Creative Lives — Artist Joy Yamusangie Miessi discusses post-grad unemployment and breaking into the art world
Filled with block colours, fabric canvases and textures, the work of artist Joy Yamusangie Miessi is abound with layers of emotion. Whether that be a thought, experience or snip from a past memory, the artist has a knack for translating these moments into mixed media. Since graduating with a BA in Illustration, Joy’s work has been exhibited at various galleries, including Beers London Gallery and Office&Gallery Los Angeles, and was a part of LDN WMN, a series of free public artworks celebrating unsung women heroes, curated by Tate Collective. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Here Joy shares a less than positive university experience, gives us advice on how to steer through a year of post-graduation unemployment, and explains why there’s no shame working in unexciting jobs to support your practice.
Joy Yamusangie Miessi
Spotify, Tate Collective, Gucci
Jobs at a call centre, in retail and as a temporary office intern. Artist's assistant for Yinka Illori and Lakwena
BA Illustration, Portsmouth University (2011-2014)
Joy; photo by Ellius Grace
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a visual artist who uses black lines, self-portraits and lots of colour.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I like routine and having a clear separation from my work and home. I work at my studio between Tuesday and Saturday. I start off my day with admin, research and then I start drawing.
How collaborative is your work?
I spend most of time working on my own, but when a collaboration starts with my friends I really do enjoy the company and working with them, especially when their artistic practice is far from my own. My favourite collaborator is probably my mum, as she’s sewn bits for me and created fabric canvases for me to work on.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable part is admin. I try to start my day with this and get it out of the way so that the end of the day is about drawing, painting, sewing and all the things I love.
“By focusing on telling your own story – as we are all unique – a natural style can grow from that.”
What skills and tools would you say are essential to your job
Research and being able to adapt to changing mediums.
What inspires your work? And how important do you think it is to land on a recognisable style as an artist?
As part of my first solo show last year, my mum made a playlist for the exhibition. Since then, I’ve been really drawn to the colourful record covers by Congolese artists. My family and our culture has always inspired me, particularly the stories and beliefs that are passed down. My dad has always been a good storyteller – I guess I see myself as one, but I tell stories through images. There is a pressure to have a ‘style’ within illustration. However, by focusing on telling your own story – as we are all unique – a natural style can grow from that.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you? And which you would recommend to someone else?
In terms of my illustrative and commissioned work, I’ve found the Association of Illustrators (AOI) really useful. I had a membership a while ago and it gave me access to a lot of resources and information on contracts, laws and rights.
Women Of Waterloo Bridge, 2018; Tate Collectives x GLA, LDNWMN Project
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
A musician, then a firefighter and then an artist.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
Though art and design is far from the ‘academic’ career paths my parents would have hoped for, my parents themselves have influenced my interest in art. My dad would buy stacks of printer paper or fax rolls and let me have some to draw on – then I’d then use it to make weekly comics to keep my younger sister entertained.
Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
University is great for experimentation, access to out-of-reach facilities and meeting other studying artists. However, I had such a negative university experience that I look back and feel that it wasn’t worth it, and that it wasn’t the only way to get onto this career path.
“I had such a negative university experience – it wasn’t the only way to get onto this career path.”
After graduating, what were your initial jobs or steps?
That first year out of university was really difficult, as I was unemployed for over a year. In that time I volunteered at a charity shop and I had almost stopped creating artwork. Thankfully, I got a temporary internship at AOI which I really enjoyed – it restored my confidence and interest in illustration. After that, I worked in retail full-time which, despite being a struggle, helped me pay my bills and help my family. It also introduced me to other creatives who encouraged me to get a small studio. From there onwards I started to shift more time into my practice.
Having briefly studied fashion, would you say that this has influenced your work at all?
I was bad at fashion, but the technical skills – such as hand stitching and using a sewing machine – have definitely stuck with me. For example, I’ve been combining my illustrative paintings with fabrics and clothing as an alternative to canvas.
White Bind, 2018; photo by Office&Gallery LA
Paperworks at Blue Glass Fortunes exhibition, 2019; photo by Beers London
Would you say that gallery representation is crucial for your progression as an artist?
I think it could help having the support of a gallery, in terms of it giving you the space to showcase your work and the potential to sell work within its network. As an independent artist though, I’ve been able to progress and work with great people on amazing projects – I don’t think it’s as essential as it once might have been.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
There have been so many mistakes along the way. Two important things I’ve learnt is to always have a contractual agreement if working with others, and to trust your gut instinct.
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
There is no shame in doing whatever you have to do to support yourself and your practice, whether that’s working in a job you hate or accepting really commercial work. If it brings you stability then do both.
“There is no shame in doing whatever you have to do to support yourself and your practice.”
Paperworks at Blue Glass Fortunes exhibition, 2019; photo by Beers London
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
In my experience, I would not have had any of the work or opportunities I’ve had without Tumblr and Instagram. It’s allowed me to be connected to a global network of creatives outside of my bubble – and I like that new and wider audiences are able to see your work.
However, the pressure to post can be overwhelming. I felt like I always had to have something new and exciting to post; it took a while to get out of this state. But since meeting my partner, who rarely posts on social media, I’ve felt comfortable with only sharing work when I want to and switching off before I feel consumed. I’ve still been able to connect with artists, but I’ve also achieved this in-person at exhibitions and events.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Get organised, take hi-res images of your work and archive them digitally if you can’t always keep them physically. Support other independent artists offline by going to exhibitions, talks and buying their work. It’s a good way to keep updated with what’s going on around you, meet other artists, get advice and to see how it’s all possible.