AYAKA FUKANO creates her own rules in her illustrations powered by love

AYAKA FUKANO creates her own rules in her illustrations powered by love

In a world where self-awareness and cynicism can get you very far, AYAKA FUKANO is a glittering exception. Her illustrations are a burst of warmth and friendship, depicting everything from a family meal time to dancing crocodiles and an abundance of hugs. If her adorable colourful characters don’t fill you with a sense of joy, nothing will.

Originally from Tokyo, AYAKA grew up in rural Germany. And it’s this contrast of urban and country life which formed the foundation of her style – or at the least her appreciation for the little things. “The scenery you see and the air you breathe is different in the city,” she tells Creative Boom. “But both are beautiful and have their charms, which I was able to savour by actually living there. I believe that the more things an artist sees, touches, and feels, the more they are inspired.”

Despite this confident artistic outlook, it was never something AYAKA ever dreamed of doing. “I never thought I was particularly good at drawing, and I was never immersed in it,” she reveals. “However, I have always been very sensitive. As I dealt with each of these feelings, there was always something I wanted to convey, something I wanted to think about with someone else, or a question that grew out of each experience.”

“I connected each of those dots into a line which led me to become an artist. And now, finally, I think I see what I should be doing, whether by painting or by expressing myself differently. I think what I want to do is to express my thoughts.”

This rawness plays to AYAKA’s advantage and can be seen in her stylised art. Having received no specialist art education, AYAKA’s paintings look pure, singular, and free from a structure or framework that might have extinguished her creative spark.

“In Japan, I did not always get good grades in art class,” she admits. “I was not very good at them. If I had studied art in the form of schooling, I am convinced I would not be as free with my ideas as I am now, especially given my personality.

“Even how I used art materials and mixed colours would have been regulated and boring. This is because I had a personality which feared going outside of the box.”

Thanks to her lack of formal education, AYAKA’s artistic influences take a different approach. Instead of drawing exclusively on external material, she looks inside herself and tries remembering what influenced her most as a child. “Whenever I had an idea, I would find a piece of paper and start drawing without hesitation, without any rules,” she explains.

This lack of rules leads to thought-provoking questions like “Why do apples have to be red?” and “Why can’t people be green?” While these might have a naivety about them, these questions reveal that AYAKA always saw the world through artistic eyes, even if she wasn’t aware of it. And they go some way to explaining her use of colour today.

“When I answer these questions from my childhood, I always tell myself it’s okay. In my world, everyone is different and peaceful and happy. It’s as if I am replying to my younger self through my pictures.”

She adds: “My style does not have a name. I can use any colour and technique I like to create my work. I try to act honestly about what I feel like doing. So maybe we can call it a freestyle?”

If there’s one common element running through this freestyle, though, it’s love. When explaining why love crops up in all her work, AYAKA reasons that it’s because of her life-long experience of feeling loved and cared for by so many people. “And through my own son, I have also learned to love more than myself.”

The basis for AYAKA’s loving outlook was the relationship she had with her grandfather, who passed away from dementia. During his last days, AYAKA decided to bring love to the various times of his life as he went back and forth between different eras in his memory.

“I did this so he would not be lonely,” she says. “I believe that love is wonderful no matter how much you receive. And I believe that if you flood the world with love, someone will be happy again.”

As for what makes AYAKA feel loved as an artist, she relies on the warmth, kindness and acceptance of people who visit her exhibitions or send her a message online.

And when it comes to what she loves most about being an artist, AYAKA explains that she enjoys having an output for her feelings that have sprouted inside her since childhood. “It is my hope and my happiness that the output will be someone’s energy, courage, hope and love,” she concludes.

“I feel like my childhood me is always next to me and saying: “f we flood the world with love, surely there will be one less sad thing in the world?”

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Margaret Flatley on creating narrative stories, how to draw dynamic compositions, and why she's lured to the fantastical

Margaret Flatley on creating narrative stories, how to draw dynamic compositions, and why she's lured to the fantastical

If you read The New York Times, WIRED or Buzzfeed News, chances are you might recognise the artwork of Magaret Flatley. That’s because these publications are just some of the many clients that have featured her stunning artwork, which blends a strong grasp of analogue approaches with fantasy elements that crash headlong into the everyday world.

Skeletal rock stars and tired outer-space taxi drivers sit alongside sweltering tourists and overcrowded airport lounges in Margaret’s portfolio, offering a tantalising glimpse into her influences and imagination. “I gravitate towards narrative stories with emotional and fantastical elements and enjoy transforming ordinary events into energetic editorial compositions,” she tells Creative Boom. “The work of extraordinary comic artists including Seth, Nick Derington, and Jillian Tamaki are huge inspirations both narratively and stylistically.”

As a graduate of Communication Design with a focus on Illustration at Washington University In St. Louis, Margaret’s career has taken a few twists and turns to get to where it is today. To learn more about her work and the craft of creating it, we sat down with Margaret to chat about her career.

What made you want to switch from communications design to illustration?

To be completely honest, I had no idea what I was doing when I applied to college. I had vague aspirations in animation (without any idea about what the craft actually entailed). I set my sights on schools that excelled in Art and Computer Science.

It took me only three Computer Science classes to realise I loathed coding. The Communication Design (Comm Des) program at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) was one of the few curriculums left on my list that stressed academic rigour and creative studies.

The program taught me what it takes to be a professional designer, illustrator, and creative, but more importantly, it opened the door to what was possible.

The Communication Design program was unique in that it stressed the importance of the person viewing your work – Is the message being relayed effectively and with your own voice? It asked me to retrain my brain to think about illustration not as a competition for the “prettiest picture” but as a puzzle with infinite right answers.

At the time, I was a very stubborn creator, unwilling to try new modes of storytelling. One particularly formative professor, Doug Dowd, pried the crusty Micron pen I had practically welded to my hand for three years and replaced it with a small brush pen.

He loaned me Seth’s ‘It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken’, and from that day forward, I felt like a door had opened to a realm I had never known existed. I owe Doug a great deal for how he pushed me out of my comfort zone and inspired me to take better stock of the creative world around me.

What appeals to you about creating narrative stories?

I’m a chronic overthinker. Though I love the challenge of editorial illustration, storytelling in a comic form has always been far less stressful for me. The work that lingers in my psyche is often art (comics, books, music, movies, etc.) that bowls me over with emotion, so much so that I remember the feeling of watching or reading the material more than the contents of the narrative. I strive to someday instil this same emotional reaction in my work, and the best way I know how to do that is through narrative storytelling.

One of the most emotionally affecting pieces of art I’ve experienced recently was sitting in a tiny movie theatre watching Skinamarink. I gripped the arms of my chair for ninety straight minutes with absolute terror and awe. Whether or not it’s a good movie is hotly debated, but the visceral reaction it produced in me was like nothing I’ve experienced, and it’s the strength of the emotional reaction that I seek to replicate in my own work.

Your work involves a lot of fantastical elements. What makes you want to include these?

It’s funny you mention that because, for the longest time, I was hyper-fixated on replicating photos as realistically as I could. But it turns out I’m much better at drawing things that don’t exist than replicating photographs.

Fantastical elements are much more entertaining to draw and create because there are no rules except the ones you make for yourself. I can write a story about a demonic swimming pool or a zombie with a penchant for hopeless romanticism – anything I want! That’s the beauty of fantastical fiction. My most successful work strikes a happy medium between realism and fantasy.

How has your style evolved over the years?

In high school, I experimented with many different media – oil, acrylic, collage, coloured pencil, etc. Still, for whatever reason, when I started college, I ditched all of that for a .5 Micron pen and digital colour. I hid behind its slender frame for a long time, hesitant to try anything new even though I despised most of what I was creating.

I slowly transitioned from thin pens to brush pens and eventually to brush and ink, and occasionally ink washes. Though I still use Microns here and there, I enjoy the flexibility of the brush that allows for varying stroke widths. There is a beautiful imperfection to using a brush that I can’t seem to replicate in programs like Procreate, which is why I rarely ink digitally.

I think I’m finally finding my footing in terms of the style I like and the kinds of stories I want to tell. I was highly influenced by Seth and other cartoonists like Adrian Tomine early in college. More recently, I’ve fallen in love with Gerard Way’s contribution to Doom Patrol, which had an amazing art team, including Nick Derington, whose line work is fantastic. My work tends to be influenced by what I’m most passionately devouring at the time.

Above all else, if my style has evolved, it’s because I’m more confident in my work, and I’ve had many more years of practice. I think I still have a very long evolution ahead of me, which is both exciting and terrifying.

What’s the secret to creating an energetic composition?

I’m not sure I have a secret, but whenever I reach a point in a sketch where the composition feels too static, I like to skew perspective. I’ll rotate the viewfinder slightly so that the edges of objects are diagonal instead of horizontal. I’ll also play with depth perception and move objects closer and further away from the viewer in order to force the viewer’s eye to move around the image.

However, there is such a thing as too much movement. I run into this predicament, especially when working with long-form narratives. Sometimes it’s only after sketching a full page that I’ve realised every panel has so much energy that each one is competing for focus. This is a moment where I’ve scaled back the complexity of a panel in order for it to recede further into the background.

What are you working on at the minute?

I am currently working on a couple of long-form comics, a middle-grade coming-of-age story in which the main characters use the comic medium to solve their problems, and a dystopian sci-fi thriller about letting go of a dream. I hope to have more to share soon, but until then, I’ll be writing, thumbnailing, sketching, and inking in my little studio corner.

I’m also submitting a couple of short stories to comic anthologies in the hopes of getting them published later in the year. I’m always taking on new freelance clients, whether in the commercial or editorial sphere, when I’m not working my day job as a Senior Designer at Bustle Digital Media.

Do you have one project you’re particularly proud of?

I wish I could share the long-form work I’m in the middle of processing, but until then, I’m most excited about the comics I’ve written and illustrated for By The Way, The Washington Post’s Travel Section. My mum and I spent two amazing weeks travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia at the end of last year, and I wrote about it here.

I got to pour through notes I made from our guides, photos I took along the way, and memories I shared with my mum, which culminated in a project that blended both traditional and digital media in a way that I think is some of my most successful work to date.

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SMAKK's new identity for Tabu makes sexual wellness for women over 50 sophisticatedly sexy

SMAKK's new identity for Tabu makes sexual wellness for women over 50 sophisticatedly sexy

Despite enormous strides for women’s sexual health since the 2000s, sex remains a taboo subject when discussing women over 50: up to 90% experience pain or discomfort during sex due to hormonal and lifestyle changes, but only 25% seek medical help for their symptoms. As a result, nearly 50% give up on their sex lives, negatively impacting their self-esteem, relationships and overall health.

When Natalie Fretwell founded the sexual wellness brand, Tabu, she set out to improve these statistics with a solution that would honour women’s bodies as they change – creating a sexual wellness routine with very real benefits. The brand’s shop offers lubricants, vulva stimulators, and other tools designed to prioritise sexual wellness and its holistic benefit for women’s lives as they age.

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Looking to enter a new phase of growth and leadership in sexual wellness, Tabu partnered with branding and marketing agency SMAKK to better underscore its important mission. The result is a new identity that shines a light on how optimal sexual health, with or without a partner, isn’t just a means to pleasure but an essential piece of long-term well-being.

Tabu brought in SMAKK to help create a new brand identity, packaging and e-commerce website for Tabu’s premium, science-backed sexual wellness kit as well as various upcoming new product launches. This meant reshaping the brand to be more approachable, dignified and credible in order to deconstruct the notion that sexual health has an expiration date.

“We saw the potential to bring sophistication, discretion and credibility to a product category known for being anything but – typically marketed by way of brazen eroticism and cheeky innuendo,” explained SMAKK founder Katie Klencheski. “So, when it came to shining a light on an important but often overlooked piece of the wellness puzzle, we knew it was right in our sweet spot.” For this expansive effort, SMAKK led a complete reimagining of the brand strategy and creative, including the visual identity, messaging, packaging, e-commerce design and development.

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Aesthetically, the new identity is artfully unapologetic in that it illustrates and talks about sexual wellness, with a bold wordmark as well as icons and illustrations informed by scientific diagrams you might find in a textbook. Leveraged together, these elements deftly communicate complex sexual wellness topics and ideas in a way that feels necessary and credible rather than taboo or shameful. The typography throughout the brand finds a similar balance, using a headline style with beautiful femininity paired with a more utilitarian monospace.

“The way we imagined data visualisation for this brand is unique in the space,” contends SMAKK’s Klencheski, pointing out her team’s use of visual strategies to elevate the topic of sexual wellness in a way that feels credible and highly scientific without losing the luxurious femininity that sets Tabu apart.

She offered an example: “the monospaced body type mixed with the thin linework that connects the different text blocks within a grid feels conclusive and trustworthy. It emulates diagrams you might find in a textbook or scientific publication – signalling that sexual wellness is just as important a conversation as the topics more typically found in those environments.” Those elements mixed with a much larger scale effeminate serif headline, usually used for typesetting stats and/or numbers, create a really important balance within the type system and how it visualises education and data.

The packaging is also noteworthy, combining smooth, satin, glossy materiality and a meticulously designed unboxing journey that transitions from a minimal, pared-back shipping box to the much bolder and more luxurious aesthetic choices inside. It speaks to the conceptual balance of intimacy and honesty we were trying to achieve with the brand.

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Klencheski told Creative Boom that the packaging design isn’t just beautiful to look at but plays an important role in balancing necessary discretion with taboo-breaking honesty. “For the packaging, it was important to the client and consumer that the outermost packaging remained discreet, acknowledging that this is a ‘taboo”‘ D2C product arriving at your doorstep.”

But once the customer begins unwrapping and unboxing, each new element inside delivers something bold and unapologetic. Klencheski explains: “The lux bag that is meant to keep your wellness routine together and clean is a deep orange velvet. Inside it, you find each product housed in a box full of educational materials on ingredients, use cases, and routine-building activities. The whole packaging experience is meant to make whoever comes across it feel empowered, educated, and excited to be on their own sexual wellness journey.”

Meanwhile, the brand messaging is honest but dignified, presenting Tabu’s benefits through a science and health-centred lens that also doesn’t hide its irreverent ‘Use It Or Lose It’ attitude. These complementary choices ground Tabu and its ethos in dependable trustworthiness without losing all of its delicacy and grace.

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

No stranger to sexual wellness brand-building, SMAKK drew insights from their previous work with boutique e-tailer Wild Flower, a project requiring an inclusive understanding of the diverse audiences using their products.

“With Tabu, we realised that there was a similarly wide range of people we had to engage – those in relationships and those not, those who have used a personal massager before and those who haven’t, those who are embarrassed at the mere mention of one and those who aren’t, and a range of life stages where one would need to use a sexual wellness kit,” adds SMAKK Chief Strategy Officer Anna Kavaliunas. “We had to be empathetic and consider things like accessibility in design elements and typography, discrete packaging that still felt premium, and a strong science story to support the health aspect. We also had to think about women who had just had a baby, were going through a dry spell or even cancer treatment.”

SMAKK’s thoughtful approach ultimately succeeds in educating about the science of sexual health but positions the brand as a disruptor in a category usually associated with feelings of shame. “We were excited by Tabu’s mission and inspired by the opportunity to be a part of an inclusive movement,” says Klencheski.

“This brand empowers women to not only embrace but prioritise their sexual well-being regardless of where they are in their reproductive years, and we’re proud to help them lead this important conversation.”

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

Credit: SMAKK / Tabu

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Bold, fiery, empowering: Leyda Luz creates a hot new rebrand for Victoria Records

Bold, fiery, empowering: Leyda Luz creates a hot new rebrand for Victoria Records

Consisting of a world-class recording studio, publisher, and sister film production company, Virgin Records is the 25-million-dollar project of CEO and producer Victoria Kühne, who launched the label in 2015.

To help bring the various arms of the Virgin Records business together, illustrator, photographer and brand specialist Leyda Luz was tasked with coming up with a consistent look that tapped into the record label’s values and reflected the pioneering vision of its founder.

In order to do this, Leyda looked to Victoria herself. Instantly recognisable thanks to her shock of ginger locks, Victoria’s hair colour appears to have become a central pillar of Victoria Records’ new identity. Everywhere you look, the same colour can be found on the studio’s clothing and branding, acting as a striking shorthand for both the label and its owner.

No stranger to creative input herself, Victoria struck upon the idea of capitalising on her unique position as a leading woman in the Latin American music industry. This resulted in the female symbol being incorporated into the Victoria Records logo, as well as the decision to use the central figure from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus across all the branding and merchandise.

The reasoning for this is that Venus has been a constant alter ego for Victoria throughout her musical career. It’s not hard to see why. Both names start with the same letter, and both have similar hair. But there’s more to the bond than superficial similarities. Venus is an iconic woman in art history, so she lends herself perfectly to the theme of empowerment and artistry that the identity was gunning for.

Meanwhile, the iconic illustration of Victoria riding a lion is a tribute to the CEO’s Leo star sign. It’s one of three images that depict Victoria in a different setting, each relating to a different part of her birth chart and her background as an artist. “We decided to do three images so the three main studios could each have a different concept with only the textual logo tying them together,” explains Leyda.

“We worked on the main illustration for her brand and studios with both digital and hand-drawn techniques,” she adds. “These are now showcased in every part of the branding, from merchandise and control room screens to the main live room and everything else involving Victoria.”

Victoria’s decision to work with Facultad de Artes Visuales UANL graduate Leyda appears to be written in the stars. As a Virgo, Leyda complements Victoria’s tenacious, creative approach nicely with a detail-oriented outlook. And with a parallel career as a concert photographer, Leyda has better insight into music-related design projects than most.

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Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor

Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor

TUCSON, Arizona — Bobby “Dues” Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) works across various planes of creativity, from mural-making to beadwork and quillwork to poetry. His work as a founding member of the Indigenous sketch comedy troupe The 1491s, and as a writer for hit television shows such as Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, has carved out a multifaceted terrain of art-making and cultural production. Wilson’s practice is aimed at dislodging preconceived and stereotypical perceptions about Indigenous peoples in North America. 

Wilson, who grew up in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, had his share of precarity as a child. “We bounced around battered women’s shelters for a while until we’d time out of them,” Wilson shared with Hyperallergic. “Then we were just staying with other people for a while until our Section 8 [housing] finally cleared.” It was at this time that he learned that the woman raising him was not his biological mother. “She confessed it and then I ran away from home, and I never went back.” While living on his own, he began tagging buildings and experimenting with graffiti. “I met a graffiti artist who was also Native in middle school named Gabriel Ward, and we became really close,” Wilson said. “But he was tagging gang [stuff], which was not really my thing at all. I always thought that it was insane how many dudes that I grew up with around there were in gangs, and that just did not appeal to me in any way.” 

Though he did not participate in gang culture, he did very much enjoy the act of mark-making. “I really liked the idea of tagging on shit, so I started shoplifting spray paint with Gabriel until I got caught for graffiti.” At the age of 16, Wilson was arrested for graffiti and was sentenced to two years in the Ramsey County Boys’ Home. The arrest led to a life-changing meeting. “I always feel funny saying I had a good relationship with my parole officer, because I don’t think you’re supposed to,” he said. “Her name was Deb Knutson and I haven’t seen her since I turned 18, but she focused on what was going to do some good for me. She told me about the art programs for youth in the Twin Cities and said I should get involved with some of them.”

Bobby Wilson graffiti mural (courtesy the artist)

Wilson joined a program called Compass Arts in St. Paul, which had a summer program called Arts Work. During this time, he met Youa Vang, who provided the first formal training in fine art that he had received. “He is the guy who taught me how to paint murals,” he said. “He took a particular interest in me and two other kids who were there.” 

Vang taught Wilson the artistic skills he needed to pursue a professional career in the cultural field and gave him a foundation of discipline and respect for process necessary to succeed in the complex and often precarious visual arts field. Wilson had a successful career as a muralist in the Twin Cities, a practice he still engages with today as time allows. In addition to his painting, he creates delightfully irreverent pieces of beadwork and quillwork, often pastiching Indigenous techniques and popular culture, drawing from mass-produced imagery, such as a blue social media verification checkmark and objects like La Croix cans. Recently he collaborated with Brain Dead clothing in Los Angeles to produce a now sold-out edition of beadwork minions from Despicable Me. 

Perhaps what Wilson is best known for is his sketch comedy work with his troupe The 1491s. Comprised of Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo, Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan RedCorn, and Wilson, the group has produced biting satire addressing colonization, systemic racism, misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, the commodification of Native imagery and culture, and sustained homelessness and poverty resulting from US governmental policies in Indian Country. A chance meeting in Santa Fe led to Wilson’s involvement with the group. After driving his aunt to New Mexico’s capital city for the annual Southwestern Association of Indian Arts Market in 2010, Wilson met Redcorn and Harjo. They became fast friends, and all have been collaborating ever since. 

Beadwork by Bobby Wilson (courtesy the artist)

In 2019, The 1491s were commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to create an original work, Between Two Knees. The play weaves together family relationships, love, and loss, and incorporates large swaths of Indigenous history in the United States that have been left out of US History curricula. The play spans from the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in which 300 Lakota people were slaughtered at the hand of the US 7th Cavalry Regiment, to the 71-day American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Running in Seattle at the Bagley Wright Theater through March 26, it offers a richly textured, darkly humorous, and unflinching look at the American genocide of Indigenous peoples via settler-colonialism. 

In addition to his mural practice, beadwork, and sketch comedy endeavors, Wilson is now becoming a fixture in television. He’s written for and appeared in Peacock’s Rutherford Falls opposite Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding (Cheyenne River Lakota), and is currently writing for the hit FX show Reservation Dogs, in which he also occasionally appears, and which was created by fellow 1491s member Sterlin Harjo in collaboration with renowned director Taika Waititi. The writing process has moments of flow and moments of obstruction. “Sometimes writing is the worst, I hate it!” he laughed. “It’s really about getting your mind in the right space for it, and so sometimes I will just paint something or write a poem to get it going. It’s a matter of finding that spot that’s inside my consciousness that delves into art, and it always looks a little different.” He allows the details of his everyday life infiltrate his writing and end up on the page in some way. “The writing goes through so many iterations — so for me, it’s getting over the block of needing it to be perfect.” 

It is that allowance of imperfection that is the beautiful crux of Wilson’s career — one that undulates, ever so gracefully, across multiple mediums and registers of generational pain, healing laughter, and Indigenous joy. 

Minions beadwork by Bobby Wilson (courtesy the artist)
Bobby Wilson taking a selfie (courtesy the artist)

Between Two Knees performs at the Bagley Wright Theater (155 Mercer Street, Seattle, Washington) through March 26.

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Rare 19th-Century Silhouette Album’s Secrets Unlocked

Rare 19th-Century Silhouette Album’s Secrets Unlocked

Page spread from William Bache’s Silhouettes Album, black paper coated silhouettes mounted on paper (all images digitized by Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Way before influencers used front or back-facing cameras to capture their likenesses, 19th-century celebrities sat for silhouettes made by a semi-automated instrument called a physiognotrace. The devices produced inexpensive, exact replicas of a person much faster than an artist could create a painting or sculpture. Selling these portraits proved to be a lucrative career for artist William Bache, who traveled up and down the United States and throughout the Caribbean from 1803 to 1812. Now entirely digitized through a partnership between the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Getty Institute, Bache’s silhouette album, featuring nearly 2000 profiles, has been uploaded to a microsite for researchers and photography enthusiasts to peruse. 

Although the National Portrait Gallery featured the book in the 2018 exhibition Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, historians and researchers had zero access to portraits in the album due to the dangers of exposure to the arsenic present in the volume’s pages. The newly launched platform contains high-resolution images of the profiles, Bache’s biography and timeline, conservation reports, and other digital materials. Curator of Prints and Drawings Robyn Asleson has also confirmed the identity of hundreds of sitters portrayed by Bache. 

“Someone may find the image of a great-great-grandparent or other ancestor whose likeness they have never seen before,” Asleson told Hyperallergic

Users can flip through portraits, zoom in on specific individual profiles, and find names, life dates, and other information on the site. The album showcases the portraits of notable figures like Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington, and former Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, as well as comedians, actors, and everyday people, including individuals of African descent. Asleson’s team was surprised to discover that Bache traveled as far as the Caribbean, potentially Cuba. The new information may shed light on social environments in New Orleans or transatlantic dealings between Louisiana and Cuba. 

Pair of unidentified men from Cuba (1804–1806) by William Bache

Primary documents showing Bache’s business and marketing tactics are also available and reveal the ingenuity of an artist making a living for himself before a defined art industry emerged in the United States. Bache patented his novel device and method for portraiture at the turn of the 19th century with partners Isaac Todd and Augustus Day. Unlike his competitor’s device, Bache’s physiognotrace produced silhouettes without touching the face, a distinguishing feature. Therefore the device did not spread infectious diseases, such as smallpox, typhoid, and measles.

The physiognotrace was popular up until the invention of the photographic camera in 1816 because it democratized the portrait and could create scientifically exact images. Asleson notes that some researchers used silhouettes to bolster the racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, which sought to link a person’s physical characteristics (such as face color, nose shape, or hair texture) to emotional or intellectual capacity — a theory 19th-century scientists used to justify white racial superiority.

Yet, mainly because the profiles were so inexpensive — newspaper ads digitized on the microsite show four portraits costing 25 cents (approximately $5 today) — a greater range of individuals and families in different classes could afford to buy these images as keepsakes to remember family members and loved ones. 

“The portraits in this album provide images of a much broader cross-section of society, and we were excited to share them with the public,” Asleson said.

Page spread from William Bache’s album featuring George and Martha Washington

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