Representation can take many forms – for some, it’s the characters they see on TV, in books they read, or holding a position of power, while for others, it’s seeing similar people simply existing happily and unapologetically. For London-based queer creativeBee Illustrates, they are using their platform to share distinctive, quirky illustrations to educate, empower and inform. Since 2019, Bee’s work has gained momentum online thanks to its vivid colours and nostalgic stylings, often paired with inspiring or thoughtful messages including ‘your queerness is valid’, ‘falling in love with myself’ and ‘who you are is magical’.
While their art has clearly resonated with admirers around the world, offering kindness and acceptance to young and queer people, Bee admits that they began drawing to support their own mental health. “The purpose of my art is to find joy, or to create it?” says Bee. “To express myself, my thoughts and feelings in ways that I am not able to with words. To try and bring a degree of peace to my eternally busy and anxious brain. To interrogate and understand more about both the world around me and within me, and to hopefully bring others along for the ride.”
The success of their work online has led to commissions from Schuh x TOMS, Tangle Teaser, Vans and Stonewall to name a few. And despite their rise, Bee is committed to their online community, sharing their tips on working with brands, how to deal with burnout, and opening up conversations about queerness, acceptance and allyship.
Earlier this year, Bee teamed up with photographer, founder of Cheer Up Luv and BRICKS #10 star Eliza Hatchto create Hysterical– a charity exhibition series uniting creatives across disciplines whose work focuses on issues such as identity, race, sexual harassment, gender, disability, politics and more, to subvert our understandings of what it means to be “hysterical”.
Below, BRICKS meets Bee to hear about their career journey, early inspirations and how they define success.
How did you first get into your practice?
Definitely not the way you would expect! I had always loved drawing and doodling, to the extent that I would get in trouble at school for it – although I had never even considered it as something I could do in any professional capacity. I had originally planned on a more ‘traditional’ career and was taking the steps to do so until I started having mental health problems in my teenage years.
Aged 16, I dropped out of my studies due to my poor mental health and found myself lost and directionless after a series of hospitalisations. I had turned to drawing as a form of respite from my life seemingly falling apart around me, and ultimately ended up applying to an art course at the local college almost on a whim! By the end of the two-year course, I had completely fallen in love with art, and more specifically illustration. I felt that I had found my calling and wanted to pursue it further, so applied to study illustration at university. I was accepted to the University of Edinburgh which was a huge shock for me.
I found myself posting bits and pieces online of projects I had been doing throughout my degree and would make art outside of university as well. My life revolved around my art, and it all began to snowball before the end of 2019. When the pandemic hit, I had just moved into a tiny flat on my own, was not coping too well with everything going on, and found myself relying on art and social media as a sort of sketchbook/not-so-secret-diary. People seemed to really resonate with my oversharing on the Internet, and I ended up landing some big clients and media attention, which led to my social media gaining some traction.
After several months of muddling through on my own and struggling with balancing my workload from university, the admin of contracts and other freelance bureaucracy, working full time in hospitality, as well as actually trying to find the time to be creative, I signed with a talent management agency in April 2021 who have honestly been my saving grace. That freed up more time to focus on making art rather than getting bogged down and stressed out. I quit my job in May of that year (with the mindset that if things didn’t work out, I would find another hospitality or retail job by Christmas) I graduated from Edinburgh with a first in June 2021, moved to London in July, and I’ve been working full time as an illustrator and creative since.
If you could describe your work in three words, what would they be?
Quirky, vulnerable, nostalgic.
What is the purpose or goal of your work?
I suppose the purpose of my art is to find joy, or to create it? To express myself, my thoughts and feelings in ways that I am not able to do with words. To try and bring a degree of peace to my eternally busy and anxious brain. To interrogate and understand more about both the world around me and within me, and to hopefully bring others along for the ride.
Sometimes my art is purpose-driven – I may be working to a client brief or feel inspired to create art in response to a specific issue – and sometimes I make art just for the joy of creating. I find that many of my favourite illustrations are the product of aimlessly drawing, just for the enjoyment of it, and as a way of getting whatever is inside my head out on paper.
What were you doing before becoming a creator?
I was a waiter at a pizza restaurant. Before that, I worked at a supermarket. I worked full time while at university so that I could pay my rent and invest into my artistic practice/save up enough to keep myself afloat for when I moved to London. I had no idea whether I would get regular work, so I made sure I saved up enough to cover a couple of months’ worth of rent in order to buy myself some time to establish myself on the London creative scene.
What are some of the biggest challenges of being an artist/creator?
To be honest, I really do believe that becoming an artist, living off of your art, and staying an artist is one of the most challenging things you can do. Being a creative when you don’t have the privilege and freedom to explore and experiment andfailthat generational wealth provides, is tough. Knowing that you have no choice but to succeed first try because if you don’t you are propelled back into zero-hours contracts and working on minimum wage is a hard fact to accept. Getting started and breaking into the industry when you don’t have the contacts or the insider knowledge or a family friend to point you in the right direction does feel like such an uphill battle.
But then once you’ve finally made it – you are an actual official bonafide professional artist? Then you are constantly comparing and doubting yourself, feeling talentless and feeling under pressure to create when you are feeling uninspired. It’s a lot – but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
In the past, I have used analytics on social media as a way of gauging a read on my art, of measuring the quality of it and whether people are resonating with it. Lately, I am trying to unlearn this as it led to a spiral of endlessly competing with algorithms that are designed to never be satiated, forcing me to churn out art for the algorithm’s sake, rather than for art’s sake – and instead focus on making art that is a joy to create.
Cardigan by Alina, Jeans & earrings stylist’s own
How do you define success as an artist?
How does anyone define success? I find that success as a general concept fluctuates from person to person – even more so when discussing success as a freelancer or creative. Not having a boss to report to, or frequent performance reviews like one would in a ‘typical’ job means that it can be hard not to fixate on numbers and engagement on social media. In the past, I have used analytics on social media as a way of gauging a read on my art, of measuring the quality of it and whether people are resonating with it. Lately, I am trying to unlearn this as it led to a spiral of endlessly competing with algorithms that are designed to never be satiated, forcing me to churn out art for the algorithm’s sake, rather than for art’s sake – and instead focus on making art that is a joy to create.
In terms of success, earning money, acclaim and recognition from your practice are things an artist would typically aspire to. By those standards, I suppose I am on my way to being a ‘successful’ artist. To me, however, success looks like making a difference. I want to make art that makes someone’s day a little brighter, makes them feel seen, makes them momentarily forget about the capitalist hellscape we all exist within, and instead find themselves immersed into a rosy-cheeked, technicolour daydream.
I’ve been trying to intentionally celebrate my successes both online and offline, (whatever they may look like) without putting pressure on myself to immediately chase the next milestone or beat myself up for not getting there sooner. The version of me from 5 years ago wouldn’t believe how far I’ve come, and teenage Bee would think I am wildly successful – so now that I’m here, why do I struggle to believe it? I am trying to accept the fact that never quite feeling good enough may just be part and parcel of being a self-employed creative, and that I need to make my peace with the fact that I may never feel successful.
Who has been your biggest supporter?
Honestly? Myself. Looking back, I am so grateful for my stubbornness and the fact that I continued to absolutely and deludedly believe in myself. If I had given up when the first person, or fifth person, or tenth person, or one-hundredth person had told me they didn’t like my art, didn’t think I would be able to do it as anything more than a hobby, or that I should pack it in and get a ‘proper job’…I wouldn’t be doing what I love today.
Who have been your biggest influences?
I feel like I am inspired by everything and anything! Every piece I make is a homage to different artists, eras and movements. Some of the things that spring to mind as my biggest influences are Pre-Raphaelite art, Egon Schiele, Henri Matisse, Keith Haring, the turbulent times of the 1960s and 70s, current affairs, political movements, the queer community, and my own experiences.
Do you have a collective or a community that supports you?
As someone who primarily operates within a digital space, it can be so easy to forget that the numbers and likes and views don’t exist solely in my phone and actually translate to real people on the other side of the screen, who are in a way, a community – even though most of us have never met. The creative community on social media is such an uplifting and encouraging place where I am constantly forging new creative connections. Finding my place in LGBTQ+ community after spending so long feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere has been one of the most joyful and affirming experiences. My art is simultaneously inspired by and created for the queer community, and I don’t think I’d be where I am today without them.
How do you manage your work-life balance as an independent creator?
I don’t. Historically, this has been something I struggle with – doing what you love for a living can mean that you want to pour every minute of every day into work, and being a creative person often means that you really struggle to distinguish where your art ends and you begin – which for me has been intensified with the existence of social media. Everything you do is an opportunity for content. Now, I try to keep some things just for me, and aim to give myself regular ‘hours’ where I will reply to work-related messages, moderate comments and think about work. I find it so hard to allow myself time off, but it is vital to avoid burnout. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting there!
What’s the best advice you can give as a freelancer?
Learn from my mistakes! Talk to other freelancers, make sure you know your worth (it’s probably more than you think!), try to take a deposit before you start a project, always get a contract (and I mean always)… and never, NEVER sign over perpetual rights to anything!
What’s been your greatest accomplishment so far and why?
Generally speaking, I think it has been the act of choosing to listen to myself. To stop living my life in the way I thought would make others happy, and to instead make myself happy. Professionally speaking, I was recently longlisted for the 2022 World Illustration Awards, which still hasn’t quite sunk in!
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Lately, I have been trying not to think about the future. I find myself wishing away the present, catastrophising about what could go wrong, and getting caught up in anxieties about the state of the world. I am trying to appreciate what I have right now, make the most of what I can do in this moment, and hope that it makes a difference tomorrow.
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