Expressive and lyrical, the illustrations by Jacqueline Tam are a series of hauntingly beautiful scenes and patterns that capture moments of both sonder and wonder. Capturing atmospheric inky depths through shadows and hues of monochrome, Tam has worked in collaboration with a number of editorial and commercial projects. Read on in this artist interview, to find out more!
What’s your background?
I’ve lived in quite a few places throughout my life. I was born in Austin, Texas, then my family moved to Japan when I was six. After three years, we moved to Hong Kong, where both my parents are originally from, and I lived there up until leaving for university. I returned to Austin to attend the University of Texas, and majored in advertising. I moved to New York City after graduation, since I had interned there the previous summer, and I’ve been here for eight years now! I’m a city girl at heart, so New York has felt the most like home to me so far.
What’s your earliest memory?
The first one that comes to mind is one with my older brother, where we’re playing with stuffed animals in our room. In this memory I am in tears because he is manipulating all my animals to turn against me!
What’s your favorite artwork?
It’s too hard to pick just one! Currently, I’m really into the paintings of Hilma af Klint, which are being shown at the Guggenheim now. Long time favorites include works by Yoshitaka Amano, and Lorenzo Mattotti — in particular his illustrations for the children’s book “Hansel and Gretel”.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was little I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a “potter”, so clearly a maker of some sort!
Where did your artistic journey begin?
I’ve always loved to draw ever since I was little, and I loved art classes in high school. My dad also oil painted as a hobby, so it was clear where I got my interest from. I always knew I wanted to do something creative as a vocation, but even after school, I still hadn’t found a career path or community that felt right to me. For several years after university, I worked in the uncreative field of digital media planning, eventually feeling incredibly burnt out and unfulfilled, which led me to reevaluate my desires and interests. I started taking evening classes at the School of Visual Arts, and began drawing again, which is when I realized that there was a thing called Illustration and it could be a career. I decided to apply for SVA’s MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program in order to receive a formal art education and find a community of artists. Since then, I’ve been exploring my artistic practice and pursuing freelance illustration commissions.
How do you work?
When working on an illustration, I first do a lot of sketches to work out the composition and value of the piece. I also do a few studies to decide what tools (graphite, ink, etc.) are best suited for the image. I do the majority of my work traditionally before transferring images into Photoshop to color and edit.
My sketchbook is mostly reserved for just note taking, to-do lists and rough thumbnails. I actually prefer working on large, loose sheets of different types of paper (watercolor, vellum, etc.) in order to experiment with different surfaces and mediums. I also feel less pressure when working this way! Working in a bound book makes me feel like everything has to be perfect, or ‘be a certain way’
Where do you look for design inspiration?
Everywhere — I’m glad that I live in New York City where I have access to so many museums and exhibits with all types of art across the ages. Bookstores and Instagram are both good sources, though I try to be careful and have healthy boundaries when browsing through social media. I also look to all types of creative practices to spark new visuals and ways of working — photography, dance, sculpture, textiles, writing or cinematography. I constantly pin or save images so that I have a catalogue of inspiration to browse through when I’m in between projects. I also recently started teaching art to kids, and am inspired by their honest and fearless approach to art making.
How do you like to decorate your home?
I live in a tiny one bedroom apartment with my husband and two cats, so due to space and storage constraints, I try to live as minimally as possible and encourage my partner to do the same (though not always successfully!). Our living room also serves as my studio, so we’ve had to integrate this functionality in creative, space-saving ways. For example, our coffee table is a large flat file, and we have a standing desk in a corner of the room which allows my art caddy and desk chair to slide under when not in use. We also opted not to have a TV so that artwork could serve as a focal point in the room instead — I have several framed illustrations of mine around the apartment. We have a few wall planters and hanging plants which also save on space, and also add that lovely green element. We both like clean and simple lines, and most of our furniture is a light wood or white finish.
Do you have anything at home that you have a special sentimental attachment to?
We have a framed menu from the Hearth hanging in our kitchen, which is where my husband and I had our first dinner together after we got married. I’m not sure who the designer is but I love the handwritten typography and simple drawings which explain the Hearth’s philosophy for food. We also framed a full page photo from Outdoor Magazine, of a glamping bungalow at Camp Orenda where we spent a weekend many years ago.
What role does the artist have in society?
Artists play such a powerful role in our communities, the full extent of which I am still coming to understand. I believe artists serve as our healers and voices, and above all, remind us of our humanity. Visual artists especially, stand in for so much of our shared experiences that can’t be articulated through words. I feel fortunate to know that some of my illustrations have directly helped others heal from and process painful experiences.
I’m working on a series of personal illustrations featuring giant, graceful women. They carve mountains, move deserts, or hold up forest canopies.
*This interview with Jacqueline Tam has been edited for clarity and length.