Kendra Yee

Kendra Yee




Kendra Yee

Kendra Yee




As she makes her way through the world, Kendra Yee, the Toronto-based, cross-disciplinary artist, keeps her eyes wide open.

Much of what she observes—no matter how small or seemingly quotidian—in her environment finds a home in her imaginative work across mediums, from painting to curation to sculpture. Her illustrations in particular cut through the visual noise and go straight to the strangest, most open-minded corner of a viewer’s heart: hues of lemon yellow and faded peach mingle with images of snakes and suns, swords and sprouting flowers, and long stretches of tree-dotted highway. We were so pleased when Yee agreed to tell Constellation about where she finds inspiration, her earliest memories of making art, and how to make a palpable difference within one’s local creative community. 


Hi, Kendra! Tell us a bit about your background in the art and design world. How did you get your start?
From a young age, art has always had a huge influence on how I experience the world. I never really felt connected to school, especially when I was 13, 14 years old. My parents sent me to the drop-in life drawing class at the bottom of our road. The instructor, Robert, wasn’t sure if I would be suitable for the program, as it was an adult watercolor class, where you would spend two to three hours on traditional studies. After a trial class, I loved it, and it was an easy transition. It was a welcoming environment, and the classes really helped me to focus. You would spend the whole night concentrating on painting flowers with watercolors. 

What are your earliest memories of making and seeing art?
I tried to be the best anime illustrator in the 4th grade, but this kid named Michael was always on top. He was so good at getting the eyes perfect and all the proportions right. My characters always turned out so wonky and lopsided, so I just had to work with that. They’re still wonky to this day.

You work across a wide variety of mediums. Do you find that, more often than not, these disparate ways of working inform one another? Or do you find it's easier to approach each on their own terms?
I think there is this fluid relationship between all of these projects; one informs the idea of another. I find it more interesting to work on projects that explore mixed mediums. Print, sculpture, curation, painting, and design—they are all connected. At times, you do have to focus on one specific project in order to complete that vision. I find the hardest part to be sitting down and fully concentrating on one idea, which might combine a variety of mediums, and making it cohesive. Design is a new area that I’m interested in, along with curatorial practices. I want to work in areas of the creative industries that allow for a multitude of cross-disciplinary studies.


You attended and graduated from OCAD U with a bachelor of design specializing in illustration. What was your biggest takeaway from your time at the program?
I think the two things that have stuck with me the most are the importance of the community you create and grow with, and learning how to have confidence with your own independent projects. I find that I work way better when I collaborate with others, and it’s so incredibly vital to your practice to reach out to other artists. There was a shared studio for the final year, and you always had a buddy to work with. It was great to come together and have conversations about artwork, critique pieces, and just hang out. I’ve met so many amazing artists through the program and try to follow all of their practices. As for gaining confidence, it’s just about knowing what you want to create and making it regardless of what others think. As a freelancer, you have to set your own schedule and routine—there’s no one telling you to do your job. Learning skills such as how to advocate for your practice, write contracts, and create your own installations really allows you to have control of a project.

Describe your studio environment: What sorts of objects and images do you surround yourself with? Do you listen to music while you work?
My studio is currently located at 401 Richmond in Toronto, a heritage site that is dedicated to arts-based programs and industries. I share it with three other illustrators, who also work with a variety of media. I have two desks—one for my painting projects, a space to get messy and think through ideas by creating. The other is a white desk designed for computer and design work. Throughout the studio, there are a variety of inspirational zines, photography books, and works in progress from all the people who share the space. I’ve also hidden some ceramics throughout the studio, but that keeps changing depending on what shows I place them into. I don’t really listen to music (but if anyone wants to send playlists my way, please do). I do listen to podcasts (I’m obsessed!). My favorites include Radiolab, The Heart (No and Meat were really good), Love + Radio, Criminal, and generally all of the Radiotopia series.


My works are just representations of the environment that surrounds me; it's a collage of moments, pieced together to form a new outlook. 

Do you have a favorite project or series you've worked on thus far?
OH! Too many. I’m very thankful for the recent opportunities and projects I’ve been working on. I’ve secretly fallen in love with installation (don’t tell the others). The world ends up becoming a canvas; each moment within the space, I am able to curate the area as to what I see within my head. I put together a window installation at Xpace Cultural Centre. I also love working on graphic design and have been creating stylized programs and brochures. I have two workshops coming up at the AGO—one’s a zine-making party (Oct. 17th)  and the other centers on fabric designing (Nov. 7th). Finally, I’ve been working on a collaborative book that is coming out for Edition, the book fair held through Art Toronto. It’s a risograph with over 21 artists involved.

In such a politically charged (and often mentally draining) moment, how have you approached the process of creating and sharing new work over the past year?
It’s difficult—politics and art go hand in hand. You can’t really escape it, because your work is always influenced by your environment. I really want to work toward creating workshops within my neighborhood. One person can’t change an entire institution; reaching out to local communities helps to shift perspectives and create movement. I like hearing feedback from people around me and hosting workshops, which brings together new people and opportunities. 

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What is it like to work in Toronto’s local creative community? Who are some fellow Canadian creatives inspiring you right now?
I really love Toronto, but it’s always been my home base. I have more time to travel now, and I’m looking forward to exploring new places. I feel like there’s a lot more support for DIY spots and people are working on their own passion projects, which is really inspiring to be around. There are so many creatives in Toronto; I literally can’t name all of them. But I love the people who showcase at Zine Dream, Wowee Zonk at TCAF, Xpace Cultural Centre, emerging galleries within Toronto, and many graduates from the the OCAD U Illustration Program. 

So much of your work achieves this striking balance between magically surreal, delightfully strange, and imaginative elements and more tangible, recognizable mementos of your home city and daily life. I love the way you're able to merge those two modes within singular scenes and tableaux. From where do you draw inspiration?
Everywhere! It’s hard to select one place, and sometimes inspiration just sneaks up on you. I love looking through stock images and open-sourced encyclopedias at the reference library. They also have a great collection of collage images, which people are allowed to scan in and reuse. I also take walks around the neighborhood to observe the different places and people. My works are just representations of the environment that surrounds me; it's a collage of moments, pieced together to form a new outlook. 

One person can’t change an entire institution; reaching out to local communities helps to shift perspectives and create movement.

What's a color that keeps coming up in your work these days?
Oooooh! Tough one. I’ve always been into primary colors. Recently I’ve been into combining colors that don’t feel like they work, but somehow create this unusual harmony. If the image suits the palette, then somehow a new relationship is formed. I like black and green, neon yellows and burnt oranges, pinks and teals, and earthy tones with fully contrasted spots.

What advice would you offer to other young, up-and-coming illustrators and designers hoping to build a career in the art + design world?
Ask for HELP! This is a huge one that I’m still trying to figure out most of the time. The idea of the lone artist is bullshit. Asking questions is the key to working within design. Everyone thinks it’s all about the solution, but the questions are way more engaging.  

Another tip is to focus less on finding a style—just make work that you think feels right in the moment. You have a full lifetime of creating ahead, and you can’t get caught up with minor details. It's just about production. Make stuff that’s inspired by what’s around you, and no matter what, it will result as a reflection of you. ★