The Boneyard Arts Festival is a big event that covers the C-U community, and I had the chance to speak to eight incredible and different artists about what they’re bringing to the table. In Part One of my interviews, I talked to Mew Tachibana (MEW3MEW), Melissa Turner (Melissa’s Monsters), Emily Harris (Mrs. Emily), and Lyric Newbern (GRLS ONLY).
The art collective MEW3MEW are students in Studio Arts and Art History at the University of Illinois. The collective has been participating in the Boneyard Arts Festival for five years now. They use painting, illustration, and digital art to cover difficult subjects like loneliness, mental health, and identity. Please note that “Mew Tachibana" and "MEW3MEW" are pseudonyms for my interviewee, Lingjun Jiang, online and at art events. She uses her “real name” for academic and professional pursuits but otherwise goes by "Mew.”
Smile Politely: What are the students bringing to the festival this year?
Mew: This year, MEW3MEW are planning a group show for their fellow students in Studio Arts Class of 2018. MEW3MEW will showcase artworks, along with their fellow students, in two venues. One group show titled "Self(ish)" will be at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Center from April 13-15, and the other one is "Fighting for Visibility" at the Asian American Cultural Center from April 2-May 31.
SP: How are you involved in the exhibition?
Mew: The show "Fighting for Visibility" is held by the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC), and I submitted artworks on behalf of three asian students in my class. For the Boneyard Arts Festival this year, I reached out to venues on behalf of my group and fellow students in Studio Art class of 2018.
MEW3MEW is a performative/conceptual art project which I developed for my senior thesis in studio arts. This project is centered on ideas of imaginary friends, mental health, identity, and loneliness. Another purpose is to challenge the concept of authorship and authenticity in the process of art-making and in artworks themselves. Artists of MEW3MEW work with different mediums as visual artists and performers.
SP: Who is in MEW3MEW?
Mew: So far, the artist collective MEW3MEW consists of: Reikin Ahokawa (an outsider artist), Lucia J. (an alternative self), Lingjun Jiang (a writer, curator, and coordinator), MEW3 (a performance artist), MewMew (an imaginary friend), Mew Tachibana (a painter and illustrator), D.S. Woodyank (a painter and philosopher).
SP: How did you personally get started? What are your preferred mediums and has that changed?
Mew: This idea on multiple personalities came to me very early, about some years ago before I came [to Champaign]. I have been interested in subculture like anime and manga, and I participated in online communities to share my original characters and illustrations with others. Through this process, I created several characters and personalities that I use to communicate with others in those online communities. You can think it as a kind of virtual role play.
Original characters and designs are my hobbies, but then after I entered art school, I sensed that people tended to have a disdain towards this kind of subculture and think it inferior than "art." But I don't give a shit. So, I keep developing these characters, creating illustrations and stories for them just for fun. I also incorporated them in my paintings, illustrations, and many other art projects.
SP: Not giving a shit is a very important skill for an artist. I have not mastered it.
Mew: I'm a very rebellious person; a mischievous artist by nature, inspired by my favorite artist Makoto Aida, whom I also have studied as an art historian. The true purpose of the whole project as well as my senior thesis was to give a middle finger to my fellow students and teachers: "See? This is also fucking art. The difference is that I did it but you guys didn't."
SP: Love it. What do you use to create?
Mew: Usually, I do digital illustrations, using a tablet and a laptop. I do not consider art-making to be anything special, but quotidian, like breathing and eating. I do drawings and illustrations for fun and sometimes take commissions in digital art.
After I entered art school, I started learning to do oil and acrylic paintings. Later, I tried installations and performance. Art school provided me with very nice resources to explore various mediums, yet I still think that digital art is [very] eco-friendly and handy.
SP: I’ve been watching a lot of Bob Ross lately, and the idea that art making is “nothing special” resonates with me. He made art accessible; a manageable and satisfying hobby.
Mew: As mentioned above, the idea started as a subculture amateurish hobby. But throughout the years, it gradually developed into a solid series of artworks in illustrations, paintings, installations, and performance. It happened through my communication with people from different disciplines. I received critiques and suggestions from my fellow art students and art instructors. Some were harsh but also helpful. I do see myself growing in an institution. Now, the idea has evolved into my senior thesis in studio arts.
MEW3MEW at Boneyard:
"Self(ish)" at Urbana-Champaign Independent Center: April 13-15
"Fighting for Visibility" at the Asian American Cultural Center: April 2-May 31
Exhibit Hours: Mon - Fri: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Images from MEW3MEW website.
Full Frontal Fiber
From Mew, I moved on to Melissa, who is showcasing with Full Frontal Fiber. She makes stuffed animals, and they are too cool.
Smile Politely: Tell me about your monsters!
Melissa Turner: No two Melissa’s Monsters are ever alike. No pattern is ever used. I use recycled clothing and materials for as much of my work as I can. Only use new when needed for certain projects. I believe art should be for all ages. My monsters are made with this in mind. I even make baby rattles that are safe for baby from day one.
SP: Upcycling! Yes!
Turner: I love to create something new from something old. I taught myself how to sew. I had always wanted a creative outlet but found this because I didn’t have to be perfect. I make all of my monsters with thought, creativity, and love. They seem to come to life on their own.
SP: How did you come up with this idea? It’s wonderful!
Turner: I was searching images, back in 2009, for monsters for something, and came across an image of a plush monster someone else had made. Because I saw it and loved it, I decided to make my own happier version, again, because I had been searching for a creative outlet where I didn’t have to be perfect. I didn’t even really know how to sew when I started, and my first two I made for myself I did completely by hand.
SP: How has your process changed since you started?
Turner: It changed completely. The first two were done by hand because I didn’t even own a sewing machine. I bought one after the first two because I loved making them so much and wanted to do more, but hand sewing was too tedious and time consuming of a process. In the beginning I created only for myself. Then for close friends and family. Soon, I started selling. Finally, I made it more than a hobby and turned it into a business.
SP: That’s so great! You ever make anything else?
Turner: Yes, I have made magnets and pillows. I have always thought about other things I want to do but I just never have the time to add other projects. Eventually when I retire I hope to do so much more, but currently my focus is Monsters.
Full Frontal Fiber at Boneyard:
Parasol Records: April 13th and 14th
Images from Melissa's Monster Facebook.
Gliding from one sewing project to the next, I chatted with clothing designer Emily Harris, who goes by Mrs. Emily. She attended Southwestern Illinois College, where she got her associates degree with a Drawing concentration, then graduated from Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a bachelors in Fashion Design and a Drawing minor.
Smile Politely: What grabbed you about clothing design at first?
Harris: I watched old movies and musicals with my mom in high school and just couldn’t get enough of the clothing—the dresses and hats and pant suits with matching accessories. I remember thinking that everyone in old movies looked so beautiful. I started making my dresses for school dances by literally pinning pieces of other dresses together and even enlisting the help of a friend’s mom who knew how to sew. I couldn’t draw or pattern make or sew, but all I wanted to do was make clothing.
SP: You started at a young age...
Harris: Right! Yes, I started experimenting in high school and then learned to draw, sew, and draft patterns in college.
SP: How do you strip a dress for parts? Did you see the end result in your head, or did you see pieces with potential and then figure it out as you go?
Harris: As for stripping dresses for parts, I did both. The first dress, I experimented and just made it up as I went, using an existing skirt as a base and fashioning a top by wrapping and pinning a silk scarf covered in fringe. The next dress, I had a specific idea in mind and asked for the help of a friend to bring it to life. I still used an existing skirt as the base and added from there. A third was similar: I found a dress I liked and chopped it apart, and then put the top of it with another skirt I had. For another dress, I cut up the shawl/wrap from a prom dress and made a skirt out of it. So, lots of experimentation.
SP: What would you say is your style?
Harris: My style…Elegant and Useful. I used to design a lot of evening wear and worked for couture bridal designer Amsale when I lived in NYC. I don’t have much use for floor length evening gowns as a mom and business owner, but I love inserting that same after-five elegance into wearable daytime looks. I’m also committed to making fashion useful. Because I’m busy and getting busier, I need clothing that will work hard for me.
SP: What are you making for the Boneyard Arts Festival?
Harris: I’m making skirts for Boneyard—flirty, feminine, pretty, elegant. And my favorite way to make them daytime appropriate is to wear them is alongside the chunky lettering of my quippy tees and the colorful bling of my hand-embellished baseball caps. They’re useful, too. The black skirt, can be worn with my flat sandals and a tee, at the office or running errands with my daughter. With heels and an off the shoulder top, it’s perfect for date night. Take the removable peplum off, add a crisp white button up, and I can wear it on my upcoming flight to San Francisco. It’s washable, it’s versatile, it’s season-less. It’s knit, so it’s comfy. It’s a classic silhouette that will stay in style for years. It’s handmade, so it’s built to last, and it’s made to your measurements, so it fits perfectly. That is useful fashion.
Harris: The pink skirt, The Amy, is actually shorts, based on a pattern I made over 10 years ago and have worn consistently for that long. Ten years in a fashionista’s closet means it’s truly timeless! I made this elastic waist cutie even more wearable by converting it to shorts (breeze proof) and adding pockets. Made from custom printed fabric by Samestreet Studio, this skirt is made to order and will be available for purchase at the show.
SP: How long does it take to make a garment, from design to completion? What’s the process?
Harris: After sketching a design, I draft the pattern, and then cut and sew a test garment. I make edits and changes to the test garment, and cut and sew the final piece. Once I’ve finished this process, the piece is ready for sale. I am able to grade it up and down, according to a client’s measurements, and sew the finished garment tailored to their specific proportions. So, maybe a couple of weeks to get a skirt ready to be produced, and then a day to produce each made-to-measure skirt after it’s been ordered.
SP: What can we expect at Boneyard?
Harris: Ah, so for Boneyard! My home has always been a creative outlet for me. It’s only fitting that it be the backdrop for my designs during Boneyard. My dining room has been completely dismantled and is now home to 17 mannequins wearing my clothing. I will have all of my graphic tees on display, so walking through my home, you will be able to read shirts that say “the not quitting is the winning” and “I did not expect it to be this hard,” along with the more lighthearted, like “bubblegum pink is the new black” and “I was told there would be snacks.” All of my caps will be for sale, and several styles of made-to-measure skirts.
I’ve teamed up with a couple of local artists and will be selling a shirt printed with art by Kelly Hieronymus of Design Sunshine, and skirts hand printed by Lara Orr of Samestreet Studio. India Neese will be selling her handmade found object earrings -like the coolest and strangest you’ve seen.
We’re planning wine and nibbly bits, and good tunes.
SP: I appreciate that you’re collaborating with other artists!
Harris: Yes! My show is mostly black and white. The 2 main sources of color come from these two collaborations, so they visually stand out, which I love, because the local makers in this town are such an inspiration to me as I build my business.
Mrs Emily at Boneyard:
Mrs. Emily Studio - 1404 Theodore Drive, Champaign
Friday, April 13th: 3 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 14th: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
First photo from Mrs. Emily Facebook page. Photos of skirts provided by Emily Harris.
My interview with Lyric Newbern was truly special to me. She is a young, ambitious, and sharp young person with a lot of ideas. I’m always thrilled to talk to someone who knows art does a lot of heavy lifting in the fight for social change.
Smile Politely: What grade are you in? When did you start doing art?
Lyric Newbern: I'm a senior at Centennial High School. I've had an interest in art since I was in elementary school, but I started taking it seriously my freshman year. My main medium was and still is photography, but I also enjoyed painting a lot at the time.
SP: What are the subjects that capture your attention the most?
Newbern: I am mostly into portrait photography and take senior and family portraits often, but when I am shooting for fun or wanting to express myself creatively, I enjoy fashion photography. I've been working on a project focusing on people of colors’ place in fashion, which I will be showcasing in the GRLS ONLY show.
SP: That’s great! Can we talk about why that’s especially important to you?
Newbern: I focus on black women. A mantra that I have been incorporating into my work is "Black women belong in fashion." Black women are of the most oppressed people and we sparingly see them incorporated into mainstream fashion. I want to break this pattern with my work, because black women deserve to be represented in fashion, in an equally unique and beautiful light.
SP: Absolutely! Are there are particular figures or celebrities that spark your inspiration? I adore Janelle Monàe and her whole style!
Newbern: Yes! I love Janelle Monae! Zendaya Coleman is one of my biggest inspirations though. I love the way she shows the versatility of black women through her fashion and wigs. I was especially inspired by the time she wore faux locks to the Oscars to make a statement about how natural black hair is elegant. She is an amazing advocate! And someone I for sure look up to.
SP: I may be her newest fan! How do you think politics, social justice, and race influence fashion? And visa versa?
Newbern: That's a big question. We see that politics are big influence in fashion when it comes to hijabis. By some, hijabs are viewed as oppressive to women but...we are beginning to see more hijabis in fashion to normalize their existence in the media and to prove that the women who wear them are not oppressed by them. Social justice is an influence in fashion because we are finally starting to see more trans, differently-abled, and body positive models in the media. Oppressed groups are coming together and giving beautiful representation to their people through the fashion industry. And race is a huge influencer because fashion is a predominately white industry that often steals and gentrifies things that black people did first. Now we're taking over the industry and reclaiming what's ours! Fashion is cool because it can change the way we view different groups of people.
SP: Absolutely. What can we look forward to seeing from you?
Newbern: At the festival, you can expect to see photography and paintings of women that inspire me. I will be selling those works along with my own fashion prints and stickers of the GRLS ONLY logo. You can expect to see a lot of representation through my work as well, because I believe that increasing the visibility of people of color is important! I will give you a sneak peak of one of the photos I will be displaying and selling fashion prints of.
GRLS ONLY at Boneyard:
The Hyatt Place - 217 N Neil St, Champaign, IL, 61820
April 13th to 15th
First photo from Lyric's Photographs Facebook page. Photo provided Lyric Newbern.
Header image by Lisa Kesler. For more information on the Boneyard Arts Festival, its artists, and its venues, click here.