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Chi Michalski: ‘When We Grow Up’ and Other Explorations

By Jenny Carless

Chi Michalski, an artist and illustrator who works under the name ChiChiLand, believes in letting her mind wander, “like an explorer charting an unknown land,” and in cultivating a childlike sense of wonder. “When we’re small, we can see magic in the world,” she says. “As we grow up, we learn to rationalize things; to label, sort, and explain…. Too often, we forget that understanding something and feeling the sense of wonder about it are not mutually exclusive.”

Michalski’s recent project When We Grow Up tries to capture that sense of joy in discovery, through the eyes of small girls.

When We Grow Up, a new project by Chi Michalski, a.k.a. ChiChiLand, is an animation about “five little girls with very big dreams.” In this profile, we dive into the genesis of the project, as well as how it was created. (Click to play animation.)

“I guess there’s a bit of ‘not all girls want to be moms and princesses’ about it, too,” she says, “But I’d like to believe that as a society we’re past the point where that still needs to be said.”

The openness and honesty of small children observing her art helped inspire the work.

“I’m often surprised by how adults hesitate to interpret what they see,” she explains. “Children, on the other hand, have no problem going on and on about something they find interesting. A pair of pre-school girls giving one of my works a proper interpretative critique helped sparked the whole thing.”

The five girls in When We Grow Up represent different aspects of Michalski herself: her walks in the park, her struggles between maintaining a reasonable diet and indulging in delicious cakes, her love of the Mediterranean Sea, and the exploratory nature of her own art. Valentina the astrobiologist and Yvette the deep-ocean diver (below) are her favorites.

“My husband, Quba, who animated the project, and I put the most work into these two—making sure each individual character and creature has her own unique motion and behavior,” she says.

THE MAGIC OF IMPROVISATION

Improvisation is a big part of Michalski’s ideation process.

“I rarely, if ever, approach an illustration with a clear goal in mind; I like to let my mind wander and make unconventional connections on its own,” she says. “As it does, I document my ideas by drawing whatever comes to me—treating my canvas as an atlas of sorts, much like an explorer charting an unknown land.”

Illustration and motion graphics appeal to Michalski in different ways.

Textiles—especially socks, are another of Michalski’s passions. She collaborated with Chatty Feet on a series of sock designs, including this one named after a famous artist: “David Sock-Knee”

“ChiChiLand is more than just a name or branding. It’s a place that exists in my head—where all the creatures, plants, and environments I draw come from,” she explains. “Illustration allows me to explore this world and share it with others.”

Motion graphics and animation are natural next steps in discovering the world she draws.

“While illustrations let me show what different things look like, motion communicates so much more: how elements move and react to one another,” she says. “It brings out the character…of my characters.”

ChiChiLand’s Funphabet is an alphabet book designed to “encourage creative conversation between kids and parents.”

Other favorite recent projects include Funphabet, Chatty Feet Socks, and Spaghetti Girls.

For a long time, Michalski believed in leaving the context of her illustrations open to interpretation.

“Observing and interpreting art is something I enjoy myself, and I assumed that most people felt the same,” she says. “I was, at least partially, wrong.”

Images from the series Spaghetti Girls. 

“I often hear that people ‘don’t understand art’—which feels peculiar to me. Visual arts, music, movies—they’re all the same. There’s no need to understand them; they either evoke something in you or they don’t,” Michalski says. “Still, being able to attach a clear narrative to an illustration makes people ‘get it’ more easily and without unnecessary hangups. That’s why the Spaghetti Girls series is not just eight pictures; rather, it is eight short slices of time, eight characters, eight stories…. Combined with a slight twist on the way I illustrate and primarily using line work instead of filled shapes, this project creates a unique project in my portfolio.”

THE TOOLS BEHIND THE ART

Michalski is thrilled with the abundance of tools and materials available to creatives today.

“There’s so much in the way of great software, gadgets, and apps at our disposal,” she says.  

At the same time, she believes that this makes it more challenging to create something unique.

“Artists of the past created their own tools and even materials, which led them to one-of-a-kind results,” she explains. “Today, with everyone using a similar toolset, it can be challenging to stay in control of one’s art—and to avoid creating work that looks similar to everyone else’s. Accessibility comes with its own challenges, I guess.”

Michalski prefers a raster workflow to working with vectors. She created the majority of the images that make up When We Grow Up in Adobe Photoshop, with a Wacom Cintiq.

“I worked on hundreds of layers, keeping as much of the illustration non-destructive as possible,” she explains. “It made the process of moving the layers into Adobe After Effects really smooth and fast.”

She also used Adobe Illustrator, mostly for various elements that needed long, curvy lines and some repeating patterns.

“In After Effects, Quba worked primarily with the amazing Puppet Tool, driving many of the animations by writing math-based expressions and simple scripts. It gave all the moving parts a very organic, natural motion,” she says. “He also composed the animation’s soundscapes using a website called Ambient-Mixer, which allowed us to build really good ambiances quickly.

“I was lucky enough to have access to the beta version of the upcoming After Effects CC 2019 [scheduled for release in late 2018], and the new options for the Puppet Tool were what made much of the animation in this project possible,” she adds. “Originally we planned to animate just a few of the elements, but once we got started, it was impossible to stop!”

She put together and edited the final pieces in Adobe Premiere Pro.

WHAT’S NEXT

Michalski has several new projects underway: a book, inspired in part by Spaghetti Girls; collaboration with another designer on textile designs and wearable products based on her art; and a toy that teaches children about permaculture and how ecosystems function.

She’s also intrigued by the idea of virtual reality.

“I’d love to create a living, breathing simulated island—populated by my creatures,” she says. “A visitor could travel and explore this place, but it would continue on living even with nobody actively participating.”

In her mind, this “ChiChiLand Island” would be a place to observe, contemplate (and maybe feed) the creatures—an experience that’s neither a narrative nor a game, just a place everyone could “virtually” visit.

You can see more of Chi Michalski’s work on her website, on Behance, and on Instagram.