The Chinese-born, New York-based artist, discusses how her illustrations make her feel more connected to nature.
At its best, art can be transportive: taking you out of yourself, offering fresh perspectives, and putting you into a different state of mind. And the works of Mellow Meadow fit right into that category.
The illustration artist from Shanghai, also known as Yue Li, is a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts and is now based in New York. Her work explores female identities and relationships in combination with nature and mystical beings.
In her recent solo exhibition, Water Stitches, she travels through time to explore her spirituality to its fullest, re-envisioning ancient wall paintings via her own mural-like, surrealist style.
"I hope people can feel the peace and meditative energy within my art," she says. "Most of my work centres on my spiritual journey with myself and my interest in mythology, folktales and folk cultures. I make art mostly when I feel peaceful and inspired. I want to be able to pass that energy on to my audience and take them away from their daily life to a serene, sentimental and spiritual world, even just for one second."
Why, we wondered, do mystical beings play such a big role in her work? This, she explains, is a way of making herself feel more connected to nature, the environment and the wider cosmos.
"I like to think of myself as a small molecule that travels inside and outside the world," she explains. "I often feel the limitation of myself as a human being, as someone who lives in an artificial, man-made world. And this environment often makes me forget how broad and sophisticated the world can be outside the human world.
"By creating characters who embrace their true self, who respect the belief that there's existence beyond the knowledge and control of human beings, and who live in harmony with nature, I feel like I'm creating my own world with peace."
A lot of characters in her work are women who own their autonomy, embrace women's companionship and believe in the power of love, she adds. "Simply drawing them makes me happy, and I believe that there is hope for the feminists to live their own lives in this patriarchal society."
Most of Mellow's work is created with hand-drawn tools, including watercolour paints and coloured pencils. She's always been attracted to hand-drawn texture and believes it can communicate a sense of warmth through the paper and requires intimate participation with the material.
Drawing with a coloured pencil feels like weaving to her; she does it softly and repetitively, which takes her to a meditative place. Watercolours, in contrast, excite her due to their unpredictability and the spontaneity they ignite.
"I was encouraged to work mostly in digital media in my college years," she recalls. "But as soon as I found the joy of making art with traditional media, a new world opened up to me." She stays open to both, though. "While I enjoy immersing myself fully in the meditative process of making art with traditional media, I am also making digital commercial art as a professional illustrator," she adds. "I've been trying to balance these two sides."
She graduated from the School of Visual Arts in May this year, but it wasn't an easy ride. "Because of the pandemic, the school I was at, at that time, started to work remotely, which allowed me to go back to Shanghai and stay there for one year," she reveals. "It was not part of my plan, but I appreciated being able to spend more time with my family."
Also, for her, lockdowns haven't been all bad. "It was almost a relief for introverts like me not to attend as many in-person events," she laughs. "My favourite way of spending time is to be alone and make art, and I was given a lot of freedom to do so – without feeling guilty for not going out. It allowed me to be more introspective, contemplative, and better understand myself."
One of the things Mellow has been contemplating recently is the twin pulls of city and countryside. "Having grown up in Shanghai and lived in New York since I was 18, I've always felt connected to city life," she says. "But since entering adulthood, I've also found myself craving nature.
"That became the main reason I love to look at nature while I draw because it's not something I'm very familiar with," she continues. "There might be rivers and trees in the city, but I could never immerse myself in forests or live in a village next to the sea. I feel like Shanghai is almost the same as NYC because they're both diverse and fast-paced."
Something else that inspires her is memories of childhood. "Not being able to go back home for over a year, and trying to live a life myself here in NYC, my nostalgia for my hometown kept growing, and it became an endless source of energy and comfort for creating my work," she says.
One of her recent works, Summer Nap Time With Grandma, exemplifies this. She talks fondly of "the bamboo mat I sleep on, the big large window full of green trees, the bamboo fan grandma's holding, the beaded animals she made and the gentle summer breeze. The childhood memory soothes me so much that it almost provides a shelter and safety net for my artistic world."
Indeed, one of her best childhood memories is of her grandma teaching her mandarin characters through drawings she'd made. "Visual images from then on were not only just a hobby for me but also a connection with my grandma and my loved ones."
But while Mellow has one eye on the past, the other looks to the future. "I'm working on pieces with more storytelling elements in them," Mellow reveals. "I usually work with symbolism to express myself, but lately, I've been intrigued by the power of storytelling; how a well-thought-out story can express an idea or emotion in a very straightforward yet witty way."
She's also keen to work with musical artists. "I enjoy making show posters or album covers for bands," she reveals. "I recently created a show poster for a psychedelic rock band from Texas called Khruangbin. I enjoyed every minute of it, making visuals while listening to their music. I'm looking forward to more collaborations like this."