Ariel Lee earned her BFA in Illustration at Art Center in 2012. That same year, she beat out a field of established professionals as a winner in Design Observer’s 50 Books/50 Covers for her children’s book, Mark & the Jellybean Monster, created as a student in Designmatters’ Uncool: The Anti-Gun Violence Project. The following year, one of Lee’s illustrations was awarded the Society of Illustrators 55 Gold Medal.
Lee, whose graphite and painted works are an evocative mix of delicacy and edge, specializes in publishing and surface design. One of the first freelance jobs she landed after Art Center–her client list includes the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic–was The New York Times. “I had gone to New York right after graduation and I met with the art director just to show her my portfolio,” Lee said.
The next day, Lee got a call asking for a black-and-white op-ed illustration that required an immediate turnaround. “I didn’t have a scanner or anything like that,” Lee said, “and it was stressful trying to draw everything, use my camera, send emails and try to fix up my photos through illustrator, but I made it.”
For the Uncool project, an educational initiative implemented in local libraries and in L.A. Unified School District middle schools, each student designed a book “to deglamorize the use of guns and violence in our society,” Lee said. When her book was submitted for consideration for the 50 Books/50 Covers competition, Lee never expected to be on the winners’ roster.
“I got an email that said I won and it was like, what? No way!”
Soft-spoken Lee, who draws throughout this phone interview, appreciates the recognition she has received, but is still somewhat bemused by it.
“I do feel proud of my awards,” she said, “but I kind of feel proud of every piece I make that I really like. It’s hard to explain. I’m just so new to the industry that I just feel like, oh, I submitted it and they liked it. But I guess for me, if I finish a piece and I really like it, I’m proud of myself that I thought of it.”
Working as a freelance illustrator “is definitely one of those jobs that you have to be passionate about,” Lee said. “It’s not easy being a freelance anything. It’s nice if someone finds you and wants you because they already like your work. It gets kind of tough if they want you to mold your work into something else [or] when they’re not sure what they really want.
“But the biggest hurdle you have to get used to with freelance,” Lee said wryly, “is when everything’s done and you have to get paid. Sometimes you have to nag them. That’s something I’m uncomfortable doing, but it has to be done. So I send those emails.
“Being really professional with your work, treating your work as a business,” she added, “is something that I have to work on more, but Art Center definitely helped me with it.”
Lee draws every day, working on new ideas “to keep everything fresh as often as possible,” she said. “You don’t want your work to kind of fade away, and it’s always nice to send new work out so that you’re not forgotten.” For inspiration, she keeps in mind her Art Center illustration teachers who were “really into experimenting, trying to break boundaries, trying to push themselves to better work”–and who encouraged their students to do the same, she said.
Lee does have one regret about having graduated from Art Center: “The facilities are really great–the wood shop and print shop are just amazing,” she said. “I’m so bummed that I can’t use that stuff now. It’s like the dream workshop.”
Lynne Heffley is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about the arts.