Tessa Hulls explores the ideas of memory and migration through her illustrations. She has created a series with these themes in mind. Hulls is able to capture our imaginations through her vivid images, and she even volunteers for 826 Seattle–a part of 826 National, a nonprofit publishing, writing and tutoring center for kids ages 6 to 18 –as an illustrator for children.
Where are you from? Have you ever lived in a suburb? If so, what was your experience with it?
I grew up in a tiny little coastal town (the population sign still says 350, although it’s closer to 700 now!) about an hour north of San Francisco. There were more cows than people. It wasn’t a suburb in any technical sense of the term, but I was 20 miles away from anyone else, and I definitely learned how to be very comfortable with being alone. I was extremely spoiled in that I grew up right next to a national park, so I spent most of my formative years tramping around the hills with my sketchbook and whatever I happened to be reading at the time. Growing up so removed from my peers was a huge influence, both personally and artistically, and I find that I’ve ended up a strange blend of extreme extroversion coupled with a strong need for intermittent hibernation.
How have your surroundings influenced you as an artist?
I’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest for the past six years and I’ve definitely adopted a color palette to match. I used to work in a lot of bold oranges and magentas, but have been steadily progressing towards earth tones, which is a direction I never anticipated in my work. Living in Portland and then Seattle has certainly left me with a deep appreciation for the versatile nuances of gray! I’m extremely grateful for living in such a stunningly beautiful environment, and it’s great to have access to the cultural epicenter of a city while still being able to easily leave and dash off to adventure in the forest. I try to spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly just soaking things in.
How do you create your art?
My attention span is extremely selective, and while I have endless patience for devoting myself to obsessively detailed line work, I have to be listening to something at the same time. It’s actually quite a weakness of mine, I’m terrible at painting in silence. I’m a huge fan of public radio and usually paint while listening to archives of This American Life and Radiolab. I recently started listening to audio books and they’ve done wonders for my work ethic. I imagine the person who shares a wall with my art studio must really hate me: I’ve spent the last two weeks listening to a fantasy series written for 12-year-old girls. I think it’s only fitting–so much of my work relies on a sense of narrative and storytelling that it makes sense that I’m listening to stories as part of my creative process. My pieces generally start with a phrase or specific image lodged in my head, and I’ll let myself ruminate on it for a few days before I try to put anything down on paper. I generally do a couple of thumbnail sketches, but tend to ad lib and let things form organically when I work on the final piece. I often find that I’m working on a series without even realizing it and it’s only when I line up all my finished pieces that I realize I’ve been illustrating scenes from a larger story. I just finished a series called “Grow Me a Boat,” which I think was about the preparations for a mass migration; and now I’m working on a series titled “Scenes from the Exodus.” Sometimes I feel as though I’m just along for the ride, and that I’m a conduit for an intricate folk tale where I certainly don’t know the plot.
What influences/inspires you?
I’m a complete magpie! I’m drawn to most everything. Like I said earlier, I’m a huge believer in aimless walking, and I’m also a voracious reader (goes back to the whole growing up 20 miles from all my friends– I pretty much lived at the public library). I need a constant influx of storytelling. I also rely very heavily on my friends, and I’m not happy unless I’m intermittently rounding up all the people I love and cooking for them. In terms of more direct artistic influences, I’ve been drawing from a lot of Eastern European folklore and Japanese textile design, coupled with a hearty dose of nostalgia for things that never quite existed.
Explain the idea of memory in your work.
For whatever reason, I’ve always been the token artist in a group of friends comprised mainly of scientists, and I think that’s because I’m secretly very analytically minded. I like to know how things work. I’m particularly curious about the idea of memory, and am intrigued by its inherent ambiguity. My work deals with the malleability of memory, and the scenes I create are essentially illustrations of forgetting as an anthropomorphic process. I’m fascinated by the way memory becomes corrupted, and how our impressions of the past lose focus and change over time. On a chemical level, the act of recalling a memory actually changes the content of that memory–it’s like listening to an audio file, only where the act of playback actually records over the initial file, leaving you with an end result that is extremely similar to your starting point, but is also fundamentally altered. I find that pretty damn fascinating, particularly because it implies that the best way to preserve a memory in its objective state is to never think about it once it’s happened.