Interview: Graciella Edwina Sutanto

a.k.a. Grace

Birthplace: Singapore

Grew up in: Jakarta, Indonesia

Currently living in: London, U.K.

Find her: Art Instagram | Main InstagramInstagram for Peak Boredom podcast

(Artwork courtesy of Grace)

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via email. It has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about yourself! You can talk about what you’re studying, your hobbies, anything about yourself for this question.

I’m a graphic communicator who is a sports and food enthusiast. I’m always looking forward to the Olympics, and when the Olympics aren’t on, I watch the National Hockey League.

I am currently a student at the University of the Arts London, studying illustration and visual media, specializing in graphic communications. I surrounded myself with art since I could remember, and I love going out to look for artistic inspiration, whether it is from cafe interiors or community gardens. I thrive under productivity and found ways to be a part of or create my projects. This year, I became the social media manager for the Peak Boredom Podcast.

When I am not doing anything art-related, you can find me doing splits and cartwheels, or participating in leisure sports like the university’s basketball team.

Cafe surroundings. (Courtesy of Grace)

Q: How did you get interested in graphic design/illustration?

I’ve always loved drawing. I was one of those kids that drew and painted all over the wall. They eventually got frustrated and got me a sketchbook (it didn’t end well; I never did my homework). I never thought in a million years that I would be an artist. I wanted to be an athlete representing Indonesia in the Olympics. However, my parents weren’t too keen on the idea.

Some people had strong expectations for my siblings and I; they expected me to pursue a medical, business, or engineering career because they thought I would follow in my sister’s footsteps, but I didn’t. I struggled academically. Some people just thought I was lazy and unmotivated, but I just discovered that it was a symptom of a problem I never knew about. I have a learning disability and dyscalculia, also known as mathematical dyslexia. I was an outcast in schools for failing my core subjects and being the failure. I started to notice some of my teachers tapped out by refusing to help me in class or rolling their eyes when I asked a question. My principal threatened to put me on academic expulsion because I “wasn’t good enough.” In addition to those comments, I was constantly bullied by my peers for the past seven years that it really had a negative effect on my mental health.

It wasn’t until I started drawing all over my English notebooks to cope with the bullying, and my art teacher discovered it and encouraged me to consider art as a career because she thought I was excellent at conveying my ideas into pictures. Sooner or later, my sketches gained recognition from my peers. My parents, however, were hesitant that I considered pursuing art. They’re still uncertain about it, but they’re starting to come around and accept my career choices.

My older sister was better at drawing than me around the time I first started, and we’re very competitive with each other, so I wanted to be better than her at it. As we grew up, it was no longer a competition, but because of my sports background, I’ve always been competitive with everyone. It’s a friendly competitive spirit though! In 10th grade, I thought of becoming a fashion illustrator, but I didn’t enjoy being a part of the rigorous and overwhelming fashion scene. Eventually, I signed myself up for a summer course in graphic design at UAL. I considered being a graphic designer, but I insisted on being a fine artist. After high school, I took a foundation year at UAL, thinking I would come out as a fine artist, but I ended up hating it, so I dabbled in graphics and illustration. I have been enjoying my course and every artwork ever since.

Q: How has your art style changed over the years? What influences your art style?

Generally, Yayoi Kusama is my biggest inspiration because her imagination is out of this world. After all, she has the unique ability to translate her trauma into numerous wonderful collections of masterpieces. Eko Nugroho is another imaginative conceptual contemporary artist, too; I went to ArtJog in 2018 to see his work displayed.

In terms of illustrators I’ve looked at, Kathrin Honesta and Replay Repliy were the two illustrators I currently follow on all social media because of their attention to details and experimental colour schemes. Their work embodied the richness of Indonesian culture and a reminder of home through the portrayal of colouring strokes and the often adventurous colour schemes.

At the same time, I was reminded to find my style, which took years of figuring out how I was unique in comparison to other illustrators on the market. In my opinion, I am not a big fan of hyper-realistic graphics, so I would describe my style as creating drawings that are in between realism and illustrative, leaning more towards the illustration aspect. Often, I use Indonesian food and certain aspects of batik as a part of my style that I would incorporate into my work.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone with Indonesian heritage? Was it something your family ever discussed? Or was it something you didn’t really think about until you got older?

In all honesty, I never was a cultural person when I was younger. Culture has always had some form of importance to me, but it took me over 15 years to realize that. English was my first language, and most of my relatives’ first languages were Indonesian, so I’ve always felt some form of a communication barrier between my friends in school and my family members.

I moved to multiple schools during primary school, and each school had a unique culture of their own. I moved to an American school from third grade to fifth grade. What I denied growing up was the fact that I was slowly being white-washed. All of my teachers in that school were international. Not one was Asian except for the Chinese and BI (Bahasa Indonesia) teachers, which was just a handful. Teachers would tell students that they can’t practice their Indonesian anywhere around the school unless they are in BI classes (which was only twice a week). I wasn’t taught a lot about Indonesian culture, but I was taught more about American history rather than Indonesian culture. There was a time in my life where I denied being Indonesian and speaking Indonesian. Even at a restaurant, if I wanted something, I would tell the waiter in English instead of Indonesian. At that time, it felt like I was ashamed to be Indonesian.

At the same time, before moving to an American school, growing up with a learning disability, I was told that I shouldn’t be Indonesian because I can’t even speak my language. If anything, that discouraged me because no matter how hard I tried, it took a long time to speak and understand Indonesian fluently. It’s still pretty rusty from not speaking to anyone in Indonesian, but I’m slowly starting to regain it through reading the news in Indonesian or talking to my close friends in Indonesian.

My parents have always reminded me, “You could take another nationality when you grow up. You can move out of Jakarta and live elsewhere, but always remember, you are always Indonesian. Never forget your culture.”

My mom has always taught me the importance of being Indonesian and Chinese. She knew that I struggled linguistically, so she bought me a lot of comic books to help me learn about both cultures. I sometimes read those to this day when I run out of things to read. It’s a really good refreshment material, considering I have been away from Indonesia for quite a while.

Q: What are some lessons you’ve learned this year? It can be personal, professional –anything you’ve learned in 2020 that you’d like to share about.

The biggest lesson I learned in 2020 was that I should not be carrying everything myself. Sometimes, I overestimate how much I could lift on my back, but it’s also better to let certain things go. When I went to university, I started to pick up the message that a university is an inclusive space between you and your tutors. There is no such thing as going through the entire design process alone. I always had a guard around, worrying that people would judge me the same way I was frowned upon in high school. As I started to open up, the people around me were welcoming and they’d start having conversations about everyday life.

2020 may have been the worst thing ever to date, however, it’s better to let it all out to someone you could trust regarding your issues. Over the quarantine period, I grew artistically by paying more attention to details and generating ideas when I thought I hit a creative block. I look back at my drawings, realizing that all of my proportions were wrong or the colouring was horrendous.

I attended and participated in Kathrin Honesta’s Visual Journalling session with Bartega Studios, and it made me look at illustration in a different light while witnessing a drastic improvement in comparison to my drawings before the pandemic.

Q: What goals do you have for your art? What goals do you have in general for yourself?

My goal is to always help others or raise awareness on a particular topic. I was rather confrontational in high school. I went to a religious school and I developed that confrontational trait when teachers would be spewing racist, homophobic, and xenophobic messages. Let’s just say I got into a lot of arguments with teachers who use religion as a reason to hate someone or completely dismiss someone who needs help.

This year, I’ve learned a lot about how design can contribute to finding solutions to world problems as a part of my course. I’ve thought about creating an uplifting safe space for young artists, or a world where money just doesn’t exist and everyone can just have the opportunity to explore the world. During the pandemic, I became a part of a podcast team called The Peak Boredom Podcast, where we raise important issues through our guests while uplifting voices from those who need more recognition. While I am creating weekly posters for individual guests, I’m also taking the time to learn about their careers and their experiences, such as finding careers for BIPOCs or learning about the art of criticism and hustle culture.

Aside from raising awareness, I would like to improve on my craft, as there is always room for improvement, or to get into the creative workforce once I graduate. I’m still trying to master all of the Adobe applications and attempt to incorporate them into my work. I’ve also been trying to learn more about illustration in UX/UI design from online tutorials so that is something I am hopefully learning more about.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

Indonesian heritage is all about learning. There is so much everyone can learn, especially me. I’ve spoken English my entire life, and I was almost blinded to the breathtaking landscapes in my own country when I sought out other countries to find “a more breathtaking landscape.”

Growing up, I’ve completely distanced myself from Indonesian culture and as I got out of that school, I started slowly learning more about the food, art, and dance. I’ve started learning about Indonesian coffee and appreciating it more while being caffeine dependent. I’ve started to become more open-minded to Indonesian cuisine; however, extra spicy is a big no for me. I’ve always been scared that I was not “Indonesian enough.” I’ve always been called “bule” as a kid for only eating pasta and speaking English (it didn’t help that I was physically pale, too), but there is so much to explore with Indonesian cuisine. I’d definitely credit my family for always keeping me grounded through art and food.

There are so many places around Indonesia I would like to travel to once the pandemic is over. I just remembered, in 12th grade, I participated in a yearly cultural appreciation event in my school and I volunteered to be a traditional dancer. I thought it was something that I would remember in a few months, but it’s almost become permanent and I could revisit the entire dance through muscle memory. It’s so interesting how I’ve learned so many dances in my life, but this traditional dance stuck in my brain since I graduated.

Indonesian heritage is a permanent thing. It’s something you can never erase; even when you try to erase it, it comes back when you are ready to learn more about it. At the same time, Indonesian heritage has served as an inspiration to my work, whether I am proud of the culture or I’m frustrated about the politics. I can’t wait to explore more about the things I may have never been told about.