In the latest in a series of interviews with Fierce Nice's partner artists, Dublin-based artist and illustrator Bronagh Lee joins Ruan Shiels for a discussion about her art, releasing her first book, making an animated music video for Elaine Mai, and lots more besides.
Thanks for joining me for this interview, Bronagh. Can I start by asking you to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your background?
My name is Bronagh Lee and I have been drawing since I could hold a pencil, as far as I can remember anyway. I'm a Dublin-based artist and illustrator. I graduated from NCAD in 2016 with a BA in Printmaking and afterwards, went on to study a year-long course in Graphic Design in the Dublin Institute of Design. Since finishing my studies I have been working as a Freelance Creative, making work for posters, zines, prints and personalised commissions.
How would you describe your art and the intent behind it in your own words?
Hmm… I would describe my work as playful and a little whimsical, with a focus on shape, colour and movement. I think the main intention behind my art is to bring a little joy to people in one way or another. That’s what I’ve always looked for in other artist’s work and the kind of work that would inspire me. I don’t have a specific theme that runs through my work, but gentle empowerment and storytelling are probably the main ones that surface the most. I tend to refrain from making concrete statements in my work, I like to leave it a little open-ended so that each person can take something different from it, depending on their own experiences and background. Art, in my opinion, should be a conversation, not one sentence.
Which artists do you most admire? And have they or others influenced your work?
My favourite artist would probably be Australian based Illustrator Sha’an d’Anthes (aka furrylittlepeach). She is a wonderful and inspiring artist that has taught me that playful, bright and happy work is still work. Another favourite of mine is Tove Jansson, a Finnish artist from the '50s and the creator of Moomin. I too love creating endearing little characters in my work whenever I can just as she did in her books and comic strips.
What does your workspace or studio look like?
I am currently a member of A4 Sounds Studios, a communal studio space based on the northside of Dublin City Centre. The only downside to shared workspaces is that you can’t leave things on the wall but it’s super affordable and accessible for young artists like myself. There are always lovely dogs roaming the studio too which I never get tired of being a dog fanatic…
Can you describe your process and how you go about planning and executing an artwork?
My process usually begins with writing! Brainstorming and mind maps are helpful for me because I have a slightly chaotic imagination and it helps reign in the ideas. Once I have some kind of idea or avenue I begin researching, both other artist’s work and background/history behind the topic. I really love the research part of the process. From here, I begin to experiment with materials and doodle. The more fun I have with the whole process, the better the outcome.
You draw inspiration from an impressively broad range of folklore, mythology and classical literature for your art. Where does your love for these kinds of books and stories stem from, and what is it about them that gets your imagination and creativity flowing?
Yes, I’m a huge fan of Classics! It has always been my go-to for inspiration and turning those creative cogs on. I think it began with my love for stories as a child. My favourite childhood book was Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, a book about three children who find a magical world up a tree where they meet mad characters like Moonface and Silky the Fairy. I loved looking at all the vintage style illustrations with their round, rosy cheeks and earthy colour palettes. I would spend hours redrawing the characters until I eventually began to draw my own characters. I discovered my love for mythology in secondary school when I took up Classical Studies. I think I was drawn to these ancient stories in the same way as old storybooks. Both rich in narrative, characters and adventure.
Your work is bursting with wit, personality and self-confident playfulness. Did it take you long to find your personal art style/voice and hone it to a point where it felt wholly true and unique to you?
I think it was only this year when I really found my voice within my work. I still don’t necessarily feel like I have a concrete style and I’m not sure if I ever will because my work takes form through the material and ideas or messages behind it as opposed to fitting my own style around these aspects. I do believe essence trumps aesthetic style anyway so I’m trying to not let it get to me so much these days (it really did bother me for a while).
You recently released your first book, Do Not Choose An Apple Based On Its Shape, in collaboration with the folks at Damn Fine Press. Congrats on that! Can you tell me a bit about the book and the core theme or idea behind it?
Why thank you! It was definitely the most fun project I’ve had to date and Damn Fine are a great bunch to work with so that helps too. The concept behind the book is using various "fruit people" as a metaphor for different body shapes and personality types, celebrating these differences in a fun and playful way while still maintaining the very real message of "yes, you belong here".
Another recent piece of work of yours that really caught my eye (and ear) is the colourfully animated music video for Elaine Mai's Heartbeat. How did this project come about and how was your experience working on it?
Elaine reached out to me by email after her wife showed her my Instagram. Elaine told me what she was looking for and at first I wasn’t sure about taking the job because I’d never done animation before! She was so patient with me and believed in me more than I believed in myself, so in the end I decided to go for it. It was definitely a huge risk, not only was I learning how to animate for the first time, I was using Premiere Pro for the first time. I’m not exactly the most tech-savvy person so it was pretty scary at first but I’m so glad I took the risk; not only did I learn a lot, I had so much fun doing it too! Elaine Mai’s music is so beautiful it was very easy to become inspired by her song Heartbeat. I created an abstract narrative using a limited colour palette and shapes to convey different points of a relationship (meeting, connecting, evolving). It was very difficult, especially syncing the movement of images with the beat of the music but it was worth it in the end.
You're very active on social media, particularly on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. How useful do you find these online platforms in terms of promoting yourself and your work, floating new ideas, networking with other artists/galleries, etc?
It’s a great way to connect to people, whether it’s other artists or possible clients. Most of the work I’ve gotten, if not all of it, was through Instagram. It’s very accessible, I can be sitting on a train to work and suddenly find a new favourite artist. Instagram and other social networks for artists and illustrators also creates a transparency behind the brand/creative. You can share processes and insights into your work that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise and I think that’s my favourite part about it.
What's been your proudest moment or achievement as an artist to date?
I think the Heartbeat animated video wins that one. It was something very far out of my comfort zone but I did it anyway. I’d love to create more animations this year and see what else I can do with the medium.
Establishing yourself and maintaining a career as a freelance illustrator is no mean feat, but you seem to be pulling it off nicely. Is there any advice you'd offer to up-and-coming artists looking to break into the industry? Perhaps something you wish you knew back when you were first starting out?
Wow, I’m so glad it looks that way! Looks can be deceiving, especially in the realm of social media. Whether it’s beauty/body expectations or a creative’s career, not all is as it seems on the internet. Half the week I’m an Illustrator the other half I’m a barista, this way I can do what I love and also have a steady income each week. Being a Freelance creative is incredibly hard, with a lot of work and not a lot of money. I still feel like I’m at the very beginning of my career myself but I think my main advice is to not give up when things get tough, even if they get really really tough! It’s not an easy career to do, if it was everyone would be doing it. I still have days when I feel like throwing in the towel, but there’s always a little voice telling me to push a little more, and I would encourage anyone to listen to that little voice because it’s usually there for a reason.
What's next for Bronagh Lee? Are you working on any exciting projects or pieces at the moment that you'd like to talk about?
At the moment I’m planning on making some new goods for my shop, including cute stickers based on my book Do Not Choose An Apple Based On Its Shape and maybe some tote bags. There will definitely be new zine projects this year too because I had so much fun with that.
How do you envision your work and career evolving over the next 5 years or so?
Unfortunately, I’m a terrible planner. But... I’d love to get more commercial illustration jobs/projects such as Editorial and Advertising. I’ve always wanted to illustrate children’s books too because children’s book illustrations are what inspired me to become an artist in the first place. I’m hoping within 5 years all of my job(s) whether it’s 1 or 2 or 10, will be involved in the Creative Industry.
And that's a wrap! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Bronagh. It was a genuine pleasure chatting with you.
An exclusive collection of fine art prints by Bronagh Lee are now available from Fierce Nice at the following link: The Bronagh Lee Collection.