Ness Lee's world of sticky sweet illustrations

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting a bright and colourful smorgasbord of pink mountains and tutu-donning sumo wrestlers- also known as the home studio of Ness Lee, Toronto-based artist, illustrator and graphic designer. I first stumbled across her work last summer during the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (TOAE) and it was love at first sight. Making her mark on everything from paper to wood to ceramic to larger-than-life cutouts for the AGO's latest First Thursdays event, Ness Lee is  one of the sweetest people I know but is definitely a talent to be reckoned with. We chatted about art school, teaching, getting past criticism and assumptions and more! Read below.

Tell us about your creative background.

All I ever did was art. You know in high school you have all of these options for extra curriculars and sports and stuff? All I ever chose was art, art, art. I went to York University for a year but I all of the lectures just sucked the juice out of me. The studio classes didn’t make up for it so it wasn’t very stimulating. I ended up at OCAD and at that time I didn’t even know I wanted to be an illustrator.

What’s your take on art school in general?

I think it helps but I also think it’s all about the experience. It’s not about the marks, although a lot of people like to make it about that. I read an interview once in which this artist said “I wanted to meet people, so I went to art school.” (laughs) It’s definitely a place to network! My greatest friends are from OCAD and I’ve met great artists there. It’s not for everyone, but school was definitely worth it. Grading art is bullshit though, it’s so objective.

And on the Toronto art scene?

I’m originally from Markham but the art community in Toronto is awesome. Everyone is really friendly and it’s easy to co-mingle with each other, whatever your practice is. It’s a big bubble and everyone seems to know each other, it’s nice and tight-knit.

What inspired you to get into ceramics?

I kind of found it on the way. I was into moldmaking and then I started to make other sculptures and when I realized I could make ceramics, I fell into this teaching position for pottery. Teaching pottery made my art evolve and it got more refined. I’m still learning though! Some of them are really rough around the edges and I’m improving every day.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve taken away from teaching?

Oh, man! Teaching is nerve-wracking. I feel like a lot of people search for approval and I think you just need to give it to them. It sounds bad like that, but sometimes people just need to feel better about themselves and about their art. I teach younger kids from 3-12 years old to adults up to fifty years old, who are usually insecure about creating. I find that when they’re confident, they create amazing work and it makes sense. I honestly made better work after I graduated because in school you’re always hanging on your professor’s opinion because he or she is a big-time illustrator or something instead of not caring so much and doing your own thing.

Do you find the illustration scene to be competitive in the city?

It’s pretty cliquey...but honestly, I’d like to think that if you’re talented and work hard, your work should speak for itself and the opportunities will come to you. You’re essentially supposed to be your own business person. It’s all up to you and the competition weeds itself out in that way because a lot of people find other pursuits in life. So it depends where you live, but Toronto is competitive. No hating, though (laughs).

If you happen to be confronted with criticism towards your work, how do you deal with it?

I don’t get a lot of it, but pretty much just laugh it off. I draw a lot of my influences from Japanese culture, sumo wrestlers and stuff, so a lot of people ask me if I’m Japanese and when I tell them I’m not maybe they get a little disappointed or taken aback. That would be the only thing I’ve battled with, honestly. Appearances, people thinking I’m Chinese or Japanese, assumptions on my languages and my culture, but that’s something that can be brushed off.

What advice makes you keep going?

Oh, man… I have one, but I don’t think it’s good (laughs). I’ve been pondering on and off for a while to figure it out and it’s something everyone says at some point: fake it ‘till you make it. It sounds bad, but it speaks on an optimism, you know? Look up, look ahead, just keep going. I guess it just depends on what you use it for. Other than that, I’ve been getting the odd email asking me how I keep up and I sound lame but I always say it takes patience, persistence and practice. The three P’s (laughs).

Follow Ness Lee's work and projects up on her website + Instagram