I first encountered the work of Southern California-based professional illustrator Lydia Fenwick when my husband showed me a ‘zine he’d purchased from her via her website. He’d worked with Lydia at a restaurant where they both waited tables. Looking through the pages of the ‘zine, I was brought into the world of Lyfe Illustration, where I was immediately transported to a magical place where animals and humans danced together on the page, hoofs and feet co-mingled, and fur entwined with tumbling human hair in an idyllic harmony reminiscent of Hodgson Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden,’ and the enchanting forests of Disney’s Snow White.
Not only did Lydia capture the harmony between woman and beast, but she also exquisitely depicted the distinct features and personalities of her female subjects: some had flirtatious twinkles in their eyes, while others exuded a lavender-chamomile calm via their droopy eyelids, bowed heads, and slender, meandering fingertips. I was intrigued by the artist and her apparent kinship with animals, so I set up a meeting, did my research, and formulated questions about Lydia’s experiences at art school, her artistic influences, her creative process, and her love of all creatures great and small (as well as those fantastic species that are no longer with us).
During my research into her work, I came across a fascinating blog featured in Psychology Today called The Animal Connection, where I found this terrific quote: “Though we cannot discover the earliest use of language itself,” says Pat Shipman, professor of biological anthropology at Penn State University, “we can learn something from the earliest prehistoric art with unambiguous content. Nearly all of these artworks depict animals.”
Read on, and prepare to be taken into a world of beautiful, glittering women accompanied by the strong, vulnerable, and mythical animals that enrich our lives. In this world you are surrounded by doe-eyed creatures that fascinate and charm your senses, warm your spirits, and breathe life into your soul.
Jennifer Susan Jones: I’d like to begin by asking you a few questions about art school. You recently graduated Summa Cum Laude from Laguna College of Art and Design with a major in illustration – congratulations! As many of our readers know, the job of an art student is to make work that is satisfying to both yourself and your professors. What was it like to work under the requirements of your professors and do you feel like this challenge helped or hindered your creativity?
Lydia Fenwick: Thank you! Although it could certainly be frustrating at times, my creativity would almost always be helped in the process. I was very lucky to have many professors that deeply cared about our individual growth as artists. The times I felt most uncomfortable were often followed by the biggest improvement in my work. Which makes sense! If I went to art school to stay in my comfort zone, there would be absolutely no growth or point to being there.
JSJ: What was one of your favorite assignments at Laguna College? What assignment was the most difficult, and why?
LF: One of my favorite assignments, or group of assignments, was from my introduction to watercolor class. Our professor would give us weekly basic exercises involving brush handling and paint mixing, so that we could explore every possible outcome without pressure. Before we even had to attempt to do our own watercolor pieces, we had so much practice under our belts that it made a challenging medium very fun.
Funny enough, I actually found my Senior Project to be, at times, the most difficult. I went from years of being given very specific assignments to suddenly being expected to come up with a set of work based on a theme chosen by me and executed however I wanted. It sounds awesome, but since the work was so personal, I took critiques much harder.
JSJ: I’d like to turn now to the subject of who you admire, as well as some questions about your creative process. First off, who are your artistic influences?
LF: There are so many! Alphonse Mucha, John William Waterhouse, JC Leyendecker, Joseph Clement Coll, and Charles Dana Gibson are classic wonders. I look up to many current artists like James Jean, Terryl Whitlatch, including my fellow modern illustrators I have discovered through social media or met in college such as J.A.W. Cooper, Jacquelin DeLeon, Audra Auclair, Loish, and many more!
JSJ: You have stated that “drawing every day, all day, and being around other creatives” will definitely improve your skills as an illustrator. Do you bring your sketchbook with you always, and are you OK with sketching around others in public? Does public sketching often bring you unwanted interruptions, or do you find comments in passing to be encouraging?
LF: I bring my sketchbook around with me less than I should. I feel more comfortable sketching either completely alone or with a group of fellow creatives to bounce ideas off of. When I am drawing by myself in public, I feel the eyes on me more and get less done with self-doubt looming over me. It is completely ridiculous of course! Whenever I am interrupted in public, it is almost always a positive experience. I think it is just something silly stuck in my head that is keeping me from getting in the “creative zone.” I need to get the heck over it to continue my growth as an artist.
JSJ: You have stated that you like to draw while sitting at your large open window in your room, which overlooks varied green treetops, grasses, and generally pleasing open space. Do you prefer to sit and draw here at dawn or dusk, and how would you describe your creative mindset during this time of relaxed, inspired sketching?
LF: Yes! I adore being in a lovely outdoor setting. My art often features elements of nature, so being in it gives me a flood of inspiration and I am reminded why I am passionate about recreating it in my own way. I am quite a night owl, however, so I also find a lot of peace working at night. I do my best work during this time; it must have to do with the true quiet and freedom I find when most others are asleep.
JSJ: You recently attended the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at LACMA. Del Toro, a Mexican screenwriter and director of mainly dark fantasy films, often features monsters and insects in his movies, as well as half human half creature hybrids. Del Toro has stated, “If you’re not operating on an instinctive level, you’re not an artist…. Reason over emotion is bullshit…We suffocate ourselves in rules. I find fantasy liberating.” Do you feel that when you sit down to draw or paint – that you are operating on an “instinctive” level?
LF: Absolutely. The best way I can describe it is as a compulsion to create. I draw to take a break from drawing; it is the truest thing I know about myself. Art education has only ever helped shape the passion to create that has always been there. I think it helps a great deal for those who are serious about it, but the instinctual desire / compulsion to create will take you further as an artist than theory ever can.
JSJ: I’d like to ask you a few questions about your special connection with animals. You said that you have “a serious adoration for Australia, the aboriginal people, and (the now extinct) Tasmanian tigers” and you recently completed a piece called “Extinct” which is a digital illustration of a woman entwined with the ghostly figures of two Tasmanian tigers. Creating work which features and honors extinct species is a beautiful way to memorialize those creatures who are no longer among us. Do you think you’ll make more work like this, and if so, what species might you feature next?
LF: I have certainly considered doing a series of work memorializing extinct animals as well as those currently critically endangered. Animal and plant life on Earth is pure art by Nature, and it would be a true shame to let these beings slip away from our carelessness. For my critically endangered pieces, I think I would start with the Javan Rhinoceros. It crushes me to see that this magnificent creature is almost too far-gone from saving.
JSJ: I recently read The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and after years on the island as its only human inhabitant, the lead character Karana decides (after becoming friends with many of the island creatures) that she will never kill another animal for its skin, its feathers, or for revenge: “Yet this is the way I felt about the animals who had become my friends and those who were not, but in time could be. If Ulape and my father had come back and laughed, and all the others had come back and laughed, still I would have felt the same way, for animals and birds are like people too, though they do not talk the same or do the same things. Without them, the earth would be an unhappy place.” Explain why you agree with Karana, and what you do to show your love and dedication to your animal brothers and sisters.
LF: Ah! One of my favorite childhood stories! Now you have me thinking of a new piece… I do agree with Karana and try my best to show my love for animals to the ones I share my life with. I only get a pet if I am completely prepared to care for it throughout its entire life, no matter what happens. It is a huge commitment, one that has set me back with many vet bills, but I will never deny an animal in my care the respect it deserves…even if it means tightening my belt when unforeseen medical expenses arise.
JSJ: You state on your website that you are “passionate about creating art that shows the beauty in the connections between humanity and nature” and this passion shows through in both your animal-human hybrid subjects, which are often women with horns, antlers, or wings – and your women with animal companions pieces. Describe how you personally feel connected to the animals you know and love – especially the beautiful panther chameleons – the living art – you own and breed.
LF: I grew up as an only child, so my pets were often the ones I would play with every day while my parents worked. I developed a unique passion for these animal friends of mine, and could never imagine myself without one in my life. While in art school, I got my first panther chameleon, Strider, and fell head over heels in love with their unique behavior and beauty. He is my art buddy and sits on my computer or easel while I work. I couldn’t help but begin breeding these artistic creatures and bring them into other peoples’ lives. This bond I have with my own pets is obvious fuel for my art. Whenever I mix animal traits with women or show them with their own animal sidekicks, I definitely channel my own animal friendship into the piece.
JSJ: Your work tells stories about the kinship we have with both innocent and delicate creatures such as hummingbirds and fawns, and with powerful and instinct-driven felines and wolves. What combination of any of the following four personality traits – innocence, fragility, ferocity, and tenacity – best describes you?
LF: I think I enjoy showing this wide range of personalities because I find all of these traits in myself, and imagine most women can agree. There are times when I feel overwhelmingly fragile as a woman prone to emotional whirlwinds. Then there are times when my loved ones or beliefs are provoked and I feel as ferocious as a mother bear. I guess overall I am consistently tenacious, which has allowed me to have a career as an illustrator. You have to be extremely determined and self motivated to make it as a successful freelance artist.
JSJ: In the young adult fantasy novel, The Golden Compass, humans’ souls naturally exist outside their bodies in the form of “dæmons” (talking animal spirits that accompany and comfort their humans). In this quote, the main character Lyra is temporarily separated from her dæmon, Pantalaimon: “I couldn’t believe how much it hurt–” and then she brushed away the tears angrily and sniffed hard. He nestled in her arms, and she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror.” If you were Lyra, what animal – real or imaginary – would you have as your dæmon, and why?
LF: I have not read The Golden Compass, so hearing these words just sent a painful little stab to my heart. I feel I have already met and lost my personal dæmon. I have had many animal friends, but Kairos, my Ibizan hound, was by far the most special creature I have shared my life with. I had grown up with a whippet, so I fell in love with sight hounds, especially Ibizan hounds. Finally, when I graduated high school, I was able to adopt one of my own and he became my best friend. These dogs are almost like other worldly beings; incredibly intelligent, independent, graceful, and yet able to be complete goofballs. Unfortunately, Kairos developed epilepsy and although we tried everything to save him, he lost the battle at only three years old. No other animal has made me feel like I have lost a child when they have passed, so I can truly understand this excerpt.
JSJ: I am so very sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how bad that must have hurt, and yes, it sounds like Kairos was your dæmon. Looking to the future, do you have any upcoming job prospects, art exhibitions, conventions you’re attending, or other interesting projects?
LF: As much as I love doing my own work, I also enjoy helping other peoples’ ideas come to life and want to get into larger freelance work. I am currently working with “Art School Collective”, a new group of professional artists, to design limited edition fine art prints and shirts. This will be taking me to various conventions during the next year such as DesignerCon, the Patchwork festivals, WonderCon, and more. I love the idea of conventions so this will be a great introduction. I will even be at the Reptile Super Show in Pomona this January to both find homes for my beloved Panther chameleons and sell my art.
I love being involved with my social media, so this October I am taking part in “Inktober” where one does an ink drawing every day in October. I have prepared my own list of “Goddesses Around the World” as prompts and am encouraging other artists to sketch along with me and tag their posts so we can share what we have created! At the end, I plan to make a small book, or zine, about each chosen goddess including some inking tutorials.