Art(ist) in Motion: An Interview with Cynthia Merhej

E sits down with this ingeniously original artist to talk creative collaboration, processing time, and the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open. 
An illustration from Cynthia's Atlas Hotel Guest Book.

An illustration from Cynthia’s Atlas Hotel Guest Book.

The first time I saw Cynthia Merhej’s work on Rookie, I had to pause. Her bright, bold illustrations grabbed me because they stood out, which is no easy task in the stunning mélange of artistic talent regularly showcased by Rookie. I visited her personal website and fell further in love. I learned that she grew up in Beirut, then graduated from Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art in Visual Communication. Today, her illustrations and other artwork straddle the real and imaginary in a way that feels fresh and demands to be heard, and her range of mediums (photography, print, written word…) is impressive.
After speaking with her, I’ve decided that what intrigues me most about Cynthia is her outlook. This is a woman who simply doesn’t view the world the way the rest of us do, even those who are creatively inclined. Where other artists zig, Cynthia zags, with aplomb. Rather than try to explain further, I encourage you to read her interview below, then try not spend the next few weeks tilting your head, trying to see the way Cynthia does.

When I see your work, I see movement. So many of your illustrations feel like moments in time, almost as though the world stopped turning for a second before everything continued. Has your work always been so dynamic?
Lovely to hear you say that because for me drawing is so frustrating because it is so static–in my head everything feels much more alive and chaotic! When I put pen to paper I guess it’s a way of trying to make sense of all those thoughts fizzing around and just picking out the most urgent ones and getting them out there.

An illustration by Cynthia for Two Verses, a book about letting go of those you love.

Your illustrations turn up in the chicest of places (horoscopes for Man RepellerRookie, the list goes on…). Any favorite jobs?
I really appreciate it when I am collaborating with someone who gives me the freedom to exercise my imagination–those are my favorite jobs.
One of Cynthia's horoscope illustrations for Man Repeller.

Cynthia’s February 2015  “Repell-o-scope” illustration for Man Repeller.

Speaking of Rookie, you designed the Rookie typography. We’re huge fans of Rookie here at The Tonic and want to know what the site means to you.
Rookie is more than just a magazine, it’s a community. [Through Rookie] I get to interact and collaborate with amazing people around the world, and I get to share that work with a beautiful audience. It feels special and honest and absolutely like nothing else out there.

I loved when you mentioned in an interview that you reached out to Man Repeller and offered to draw illustrations for their horoscopes. What’s been your experience in soliciting projects versus having them come to you? Do you think artists generally need to be more proactive in seeking out work?
I think so, there is always a lot of rejections, a lot of people don’t answer, and then sometimes it just works. In the end of the day you just have to try and see where it goes.

You’ve also done successful work that’s more commercial (St. Bart’s body, for example). With a major client like that, how do you stay true to your creative aesthetic? Is it difficult to find your own voice when given direction?
Unfortunately I am not sure that project ever got off the ground! It’s an on the dot question though, because for that brief I was given a very specific aesthetic that the client was going for, which was nothing like mine. But then again it’s sometimes these kind of projects that are the most interesting because you have to step out of your comfort zone and just try new things. I tried to take what I thought interested the client and see how I could apply it using my own perspective, and the combination of the two created something cool.

The Atlas Hotel Guest Book is a highly unique project. Could you discuss it a bit and speak to where your inspiration came from?
Thanks! It was a personal project that came from a build-up of research and collected thoughts in my brain over a couple of years. I wanted to reflect on a certain period of time in the Arab world and how they related to our contemporary lives, and explore the different ways of telling a story. I didn’t want to resort to just writing the text and setting it next to pictures. In this case, since it was the story of a hotel, we can learn about it from the guest book. I wanted whoever flips through it to feel like they found a little relic, and to be able to build up the rest of the story on their own.
cynthia copy

One of Cynthia’s illustrations for the Atlas Hotel Guest Book.

Hearing you talk about inspiration it like looking at the world through the creative kaleidoscope of my dreams–I love, for example, when you mentioned being moved by the interaction of the human form with garments. What have been some of your most interesting inspirations through the years?
It’s difficult to pinpoint through out the years. I’m an observer, I just take in as much as I can from everything and everyone around me whether it is, as you mention, the way a fabric interacts with the body or the way typography is used on a city street or the way two people are having a conversation with each other. I just like to keep my eyes and ears open.

Something I’ve garnered from your interviews is that solo processing time is critical for you, as is taking things in at your own pace. How do you make time for this when there’s a lot on your plate? And how do you find taking that time helps your art?
I have struggled this year to find that solo time, and it has taken a toll because I feel that I am just absorbing so much, especially living in a city as chaotic as Beirut, absorbing but then not actually taking the time to understand what it is that I am seeing and hearing and feeling and putting those things down and then taking a step back. I am very much in the moment right now, which is wonderful, but I also believe that the distance is necessary for my practice to actually make full use of all that stuff that’s coming in.

I love that you tell stories through so many mediums (photography, film, illustration…). Has it been difficult to resist being categorized in a particular box?
In my head it feels extremely logical and clear for me to just say what I need to say in the medium that I want to, but then when it comes to actually having to describe to someone else it sounds like I am completely insane. It has been, and still is, difficult to be able to really describe what I do without having to show pictures.

Speaking on beauty, I’ve heard you say there’s “nothing special about it. It’s everywhere and in everything as long as you are looking.” In a world that’s so highly saturated, how do you choose where to look and what to look at?
I look at everything I possibly can in the time I can. I can’t choose. My heart and my gut tell me if something is interesting.

Your collaboration with designer Timi Hayek is something that’s clearly had a huge influence on you both. What, to you, makes a good artistic collaboration?
Mutual respect, appreciation, and understanding of one another’s practice, to be able to listen and try out suggestions, to criticize constructively, and most importantly to have a common goal which is higher than any ego.

Illustration from Long Distance Love, which features a poem by Timi Hayek to accompany Cynthia’s story and illustration.

Regarding fashion more generally, I’m curious what your personal style is like. Do your own clothes have meaning to you as an outlet for self-expression, or are they more of a uniform you wear while working?
I am not a fan of a uniform. Personally, to wear the same thing everyday makes me sad. I design a lot of my clothes with my mother, and everything else is a jumble. My style changes from day to day, and year to year– it depends on who I want to be.

 I can’t conduct an interview with you and not mention travel (I want to visit that corniche in Beirut you’ve described). Where’s next on your bucket list?
That’s crazy you ask–I’m traveling tomorrow to Sri Lanka! But next on the bucket list is to visit Rajasthan, and New York City.
An image from Merhaj's travels to Lebanon

Image from Cynthia’s Travels in Lebanon Pt. II.


A second image from Travels in Lebanon Pt. II.

What’s next for you as an artist? Any upcoming projects?
I’m working on a commissioned piece, and then looking to finally focus on a new story I am writing!

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for the lovely questions!!!

Cynthia, thank you. It was an honor to temporarily crack open the beautiful mind behind your work, and you’ve left me inspired and intrigued for projects of my own. I cannot wait to see what you do next.
xox E

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