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  • Nikhita Harne

Artist Interview: Molly Magnell on designing for Museums and more...



As I approach adulthood and its daunting trials like self-control over a tub of ice cream or learning how to drive. I’ve resorted to finding inspiration in women like Molly Magnell, a cat-loving Chinese- American illustrator miles away from me, who considers herself to be “an overgrown child with a pencil”.


But aside from bingeing on cat shows and caring for her plants, the New Jersey-based illustrator specializes in creating imagery that blends nature and powerful women in perfect harmony with “lots of greenery”.


Magnell also has extensive experience as a designer in museums like the American Museum of Natural History. “I’ve had the privilege of working on some amazing exhibitions, including temporary shows that will live on as modified versions in other museums for years to come.” As a designer, she works on creating a bridge between the Editorial, 3D Design, and Media team, to develop the look and aesthetic of the show in order to accurately present information to guests. She considers the show – Addressing the Statue her greatest achievement at the museum, “I was the sole designer, and I worked with a great team of mostly women to set a new precedent for critiquing cultural spaces.”


Here’s how the rest of the interview went:


Was there a crucial moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?

Aside from a two-week period in second grade where I thought I should be a surgeon, I’ve always wanted to be a creator of some kind. I went to college on the fence deciding between biology and design, because I wasn’t sure yet if I could/ should pursue a career in art. But really, I learned that these boundaries were self-imposed. I had an internship at the New England Aquarium and got to meet Maris Wicks, part educator, part illustrator. She told me about trips where she got paid to draw creatures at coral reefs on expeditions, create murals of sea creatures, and ultimately combine both of her loves. I think this interaction paved the path for me to end up at AMNH.


Do you think habits/ or the monotony of routine hinders creativity?

It depends. Sometimes monotony allows my mind to wander to new places. But monotony can also suck out the joy of the best part of being a creator, which is making new things.


Can you describe your process of making your work?

It always starts with lots of research and a mood board. I can’t approach something I know very little about. If I’m responding to a text, I need to read it several times and highlight elements, and take notes. This helps me distill the essence of a piece, and then I can start drawing with words where I can take abstract ideas and make word maps that lead to tangible and visual imagery. Then there’s a ton of exploration and research to make the best piece possible. And if everything goes according to plan, I spend the least amount of time executing the physical piece.


If you could work within a past art movement, which would it be?

I love the philosophy behind modern art. I don’t always love the aesthetics, but I think it would be very fun to create work that’s so concept-heavy and broke a lot of “rules” about what art should be.

Guilty pleasure?

Ultra-specific TV and documentaries about strange phenomena (i.e. My Strange Addiction, the Bron documentary, YouTubers’ videos analyzing events like Cicada 301, that documentary about Canadians who compete in professional cat shows, etc.)


An artist from the past you would like to meet?

Jason Polan, who recently passed. He’s known for his quirky drawings of New Yorkers and heartfelt notes. He seemed like a genuine and cool guy with a lot of passion for people.


What is your favorite art gallery/museum in New York and why?

The Museum of the City of New York. It’s not high on people’s visit list, but it’s incredible. It’s in a beautiful, traditional building off of Central Park and blocks from the Guggenheim, but nothing about it is traditional. The shows are contemporary and fresh and aren’t afraid to show the true and ugly sides of New York. The shows are radical and aren’t afraid to address topics like resistance, homelessness, New York’s queer culture, etc.


Does the New York art scene influence or inspire your own art?

Growing up, I’ve always felt like New York is the place to be for the arts—it’s partly why I first moved here. I think some of the artists in the local scene have definitely rubbed off on me because I want to belong and find my people here. Plus, the annual shows at the Society of Illustrators are very influential to me because it shows what professionals deem to be the best of the best (although that’s not entirely true, that’s a longer conversation).




Has being a woman affected your career? If so, how?

100%. I’ve been on a team that was exclusively white males and then me. There were times I self-censored myself because I knew my comments wouldn’t resonate with them based on our differences in background. It’s a tough situation when you feel like you can’t be honest with your opinions because it could affect your working relationship with your peers. When I got to work with a fellow woman for the first time at the same workplace, there was such a difference where I felt uninhibited. The difference was night and day, which is why it’s so important to have diversity in the workplace so people can tackle problems from their unique stances.


If you were God, what animal would you design differently?

I would take away all animals with more than six legs. They don’t need that many. I don’t like how they move.


How has the pandemic affected the New York art scene?

One of my favorite things was meeting up with fellow creatives at sketch nights or other social events. It’s how I’ve expanded my community, but without those events, it’s so easy to feel isolated without a chance to freely bounce ideas off of others.



What advice would you give to the emerging youth entering the art world?

Academia is not a holistic nor accurate view of the current art world. There are so many jobs I never knew existed while in school, especially in fields like animation and tech. And there are so many niche and interdisciplinary ways to approach art. I encourage students to go to events like Litebox or Comic-Con or Small Press Expo to meet others and see what’s out there because you don’t know what you don’t know.


Also, at the end of the day, your portfolio should be representative of you. Tailor it to who you’re sending it to (i.e. don’t send an animation recruiter your beautiful book designs and a publisher your concept art sketches). People can tell when you’re passionate about something, so don’t weaken your portfolio by including pieces you don’t love (even if it got a good grade).



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