Storyboard: Maggie Chiang

Traversing impossible landscapes

What they were big on was traveling. When I was a kid, my parents took me on a trip via tour bus across the American Southwest. We traveled together through California to Nevada, with Texas being our final destination. We stopped in Arizona to see the caves. I vividly remember the gorgeous natural crystals that form within those caves. I had not laid my eyes on such beauty in all my life.

I was surprised – even a little shocked – when my mother bought me a book from a local gift shop. To say I was not used to receiving gifts would have been an understatement. The book was full of beguiling illustrations: it depicted the natural wildlife of Arizona, much of it rendered in astonishing watercolor. I didn’t think about it at the time, but receiving that rare gift from my mother was a kind of formative experience.

I felt like I was missing out on nature growing up in the “concrete forest” of Arcadia. I was an indoor kid for much of my childhood. The exception was when my parents would take us on vacation. I recall them taking me to Taiwan when I was in my early teens. I remember being blown away by the lush foliage on either side of the freeway coming from the airport. It was such a drastic departure from the drab, crowded freeways of Los Angeles! I even remember being taken to the countryside and seeing a lily pond filled with lilies that were so massive that you could actually stand and float on them.

When I first arrived at ArtCenter, I had no idea how I was going to take my gift for illustration and put it to use in any kind of professional capacity. Would I go into editorial work, sketching pieces for prestigious magazines? Would I find myself in the world of motion design? If you come to ArtCenter without talent – or even an idea of what to do with that talent – you’re going to be pushing a proverbial boulder uphill. There’s not much they can do to help you. What ArtCenter can help you with is honing technique: finding a way to take the skills you already have, improve on them, and put them to practical use in the world.

All these remembrances – of ArtCenter, of family trips, of Taiwan – underline the point that the art I create is a means of escape. It is an escape from normality, as well as a way of expressing things that words might fail to capture. My art is about traversing impossible landscapes. I tend to render humans somewhat small in my illustrations, in order to contrast them against the vast scope of nature itself. Lately, we’re seeing just how serious the destructive powers of nature can be. It’s a cycle of destruction and rebirth, and if we want to survive, we need to evolve alongside it.

It was an honor to have designed the illustration for ArtCenter’s Thanksgiving card last year. The illustration that they selected was originally created for The New York Times. And yet, I see this piece as a confirmation of my bond with the school. It’s a testimony to my commitment to the school.

There’s a quote from my former ArtCenter professor Steve Turk that often comes to mind when I’m working: “whenever you don’t know what to do, always go to nature.” Steve’s quote re-enforced what I had felt all my life: that exploration is a means of self-discovery. It’s why I go on little adventures or trips on a semi-regular basis. There are tons of places I have yet to see! When I embark on these journeys – through landscapes real and imagined – I cut myself off from technological gizmos (goodbye, WiFi) and try to get back in touch with what truly matters.

Maggie Chiang
BFA 16 Illustration
Illustrator, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and others

The art I create is a means of escape. It is an escape from normality, as well as a way of expressing things that words might fail to capture.

Maggie ChiangIllustrator, The New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post
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