Words by Louisa Luong | Art by Stellar Leuna
Stellar Leuna’s black and white illustrations weave bold, dark, and playful narratives featuring women who don’t give a fuck. Drawing inspiration from the occult, horror films, and comics, her art conjures imagined worlds full of satanic renegades. As one of Sydney’s most prominent artists, she’s worked on murals for Vans and The Galeries Victoria, apparel design for Nothing Label, and band merchandise for Endless Heights. Not to mention that you’ve almost definitely admired her work on the walls of The Lord Gladstone Hotel while sipping on a cold beer.
Vertigo chats to Stellar about her fascination with the occult, the importance of storytelling, and the expectations that come with being labelled a feminist artist.
Vertigo: A lot of your work reveals a fascination with the occult and witchcraft. At what age did this fascination develop? Can you recall your first experience with the occult — was it in a film or a novel you read? If so, what was it about the occult that drew you in and inspired you?
Stellar Leuna: I get asked this question a lot, and it always comes back to my obsession with the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. It’s been my favourite movie since I was three or four years old, when I would watch it multiple times a day with my sisters. There is a lot of mystery behind occultism, and whether magic is real or has any sort of effect on the universe. I’m always drawn to make-believe and imaginary worlds.
V: Is it mainly occult practices in Western culture that you’re inspired by? Are you hoping to explore occult practices outside of Western culture in your artwork anytime soon?
SL: I’ve always been drawn to any occultism in Asian cultures as well. My mum really likes horror, too, and we would always watch Hong Kong films about vampires and ghosts. She never censored our viewing of anything that had supernatural or mature themes. I am still researching more about the Chinese belief in the afterlife and reincarnation, but it’s also something that is deeply respected in Chinese culture so I am still trying to figure out a way that I can represent my interpretation of these things without it being disrespectful or inaccurate, since my Chinese isn’t very good [laughs]. It is a long process, as I’m trying to re-educate myself about my own culture and heritage at the same time.
V: There’s so much depth and narrative present in all your work; the way you frame and compose your subjects is quite cinematic. Is storytelling a big part of your process? Does this stem from the inspiration you draw from your love of horror films?
SL: Thank you! Yes, it is stemmed from my love of horror films as well as other genres. It is important to me that I tell a story through my work otherwise I find it a bit dull. I like all of my drawings to feel like a scene from a movie, so I am glad this is obvious to other people.
V: Your work comes across as quite bold and confident. Have you always felt confident in your own work and ability as an illustrator? What were some of the challenges you faced?
SL: Like all artists there was definitely a huge period in my life before I finished my degree where I didn’t feel confident in my work, as I was still in my experimental phase. Obviously, if you haven’t found a style you love to work in it’s going to be difficult to feel confident or motivated to draw. I think my greatest challenge so far has been to view and critique my work as an outsider, because you often become so wrapped up in your work that you don’t see it for what it is. I still look at my work and wonder how I can improve it. There’s so much to learn as an artist/illustrator, and to just be confident 100% of the time can actually be a bad thing because it means you’re probably not trying anything different.
V: So you studied graphic design at uni for three years and now you’re a freelance illustrator. How was the transition from one to the other?
SL: I studied graphic design foolishly thinking that I would learn a lot of skills required to be an illustrator, but when I started the course there was only one subject that taught us how to use Adobe Illustrator, and that was basically it. So everything I learnt about being a commercial illustrator I had to learn from just doing it myself. The process of completing a brief for a client is pretty much exactly the same as a graphic designer’s though, so the transition from one to the other wasn’t a huge leap. I never formally got a job as a graphic designer after I graduated. I just realised towards the end of my degree that it wasn’t something I felt passionate about, so I basically had to start from scratch and build a whole new portfolio of work, which is what I guess I am now known best for.
V: As a talented artist like yourself, what were some of the most formative artistic moments in your life?
SL: One of the periods in my life that made me want to be an artist was probably in eighth or ninth grade when I discovered what low-brow art was, from an album cover of an emo band I really liked. It was from finding these artists that I realised that you could do art for a living and you didn’t have to exhibit at a prestigious gallery to be considered an ‘artist’. It just made it so much more achievable and real. So it was a gradual evolution of me doing terrible watercolour paintings of sad girls at age 15, to doing black and white ink paintings of sad girls ten years later. I got very into comic book artists in my second year of university, so that’s how I kind of found the style I wanted to draw in. I loved the fact that in the 50s, artists were employed like tradesmen to make comics for the likes of Marvel and DC. Most of these artists weren’t even famous, they were just incredibly talented drawers, so that was what they did for a living and they were very modest about it.
V: All your art is hand drawn and inked. Can you walk us through your work process?
SL: My process is very simple and straightforward. All I do is pencil my ideas down and then ink it with a lightbox onto a separate piece of paper, scan it in, and clean it up on photoshop. I have recently started working digitally on Clip Studio Paint Pro (previously known as Manga Studio). My work looks exactly the same whether it’s hand-drawn or digitally drawn which is a bonus, as it means commercial work has the same authenticity as if I had drawn it with an actual brush — only it takes half the time because I don’t have to re-ink a whole drawing if I stuff up.
V: You’ve spoken about drawing almost every day. How important is self-discipline and improving on your craft as an artist?
SL: This is hugely important, and will separate you from everyone else who doesn’t have self-discipline [laughs]. It’s not just being creative, it’s also being organised, and thinking of this as your job and not your hobby. It’s very easy to forget how to do something if you don’t practice enough. Success is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. That’s my best piece of advice!
V: How has your style developed since your first works that were heavily influenced by punk and the Riot Grrrl movement? What do you think has influenced this development?
SL: I think it has evolved into something a lot more mature and dark, but I don’t think it’s strayed too far from the punk influences I had earlier on in my career. I like to think I’m still drawing those same girls, only they’ve now grown up. This development was pretty natural to me; I just became interested in other things and wanted to express that through my work. I also didn’t want to just be known for drawing one particular thing.
V: You’ve recently been exploring Chinese language in your art. Is this a direction we’ll be seeing more of in your future work?
SL: I’m trying to work this into my art without it being overly cliche and predictable, because I’m aware Chinese characters are very trendy in graphic design at the moment — mostly by people who don’t actually speak the language, which always kind of annoys me. I did a few experiments with phrases I knew in English, which I translated into Chinese, and the meaning was slightly different. In doing this, I actually realised that the way I speak Cantonese is very basic and often inaccurate. When I speak to my parents they can understand the meaning of what I’m trying to say, but I often phrase sentences incorrectly. This was the biggest challenge in using Chinese in my art, but it also reflected a part of my experience as a Chinese-Australian that I never really took much notice of until quite recently.
V: A lot of your work is centred around female heroines and for that reason, you’ve garnered a reputation as a feminist artist. Is this something you intended? Do you feel that there comes a certain pressure or onus to represent women because of this? And even more so as a woman of colour?
SL: While I identify as a feminist, I never really wanted to be known as a feminist artist in the political sense. My main objective was to just draw things I loved, so my work just reflects that. In saying that, it is very important to me that I represent women in a way that is honest to my own experiences, and that doesn’t just mean making them appear strong or brave but also vulnerable and soft.
I try not to put too much focus on my race, or on the race of the people I draw, because it then feels political which is not my intention. I’ve had some people criticise my work before and ask why I “only draw white people”, which was bizarre to me, considering all of my characters are not in colour or have any sort of obvious physical traits that would appear to be of a particular race. I feel like they could be Caucasian as much as they could be Asian or Hispanic or any other race if you choose to interpret them this way, but I mostly try to make them pretty racially ambiguous.
V: So you’ve gotten to this stage where I feel like you’re one of Sydney’s most prominent artists. In the last year or so, you’ve worked with Vans, The Galeries, and Urge Records. How do you balance your commercial work with personal projects? Is there anything you want to work on more for personal projects?
SL: Luckily the commercial projects you mentioned fell very in line with the work I would normally do for myself, so it wasn’t a huge obstacle, and I got the same satisfaction from doing personal projects. In terms of generally balancing work with leisure, it can sometimes be a bit challenging. I guess you just have to plan your week carefully and prioritise. I haven’t done any personal work in a couple of weeks now because of a busy schedule with commissions, but as soon as I am done I would like to continue exploring other mediums.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.