Artist Dingding Hu surrounded by her illustrations

Artist-in-Residence Dingding Hu: Adding Spice to Everyday Life

Illustrator Dingding Hu has spent her life traversing different cultures through food.

After the devastating Tangshan earthquake, her family moved from the northern province of Hebei to the southern city of Chengdu. With them they brought their love of dumplings, mantou (or steamed bread), and other carby comfort fare. But at the same time, Hu couldn’t help but develop a taste for huoguo (or hotpot) and other spicy dishes native to Sichuan province, and she found herself adapting to two cultures, one inside and one outside her home.

Her exhibition, HU IS HUNGRY: AN ILLUSTRATED JOURNEY OF A STARVING ARTIST, explores her adventures in food and getting to know different cultures through their cuisines. From juicy xiao long bao in her college town of Shanghai, to scrumptious crabs in Baltimore during graduate school, to “charming” bagels in her adopted home of New York.

We had the chance to speak with our latest artist-in-residence about how she got into illustration, her early inspirations, and her favorite spicy dish.

Tell me a little about your background. What was it like growing up in Sichuan?

I was born and raised in mainland China, and came to the U.S. for graduate school around 2013. After I got my MFA degree, I moved to New York City and have been living and working here since.

Growing up in Sichuan, I developed a deep love for spicy food, as well as an attitude toward life that cherishes little “happinesses.” I also received my first art education there, which had a major influence on my later pursuits.

Were you always interested in drawing and art?

Yes! My mom sent me to drawing classes at the age of four, and I was very fortunate to have one of the best teachers in town. He specialized in telling stories, used experimental teaching techniques, and organized regular live drawing field trips. With his help, I developed an interest in art early on and have carried that passion throughout all my school time until college.

I was always the kid in class who was in charge of drawing the blackboard, posters, and anything else that was art related. I even got commissions to draw cartoon characters on other students’ school uniforms.

Why did you pick illustration and not another medium? What was it about illustration that drew you in?

When studying math in elementary school, geometry problems were always so easy for me to solve while algorithms were not as fun in comparison. From that experience I learned my brain is stronger with images. Like I said, I’ve been going to drawing classes since a young age, and that made drawing a natural progress for me to pick up professionally. After all, it’s a method I’m most familiar with.

However, there’s a difference between fine art and illustration. While fine art is more focused on self expression with a wider range of media beyond drawing, illustration is closer to a service with a clear purpose to communicate to its audience. There is no clear line, but I myself currently enjoy drawing with a clear purpose, and hopefully I’m bringing my audience refreshment and enlightenment.

What did you study in college?

My undergraduate education was very broad. I studied a little bit of everything and got involved mostly in advertising. I was originally planning to work in ad agencies in Shanghai after graduation, but ended up in illustration starting from a graduate school application attempt.

How did you decide to pursue illustration full-time? Was it a particular moment or more of a gradual process?

I think it was more of a situation where things came together naturally. I worked several jobs along the way. I got one position simply because the apartment I wanted to rent demanded proof of an annual salary instead of a pile of invoices. I’ve also tried jobs based on friends’ references for part time creative help. In fact I think I’ve grown a lot through the different jobs I’ve had. I’ve learned about software office management, and production, as well as how to illustrate product designs. I’m illustrating full time from my home studio right now, but I’m also developing my own illustrated product line.

I have several goals that I plan to accomplish this year, but after that maybe I’ll encounter another interesting job opportunity and take it on. Or I’ll might be too busy for that. My priority is to make sure I’m always learning and growing, and New York City is the perfect place for that.

What was your parents’ reaction to your decision to pursue illustration full-time?

They fully support me, although it’s been a long journey for us to get on the same page. They love me very much and are willing to learn with me every day about my career and life, for which I’m very grateful.

How did you end up in New York?

I lived in Baltimore for two years for graduate school, and moved to New York right after graduation. New York has always been a destination in my heart, so I thought I should just move here first and figure things out along the way. The journey wasn’t completely smooth, especially for someone like me, who had only been in the U.S. for a couple of years. Fortunately I have more positive experiences than negative ones, and together they all helped shape me into the person I am today, a proud New Yorker.

What are the biggest differences you noticed between New York and where you grew up or other major cities in China?

On the surface, it has to be the diversity of race and culture, which is fascinating to me. Another difference is that people are much more outspoken in New York City, be it a “have a nice day” or curse words. People in China tend to be less direct, which has its pros and cons.

Foodwise they actually both satisfy me very much. My hometown specializes in a full range of super delicious spicy food, which you can access downstairs from your apartment to a fine dining level restaurant. New York is amazing how it has cuisine from all over the world on a very authentic level, and some of the fine dining restaurants in New York are fantastic.

Your talk of delicious spicy food is making me hungry. What’s your favorite dish from your hometown?

I’m glad your stomach responded! My favorite dish in the whole world is without a doubt hot pot! And I do want to emphasize that hot pot in my hometown is nothing like what most New York restaurants serve — it’s next level. However I do enjoy NYC hot pot when in NYC, and I’ll also accept anything cooked in a delicious spicy soup as a substitute. Whenever I’m feeling a creative block, I go to hot pot and hot pot-like food.

Back to art! Outside of assignments, how do you decide what to illustrate?

I’m very interested in documenting things. I love to observe life, get things organized, and present it in my own vision. The exhibition is from that perspective, based on my recent trip back to Asia, along with all the amazing experiences that I encountered. I also love gifts and am working on a greeting card line featuring my artwork, for different occasions.

What’s your favorite thing to do besides working on your art?

Besides exploring restaurants and cooking, I also love photography and recently got a camera for video. I love documenting my life not only through my art but also with my camera. Hanging out with family and friends is also among my favorite things to do. It gives me a good time and enlightenment.

Are there any artists you admire or who inspire you?

Maira Kalman, Gemma Correll, and Jean Jullien are among my recent favorite illustrators.

What else inspires you?

Movies and TV shows, museums, conversation with friends, travel.

In terms of movies, TV shows, and museums, is there there anything that you tell people, you must see or visit this?

For TV shows I love comedy very much, Ali Wong, Amy Schumer, and Aziz Ansari are among my favorites! I’m also a big fan of cooking/traveling documentaries, such as Cake Boss and Parts Unknown (very sad for the passing of Anthony Bourdain). For movies Charlie and the Chocolate factory and Amelie are the ones closest to my heart. All the museums in New York have interesting exhibitions from time to time. However the Met is one museum I’m sure I’ll find something inspiring whenever I go. Its historical collection is just breathtaking.

Hu Is Hungry: An Illustrated Journey of a Starving Artist will be on view in our TriBeCa mezzanine gallery from July 19 through through September 9, 2018. To learn more about Ms. Hu, visit her website.

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