Interview: Siobhan Gunning

Siobhan Gunning spiegelt in wunderbar farbenfrohen Collagen das Lebensgefühl, die Natur und Landschaft ihrer afrikanischen Heimat wider. In diesem wirklich ausführlichen Interview erzählt sie von ihrem Background, ihren Einflüssen und ihrer Arbeitsweise und gibt nebenbei noch zahlreiche Props an geistesverwandte Künstler ab.

The Past

I have always had a passion for and deep appreciation of art.

Hi Siobhan. To start things off, what’s your background? When did you start doing illustrations/artwork?

Siobhan Gunning: My background is in drama, funnily enough. I did an Honours in Speech and Drama, wanted to pursue it as a career but, at the time, the opportunities were limited and I got into advertising by default. My longtime profession has been as a writer – a copywriter and conceptualiser in the ad game, and a contributor to the occasional book and editorials, a writer of poetry (probably bad) and short stories, and a lover of writing truisms.

That said, I have always had a passion for and deep appreciation of art. My mother was an amazing artist ( She was also an aerial photographer for a while and later both of my parents were keen amateur photographers of the magnificent landscapes, people and wild animals of East Africa, the place of my upbringing.

As a kid, I always drew and occasionally messed around with paint. Then I stopped for years. Decades later, I developed a love for taking photographs using simple point-and-shoot cameras. It was more about composition than technique. In my field of work, I’ve been surrounded by designers and artists of some sort, so I guess that rubbed off. Besides, although I’m a wordsmith, I have always thought visually.

Taking hundreds of digital photographs progressed to messing around on the computer and teaching myself the basics of Photoshop. I’m completely self taught so I honestly don’t know what rules I am breaking, if any. I just do what feels right, it’s as simple as that.

Everything just came together a few years ago. I was bored, I had some spare time for some reason and began producing artwork after artwork. I e-mailed some of the images to Andrew Coningsby of London-based illustration agency Debut Art, and he said some very nice things about them and invited me to join Debut Art. It was and remains a great privilege.


The Art

Africa inspires most of what I do to some or other extent – its vastness, its wildness, it contrasts and extremes, its incredible beauty, its danger, its soul, the strength and joy of its people, the humbling nature of their poverty, the smells, sounds and vibrant colours of the place…

Diskursdisko: How do you mainly produce your art? Which software/operating system do you use?

Siobhan Gunning: If I can use my own photography as a starting point then for me that is first prize because the artwork is then already invested in personal meaning. Words inform much of what I do so often I include a truism I have written or fragments from a poem I have penned at some point. I love artwork that is a bit unfinished because I think then it allows the viewer to complete it in an intimate, interactive way. I endeavour to make my work as tactile and non-digital in appearance as possible. Sometimes I leave the photograph intact, often I mess with it. I will handwrite some sections, badly draw others, and add scanned or photographed elements of found ephemera that has some relevance. I also like to grunge things up, scribble, create a certain rawness. Every piece is an experiment. I have an idea of what I want to achieve but invariably I surprise myself with what comes out. Which keeps it interesting for me.

I work on Apple Macs, I’m a huge fan of Apple, and I use Photoshop and occasionally Illustrator. I find Photoshop endlessly fascinating – it is such a deep program! And I still have a long way to go with Illustrator. I appreciate everything that goes into vector art but I personally don’t want to repeat what is often a ‘vector look’. I recently bought an earlier copy of Poser at a special rate and am keen to dabble in that, more for fun than anything. The challenge is going to be to bring it into my artwork in a way that is in keeping with my style and that doesn’t look like a typical Poser mannequin figure. I don’t want the software to dictate what I do.

picture-5Diskursdisko: What inspires you?

Siobhan Gunning: Africa inspires me. And many of the places to which I have travelled. Africa inspires most of what I do to some or other extent – its vastness, its wildness, it contrasts and extremes, its incredible beauty, its danger, its soul, the strength and joy of its people, the humbling nature of their poverty, the smells, sounds and vibrant colours of the place … I could go on and on. It is the continent of my birth and where I have always lived and, despite its many challenges and increasing dangers, I have always felt blessed to be a part of it. That said, I am also greatly inspired by music from all over the world, artists such as Kadinsky, Klee, Rothko, Warhol, Basquiat to name a few, so many photographers, a bunch of different contemporary designers whose work I find on the Net and from whom I secretly learn every day, comics, graphic novels, pulp fiction covers, kids’ drawings, street design (skate and surf and graffiti), so-called primitive art, nature in every way, and everyday patterns and textures. Words are especially inspirational to me – everyday conversation and the wisdom that sometimes resides in that, literature, and poetry. I write and often fragments on my poems and the occasional truism or philosophy will end up in a piece of art.

Diskursdisko: Much of your work is in a collage style, combining reworked photographs with illustrations. How did you develop this style?

Siobhan Gunning: To be honest, I’m not quite sure. It just sort of happened. I had sketched in the past, I was already a writer, I developed an interest in photography, I was surrounded by design – maybe it was just a way of incorporating the whole lot. I suspect it was because collage is so layered and textured. There seems to be more humanity in it, more of a story line or a sense of someone having been there. I don’t know. Maybe I just saw someone else’s collage work, liked it and decided to put my own spin on it. Maybe it’s a combination of all of this. I’m really not sure. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, just something that felt right. Who knows, maybe one day I might move right away from it, but right now it feels good.

That said, my technique is more collage based, it is very layered, yet I think it is quite different from a lot of collages out there (and some very beautiful ones) that seem quite retro, using cutouts from Fifties magazines, and an understated colour palette with lots of signs of ageing. My stuff tends on the whole to be more contemporary and much brighter (no doubt the influence of the magnificent African sunsets – deep soulful oranges and pinks).


Diskursdisko: You’ve done some good work in cooperation with Dell and (PRODUCT) RED. How did this come about? Can you tell us a bit more about (PRODUCT) RED?

Siobhan Gunning: The Dell/(PRODUCT) RED work came my way thanks to the persistence of New York art buyer Sara Galkin and Andrew Coningsby of Debut Art. Sara was an independent buyer acting on behalf of Dell’s agency, Mother New York. I have a lot to thank her for. For this particular leg of the Dell Art project, I was one of three artists chosen from around the world. The other two were Joseph Amedokpo from Lagosis , Nigeria and Bruce Mau from Canada. Fortunately, I didn’t discover who the other two artists were until after I had done my work. Otherwise I would have been totally intimidated! I love Joseph’s work for Dell probably most of all, and Bruce Mau is an absolute design icon! Some years ago he put together a book featuring that architect extraordinaire, Rem Koolhaas, called S, M, L, XL. I ordered it from Amazon about a decade back and it one of my favourite books, a frequent inspiration.

Briefly, the work for Dell and (PRODUCT) RED was to come up with some laptop designs/illustrations that could be customized by their clients as the new creative head at Dell is big on personalization. Each design is in seven layers, allowing the customer to pick and choose different elements of the design before the design is permanently heat infused into the laptop cover. For every laptop purchased, $20 goes through (PRODUCT) RED to the Global Fund to provide anti-retroviral medication to AIDS sufferers in Africa.

I find this initiative by both Dell and Red very inspiring in itself. The mix of technology with soulfulness. The playful with the serious. The role of both companies in helping the people of my continent is very touching indeed and I sincerely thank all concerned for that!


You ask about (PRODUCT) RED. It was the brainwave of Bono (of U2 fame) and Bobbie Shriver a few years ago. It’s a brand designed to engage business and consumer power to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. (RED) works with the world’s best brands to make unique (PRODUCT) RED-branded products and direct a large percentage of their gross profits to the Global Fund to invest in African AIDS programmes with a focus on the health of women and children. It is not a charity, it is an economic initiative that aims to deliver a sustainable flow of private sector money to the Global Fund. I think it is amazing. I had bought a few (RED)-branded products during trips to New York and Fort Lauderdale (many of which are made in Africa but not available in Africa, which is a bit bizarre!) so I was already a big fan of (RED) long before I was approached by Dell. It was wonderful to get the Dell job but, for me, the huge bonus was the fact that this wasn’t just Dell, it was (DELL) RED.

If any of your readers want to find out more about (RED), I suggest they check out

picture-3Diskursdisko: When working for clients, how do you keep up the balance between clients’ wishes and concepts and your own need to produce art? Do you feel there actually is any difference between “commercial” artwork and other art?

Siobhan Gunning: I think that’s a delicate balance and it all depends on who the client is and the nature of the job. With Dell, for instance, I was given complete carte blanche. They were really amazing and extremely respectful at all times. I think if you are a designer, you probably have to be a lot more flexible, but if you are an illustrator then a client is approaching you for your individual style and wants you to bring that style in a unique way to the brand they are representing. From then on, I guess it’s about striking the right chord between the art director’s vision and the illustrator’s interpretation. And somewhere in between, things can get quite subjective. There are bound to be certain compromises in the arena of commercial art and it’s not something one should get too precious about (although the creative ego and question for perfectionism is bound to get rattled at some point). The ultimate freedom is in producing your own art. Nobody can mess with that. It’s yours. And if it’s up for sale and somebody loves it and wants to pay the asking price, great. And if they don’t like any part of it, fine, they don’t have to buy it. It’s as simple as that. In an ideal world, that’s probably where we all want to be – just creating our own stuff for the pure joy of creating. And if anyone buys it, then that’s a big bonus!

I read something the other day which I thought was quite profound. I’m embarrassed to say, I can’t remember which illustrator was being interviewed (I just scanned the page quickly as I was in a hurry), but this wise man said you should always try and include something personal in your commissioned illustration and, in that way, the work becomes a lot more meaningful. I thought that was great advice.

The Web

Often the work I see is not in a style I am likely to adopt or even adapt but it still inspires me, opens up the possibilities of my own work.

picture-12Diskursdisko: You’ve obviously got the website at Any other presence on the web you’d like to publicize? Social networking?

Siobhan Gunning: gunningzero is my portfolio site and the one I will be punting most in order to get work. It contains examples of both my artworks and my writings, so it is probably a bit different from many other portfolio sites on that basis.

I also have some t-shirt sites that are purely fun projects and which desperately need some attention and updating in terms of product. I will probably add a few more t-shirt sites  within the next month or two as I’m keen to try out different apparel, design for skateboards and shoes, etc. Currently, I have:

Swelter Merchandise, which features funky urban ethnic t-shirts and will soon have some African, Asian and Indian ranges added to it as well as a lot of original slogan tees. The current best seller is still a shirt I designed that says “I am always right!” And there are also some African t-shirts that have sold really well in the States.

Big Groovy World urges people to “celebrate what’s cool, change what isn’t” by wearing the appropriate t-shirt. Again, I need to expand this range but it deals with politics, crime, social issues, green issues, you name it. It’s there to stir but mostly it’s there to promote the positive and to celebrate living in a big groovy world.

There are blogs to go with the sites which your readers will find links to on the respective sites or if they Google the names of the sites.


Diskursdisko: As you use the Internet to showcase your art, are there any other websites you feel have influenced you, opened your mind or shown you new ways of creating art?

Siobhan Gunning: Lots and lots. Far too many to mention here. Besides, I keep coming across new ones every day. Often the work I see is not in a style I am likely to adopt or even adapt but it still inspires me, opens up the possibilities of my own work. Here are a few diverse ones, but know that I am missing out a whole lot. One or two of these designers I have contacted or vice versa, most are complete strangers but I am grateful to them all.

Thomas Schostok does great, cheeky, kinda messy design work that has a wonderful energy and irreverence to it. In some ways, he’s probably influenced me the most.

Alex Williamson is also represented by Debut Art. He has a screenprinting background and it shows in his work. I am forever trying to achieve the same effects, but digitally. What I love about his work is its simplicity and the fact that it nearly always implies a story without giving away too much. Again, the viewer has to complete the picture. I think that’s brilliant.

Gary Taxali: There is absolute charm about Gary’s work. It has a kind of quirky Fifties simplicity and he uses mixed media beautifully. I would love to own some of his artworks!

Nate Williams’ work is fresh and joyous. He will apparently receive his brief and then get on a bus with his sketchbook and sketch away, wherever the bus takes him. Nate has also started up Illustration Mundo, a fantastic portal for illustrators to show off their work.

fallenbusinessmaEduardo Recife produces beautiful vintage collages and also very generously gives away Photoshop brushes that he has created and some of his typefaces. I’ve been on his site often over the years and never tire of it.

Chuck Anderson is exceedingly young and exceptionally talented. He’s worked on all the brands I still dream of working on. He has also generously shared some of his techniques through various magazine tutorials. In fact,  generosity is a word I would attach to many artists and designers you find on the Net. It’s a great quality!

Charles S. Anderson is brilliant. He’s created an archive of Fifties iconography which he uses, often in a very contemporary way. We had a few faxes going between us some years ago when the company I was working for then was considering working with him but unfortunately it never happened, probably largely due to our exchange rate which is pretty steep.

Neasden Control Centre – I love these guys. I find their work very bold and refreshing, quite iconoclastic. I think, to some measure, it is definitely influencing me right now.

Richard Hart: He’s a friend of mine, immensely talented and quite humble at the same time. A great guy. He and his sister run an agency called Disturbance and they do some beautiful work there. They even ran a restaurant/band venue/shop/gallery for a couple of very successful years and everything about the place was a work of art. The man’s a genius!

There are a whole lot more besides, but hopefully that’s enough to get everyone going.

picture-13Diskursdisko: Of all the work you’ve created, or at least the ones showcased on your website, can you name a couple that you have a special love for or connection to?

Siobhan Gunning: Church Girls is one. I was invited to a Zulu Catholic wedding. A most joyous occasion. If only all weddings were like that. The congregation danced down the aisles. It was wonderful. The whole service was in Zulu. I’m ashamed to say, after years in this country, I still haven’t learnt Zulu (it’s on my wish list every year but somehow I never get around to it). So I never heard (or rather understood) the minister say when one could or couldn’t take photographs. I just snapped away throughout the whole ceremony. As a result, I caught some really great moments. I have incorporated three of the images in this artwork and I think it has to some extent captured the spiritual innocence of these youngsters.

Buddha Boogie is another one. It’s sheer exuberance. An old record, a Buddha statue, my lips, some hypnotic circles, a spinning top, a shot of ice soda bubbles and lemon from a glass of gin and tonic. It’s just fun and celebration and I still get a kick out of it years later.

Petals Fall. Part of an abstract nature series, with a photograph of a yellow rose, some poetry I wrote, and various textures from paper, stickers and I’m not sure what else. Incidentally, the Dell team saw this one and wanted it as a laptop cover. I was very excited until I discovered that my original artwork was forever lost in an external hard drive that died on me completely late last year. So I basically had recreate the whole thing from scratch.

3 More Kills To Go. A fun pulp lo-fi sci-fi image I put together recently. It involves a manipulated toy dinosaur, some digital words I photographed when a Playstation game was running, a photo of the son of friends of mine, and several textures from various sources. I’d really like to explore this subject matter further.

The Future

I have participated in group exhibitions but have not yet had a solo exhibition so that’s on the cards some day although more likely next year rather than this one.

littleboyinfieldDiskursdisko: Do you have any specific plans for the future direction of your artwork?

Siobhan Gunning: On a purely commercial level, I have made a list of a few brands, newspapers and publications I would be honoured to do some illustrations for. I have begun the process of contacting the relevant creative directors, art buyers, editors, etc simply to introduce myself and my work. Then it’s in the lap of the gods. And my agent.

On the private side, I’m keen to market my personal artwork through the Net and will set up one or more shops to achieve this. I have participated in group exhibitions but have not yet had a solo exhibition so that’s on the cards some day although more likely next year rather than this one.

Diskursdisko: Siobhan, many thanks for the interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Siobhan Gunning: Yes, I’d just like to thank your for getting in touch with me asking me all these great questions. Thank you. And I’d like to thank all the artists/illustrators/designers/thinkers/writers out there who have in some way inspired and influenced me, or who are about to. A big thanks there, too.

Vincent Wilkie hat diesen tollen Beitrag verfasst. In seiner Freizeit ist er Musiker, Webdesigner und DJ.

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