Interview by Visual Collaborative
March 2019 14 min read
Autumn Whitehurst a native of New Orleans is a commercial Illustrator based in New York City. Her exquisite digital illustrations has graced numerous publications such as Italian Vogue, The Principality of Monaco and Bloomingdale’s. She is also an instructor at School of Visual Arts. As one of the main features on Visual Collaborative’s “Polaris” interview series, Autumn discusses the evolution of her work and synergy with her everyday experiences.
Is your creative approach or style tied to any popular art and design movement?
(Autumn) Well, I didn’t think so! But then about a decade into my career I was struck with a lucid moment during which I realized how much my childhood love for Alphonse Mucha had informed my work. That childhood infatuation was a brief one but I can’t deny the influence. Not long after that *a-ha* moment, I had yet another one during which I realized that my childhood exposure to the ubiquity of Patrick Nagel’s work had somehow hijacked enough of my creative soul to re-emerge in my commercial work, and this initially was a little upsetting. As a youngster in the 80s I could not escape the vacant stares of those blanched, sleek women. I was not a fan at all, and the realization of his influence was upsetting because I had to question my creative sovereignty. So much has changed though since then. I’ve come to appreciate Nagel’s work for what it is, and I don’t think any of us are truly entirely our own creative island.
Illustration by Autumn Whitehurst
Since our conversation back in 2004 prior to the creation of our platform, you have gone on to do exquisite visual work, what is one major thing that has changed on how you relate to the subjects used in your work?
(Autumn) In so many ways I was a very different person back then. I was in my 20s, living in Brooklyn, in love with the city, in love with fashion, partying when I wasn’t working, and just creating an identity as a declaration to the world because I really wanted to prove that I could do it. I worked very hard at it for such a long time, enjoying the adventure of how I could use the digital medium to create something relevant to my interests at the time. But my nose was right on the grindstone for many years and there was a deep shift occurring internally that I was mostly unaware of because it was in my blindspot. At some point a threshold was crossed and when I pulled my head back up, I was 40 years old and a very different creature. Something had changed and I was now misaligned. I felt trapped in a former self. So I made a wish, it was that I would see everything differently. It wasn’t a request, it was a wish and I have no idea where the idea came from but I can still remember the night I made it. I said it out loud in the kitchen.
Much of what once mattered was no longer important to me, those things seemed to have burned off so that there was room for whatever was going to now pique my curiosity.
Well, right on the heels of having made that wish the year that followed was a hellish shift in my reality and when it was over nothing had changed but really everything had changed. Much of what once mattered was no longer important to me, those things seemed to have burned off so that there was room for whatever was going to now pique my curiosity. To answer the question, the subjects in that body work feel as though they were done in another lifetime. I mostly recall how much I loved working with so many of those clients and how much I learned from the collaborations. I also envy that at the time I knew exactly what it was that I wanted to do. All the experiences during the creation of that body of work have value to me because they were vital to my growth.
Your gorgeous work has appeared in numerous reputable magazines and papers such as Vogue , Coca-Cola and Bloomingdale’s. Illustrators all over the world reference your style or try to emulate your work. How does this make you feel?
(Autumn) There was some giddiness around this during the beginning of my career but it was short lived. I find much more satisfaction in working with really great clients, regardless of who they are. As for illustrators referencing and emulating the style I had cultivated, if the work inspires them then that’s what gives the work value.
Illustration by Autumn Whitehurst
As faculty at SVA (School of Visual Arts), what are the common challenges of teaching professional students, people from society who learned design from the Internet before design curriculums were officially created?
(Autumn) The internet is an amazing resource for learning about virtually anything and everything. However it is overwhelming in its variety, so much of the information is questionable and we inevitably find ourselves in the crossfire of conflicting reports. That being said, my grey matter is not wired like that of a 17 year old’s. Having been raised in the age of information, the younger ones ingest it at an entirely different rate and are more fluent in the visual cues. My students are primarily illustration majors, and they’ll be graduating into a world where media companies are morphing so quickly they seem to barely be able to hold on to themselves. Increasingly more commissions are for digital advertising, which more often than not gets a passing glance and print isn’t quite what it used to be.
I can’t truly speak to what the world of illustration will look like even 5 years from now and it’s all changing so rapidly that I feel that the best thing I can do for the students is to help them learn values that will benefit them in the longterm, regardless of who they become and what they do. It’s important to me that they learn to be self aware, that they discern what merits their attention, that they learn how to truly pay attention and that they know the value of what it means to be someone who creates. I say ‘know’ as opposed to ‘understand’ because the meanings are not the same. I’ll have at least 15 new students in my class each semester and that’s 15 different realities sitting in their chairs. Each of them have their own way of learning and the challenge is to figure out how to teach in a way that is most effective for that particular student. For example, some kids learn through the act of doing, other kids learn by watching and then will just do what they need to do. I imagine that regardless of how they learn, that if they are curious enough they will find a way to use the internet as the valuable resource that it is however they need to. Then while engaged in the experiential act ’understanding’ shifts to ‘knowing’, which I then always hope is followed with ‘wonder’.
Illustration by Autumn Whitehurst
As an asian American woman in States who is has been exposed to many types of clients or major corporations, what do you tell the aspiring young woman or entrepreneur about success and risk?
(Autumn) I would tell her or them what I would say to anyone: have integrity, be responsible. Also, what you think success looks like may shape-shift by the time you find it and you’ll be called to re-evaluate the meaning of success yet again when you arrive to that next nexus point, so learn to appreciate where you are in your journey more than your expectations. As for risk, nothing of value is experienced without it. I’ve never considered its meaning in the context of my professional endeavors so it’s really interesting to think about it this way but I have become very clear on the fact that you actually can not truly experience love if don’t fully engage in the risk of loss. It’s a worthy gamble.
In your quiet or noisy moments how do you get inspired? What makes Autumn create the work she does. Do you seek religion or get philosophical like many artists for muses?
(Autumn) I’m intensely curious, so anything that is a new experience is thrilling. I enjoy wandering aimlessly around the city and letting my attention be randomly seized. Lately I’ve been paying much more attention to the plants and particularly the trees, they’re as varied in personality as people are. Random conversations are another favorite past time. New York is home to people from all over the world and I’ve met so many truly fascinating characters and heard so many stories. Some of the best stories I’ve heard have also been on long train rides, people open like a book and will share something of themselves that I am always move by. Really, I think that most days I’m a little in love with being alive. Over the past few years I have become more spiritual in my orientation and have been slowly getting an occult education. It’s a personal path and an ever expansive experience, which suits me as I know I’ll probably never be bored again [Autumn laughs]
The present moment is probably the most powerful of times, but If you can time warp back to any era what time would it be and why?
(Autumn) I would probably warp it back a couple of hundred years ago, to an island on which I was born and never left. Family is everywhere. I swim in the morning and again in the evening. Sometimes people pass through and leave a paperback book behind, I read it and treasure it every single time. I have simple responsibilities and they’re enough to fulfill me. I have time enough to learn the language of the elements and share what I’ve learned. The appeal is that everything would be just enough.
Photo courtesy of Chris McClelland
What does self awareness mean to you?
(Autumn) Oh! I could really walk around inside this question for quite a while. Mind you, I’m a pretty salty person by nature so my tendency is to shrink away from expansive moments but the experiences I’ve had are undeniable personal truths. My understanding of self awareness at its core is informed by something that happened to me a few years ago during which I suddenly shifted from between my ears to the space that is inhabited by my heart. This wasn’t part of the initial dismantling of my reality, it came later, and it too was super challenging but for different reasons. I was familiar with the language used around this kind of thing, mostly by the new age community, but having had the experience I now understand that language very differently and the experience is very real. To be conscious from the gut, that too is it’s own way of knowing. So there is this kind of self awareness, we can travel around inside of and inhabit the body this way.
Illustration by Autumn Whitehurst
I have a meditation practice, and I’ve spent some time in float tanks, which i love! I consider that time spent as a vacation from a way of knowing the self. The awesome thing that happens during these experiences is that I lose sense of my physical body and am then just my breath and consciousness, which is a satisfyingly lean place to exist and learn from. Language has become extremely important to me and I respect how it informs our reality. No doubt I’ll always be its student. For example (as it’s been explained to me), in Gaelic, if you express your sadness it translates into English as ‘I feel a sadness on me’. That’s a beautiful way to express an emotion. It’s a nod to it’s passing nature and doesn’t collapse the emotion into the identity. Also it’s important to me that I am conscious of the preconditioning that seems to be inherent to our cultural existence. I feel a deepening connection to all the things that occupy visible and invisible space in my shared reality and this comes with its highs and its lows.
It’s as though we’re all mirrors for one another, that we exist in a web of mirrors and that there is nothing that I do which is inconsequential. But also, with so much responsibility it’s become even more important to maintain humor and character and all the variety of texture that makes this place we call home a place worth living in. I try to be careful about being a sanctimonious turd and am not interested in contributing to a homogenized existence. Variety is truly the spice of life.
Tell us about your current projects and what the world can expect from Autumn Whitehurst within the next 5 years?
(Autumn) I’ve been in a creative transition which has frankly been scary but in realizing the terror, I’m giving it up and have decided that it’s just better to be excited because I can then create from what I’m experiencing now. This past winter I had the honor and pleasure of working with Laura Silverman of the Outside Institute on their second field guide, for which I needed to focus my attention on how I interpret specific flora and fauna from this region of the country (NE, USA). This was a deeply satisfying commission, arranged by my friend and agent of many years, Stephanie Pesakoff, who was able to see me clearly and pair my needs with Laura’s. This required an entirely different aesthetic from my former body of work but also allowed me to celebrate a subject matter that is close to my heart.
The other project that I’ve been working on is the Wayhome Tarot, a collaborative effort between myself and a close friend, Bakara Winter. It’s an interesting relationship because we’re two very different souls yet we’re deeply bonded and have shared many profound experiences together. The creation of the deck in itself has been a fool’s journey, and as the illustrator of the deck, the creation of each card has brought me face to face with facets of my self alongside the journey that is the inherent story of the tarot. I really had no idea how I was going to draw any of these images and was at a loss for a place to start. This was a process I encountered for each of the 78 cards and to say the least, each card was a teacher. It was a liberating process as I really had no idea how to draw so many of the things that I needed to draw for these cards, it was an act of discovery. This project was very different from a commercial gig in that the context for tarot is one of discovery and for most commercial commissions the endeavor is to deliver.
Photo courtesy of Whitehurst
My personal relationship with Tarot began several years ago when I took it up as a meditation tool and since then I’ve come to understand it as a map of the cycle of creation and destruction. That being said, I think one of the best ways to get to know the cards is to read for others because the cards we’ll pull for others will be very different from the cards we pull for ourselves. However what we see in others also seems to reveal what’s only made visible by how we know ourselves, which speaks to the value of self awareness.
Beyond this point, if we are discussing potential projects, hopefully something will be born from my endeavor to make a shameless mess. If we’re discussing how I intend to be in my remaining time, it looks like this: forever salty, forever feeling, and wielding a cleaver with which to slice the fat from the lean ♡