Graduating from any institution is met with the reality of entering the ‘real world’. It’s a scary place for debutante professionals not wanting to face post-uni limbo, especially those in the creative arts sector where competition is so fierce. Melbourne-based illustrator Dawn Tan’s personal experience is the antithesis of this reality. Dawn left her native Singapore in 2008 to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, successfully graduating at the end of 2010. In the year since leaving uni, she has launched a career as a prominent illustrator and designer, positioning herself as one of Melbourne’s favourite artists. Dawn is on the top of everybody’s collaboration list (see Douglas & Hope, The Design Files and Frankie), a regular fixture on the independent design market circuit and even has her own teaching enterprise. But how did she do it? We chatted with Dawn recently to find out.
Most of your illustrations revolve around food, was this is a conscious decision or are you just a big foodie paying homage?
I love my food. I don’t just love it like any other person. I’m actually seriously obsessively in love with it. It’s crazy. I dream and think of food all the time and I think the constant thinking of food somehow took over my brains and turned my ideas into art.
Considering you portray food so beautifully on paper, can you tell us your top three places to eat in the third dimension aka Melbourne?
I love a good Roast Duck on Rice, BBQ House on Victoria Street, Richmond is the best. I’ve been going there for years, I’ve become friends with the aunty! Misty’s Diner on High street, it’s cute and quirky. Try their XXX sauce if you dare. The last time I had it, I ended up gulping down a whole tall glass of peanut butter shake. Let me just say, peanut butter shake and hot sauce, don’t go hand in hand. And I love a good ice cream too. My two favourite ice cream joints are Freddos on Lygon street and also Jocks in Albert Park.
Not only are you a full-time artist, you also run workshops with Harvest Textiles, are a blogger, have an online shop and have become a favoured fixture at Australia’s best design markets. How do you fit it all in?
I try really hard, and sacrifice sleeping and shopping time. But it’s not too hard for a workaholic like me. I’m actually on holidays now until February but guess what? Three days into my holiday, and I found myself at the art shop buying supplies so I can paint. I love what I do, so it helps. I don’t really see it as work. I think I can do more sometimes but I have to keep reminding myself I need to cut myself some slack.
You’re basically solving Australia’s obesity crisis with the creation of your recent melamine burger plate and french fries cup – they look so good it’s almost like you’re eating them without clogging the arteries. How did the melamine collaboration with Douglas & Hope come about and will you be designing any more?
Cathy Hope from Douglas & Hope contacted me a couple of months ago and asked if I was interested in collaborating. She told me she loves my work and I told her I love her store. And the rest was history. I’ve always wanted to do plates but not sure how to financially as it would involve a lot of money. But luckily for Cathy, it was as if she knew me and read my mind. She gave me full freedom and I came up with the whole New York burger and fries idea. I love my burgers (but strangely, I hate my fries) and thought it would be fun to place a giant burger on a plate. Imagine eating a regular sized burger on my burger plate. Your real-life burger would be so tiny, it’ll make you’ll feel skinny! And yes, I’m working on a new design for Cathy for next year. Perhaps a drawing of a big fat lobster? Hmm. We’ll see.
What was your professional highlight of 2011 and what work were you most proud of?
2011 was really such a crazy year, fresh out of school and straight into the world I went. It’s really too difficult to pick my favourite project or moment! But if I really had to pick my top few, I’d say:
- My Harvest Workroom residency.
- Having my drawings made into pillowcases.
- Seeing my burger and chippy drawings come to life in melamine form
- There are so many more, but I’d say all my teaching experiences.
How did the idea to create larger-than-life food products for your VCA Grad Show transpire and what process was involved when creating them? Also, I have to ask, how does someone so tiny transport them from exhibition to exhibition?
I’ve always had a love affair with packaging. I’m the sort that goes to a supermarket and would buy things I don’t even eat, just because the packaging’s too cute to pass. I do know how unhealthy packaged food is (especially after watching FOOD INC.). But I still love it and thought well, everyone eats it, it’s just how much of it one eats. ‘You are what you eat’ is the main message of my sculptures. My sculptures took me about seven to eight months to make. I’m a horrible horrible sewer and had to use a lot of logic. I told myself I’m just painting and drawing lines. Just that my paintbrush was a sewing machine. And yes, they were a pain to carry. I live on the fifth storey and have eight flights of stairs to climb everyday. Let’s just thank God for my boyfriend Darren. If not I think I’d still be camping in my marshmallow bag at the bottom of those stairs now.
In an industry that is sometimes hard to find your feet, The Dawn Tan brand is fast growing, what advice would you give to artists wanting to start their own enterprise?
I myself am learning everyday, but I’d say work hard and fast. Don’t give up. I always try and think creatively, out of the box. I try and do things that others haven’t done before. And whenever you feel uninspired, just go on a big walk or take a nice break. Do something fun. Or even get some yummy food. Food always helps make one feel better or in my case, inspire me.
All images are copyright by Dawn Tan.