark on her. So it is not surprising to see that her art is rather reflective of all her past experiences.
Tianhua believes she is still constantly learning. Whenever she encounters new mediums and subject matters, she is keen to experiment and see what she can create. But besides illustrations, Tianhua reveals a fondness for video games. To her, video games are seen as a combination of music, visuals, and story. She likens playing a well-designed video game to appreciating a piece of art, describing the emotions that both activities can induce in a person. Currently, Tianhua working on animating A Brief History of Puffisland so that it can be turned into a playable video game in the near future.