We’re going inside the studio with Brianne Farley … 

Traverse City-based picture book author and illustrator Brianne Farley is usually painting images of a young scientist who happens to be a rabbit or adventures in a secret tree fort. But for Higher Art Gallery’s show “Drawn To,” featuring women in contemporary illustration, Brianne’s work takes on a more personal tone.

She first started her series “Universe People” about a year ago as a reaction to President Trump’s announcements regarding transgender people in the military. “I’m not very good at making negative art,” Brianne says. “This seemed like a positive way to celebrate bodies and show support.”

The Universe People are a series of deep blue watercolor and gouache paintings of couples and groups of people holding hands. Each of the figures has gold painted features that make their gender and sexuality ambiguous. Golden stars within the blue bodies give the figures a celestial appearance.

“It’s not really meant to be any one skin color—it’s not supposed to be a person. It’s supposed to be people.” –Brianne Farley

Brianne moved back to her hometown of Traverse City in 2015, but before that, she had stints in Chicago and Savannah—where she earned an MFA in illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). After graduating from SCAD, Farley moved to New York City to be a design assistant for Random House Books for Young Readers. All the while, she continually worked to get her first book published. “It was so cool because I got to see both sides of the coin at the same time,” she says. “I was a double agent!”

She published her first book, Ike’s Incredible Ink, in 2013. Thanks to its success and a lot of hard work behind the scenes, Brianne now has her dream job: book author and illustrator. “There’s no greater gift than to have someone take your work seriously,” she says. “People will ask you questions like, ‘What does this bear actually think about this donut?’” 

With personal projects, however, Farley does sometimes look beyond the arena of children’s books.

Shanny Brooke, an artist and the owner/director of Higher Art Gallery, goes to the same art framer as Brianne. She first saw pieces from Universe People at the frame shop last year. “I love the simplicity of them,” says Brooke. “I love what they stand for.”

Brooke is a loyal supporter of illustrators. She first got the idea for a show featuring women illustrators about a year ago. “I think illustration is really under-appreciated and sometimes looked down on in the art world. Fine artists think it’s not art or something, and that’s really unfair.”

“Drawn To, Women of Contemporary Illustration” runs through June 7

There are 14 artists in the show from around the world. Each of their pieces is a finely wrought delicacy. Some juxtapose this delicacy with vibrant color or unusual mediums. Farley’s Universe People pop off the wall with their radiant blue bodies and stark white backgrounds.

“Right now, we’re putting so many labels and definitions on ourselves. It’s so nice to see something that’s universal,” Brooke says. “I’m excited to have Brianne as part of the show. I really think she’s going to go far.”

While it is a dream job, Farley is hard at work illustrating two new books for other authors and is looking to both write and illustrate her own book after these projects are completed. It’s been a couple of years since her last solo project, but she says, “I finally found another book idea that I’m really excited about.”

See pieces from Brianne Farley’s Universe People series on display at Higher Art Gallery through June 7. 

Click through the photo gallery below to see Brianne’s Universe People come to life. 

Get to know Brianne Farley … 

What should parents read their kids?

Death, Duck and the Tulip. It’s beautiful and amazing and I love it. It does everything right.

Who are some author/illustrators we should check out?

Dasha Tolstikova, Ruth Chan, Thyra Heder. (Friends from Farley’s New York days who will also be bridesmaids in her upcoming wedding.)

What do you listen to while you work?

It depends on what stage of the project I’m in. If it’s final art, then it’s all podcasts all the time. I become the most obnoxious person on the planet because I’ve been working for eight hours a day listening to informational podcasts. I emerge from my cave saying, “DID YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT WHALES?!”

If you were a prizefighter, what song would play as you walked into the ring?

“Psycho Killer” or “Girlfriend is Better” by Talking Heads

Photo(s) by Molly Korroch