—Interview by Bianca Betancourt @ByBiancaBee
For those who dwell and live in big cities, it’s far too easy to stop and smell the roses–especially if said roses are the sad, lifeless bouquets wilting away at local corner store bodegas or when snow is covering the concrete and you can’t remember the last time you saw something green. But when temperatures are nearing zero and your feather down coat seems glued to your body day to day, sometimes you need to seek outside inspiration to remember that there’s more to the earth and nature than city squirrels and alley rats.
Enter Keara McGraw, a Chicago based illustrator whose whimsical yet lifelike depictions of nature, food and femininity are making their way into the national art scene.
With art features in Cherry Bombe, Vice’s Broadly and more, her booming art career is well under way. We sat down for coffee (and tea for McGraw) at Chicago’s Jumping Bean Café to talk about what inspires her art and fuels her healthy lifestyle.
BB : How did you decide pursuing art and illustration was what you wanted to do as a career?
KM : So I went into college as a communications major at UIC (University of Illinois, Chicago), which basically didn’t mean much. It’s so broad and you go over HR and PR and advertising, but there’s not a specific avenue that you’re pointed to there. I was at a really weird point in my life but I really had no idea what I was doing and so I transferred to Columbia [College Chicago] as a PR major.
After gaining a few internships and diving deeper into my classes I realized that I hated everything about the industry and I was trying to draw any chance I could get. I was trying to draw my own business cards, illustrate my own things and I think growing up I didn’t even realize that I could make illustrating a career and that people were illustrators. My parents were kind of really supportive of me going to art school and drawing a lot. My dad I remember was like, “You should go to art school!” and I was like, "Yeah, no. I am not doing that."
My junior year of college and my first year as an illustration major–that was such a game changer. If you can imagine sitting in a room being like, “What I want to do exists! Oh my God!” That was a big part of me that was realizing it was a passion of mine and it was something I needed to do. I didn’t want to do it–I needed to do it.
BB : Tell us about your love for food and nature and how that ties into your artwork:
KM : That’s another thing that I didn’t know you could go into and make a career out of. I love food and to cook and to bake and I started illustrating my own recipes and that was such a fun way for me to archive things that I had been doing and presenting them as stories. I’m also really interested in telling the story of Chicago’s urban biodiversity. We live in an incredibly biodiverse city and there’s so much that goes into realizing that you as a human share this city with other nonhuman animals–like you are a part of this ecosystem that has peregrine falcons and snowy owls and yeah there’s pigeons and squirrels and rats–but we’re in a biodiverse pathway and there’s an incredible wealth of animals in Chicago. It gets me thinking about land ethics and how different people in different life experiences understand and get to know wildlife or the wild. I just really like exploring and telling the story of nonhuman animals and who we share the area with.
BB : You mention on social media that you’re a vegan–does that tie into your love of healthy food and nature as well?
KM : It’s definitely tied into my food illustration. I think that’s what made it so important to illustrate—you don’t need this huge ingredient list to make something delicious. It can be five basic ingredients and just a little bit of seasoning. Getting to illustrate that is so fun—it’s like showing the five things I use to make whatever.
BB : Would you ever do a cookbook?
KM : I’ve been asked that from teachers and friends. I would love to but I think I just have really high standards for cookbooks. I would want to just have such a greater knowledge of culinary practice to attempt that. I don’t even measure things when I cook I just throw things in a bowl which is great when it works out, but not so great when you know, you’re sitting there thinking why didn’t my muffins rise!? I would love to illustrate a cookbook that wasn’t my own with recipes that were really thoughtfully produced.
BB : It seems to be like food culture now is completely different than it was say ten years ago.
KM : I don’t think people five, ten years ago were pausing dinner to take pictures of the table! The other day with friends I made this creamy mushroom stew from The First Mess and I had to stop my friends and be like ‘Wait guys, I gotta take a picture first!” It’s turned into this very talked about, very shared thing and very styled. Food styling did exist pre-advertising but the way it is now...it’s a really interesting thing to talk about. How genuine is what we’re sharing and the moment that it’s happening?
A lot of the important questions come up when I’m cooking–you don’t have to be from a certain place to make a certain dish but do you know the story behind that dish and what it might mean to another person? And we constantly question how do my decisions reflect the access that other communities have to food? I can go anywhere and get any food i want so when illustrate recipes I want to make things that you don’t have to go to a specialty store to get all of the ingredients. The basis of cooking to me is just affordability and access because you’re just sharing something with people that you love. I do love me some really beautifully prepared dishes but it’s important that all the food bloggers and cooks that I admire most use just simple easy affordable ingredients that anyone could make.
BB : Since we’ve spent so much time talking about food we need to know–what’s your favorite food, drink and dessert?
KM : For my favorite food I’ll do a food group which would be peanut butter because it is an ingredient in everything that’s good in the world. You can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner because I’ve done it–actually I’ve illustrated how to incorporate peanut butter into every meal before! But my favorite food at the moment...is probably cornbread. It’s just so good and comforting and you can also make that into anything.
Drink? I don’t do coffee because I can’t handle caffeine and it’s really embarrassing though because I love the taste of coffee. Alcoholic would be like a hot toddy. I’m also a kombucha kinda gal. Love me some kombucha.
What’s the other one?
Ahh, okay. I don’t know if I can count this as a dessert but a scone. Any kind of well made scone I respect more than anything in the world because I’ve never had as many failed baking attempts as I have had making scones. Making it a really great texture on the inside and nice and crunchy on the outside... that’s hard! So if I eat a really good scone I’m like brought to tears, I just love scones.