The artist behind the illustrations for the Unequal – Harvard Gazette series
Some of Harvard’s Most Powerful Arts Uneven project lies in personal essays. Written by recent graduates and faculty, the authors shared the impacts racism has not only on their areas of expertise, but also on their lives.
The Wanted Gazette John Jay Cabuay, a New York-based illustrator, to match their words with vibrant illustrations reflecting the complexity of their worlds: his portrayal captures each subject’s spirit and messages against a background of brilliant color and patterns rich in symbolism.
La Gazette met the artist to find out more.
GAZETTE: How long does it take you to create, from concept to completion?
CABUAY: There are two answers to this. I find it easier to capture a person when they are seated in front of me, from life than from photographs. I feel like it’s easier for me to have a babysitter there when I capture them than something that’s done with a photo. The photographs are very flat, you have to understand. I’ll try different sketches before I get to the right one. When it comes to someone sitting there, I feel like I’m going and the paper, or the chalk or the pencil, takes me straight to where I need to go, and my subject formation is more easy.
I could complete a sitting pose in about two, three hours. It really depends if I’m capturing a portrait or if I was working with a photograph. If I had to choose, I would prefer a subject to be seated.
GAZETTE: Do you prefer to work digitally or do you prefer to get your hands dirty and work with traditional methods?
CABUAY: I like both. For me the main thing is my passion for drawing – I love to draw. As long as I’m drawing, it doesn’t matter, really. But there are times when sometimes you get a commission for doing 30 portraits in a month, and I’m just a human, you can burn yourself out. So you want to have a certain balance. Sometimes once that was done I would hire a model to bring her to my studio, or I would go out and draw outside and just show nature, just to interrupt work with something that I enjoy more. .
Right now my daughter is my inspiration, and she’s like my muse. I draw her a lot, and she’s growing up, so I’ve been documenting her since she was almost 2 or 3 months old and I’ve got a bunch of work, even sketchbooks, just her growth. It’s something that I’m really glad I did.
GAZETTE: Much of your work, including what you did for the Gazette, focuses on social justice. What role do you see your work playing in these challenges of our time, and what role does the artistic community play more broadly?
CABUAY: First of all, I really enjoyed the trip and the result of these illustrations. I was really, really happy with the results. I certainly think the awareness [that they brought to] some of the real hardworking heroes who help move these issues forward, who might not be in the spotlight [normally], is the thing that I really liked the most.
It was a challenge but also an honor at the same time to do [them] because I might have a chance to bring light to them. It’s a way to harness my passion for growth. If this is the strongest, most positive way to contribute to society, then I guess that’s fine with me.
In cases like the Gazette, I ask myself, “How do I bring out their spirit? I will read the article, I will read it several times, and I try to see if I can capture the essence or the spirit of the topic for this particular project. I would like to think that my portraits are all about celebrating the person or the subject, that’s what I want to achieve with the kind of portraits I do. Hope this describes the celebration of their life or achievements.
The idea is to bring to light some difficult issues and issues and sensitive issues, visually. I think it is very important. Even here in New York, illustration has become a very powerful tool now. There are MTA posters on Asian hate and things like that, which are commissioned by illustrators to highlight these kinds of topics. Art is used more with that, and with periodicals you see a lot more of it, the use of pictures. This is very exciting for me – the illustrations are used not only as an attractive tool, but also to raise awareness.
That’s a good thing, and a lot more young people are doing it and I think they are taking inspiration from it, partly because of the aspects of illustration as an art, but also as a source of power – a means of, without violence, combating injustice all over the world. It’s not just in America, but everywhere.
GAZETTE: What advice would you give to a young artist or a beginner?
CABUAY: There are some things I would say. First, you should always be curious and open-minded, because the only way to grow taller is to take risks.
Don’t get obsessed with style. Style is not something you can pick from a tree. Style is something that develops within you as growth, it will not happen overnight, and it will happen because of your hard work and patience.
You must have passion for it, so be passionate about it. If this is what you really want to do, you will do it for as long as you are passionate about it.
The last would be to surround yourself with people who have the same dreams as you because you will need a support system. … It is also good to be surrounded by like-minded people… or just to be in the same environment to continue.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.