Meet Sarula Bao.
Sarula Bao is a Chinese-American illustrator and graphic novelist—and luckily for us, she's the artist who brought our Lunar New Year platters into living color. We caught up with Sarula to talk art, the evolution of tradition, & the inspiration behind our perfect platter pair.
I’m Sarula, and I’m an illustrator. I graduated from the RISD illustration department with a BFA in 2016, and since then have been based in Brooklyn. I do freelance illustration, for brands and some editorial work. I also currently manage the production team for a book-making publisher and I'm a visual consultant and project manager for a graphic novel. I published a graphic novel my first year after graduating; it’s called Lissa: A Story About Medical Promise, Friendship and Revolution.
My work has been taking on a direction specifically centered on a second generation Chinese-American experience and told through that lens, with an extreme appreciation for narrative. There's a big distinction between being a Chinese-American versus being a native Chinese person. It's an experience and cultural background that I will never fully understand or access because of my upbringing in the States.
So the way I see it, a lot of the original Chinese source material both belongs to me, and also does not belong to me; it is my culture, and it also isn't. So how do I make work about it?
When drawing inspiration for my art, it’s been a journey of trying to figure out: okay, how much can I pull? How much is too much, how much can I as a creative change the source material, how much can you subvert things? Because when you create something new, something has to be destroyed from the original. So how can I destroy what is original while maintaining its spirit, while making sure that it still has integrity?
Three's a Cloud 好云 Platter by Sarula for Our Place
I want to make sure that I am honoring that voice, while in my art, making my own loudest. I want to create something new that is very Chinese-American.
I don't want to cheapen my source material because I respect it. I respect my people, I respect my family, and I respect myself. It might have Chinese aesthetics or Chinese stories, all the stuff that I love. But also with American values such as self determination and independence, which is also who I am as a person. You know, an American perspective that comes from my experiences, my education, and influences from my peers and community.
For the platter designs, I drew from a bunch of different sources. Thankfully, I have a book on Chinese porcelain, so I looked through that and pulled from porcelains that I personally liked to mix it up with my style. With the red envelopes, I specifically based it off of Nian Hua, which are these Chinese posters that are always around during Lunar New Year for decoration. For the packaging design I was inspired by Chuang Hua, which are paper cuts that are pasted on windows during the Lunar New Year.
Nian Hua Babies, gouache painting for the Red Envelopes Show (2019)
Lunar New Year is my favorite holiday.
It's so important to me because it is such an immense time of family and coming together, cherishing your community, cherishing each other. Now that I'm older, a lot of family members have passed, the older adults are too tired to fly back to mainland China, and kids have grown up and moved away. The meaning of Lunar New Year started to change where it wasn't just something that I do with my blood family. My found family is now something that I deeply treasure.
Lunar New Year
I love to share my food and my culture with my friends and people that I love because I want them to understand it. I want them to love it like I do. So I started throwing this massive Lunar New Year party with one of my friends, and we do it every year.
Having her and my other Chinese and Asian friends with me and being able to share this holiday with this new tradition is something uniquely special. Because while family can be such a wonderful, beautiful thing, it can also be a place that causes a lot of pain. Not everyone wants to go home but still wants to be able to engage in something that's so important to them.
Custom coins and red envelopes by Sarula for Our Place
We have the power to reject what hurts us, or what we simply just don't believe in, but that doesn't mean that we have to leave behind the good that we can take from our family's cultures as well. It is how we create our own traditions.
I'm making my own tradition now and I'm not doing it the way that my parents would have done it. I've taken the most important things to me, rejected other aspects I don't want to keep, and transformed other aspects into something that works for who I am today. I think that's a good way of thinking about the second-generation experience. You are taking what you want, and also taking what you want from your American upbringing and merging it together.
For more from Sarula, visit her website sarula-bao.com.