Artist Talks: Alice Mao

Courtesy of Alice Mao

This week, Bryan Ventura, MY ’24 sat down with Alice Mao, MC ’24, an illustrator and fine artist. Mao takes her inspiration from personal experiences and socio-political topics. Oftentimes, she goes with the flow and lets the art come into itself.

Bryan Ventura: Hi, Alice! It’s always nice to talk to you. Aside from praising it all the time, we never really talk about your art. I’m excited to do that today. You’ve probably gotten this question a lot, but let’s get the ball rolling: how did you get into art? 

Alice Mao: My parents introduced me to art when I was very young. They would take me to museums and buy me art supplies. I would draw on the walls of my old home in China, which annoyed the shit out of my parents because they had to paint over it, but now they reminisce on  it fondly.

BV: That’s really cute. Were you always an artistic kid?

AM: Actually, when I was younger, I was on the music track. For the longest, I thought I was going to attend school for piano in Ireland. I was certain I was going to go there, but when we moved to America, I stopped playing piano. In middle school, I sort of had to choose between art and piano because I had so little time. All the time I spent playing piano, I wished I was drawing. From there, I grew more and more into it. I dreamt of being an animator, a storyboard artist, all those art-related things. I was also interested in painting, fine arts, and illustration. Even though I’ve gone back and forth in terms of a career, I think I’d like to work in editorial illustrations. I want to end up illustrating for publications like the Atlantic, VICE, or the New York Times

BV: Would you describe yourself as an illustrator?

AM: I would say so, yeah. I’ve gone back and forth between fine arts and illustration, though when I’ve spoken with Yale alumni, they’ve told me that I don’t really have to choose. Fine arts are really for yourself and you just hope the response is good and people like it. For illustration, you usually have to answer a prompt and comply with an editor. You look so cute, by the way. 

BV: Aw, thank you. You do as well. Onto your mediums, which do you usually practice? 

AM: Right now, I’d say digital. At home, though, I used to do a lot of oil painting, but they are not fun to travel with. TSA goes crazy when they hear “oil based.” I recently got an iPad and I’ve been drawing with it quite a lot. Previously, I used Adobe Photoshop and my WACOM tablet, but the iPad is so much smoother to draw on. The nice thing about getting an iPad is that I don’t have a stationary workspace. Sometimes I draw here in my dorm, but I can draw just about anywhere… at my desk, at a library, or as I chat with my friends. I really like my dorm and it’s been my workplace lately. I have a dingle, so It’s a really big space. I have this really cool “Girls, Girls, Girls” sign on my wall and all the artwork on this wall are mine. I like how I’ve decorated it. 

courtesy of Alice Mao

BV: How often do you create art?

AM: Before quarantine, I would draw almost everyday, even if it was just like little sketches, and I’d take some time to work on paintings. Weirdly enough, I haven’t been painting as much. I think to paint you have to have good input to have good output. You can’t create art without taking stuff in first. During quarantine, I wasn’t able to take much in. But coming to Yale, meeting new people and experiencing new things has inspired me so much.

BV: Can you describe your creative process a little bit?

AM: Honestly, nothing goes through my head. Literally no thoughts, head empty. Sometimes I have an exact image and I’m trying to put this intricate thing on paper that I picture in my head. But oftentimes, I start a drawing without an idea of what I want to do. I think the nice thing about drawing is that you can just start with doodles and just go with what feels right. A piece can change a lot from beginning to end, and it’s perfectly natural. 

BV: What are some of your own favorite works?

AM: There’s this one piece of a grocery store that I painted. I painted it when I was in a really bad mood, and it’s based on this photo I took at an Asian grocery store. I painted the colors exactly how I saw them. All my friends would comment, “I know where this is!” I felt like I captured the essence of the place. I also think it’s a piece of digital art that isn’t pretending to be traditional art. It’s unapologetically what it is.

BV: So, I saw on your website that a lot of your work has been exhibited in galleries all around. How did you handle that as a high schooler?

AM: Way to make me feel old, man. Just kidding. Um, a lot of it was smaller stuff. The sort of galleries, such as the Seattle and Bellevue Art Museums, were 20×20 programs, so they were group shows that featured younger artists. For the ones that were out of state, I applied online. It wasn’t anything big but it was still meaningful to me. 

BV: Yeah, that sounds like it would be really meaningful to a young artist. How are you pursuing art at Yale? 

AM: I’m taking three art related courses this semester. So, I probably won’t graduate. No, I’m kidding. This semester, I’m taking Painting Time, an in-person plein air painting class, Material Science of Art, and Research in the Making. Extracurricular-wise, I’ve been doing covers and many illustrations for student journals, magazines, and newspapers at Yale. I also work as the graphic designer for the Yale University Art Gallery, and I’m also the Morse College aide, which means I work to make graphic designs for events that are coming up in my residential college. The last thing I did was create a graphic for some Italian night event that didn’t even end up happening…But at least I got paid! For the YUAG, I recently designed a program about artistic studies. I’m also doing research and some initial work for this art exhibition on women artists at Yale. It’s really meaningful to me. I’m glad I get to get paid for something I really enjoy, and it introduces me to things I’ve never been exposed to. Typography, for example. I’ve been researching it a lot and I’m learning to appreciate it a lot more. 

BV: Wow, you’re doing a lot of great things already. I know you use art for activism as well. Can you talk a little about this?

AM: Yeah, I ran a sticker fundraiser for Black Lives Matter over the summer, and that was really interesting and important to me. I collaborated with my friends to create a T-shirt out of it as well. It was such a great experience and we raised over 3,600 dollars for the cause. Another thing I did was I printed out this silly little sticker of a chicken in a UFO. It’s fun seeing it appear in my friends’ water bottles and computers. I hope it can be used to spark conversation. I’m doing something similar at my residential college. I got the Creative and Performing Arts grant last month, and I plan on making stickers to distribute for free among my residential college to unite us in some way. Stay tuned for that. 

courtesy of Alice Mao

BV: That sounds super interesting. Do your emotions and beliefs seep into your artwork often?

AM: I would say so, yes. I mean, I’ve definitely made artwork about some personal stuff in my life before. It’s very therapeutic for me. Back in July, I created this piece about missing my dog who passed away in my garden as I took a practice SAT exam. If that didn’t make me hate CollegeBoard more, I don’t know what can. But yeah, he passed really peacefully, so I drew him sitting next to me in a garden and it helped me move on.

AM: I also made a piece about leaving for college. I wasn’t feeling great at the time, but after I created it, it helped me realize that it was a new beginning. It helped me remember all the good times and the beautiful things I was leaving behind, and appreciating them for what they were. 

I also created a piece about not being able to physically graduate. Something about getting that piece of paper over Zoom and putting that cap and gown on remotely just wasn’t the same. 

BV: Do you have any unfinished work? Why does it stay unfinished?

AM: Absolutely. A lot of time it’s because I lose interest in the piece. It happens a lot with larger pieces, maybe I’d finish a component of it and I’d get too lazy to continue. Or sometimes I work on something and it doesn’t feel right, so I just stop. I just kinda move on. I’ll show you some of it now if you want. 

BV: Ooh, some exclusive stuff. Is this all on your tablet?

AM: Yeah, this is all from Photoshop.

courtesy of Alice Mao

BV: These are great. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to say?

AM: If you want to see more of my work, check out my website, or my Instagram over at @alicemaoart

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