Kendra Yee's colourful studio space reveals itself mere seconds after climbing the stairs that lead into The White House Studio Project in Kensington Market. Greeted by remnants of a full-wall mural from her latest solo exhibition "My Best Friend.......Felon", I turn left and end up face-to-face with an overload of baby monster ceramics and printer-size papers scribbled with marker, gel pens and every other art supply imaginable. We sit down with the Toronto-based freelance illustrator to chat about multiple realities, roller coasting through styles and zine culture in the city.
How was your artist residency experience at White House Studio Project?
I’m so psyched with how many artists are in Toronto at the moment… I don’t know if it’s about me paying more attention or if there are more platforms for people to work and collaborate on. I moved into the studio at the end of May and the residency happened all through June, with a solo exhibition in early July. It’s been good practice because I’m going into thesis, so I was able to find my focus and not lose the method of production.
Do you struggle a lot with trying to hone in on one specific subject matter?
Totally. My thesis will definitely be a challenge for me. I get bored and distracted very easily, so the more projects I have going on, the easier it is for me to complete one. I’m one of those people that do better when they’re just going for something without overthinking it. If something isn’t working for me, I scratch it and start all over again rather than mulling over it. I find that in staying stuck, you’re driving out a theme or concept rather than letting a new one really develop into something bigger and better. I think the most difficult aspect is curating the pieces after to create an immersive installation and experience.
How would you say your style has developed throughout the years?
Answering that feels like it’s one of those things that everyone else but you can see. You really have to be in the right zone to step back from your work and observe it from a different eye. I’ve loved doing character-based pieces since a young age. I always carried little toys in my backpack because I found it comforting and I guess you could say my version of toys now; is my painting and sculptures. I also took very traditional watercolour classes at a community centre when I was in middle school and remember painting every Wednesday with old ladies (laughs). It’s an ongoing rollercoaster. My style shapeshifts, it’s always changing and I don't know where the ride is going.
You work in an extensive spectrum of materials and mediums. In what direction do you see yourself going in with this?
I have no idea. That’s the most exciting part for me. Again, I’m bored easily and always need to have something new on the go. Right, now that’s ceramics for me. I started doing them a couple of years ago and just fell in love with the medium again... It’s so unpredictable and you need to have a lot of patience for constructing the elements. It’s been a frustrating process, but it’s always good to undergo something you’re not comfortable with and push yourself in a different direction. I’d love to continue doing silkscreening and larger ceramic installations. Currently, I’m taking a bronze and casting course. I am looking forward to experiment with jewellery, brass, mylar, and wax moulds. I’m open to whatever comes my way. It’s nice to balance out and ground illustration with other projects. It’s all about the dialogues that occur between the different mediums. I used to separate them, but I’ve learnt to explore what happens when they’re combined and enjoy looking for that balance.
I’ve noticed a lot of your pieces are on printer-size paper or little ceramics. Do you feel more comfortable working in a smaller scale?
I definitely want to do larger pieces... I used to work very large-scale but it’s all about practicality. It’s a different time process, and I don’t want to rush the pieces as much. I think it’s also about accessibility. I want to do small pieces that anybody can take home and immerse into their own spaces and I find that’s harder to do with large works. Especially for students… how can you afford and where do you even put a giant painting? I also enjoy the disposable quality of the smaller sizes and prefer that than being super precious with them. However, I feel like I do have to learn how to spend more time with a piece instead of pumping out as much content as I can. That’s my next challenge.
Do you feel a lot of pressure to create consistent work?
I think I used to, but I’ve given up on that and it’s been a huge help. Just seeing where something goes is much better because you’re not shutting any doors on yourself and you’re able to explore what you’re most engaged with in that moment.
What role do dreams and the subconscious play in your pieces?
I love dreams, even if I don’t dream that much. I was very obsessed with Jungian symbology for the longest time. I love and am kind of scared of archetypes. I get freaked out when I start realizing these deep-rooted patterns and trends from all of these different cultures. A lot of the pieces I created for my last show were based on memories… window landscapes peering into new universes. Even if they looked otherworldly, they are very grounded in specific moments of my past and things I’ve observed. I like playing with that duality.
I’m also obsessed with multiple realities. A huge part of my work is about that experience and the relationship between the fictional, the non-fictional, the past and the present… Being biracial has also played a huge role in having two conflicting realities. You can never choose one over the other. You have to embrace both and understand that they need to co-exist in order to get a broader understanding of their relationship.
Do you feel like Toronto is a good place to explore these notions?
I really wanted to get out of Toronto when I graduated high school and thought that going away would be the best possibility of starting something new but I think that staying in the city has been totally worth it. Toronto has definitely gotten better at supporting communities and creating open dialogues. XPACE, for example has done amazing in creating all-inclusive spaces in terms of not only race and sexuality, but age as well. Pockets of communities are opening up and it’s all about what you choose to surround yourself with. It’s important to know that it’s okay to be confused in certain situations and counting on a support network is both a privilege and very important to be worked towards.
What do you think about zine culture in the city?
I love it because there’s such a diversity of universes. You can pick something up and be completely transported and people are so friendly. Selling shitty zines stapled the wrong way has made me so much more outgoing. You learn to talk about your work, yourself, everything. Anybody who meets me now would never know that I was super shy. Also… there’s no money in zine culture, but there’s enough that you break even at the end. All of the money is recycled within the community. Once you get $5, you spend it on the artist right beside you (laughs). The artists are keeping the profits within the community rather than taking them and supporting larger brands or institutions. It all goes back into the same system.
As a freelancer, what’s your opinion on ‘selling out’?
You can’t sell out. It doesn’t exist. The only way to sell out is to not produce. Freelancing isn’t easy, but no part of the industry is, no matter what. I’ve had more art opportunities than regular, stable jobs! (laughs) It’s a day-by-day situation, really. You can have five year projects, but not five year plans. You know your grant deadlines and that’s about it. The great thing about freelancing is that you get to work on the weirdest, most diverse projects and it’s always a surprise. From doing illustrations to working with larger companies to merching designs and putting together solo shows… you learn so much about yourself and your process. They can’t teach you that in school.