We finish this artist spotlight series with a self-interview.
My art is at the intersection of spirituality and exploration, darkness and light, myth and truth. It is all these things and so much more.
These are all the questions I wish people would ask me and what my answers would be:
“...spirituality and exploration, darkness and light, myth and truth. It is all these things and so much more."
How did you get started painting?
It was a long road for me. In high school and through college I refused to use any color. I decided I was a charcoal/pen and ink artist and that was it. To be honest, I was terrified of it. I still am a little bit, and I use a limited palette because it isn't my strength (or my passion). But something good definitely came out of that period of my life: I built a solid drawing foundation. I trained my eye and built up a massive amount of patience and a passion for detail.
I don't think it's too vain to say I became a great pen and ink artist, and I still consider detailed intricate linework to be my major strength, but after college I felt like it was time to move forward.
One day I felt a strange pull. I didn't know how, but I knew it was time to use paint. So I went to Walmart and picked up the cheapest craft paints I could find plus a giant canvas and did my first painting of Buddha with my husband. It was simple, just a few colors, and all from my head. It came out of nowhere, but that painting hung in our house for years.
How did you develop the art style you have now?
That was a long, winding road too. Back in Houston I played with a bunch of different styles - I painted these intricate, tropical animals with wild, vibrant colors, I made resin pieces with alcohol ink and an abundance of glitter, and I explored a lot of seascapes. Along the way I collected a good following and was successful at art shows, but I wasn't happy with anything I did. My art didn't feel like me anymore, I was just keeping the wolf from the door.
Then my husband and I quit our jobs in September 2018 and left to travel full time for a couple years. I shut the whole thing down. I let my Instagram account go quiet and spent that time really exploring what I wanted my art to look like. I tried different mediums (I'm still trying different mediums), but I'm narrowing my focus now and I know what I really enjoy and I know what I'm good at.
“I was just keeping the wolf from the door.”
How would you describe your style now?
It's silent and introspective. I look at nature in a reverent way, as a place that is a part of us as much as we are a part of it. I see nature as a place to explore like we should explore our own depths instead of a place to conquer and control.
I like to think that it's this contrast between the dark and the light, between control and freedom. I use dark pigments and inks in my work and I love to bring in gold, even glitter, and white negative space to contrast with that. Then there's the technique - when I use color, I use it in smooth, free movements with a lot of water but the detail work is precise and controlled, intricate.
I use a lot of water in my work because it sets the colors free, it releases control and allows for more exploration, like a little sailboat on the sea. I think that's what I am. A little sailboat exploring the darkness, illuminating just a little bit at a time with an oil lamp.
What kind of subjects do you paint?
I'm obsessed with the sea and the stars. That's what it really comes down to. When I was a kid, I lived on a sailboat for three years and those nights when we did crossings on our sailboat, I would watch this endless black sea, sprinkled with stars. This feeling of being enveloped by the sea and stars and the absolute, beautiful isolation of it - that will always stay with me.
What have you been working on recently?
I have two major projects in the works - one is an ongoing collection - I'm thinking of calling it the Stargazer or Voyager collection. We'll see.
That collection has mixed media pieces on canvas with gold celestial skyscapes. They're really beautiful, I think.
I'm also working on developing a catalog of natural, homemade ink in every color (or every color I want to use) for a natural ink collection. I wanted to test this collection carefully before offering it to the outside world, because I'm not sure about its longevity since it is natural.
How did you get involved with natural inks?
I’ve used some really dangerous materials in my art in the past – resin, alcohol inks, varnish, etc that you’re not supposed to breathe and things that easily cause cancer. You can make some really amazing things that way, but they’re not only dangerous when you use them, they leave a lasting impact on the planet.
I hate that the resin artwork I’ve made will last forever, because nothing is supposed to last forever. Is it really fascinating? Yes. Do I think that I deserve for my art to last forever at the cost of the planet? No. I don’t judge other artists that use these things, I just know it’s not for me. I’m exploring this idea of creating things that are very temporary. My natural ink pieces are not designed to last forever, just as our bodies are temporary. The rain, the trees, the seasons, even our sun is temporary and it means so much more because it is so.
You said your art reminds you of isolation – why is that?
I think I’ve always been obsessed with isolation. When I was young, I spent a lot of time out at sea with no one for miles or even hundreds of miles in any direction, on deserted islands, sparsely populated jungles, or aspen forests in the mountains. I’ve found that the things I loved the most growing up – games, shows, movies – all have this recurring theme of isolation. I find it comforting. This feeling of having nature extending out in all directions, relying only on yourself, exploration of the unknown... These are the things I value in my life and my art.
“I've always been obsessed with isolation.”
Do you think your travels inspire your artwork?
Absolutely. As the world begins to open up again and we resume traveling, I’m hoping to do more art as I travel. That’s partly why I wanted to get into more natural ingredients. I want to create art in a sustainable way and in a way that is in harmony with nature. I want to paint more from my travels; that’s the hope anyway.
Do you have a specific pattern to your art practice?
Absolutely. Every time I step into my studio, I start by lighting a candle and saying my mantra to remind myself why I am there. I took the mantra from the book Big Magic (100% recommend, btw) and it helps me put my focus in the right place before I start.
It goes: I vow that I will create forever regardless of the result. I will try to be brave, grateful, and as uncomplaining as I can possibly be. I will never ask my creations to take care of me financially, I will always take care of it.
This just puts me in the right head space. It’s a sort of cleansing movement to shake off the dust from regular life. It keeps my art practice sacred and my devotion clear. No matter how successful or unsuccessful I am with what I do, I have devoted my life to this. I will write, paint, and sing for the rest of my life no matter what. That commitment means something to me. It’s like a marriage. I’ll never expect my art to make my happy, just like I would never expect my husband to be solely responsible for my happiness.
Is there anything you wish people knew about you?
About me? I don't know. But I wish people knew that handmade art is worth so much more than manufactured art. The energy is different. When you find an artist you love, you take a taste of their energy home with you. It can change your entire space for the better, it can change your life – I truly believe that.
When I see the originals and prints I’ve gotten from creators, it lifts my spirits. It makes my home feel wonderful, lifted.
I want everyone in the world to understand that the things they do every day change their energy. The clothes you wear, the food you eat, how you treat yourself, the people and things you surround yourself with... It can shift your energy and then, incrementally, one day at a time, shift your life. I wish people were more careful with their energy and were more intentional about how they treat themselves and their energy. It is the most important thing in your life. Your outlook, your energy, can change everything.
Isla Jiang is an abstract mixed-media artist based in Florida. You can see more of her work on her website. Follow her on Instagram @artbyisla or on TikTok @islapaints