Ellis Island June Assignment – making of

I haven’t posted for a while, because I needed to digest last month’s MATS Bootcamp assignment as the theme was quite controversial and got me a bit down. ‘A bit’ is probably an underestimation of how I felt last month. I felt downright depressed about the topic. And here’s why:

The Mini for June

The mini for the June assignment was Ellis Island. We were not given a particular focus. Rather, we were to research, observe, and create.

My online research resulted in me finding many portrait photographs of people who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 until 1954.

They looked exhausted, sad, annoyed or uncertain.

I did notice some interesting images of boats, ships, architecture and suitcases the passengers carried with them, but the intensity of the people’s faces did not let me go.

Deciding upon an approach

I decided to work on my portrait sketching skills:

Left: pencil sketch of an Italian immigrant on Ellis Island. Right: a modern-day refugee

I don’t sketch portraits very often (next to never, actually) and thought it to be a good opportunity practice.

But the week passed with a heavy feeling in my heart. I was thinking about the lives back then and the lives today being forced by circumstances to leave their current homes to venture out to new lands in hope of a better life.

The thing is, ‘Ellis Island’ still exists, just under different names and in various locations of the world. And all nice-talking aside, for some, Ellis Island was but a prison stop before they were sent back to where they came from.

This assignment reminded me too much of the current plight of people being forced to leave their home countries with their future in the hands of the judgment of officials and authorities.

From pencil sketch to line drawing with ink pen and gouache poster-style painting.

Some get through the human sieve others don’t. Who get’s to decide where we may or may not lay our hats? To me, it’s a painful topic.

In modern-day, plain and simple travelling of mine, I can say that I really dislike going through customs. Not because I’ve got anything to hide, but because from 7 out of 10 times, I’ll be stopped and will need to undergo additional screening. I keep blaming it my ‘nose’. Whatever the reason for the holdup, I detest this kind of invasion of my privacy.

Cutting to a chase, admittedly, this topic struck a chord with me and I was left hoping the main June assignment would depart from Ellis Island and we’d be assigned something on a lighter note.

The June Assignment

As the second Monday of June arrived, it was clear, we were stuck with Ellis Island. But this time it was worse (at least to me)! The topic was hair or hairstyles of Ellis Island and all this needed to be designed for a mug. What?! And while many in the Bootcamp community saw the lace, and shoes, and bags, and fashion, and embroidery, but I could only see the people (luckily, I was not entirely alone and did have some empathisers).

Giving up?

In addition, the people in the photographs passing through Ellis Island were wearing either scarves or hats. Not much hair to see! At this point, I was toying the idea of passing the June assignment entirely.

Creative Block

But, I never cut and run without giving something at least a try. So, I rationalised: I like drawing lines. Hence, I like drawing hair, waves, tree structures and any kind of structure in which I can incorporate lines. But hair on a mug? I was still stuck.

Finding inspiration

For inspiration, I decided to learn more about Ellis Island and watched a documentary on YouTube. But upon watching the documentary only meant the second week of June left me with a heavy heart, too.

After watching the documentary, and as I intuitively guessed, a fraction of people arriving at Ellis Island got to pass with no health checks, no screenings, no nothing. All the rest were held back and scrutinised with medical and lice checks, x-rayed, they even had to undergo questionable intelligence checks!

The methods used to judge over these people reminded me all too much of the methods the Nazi Germans used in the second world war.

People were judged by their looks and facial features and deemed ‘stupid’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘idiots’ for the shape of their eyes, eyebrows, noses and mouths.

However, while watching the documentary, I did notice afterall a couple of people who stood out for their beauty despite the overall sadness that emanated from the photos and the documentary.

Coming up with the Design

And so I decided to portrait these particular people and to use them in my mug design:

First Design

One of them was a woman undergoing a health check. To me, she was so graceful in this uncomfortable situation and she had these beautiful two, long, dark braids, graceful hands and classical facial features:

Second Design

The second person I noticed was a woman posing in a group photo of nurses who worked on Ellis Island. She kind of had a Mona Lisa smile and a voluptuous figure. I liked how her hair got a bit messed up by the wind during the photo shoot:

Third Design

The third (two) person(s) who caught my attention was a man and a woman. Obviously, they had just met after a long time of no see. They could have been related or a couple, that was not clear. But they were immensely happy to see each other. Their embrace was so heartwarming and emotionally intense:

Fourth Design

Lastly, I noticed a couple of children on Ellis Island for their expression of curiosity, fear, and annoyance and the overall innocence they radiated:

The Mood Board

I had already designed the mugs before the mood board was published.

Colour palette

The colour palette I had chosen for my design was luckily pretty much in tune with the mood board suggestion.

Lettering

Another feature that was added to the assignment was the need to include lettering in form of quotes of strong women.

This did not fit so well with my design and so with no time to redesign, I decided to add some tuned-down lettering with phrases around having or getting together for tea.

Are you still with me? Thank you, I feel honoured and hope you will not be disappointed if sticking with me to the end. So far, you’ve probably also noticed that the June assignment really got me brooding and thinking. And, believe me, you’ve just read a fraction of the controversy happening in my head.

Overall design and symbolism

Despite the turmoil in my mind and the many open questions and concerns I had, I wanted to keep the design timeless, clean, clear and simple so that it could be enjoyed out of context, too.

The golden circle:

Can be the moon and – at the same time – the sun. Standing for activity and passivity. There are times in life we can take action to improve our situation, and other times we need to let go and move with the flow even if it means to sit still and take action by non-action.
Gold symbolises warmth and abundance.
It can stand for the wealth of our personality shaped and moulded over time and linked to a certain culture and its traditions.
At the same time, it can stand for our hopeful vision for a better and abundant future.

The waves:

Water stands for emotion,
while waves stand for the turbulence of our thoughts, the noise in our minds as well as outer circumstances.
Water and waves also stand for long-distance travel, adventure and discovery.
Blue stands for our ability to be in tune with our intuition and our ability to communicate.

Lettering – all about connecting:

I kept the content really light and simple and chose a layout making the lettering only noticeable upon a second glance.
I’m a tea person, and to me, tea is a culture, a way of living.
Good tea cannot be rushed neither in the brewing nor in the enjoying part of tea. Sharing tea moments with others is a wonderful way to connect.
I also kept thinking of the beautiful tea ceremonies of Japan (I’m quite fond of the simplicity of Japanese art and graphic design) and tried to incorporate this into the design.

 

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