Fiona McDonnell is a Belfast-based freelance illustrator with a distinct and colourful style of work, often accompanied by commentary and self-reflection on social issues, music, film or whatever else she may be interested in at the time. We caught up with her to find out more about her collaborations, her most beloved projects as well as how to overcome the often-frustrating creative block
What made you decide to become an illustrator?
I was pretty obsessed with animation, comics, graphic novels and anime etc. growing up and I've always loved drawing and image-making. So naturally I wanted to study art at university, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do specifically with that interest. While studying Foundation Art and Design at University of Ulster, we had an Illustration module, it made total sense to me, it was the exact type of work I wanted to make. After that, I moved to England to study Illustration at Norwich University of the Arts. The course and people I met there really brought me out of my creative shell and motivated me to take my work seriously and pursue Illustration as a career.
Tell us about some of the collaborations you have worked on locally.
I've been incredibly lucky with the groups I've got to work with since graduating and moving back to Belfast, mostly due to joining UsFolk (Belfast's first Illustration and Design agency.) The Phlox show came about from meeting Ben Crothers, The Naughton Gallery at Queens' curator, during an UsFolk exhibition. Ben had been wanting to put on an Illustration exhibition for a while. Phlox ended up being a showcase of international female illustrators as a response to reports of sexism and gender inequality in the industry. I thought this was amazing and I was really humbled and excited to be asked to exhibit alongside the other illustrators whose work I'd already admired for a long time (Penelope Gazin, Laura Callaghan, Tuesday Bassen). I could honestly write an essay about how much I loved being a part of Phlox but overall I think it's great to see such a high standard of exhibitions and events like this happening in Belfast right now.
There are loads of other local collaborations I'd like to talk about (ie. Womens Work Festival, Ponyhawke, The Tangerine, WANDA film festival to name a few) so i'm just really thankful to be able to work in Belfast at the moment. When I compare the Belfast from before I moved to England for University, to how it is now, there's just a lot more opportunity to be a part of something local and creative, which is priceless really.
How do you overcome times when you don't feel creative or have a creative block?
It's really tough, because it's a bit of a mental battle. It's very easy to slip down that self-deprecating spiral when things aren't going exactly as you expected - it happens to me a lot - but my advice would be to just keep going. Even if you don't like the finished product as much as you'd hoped, you'll have still learned something and improved from the process of making it. Or better yet, you'll figure it out and have a piece of work that you're particularly proud of. When all else fails i'm a big fan of going for walks in Ormeau Park with a coffee, so I can hopefully hang out with some dogs.
What is your favourite project you have worked on and why?
It's really hard to choose just one, it's always when I get to do an illustration about something I was already interested in or had a personal attachment to, some of which would be:
"Ireland Unfree" editorial illustrations - one of the best jobs I've got to work on was for Dazed and Confused, they were running a series of articles called "Ireland Unfree" that highlighted and supported the repeal the 8th movement in the run up to the referendum in 2018 and created several illustrations to go alongside them. It's an issue thats very close to my heart so i'm grateful my work was able to play a part in creating awareness for the movement.
Designer in Residence at the Analog Research Lab Dublin - One of the most rewarding experiences I've had as an illustrator was a 6 week residency at the Facebook Analog Lab in Dublin during the summer of 2018. I had 24 hr access to a dream studio, complete with a risograph printer which I got to learn how to operate myself, that was just an absolute dream come true! It was also a big challenge, I created more personal work in those 6 weeks than I had in the last few years, which was tough but really rewarding.
'The Freelancer Series' - was inspired by my fellow freelancers and has lots of little nods to different groups and projects hidden in the illustration. I had an exhibition of the full series in Framewerk Gallery which was also my first solo show. So I was pretty proud of how quickly I got the whole thing together!
The EP cover artwork for Belfast based band Robocobra Quartet - this was one of the first commissions I ever got and it's still one of my favourites.