Flora Bai on art as self-healing, developing her style, and exploring parallel worlds via shoes

New York-based illustrator and visual storyteller Flora Bai takes viewers to strange and fantastical worlds in her trippy artwork. We caught up with her to learn more about her work and discover how her pet rabbit Judy inspired her favourite project.

The world of Flora Bai is a sight to behold. Populated with pigeons wearing bridal veils, surreal imagery worth of Dali himself and characters with mirrors for faces, you never quite know what you'll get. Yet despite how unsettling some of her art may sound, creativity has always been a therapeutic pursuit for Flora.

Originally from Wuhan, Flora moved to New York four years ago to chase her artistic ambitions. "Ever since I was a child, I've always dreamed of becoming an artist," she tells Creative Boom. "I envision my artwork filling every corner of every city, whether it be a grand sculpture, a mural, or a painting adorning the walls of someone's home."

Originally, during her undergraduate years, Flora ran after this dream by studying environmental design with a focus on interior design. However, during this process, it dawned on her that designing architectural projects was beginning to cause her to feel anxious. This led to her creating art more freely.

"I remember creating a series of small installations called Man in a Case," she explains. "It was the beginning of my liberation, and I found that this time spent creating art became a form of self-healing for me. It was my way of releasing the stress that came with not only those design projects but also the obstacles I dealt with in life. I can dive into my little world without any distractions.

"There's something so therapeutic about drawing, and I lose track of time when creating art. I can play with pottery clay or paint for hours without feeling fatigued."

This creative freedom led to Flora taking her drawings, sculptures and paintings and applying them to American art schools. The renowned School of Visual Arts in New York snapped her up, and Flora was thrilled to learn that it offered her a place to study an MFA in illustration. "It felt like a dream come true to live in a new city all by myself and attend my dream school."

Before studying at SVA, Flora admits that she had no formal training in illustration. Hence, she developed her own technique: "using lines to depict details and then filling in with colours." She adds: "Some friends outside the art field have said that my style feels very 'SVA.' When I asked why, they said it reminded them of several SVA artists they knew. I think they might be referring to my technique as my style. Perhaps this is why SVA accepted me in the first place."

As well as being influenced by her idol Ruohan Wang – "I admire the dynamic compositions and vivid colours in her works, and most importantly, her personality" – Flora's style is also inspired by the powerful artwork of Louise Bourgeois and the use of colour as displayed by Amedeo Modigliani and David Hockney.

"My drawings are also deeply influenced by traditional Chinese landscape paintings and École de Paris," she reveals. "However, I believe that an artist's style is constantly evolving. Recently, I have been experimenting with incorporating more texture and hand-drawn elements (watercolour and ink) into my work."

A prime example of Flora's work is her favourite project to date, Judy's Shoes. This silent, illustrated story follows the adventures and explorations of a rabbit called Judy as she enters a shoe store and discovers that every pair of high heels leads to a different parallel world.

"The book is secretly set in New York City, where nothing is strange or unusual, while everything is strange and unusual," Flora says. "Every day living in this city is an adventure, and every person has their own story. These illustrations hide many of my personal stories in NYC, making this book especially meaningful.

Creating this story during the pandemic while living alone in a tiny apartment for several months and completing it with an optimistic attitude was also a brave and powerful feat. Every time I look at the illustrations in this series, I can recall memories of doing what I loved with pure intentions."

Judy's Shoes was created with the help of photo references taken from Flora's phone. These images reminded her of happier times and past travels. "Through my phone album, I found many forgotten memories and small details in the photos I had taken, which I incorporated into the backgrounds of many pages.

"It was great to have something to work on, especially during that special time. My mindset was simply to focus on living in the moment and being happy. Drawing this picture book brought me joy. I was taken into that world with Judy. And I was very lucky to have time to dedicate to creativity."

As for Judy herself, the character is based on a real bunny with the same name. "In real life, she's a Netherlands dwarf rabbit," Flora explains. "Our class was encouraged to create a children's book, so my first and only idea was to create a picture book featuring my pet Judy as the protagonist.

"Judy is almost five years old now and living with her 'grandparents' (my parents) in Wuhan. In the early stages of creation – when I was doing sketches of the character – I asked my parents to take many videos and photos of my bunny as a reference."

And just like the dreams of young Flora herself, it sounds like Judy is on the road to broader artistic dominance. "I'm currently working on a new series of illustrations featuring animals, humans, and capes, and Judy will also make an appearance. In fact, Judy will eventually rule the universe," she jokes.


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