Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee
Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee
Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee
We chat with the Chicago-born artist to discuss the origins of her practice, her love for animation and the suite of collaborations she’s got in the works.

Inspiration often strikes at the most impromptu moments. For Chicago-born artist, Mía Lee, it almost always occurs in the dead of night. “I’m very comfortable in my discomfort and nightmares,” she tells Hypeart. While most people either forget to transcribe or run away from understanding the strange subconscious nuances that arise in our sleep, Lee sees it as “the most vivid” opportunity to understand her life. In this way, dreams and nightmares have naturally become the foundation to her burgeoning art practice, which can be defined as large acrylic paintings of cartoon characters that loosely signify her family’s history, as well as the cultural communities she’s connected to — from television to fashion to sneaker culture.

As an associate creative director for Robot, The Springhill Company’s consultancy firm, Lee regularly works to imagine large-scale campaigns that have included clients such as Google and Fortnite. Between meetings, on a train or after waking up, however, Lee’s constantly jotting down notes and sketches or as she says, “it never existed.”

Growing up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim left an indelible mark on Lee’s aesthetic sensibilities. As did Ye’s (formerly Kanye West) third and fifth studio albums, Graduation (2007) and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), both of which featured collaborative cover art with meteoric figures, such as Takashi Murakami and George Condo. Observing Lee’s paintings, there’s a general balancing of cute and creepy in the character’s expressions and color palettes that have attracted interest from a number of galleries and celebrities, including Kavi Gupta and Chance the Rapper.

Following recent collaborations with Just Don and KITH, Hypeart caught up with Lee to discuss her affinity with cartoons, how she captures her dreams in vivid detail and what she’s got in store for 2024.

Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee

“Light and dark. Beautiful and strange.”

What were some of the bigger influences that shaped you growing up?

It’s always been my family. My mom and grandma. I love talking about them. I really wouldn’t be doing any of the things that I do without them. My mom has been an artist forever. She’s a makeup artist now and her mother is an immigrant from Honduras and my other grandma is a pianist, who also used to paint as well. It’s just been there and it’s what I know.

I’m an only child and just being able to be in their presence, have their creative energy, spirit — I guess it rubbed off on me.

Were you always making art as a child or did your path form into place only in hindsight?

Yeah it was the only thing that I was good at. [laughs]. I was a good student but growing up, I tried to follow the line of doing things of what was expected, and eventually found out I just couldn’t. I couldn’t force it.

I have a really supportive family and told them I wanted to explore different pathways in art — architecture, fashion design, this or that. So they would buy me books and I had no reason to think that I could do anything else.

Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee

How would you describe your aesthetic today and how did this expression form to where it is now?

Light and dark. Beautiful and strange. It’s uncomfortable, but you find some sort of comfort in it. It’s all the things that I love.

I love cartoons and grew up watching Cartoon Network and Adult Swim [shows] and was heavily influenced by the cuteness of Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, and the weirdness of Adult Swim — mixing those and finding the strangeness in between. That’s when you start getting into the Courage the Cowardly Dog and Ren and Stimpy. Is it for kids or is it not?

So when people see my art, they might think: ‘Is it cute because it’s colorful? But it’s kind of dark because the facial expressions are kind of eerie. I don’t know how to feel.’ That’s where I’ve landed. I’ve always doodled and drawn on top of things with my sharpie. I never had an interest in the traditions of realism or still life. When Takashi Murakami collaborated with Kanye West, it was the first time that I had ever seen a cartoonist style presented with a very established artist. It brought me back to my original self.

Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee

“I feel like the most daunting things or f*cked up things are the ones that stick with me the most.”

That duality you speak of, light and dark, comfort and discomfort: dreams and nightmares show to be a motif within your work. Can you expand further?

I’m very comfortable in my discomfort and nightmares. I find them to be the most vivid. I don’t recall the cutest dreams, other than they make me feel good. But the nightmares are the ones that stick with me. They make me feel the most and have the most impact on me. They’re the dreams that I can recall the most easily. I know a lot of people who can’t recall any of their dreams or nightmares. That’s so bizarre to me, because I can do a play-by-play of everything.

I lucid dream a lot and can kind of capture and keep use of it when it comes to color. It [dreams and nightmares] honestly really drives my work and is very much a tool for me.

How do you transcribe some of these dreams and nightmares? Are you constantly journaling?

Literally, everyday. I have to keep a notebook on me. I’m at the part with a notebook — everywhere with this thing and I have to get multiple sizes for my small and big purse. I have to have something there to jot it down. If I don’t write it down, it never existed. I have a super selective memory and I feel like the most daunting things or f*cked up things are the ones that stick with me the most. I use all of that as inspiration in my work.

Can you recall a dream or nightmare in detail that led to a recent painting or drawing?

One of the last was My Funny Valentine. It’s a mixture of real life and a nightmare. It was just a really bad Valentine’s Day. It was one of those episodes of Rick & Morty where things just start out at a dinner table — so normal, but everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Mostly, the nightmare comes from me getting my feelings hurt. So it dealt with heartbreak, but a really bad one. I also thought, ‘This is fire, though, let me paint it.’ Visually, I can see a woman sitting alone on a day that was completely not supposed to be that way.

Is your brand of storytelling always based on personal experiences or do you weave in fictional or shared narratives as well?

No, I usually paint what I know. I’m amazed that I do sometimes have trouble detaching the things that I dream about from reality. A small example could be: I’ll have a dream that someone told me something. Then, I’ll recall it and talk about it in person, but it never actually happened. The dreams I have are so vivid, that I don’t even feel like I have to pull in any other stories. My mind will just do it for me.

Aside from journaling, can you talk about your process of taking an early concept to its final execution?

I have two routes that I take. If there is a color palette that I have in mind, I see what I can build around that. However, a lot of my pieces are actually inspired by the titles of songs or an EP or episode. The last print that I did, “The Goof That Sat by the Door”, which is an episode of Atlanta — one of the funniest television episodes I’ve ever seen — I don’t know why it stuck with me. Just a really good title. I meant to research the backstory, but I told my grandma and she said, ’That was the title of a book.’ She’s 80 and it’s crazy that she knows that.

Titles of songs are a big inspiration. I write them all down and try to connect a story or feeling that I can recall. You know how you can associate a memory to a song? It’s along that same train of thought. I just start sketching, not necessarily what the song is exactly about, but conveying the feeling of it. The backgrounds are all pretty neutral. I build the body language and expression within my work through the color palettes.

“It’s a crazy alignment of the universe.”

You also work as an ACD at Robot at UNINTERRUPTED. Can you talk about your day-to-day, how you balance it with your art, and how they fuel each other?

They are hype people. They’re more excited about the things that I do than I am. I’ve been here since August and are a fairly small team, but we do a lot. Google and Fortnite are our biggest clients. I specifically work on the latter. We just finished the project with The Weeknd and spent some time in Mexico City. But my day-to-day is very random.

As you mentioned earlier, television is a big muse for your work. What are some shows you’re currently watching right now? Also, which songs have been on repeat?

I just finished watching Fargo, which is very interesting. I like eerie and creepy shows. I also just finished watching Beef. I don’t know what took me so long to watch that, but I loved how weird it was — such as the title cards and the artwork, just little things like that. I love cinematography. I’ve been watching a lot of movies actually, went on a big A24 binge.

Watched Mandy (2018) with Nicholas Cage. It was a horror-thriller, which was super psychedelic and cinematically beautiful. Watching stuff like that helps with my compositions — whether I want to do something cleaner, like a stroke style, or something that’s more lucid and loose, I’m very influenced by movies.

As far as music goes, I just paint to classical music. My mind races a lot, so if I start listening to music while I’m painting, for some reason, I’l just start doing something else or check my phone. I wouldn’t let the shuffle just do its thing. Once I’ve picked that phone up, I’ve lost. I’ve been defeated. [laughs]

Hypeart Visits: Mía Lee

You also recently worked on a collaboration with Just Don. Can you talk about some of the more fun projects you’ve been a part of?

All of my projects have been great. I had a project with Kith that just happened. For Black History Month, they have a program that they bring in artists to curate a small collection and put their pieces on a crewneck and tees. So they tapped my manager who brought me on, along with three different artists. We each contributed two pieces for KITH. It was great, we got to go to their HQ in Williamsburg, which is fire. I met Ronnie [Fieg], he’s amazing and so nice. It’s a crazy alignment of the universe.

They took one of my sketches on paper, which I’ve been keeping to myself. I’ve been holding on to all my paper sketches and randomly posted one up, which KITH screenshot and put it on something. Ronnie specifically picked it out and it was touching.

I never intentionally make something to sell. It’s just made because I bought a bulk of canvases and they need to be delivered at the same time. I have all my sketchbooks, however, since I was a kid. It’s the first project of 2024, so we coming out strong.

What are some other projects we can look forward to from Mía this year?

This year, I have more projects that I’m picking up from before. When I used to live in LA, I sold one of my cartoons to Adult Swim. So I was out there trying to work on it at the end of 2019. When 2020 happened, everything got weird. I just pivoted and now I’m pivoting back because it was fire. I really want to get into that space. I would be mad if I never touched animation again.

Studio photos by Sebastian Berlin. All artwork by Mía Lee for Hypeart.

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