Mystery, Magic and illustrating the Anthropocene

Illustrator Lina Kusaite tells me about the impressively detailed work that she does illustrating children’s books, magazine covers, and creating vivid fantasy universes

Published: October 11, 2018Words: Lina Kusaite & Sophia MillerArtist Link: cocooncharacters.com/Behance: Lina Kusaite

After years of wandering the halls of galleries and museums, visiting the studios of painters and sculptors, and writing about the work which is mainly created for exhibitions, I sometimes forget about the artists who create work to decorate many of the other objects which we interact with on a daily basis.

I’ve always had a particular love and interest for books and album art. My mother was an avid reader, and my father had a rather large collection of jazz and psychedelic albums from the 60’s and 70’s, so I was always within reach of some kind of wild and mystical illustration. I personally had a Wonderful Wizard of Oz book from the 1960’s, which had the most enchanting illustrations. It fueled my little girl brain.

What is interesting about these artists, is that narrative, rather than concept, drove them. Their work needed to tell a story, which invited the viewer to tap into their imagination.

This is what grabbed me about the artwork of Brussels-based, Lithuanian artist Lina Kusaite. It took me back to my childhood. The books that my mother used to read to me. The vibrant colors that decorated my father’s records. Kusaite work is both familiar and entirely new. In fact, after all these years, I now find myself looking at this type of artist expression as precisely that – artistic expression.

Let me explain. As a child, those illustrations on the covers of books and records were always a facilitator of the object itself. I was fascinated by the artwork because it told a story about what was in the book, or in the music. I never looked at the work with a critical eye to the artistic process – the mediums, the style. Obviously, I was only a child.

It’s no surprise that Kusaite has worked for years as a commercial illustrator. Her work has decorated the covers and pages of numerous books, magazine, and newspapers over the years. But when you look across her oeuvre of work, you can see a stylistic and conceptual theme – nature. In fact, Kusaite’s hosted a TED Talk on the subject of Creating empathy for life to create sustainable futures. It’s obvious when you think about it, but it is easy to forget that even artists that work for more commercial means, still aim to impart their beliefs and values in their work. Something that Kusaite does with exceptional skill.

You work as both a commercial illustrator and concept artist, but what are some of the ideas and styles that you explore for your own artistic expression?

It has been a very long time since I was drawing just for myself. Somehow, I always work on projects with other people, different publishers, writers, or individual clients. Nevertheless, every project I work on has as much of my passion in it as if I would create it only for myself. Most of the time, when I get the project proposal, I first look into the text, feel into my intuition and check if the story touches my heart. And if the project strongly resonates, I always ask to Skype or have a face-to-face meeting with the client. The best result comes from having a strong concept of the project, alignment with the client and in them trusting me, the illustrator, to express with full creative freedom within the boundaries of the project.

I am very grateful that I can work on such projects and therefore I always manage to explore and express different styles and keep discovering new things for myself while working with others and being paid.

It amazes me how every story and every person I work with has an impact, influence and have their own style for the images I choose to create. It is almost like I am a messenger through which the ideas and emotions are being filtered. It is both challenging and inspiring.

I read the text. I listen to the client. I ask all kind of questions until I am filled with different information. Then I take my time. I let it ferment. And when the time is right, the images, ideas, and the techniques appear and then I start drawing.

My main techniques are pencil, watercolors and a bit of Photoshopping. I have used this combination of tools for a very long time. It feels comfortable and strong and yet, I am beginning to crave for something new.

One of the latest projects gave me a possibility to explore collage techniques, and I am very interested in and wish to continue to work with this more deeply.

Much of your work deals with the subject matter of fantasy and nature. Tell me about your relationship with these subjects.

I guess that comes from my childhood. I grew up in the surroundings of the forests and fields, with a big garden full of flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables. I spent all my time playing outside.

Nature and its systems was, and still is, one of my biggest inspirations – teaching me about the diversity of forms, colors, patterns and how everything simply works. To me, nature is the greatest designer and artist.

When we were little, my Mom read us bedtime stories – fairytales by Nikolai Gogol, Brothers Grimm or Wilhelm Houff. The mystery, the magic, and unreal worlds always fascinated me. I love the world of unknown, invisible and at the same time, it was kind of escape place from reality that at that time I was not aware of.

Before I started drawing, I was writing my own stories. I loved the fact that I could create my own worlds and within them, anything I wanted. Drawings are also stories, just in different form.

You submitted a piece called ‘Alternatives’ for our Artist Invite on Ello. Tell me about that piece.

The work that I submitted for the Artist Invite on Ello is one of the images from a bigger project that I worked on in 2016. One day I received an email from Frederique Muller of PointCulture cultural organization in Brussels, Belgium (http://bruxelles.pointculture.be/) asking me if I was interested in creating three magazine covers: a sequence of visuals that represented the transformation of human/nature relationships from history to the present moment and into a vision for the future.

You submitted a piece called ‘Alternatives’ for our Artist Invite on Ello. Tell me about that piece.

The work that I submitted for the Artist Invite on Ello is one of the images from a bigger project that I worked on in 2016

One day I received an email from Frederique Muller of PointCulture cultural organization in Brussels, Belgium (http://bruxelles.pointculture.be/) asking me if I was interested in creating three magazine covers: a sequence of visuals that represented the transformation of human/nature relationships from history to the present moment and into a vision for the future.

The theme of “Nature Culture, Episode 1: Gaze”, the first publication, was exploring the history of how humankind perceived nature. What kind of relationships grew out of man’s curiosity about the unknown. How the need for discovery shaped our perception of our environment, animals, plants, landscapes and maybe most importantly, our perception of humans themselves.

I started collecting a number of images of animals, plants, human skeletons and different techniques for body preservation from the far, far past. I searched for images of alchemy and mysticism, drawings of nature, known and some things not yet understood, unseen and therefore created in collaboration with mind and imagination.

I got fascinated with how the need for knowledge and explanations, while and at the same time the lack of some information, created the space for imaginary creatures, processes (alchemy) and stories (legends and fairy tales) that sometimes we call history.

I was curious, how much of that became the truth we believe in and therefore accepting it as reality today? And to what level today’s relationship with our environment is unconsciously based or influenced on the processes from the past?

While playing with different images for the cover, I decided to stay with the collage principle including some self-drawn objects. The technique I chose became part of the cover concept and its philosophy and represented the search that is already out there in books and online as an endless playground of information and magic.

The second cover, The environmental crisis/ Anthropocene, explored the present and analyzed what is our relationship with nature today? How can we describe the relation based on facts that flicker all over the social media? And in all of that, where do we stand as humanity?

Somewhere along the line of history and evolution, we lost the sense of balance, giving and co-creation. We became takers and consumers of our own environment and ourselves.

The cover is designed from two parts. The bottom cover talks about the process of transformation. The top cover tells the story about endless fields of monoculture and control. I used a page from an old book-keeping journal as a base for my second magazine cover.

Most of the images from the first cover are used and represents diversity and wild. I filter all of that through the chemical laboratory flasks to show the process from exploration to exploitation.

The white cubes represent our urban environment, from the houses to the packaged food. The funny white circles on the sticks are the botanical diagrams – a simplification key of the plant flowering process. I use them to represent the unification of biodiversity and representation of monocultures/ the presence of our situation of agriculture and plant industry.

“Alternatives” was the third cover on this series. The inspiration for this cover came from a talk by Jeff Lieberman on Science and spirituality at TEDxCambridge 2011,

“Who am I? If you look through a microscope, I am a community of 50 trillion cells doing a magic dance. And if you look at any one of those cells with an even closer microscope, you see 20 trillion atoms. And so I am also a community of 1,000 trillion, trillion atoms. But when you look at those atoms up-close, they fade away, and all you see is energy. All of us are energy – a human being is a very complex pattern of energy. When we look up-close at any single part of us, we moving at the speed of light and we are the age of the universe.”

Creating art for this cover, I explored different ideas about the limitation of human perception, about self-reflection in our relationship, and behavior towards nature, each other and in the end – ourselves.

Dropping the concept of a human as a singular individual form and experiencing ourselves as a part of, or a particle within, larger organisms; an integral part of collective or social life, or maybe even energy that is an inseparable part of the universe.

The way I chose to approach these questions and ideas via visuals is to merge the human body parts with parts of plants and animals – to create almost unrecognizable combinations of forms, and structures. I want to show how similar we are, how the same we are and how all of us belong to one magical body – the universe.

One of your pieces that I found absolutely beautiful was one that you posted under the title “Tryptic.” It’s quite vibrant with a Japanese print aesthetic. Tell me about that piece.

In 2012, I was approached by Dan Cornette, the owner of the IDA gallery in Belgium, asking me to create a tryptic (3m x 1m). Dan was in love with the world of fantasy, dragons, floating islands, organic matter and wanted me to put all these into the drawings. And again, I was so fortunate to have a client who trusted me entirely to create without any interference from his side.

When the time came to draw, I was not sure how to start. It took me a lot of time to merely put the pencil on to a large sheet of paper and dare to engage with such a big format that I had never worked with before.

At first, I was staring for hours at the empty sheet of paper, simply giving myself time for the images to emerge. I had no sketches; just vague scrabbles of composition and no idea what it will be. And as always, as soon as I put the pencil on the paper and finally dared to draw, the forms and colors literally started to grow into one artwork.
It took me three months to complete all three works.

Describe what a day of artistic work looks like for you?

I guess it varies, from day to day, and project to project. It very much depends on the project I am working on and how it shapes my day, weeks or months.

But one thing stays the same – regardless of the projects, I almost always take my first two hours in the morning for myself or with my life partner: two cups of coffee in bed, reading, face-booking, chatting with my partner (when he is around) and watching my favorite TV series.

If I am working on a very exciting project, like illustrating a book, where my vision is very clear, and I already know what I am doing – I can’t wait to start drawing and creating. Then I draw most of the day, which is not really healthy for my body.

I love to choose music to listen to for my drawing projects. Sometimes I watch old movies in the background while I draw. I love to listen to good talks; especially I like listening to Allan Watts (I think I could listen to him forever).

Sometimes the day is full of emails, project proposal searches, and meetings.

Apart from illustrations, I also work on different projects where I design workshops for cultural organizations around the topics of creativity, education, nature, and society. I also coach individuals in personal transformation.

All these impact how my day is shaped.