Illustration by Maggie Chiang for The New York Times ("An Expert in Fear" by Susan Gubar, May 18, 2017)

profile / alumni / illustration
November 25, 2019
Writer: Mike Winder
Images courtesy of Maggie Chiang

When in doubt, Illustration alumna Maggie Chiang goes to nature

Thanksgiving is an annual reminder to express gratitude for everything we have in our lives.

Here at ArtCenter, we have much to be thankful for: our innovative students, who continually find new ways to impress us; our hardworking faculty and staff, who dedicate themselves to those students; and the donors who make an ArtCenter education accessible to many who would not otherwise be able to attend. 

Each Thanksgiving, as a gesture of appreciation for the ArtCenter community’s generosity, the College mails out a card to its recent financial donors. Each year, the card highlights work by an alum that expresses the spirit of the holiday. Previous cards featured work by Illustration alumni Loris Lora (BFA 16) and Alexander Vidal (BFA 15), and Photography alumna Tatijana Vasily (BFA 17).

This year, the College selected the work of Illustration alumna Maggie Chiang (BFA 16) for the card. A freelance artist whose work appears in the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, Chiang is a newly transplanted Bay Area resident whose work often explores the relationship between humanity and nature. She describes her work as an exploration of “impossible landscapes and places unseen” that evokes “a longing for adventure and the pursuit of the unknown.”

Illustration by Maggie Chiang for The New York Times  (Tasting the Sweetness of Summer, Berry by Berry" by Hope Jahren, August 24, 2017)
Illustration alumna Maggie Chiang (BFA 17)
Illustration alumna Maggie Chiang (BFA 17)

In the work adorning the card, two cupped hands hold a bounty of berries—raspberries, strawberries, currants and more—and offers them to a woman, who stands amidst a jungle of oversized leaves. The work originally accompanied an essay in the New York Times by Hope Jahren, a geobiologist at the University of Oslo and the author of Lab Girl

What direction was she given for the piece? According to Chiang, very little. “The art director sent me the article and said, ‘Here, I trust you. You know what to do.’”

With its focus on communing with nature through sitting still—in the essay, Scandinavian-American Jahren recounts her days as a child in Norway, where she picked berries during the summer—the August 2017 story was a natural fit for Chiang. “I love nature,” says Chiang. “And I like to garden, so the story was very me. It really fit me and my personality.”

As a child growing up in Arcadia, Chiang, a recipient of an ArtCenter student scholarship, loved illustrating the natural world. Her love of the outdoors was solidified during her studies at ArtCenter, thanks in part to Associate Professor Steve Turk (BFA 86 Illustration). “Steve would often say, ‘Whenever you don’t know what to do, always go to nature,” says Chiang. 

In between academic terms, Chiang started taking trips to San Francisco to hike at seaside locations like Sutro Baths near Land’s End Lookout, and later took up camping. “I’ve camped at Sequoia and Joshua Tree national parks, and I recently went to Big Sur,” she says. “I want to experience the desert, forests, the seaside."

Illustration by Maggie Chiang for “Intern Magazine”
Illustration by Maggie Chiang for Intern Magazine (“Chasing the Sundown,” by Nick Benson, Winter, 2016)

Her first commissioned piece for the New York Times—illustrating a story on climate change—was assigned to Chiang by fellow alum and the paper’s art director Nathan Huang (BFA 05 Illustration) just two days before she graduated with distinction from ArtCenter. “It was published the day of graduation,” says Chiang.

Beyond her editorial commissions, Chiang’s work has also appeared on stationary, album covers, and has been shown in galleries both nationally and internationally. Earlier this year, her work was featured in Spaces In Between, a group exhibition at Giant Robot, which she mounted along with Illustration alumni Lisa Kogawa (BFA 16), Leonardo Santamaria (BFA 17) and Lina Yu (BFA 16)

In April of 2020, her work will grace the cover of How Much of These Hills is Gold (Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House), the debut novel by San Francisco-based writer C Pam Zhang.

Illustration by Maggie Chiang for “Compassion & Choices”
Illustration by Maggie Chiang for Compassion & Choices (“Helping People with Dementia Get the Care They Want,” by Alyson Lynch, Spring, 2018)

As for right now, Chiang is busy continuing to work on freelance assignments and adjusting to life in Sunnyvale, a city flanked by Cupertino and Mountain View, Apple’s and Google’s hometowns, respectively. 

But, more importantly, for somebody whose work explores the relationship between humanity and nature, she’s also close to a bevy of natural destinations, including Castle Rock State Park, and the Russian Ridge Preserve.

“Like with camping, I like experiencing different biomes,” she says of her surroundings. “And there’s a lot of nature here.”

Illustration by Maggie Chiang
Illustration by Maggie Chiang