Creator Spotlight: Members-Only Challenge Winner - Denise Elnajjar
"The core approach to my project is a combination of three things—architecture, nature, and culture... What I’m starting is my painted version of a travel magazine or visual atlas—a visual journey through the world." -Denise Elnajjar
Denise Elnajjar is a fashion & lifestyle illustrator, mixed media artist, and writer based out of New York City. Her creative skills and passions came together beautifully in her submission to the Vocal+ exclusive Members-Only challenge (supported by Memberful), where she ultimately won the largest payout in Vocal challenge history. Denise's first-place-winning piece, "Armchair Traveling to Every Country Through Art," earned her $22,500, and outlined her plan to "implement a project [she's] long thought about, dreamed about, and want[s] to make happen."
The project she's referencing involves creating illustrations for every U.S. state and country in the world. A quick google search and some simple addition tells us that's 245 illustrations—so it's fair to say she'll be busy for a while!
The goal of this project, after completing all 245 illustrations, is to "turn it into a collection or series of prints, and an art book to publish." She's aiming to launch this project by early September; and we just can't wait to see the first installment!
In the meantime, we sought to learn more about the artist who wants to illustrate the world. We're honored to feature Denise in this #VocalSpotlight. Enjoy!
On Herself, Her Upbringing, and Becoming an Artist:
The idea that your passions begin to manifest in early childhood might sound cliche, but it’s so true. When I was a young kid in grade school, there were a lot of ways I kept myself busy. The wanderlust began early. One of my favorite books was a vintage atlas I found from the 1940s, the pages were almost falling apart. My sister and I also collected stamps of the flags from different countries. When I was around 12 or 13 my uncle gifted me an atlas that was current, so I can analyze its pages and maps for hours. Really just a huge nerd at heart. I still am.
I began drawing at the age of 2, and mostly drew women figures in different outfits. When I was 7 I made up my own magazines out of notebook paper and made sections for different clothing from around the world. I studied literature and international affairs in school, and I have worked and interned in some interesting places and had some cool professional opportunities. But drawing was also my first love. After college, I found a book on fashion illustration and realized it was a thing that existed! An advanced form of my primitive drawings of outfits when I was a child. I knew I was going to do it one day; and ultimately, I did. What I’m now doing with this project marries these areas of interest.
Art is something I use to live vicariously through something, whether it’s something unattainable or even a certain emotion. Art isn’t just my go-to craft but has also served as an outlet for when times are hard and when I struggle. One of the biggest, most fulfilling joys of my work as an illustrator is people telling me that my work makes them happy.
On Writing "Armchair Traveling to Every Country Through Art":
I actually saw the challenge by periodically checking on the Challenges page on Vocal! I think so many of the challenges here—both fiction and non-fiction—are thought-provoking and fun, and I check them all the time. I saw the Members-Only challenge early on, and knew immediately I’d submit my idea to it! I wanted to take a little while to formulate my article and choose images to include in there as well. For my work and for this project in particular, the visual image is also the storyteller.
I submitted as soon as my article was ready and included all the points I wanted to make. All in all, it took a few days. I did tell some close friends about the idea beforehand. But I didn’t actually share the article until it was published! :)
On the Moment She Found Out That She Won:
I’m not going to lie, I cried (lol). I was a little in disbelief, so I took a few minutes to process the news. It felt incredibly humbling. The project is something I’d thought about for a while, and the whole idea was very special to me. So upon seeing this, I knew I had to begin work on it as soon as I could. But first, I had dinner!
On What She Plans to Do with Her $22,500 Prize:
Something I learned before setting out to work as an artist is that time is as financial a resource as any. Since this project is vast, covers great breadth, and will be spread out over time, the win is ultimately an investment into my work. Thank you, Vocal and the team of judges, for making that possible.
On The Countries and States She's Illustrating in The Armchair Traveling Collection:
Ahhhhh there’s so many!!!! Ok here we go. I’ve completed less than 20 countries and states. There are hundreds left (!!). I really, truly love my Beirut and Morocco pieces.
Some of the areas I’m so excited about are Utah, Iran, the Azores, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, Colombia, Senegal, Bali, Oman, Finland. So many. Each one is so great, there is beauty to be found everywhere. I’m excited as though I’m actually going there! Lol.
My plan is to have the collection ready for launch by end of summer or early September. I will make announcements on Instagram in the weeks to come!
On Avoiding Misconceptions in Her Art:
I’m an oddly curious person. I don’t think there’s a country I haven’t looked up at some point. It’s one of those things where, whether I’m preparing for a trip or not, I just go down a waterhole of information and research just to learn. I live vicariously through hours of research and reading about other places, even the most remote places in the world. If it were possible I’d go everywhere.
I’ve been to about 17 countries and territories, which is a lot and you could say less than 10% of what’s out there. Right now I don’t have any travel plans, but I’ll see what happens.
Regarding getting past the misconceptions… I think a lot of this, for me, is informed by my childhood trips to places like Syria. My grandmother lived in 3 countries at different stages in her life—Syria, Lebanon, and for a little while the United States. We’d visit her abroad for 2 months at a time during summer vacation from school. Most people in my orbit as a kid either hadn’t heard of Syria, or thought negatively of it. And this is pre-2011, before the civil war, when things were different there. I’d be there and there were pools, massive cities and traffic jams, great restaurants, all the crops and vegetables you could need, and historical sites that are among the oldest in the world, including castles from empires long gone. The expectations of a foreigner, and the reality on the ground weren’t usually overlapping and you could see why in a place like that. I still think about all the hillsides and her balcony overlooking the street when we'd visit her in Beirut, Lebanon. My perspective was rooted in the fact that no matter where you are, there are people that love and work and live in these places, and their lives aren’t always dominated by what the news is telling you or what the fantasy is—good or bad; but especially bad.
I surmise that there’s other places in the world like this, places that aren’t the number 1 tourist hotspot and probably shouldn’t be either. But they are beautiful, humbling, and full of history once you get up close. I’m a big fan of challenging my own assumptions, and so for anywhere I haven’t been, it takes research. What’s the atmosphere like, at least from my view? And if I have a friend from somewhere, I might ask.
I believe the heart and soul of every location can be found in the big things and the little things. For example, when I was in Seville, you could say I appreciated the architecture of a famous landmark, such as the bullring (Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza). But I also found the heart of Seville in a flower, like a pretty rose, by the Guadalquivir river that flows through the city. The little things like this really bring it home for me. We all search for something beautiful, even if it’s simple.
On Culture Appreciation vs. Culture Appropriation:
There's so much dividing people in the world right now, and messed up things going on—so I'd love to center this project on what brings us together. It's important to note: I wish to do this in a respectful and mindful way, and I do not want to exoticize or appropriate anyone's culture.
There is definitely a delicate balance between appreciation and appropriation. I’m somewhat of a third culture kid born and raised in the US. I can’t speak for everybody but I know that a part of the dynamic is holding on to certain specific things that make you “you.” In my summers abroad, I got to access different sides of myself. So I know there is a possessive component of culture, whatever that may be for someone. I don’t want to cross that line, and it is my hope to maintain that balance.
The fashion industry, for all its arts, is particularly egregious with this. I’ve seen cultural prints and things that run deep with meaning, reduced to a trend that’s consumed at surface level. I think for me, that’s the dead giveaway and it’s visceral, leaving a bad taste in my mouth. If something doesn’t feel right, or if it’s something I feel like I don’t understand enough and am incapable of understanding or appreciating, then I absolutely won’t paint it.
The core approach to my project is a combination of three things—architecture, nature, and culture. You have architectural traditions, design elements and building facades that have been informed by the area’s culture, geography, and history. These are part of the visual. You have nature and phenomena in our natural world, part of the bounty of the earth that we can all appreciate. These are also mostly visual. Some of which are just truly, almost objectively beautiful, if there is such a thing (since beauty is so subjective, right?). The natural wonders are also a reminder of our planet and its care, its delicate ecosystems, flora and fauna, the tundra, steppes, forests, tropics, coastlines, the cities and the plains from the land to the sea.
And of course, last but not least, you have culture. Culture includes food, which is a good way to look at this metaphor. We go to restaurants of different cultures to appreciate their cuisine—one of the most representational symbols, exports, and shared ambassadors of a culture. As long as it’s respected, people bond deeply over a meal and learn so much about one another. And at the same time, as Anthony Bourdain said, “there is nothing more political than food”. As diplomatic as cuisine is, diplomacy is a part of politics. People have deep claims to something such as their cuisine, which is part of their history and migration patterns, resources, agricultural traditions and sustenance. So there is a line between appreciating and respecting it, versus appropriation. I would draw a dish of biryani the same way I’d get it at a restaurant, and attribute it to its source culture, but I wouldn’t claim it to be something I’m an expert on.
The way I’m approaching this body of work is a little bit like a photographer, but in my own way. I like to think that what I’m starting is my painted version of a travel magazine or visual atlas—a visual journey through the world. A client I’ve worked with told me I capture a moment, and that’s my favorite thing. So that’s how I approach a lot of images, including painted illustrations of global locations. I’d be including real life places, like a cafe or a restaurant by the sea. I love coastlines in general, so you can expect that a lot from me—and as it turns out, so much of what we receive from the earth is found at the coastlines no matter where we are. Images can be a scene from my imagination, based on a real environment. They can be part of an observable reality experienced through our senses, but through the lens of an artist.
When I’ve traveled, I’ve paid attention to things like the tiles on a wall—the azulejos of Portugal. What I’m painting for each place, is something that could potentially be documented with a camera, as a visitor to a place observing the world around them. What do you see around you, what catches your eye? What are the colors and visual flavors? Same thing, but as a painting or drawing.
On Who/What Inspires Her to Create:
I find inspiration in a bush of flowers, or the colorful facade on a small building.
Additionally, if you see the work of Izak Zenou, you will see one of the most inspirational artists to me. When I first saw his work many years ago, I told myself I wanted to do what he did. I had the privilege of meeting him at an illustration event maybe 6 or 7 years ago. Such a great artist.
On Her Love for Writing:
I loved writing and reading so much that I majored in literature before grad school. Writing is an art form I turn to for fun. I actually thought it was so cool when I came across Vocal earlier this year, and figured, why not? I also wrote a LOT in 2020.
On Her Goals as a Writer and Artist:
When it’s completed I want to turn my armchair traveling art project into a collection of images for a book, to be honest. When it comes to writing, I have some ideas up my sleeve. More on that later!
On How Becoming a Vocal Creator Helped to Develop Her Online Presence:
One of my favorite things about Vocal is that it is what you make of it. You can use it as somewhat of a blog platform to write about various topics, or an area to share your fiction stories or poems, or as a way to try the challenges.
The team at Vocal also encourages you to share your content with those in your network, or to cross-post and promote yourself in multiple ways, which is a great thing. There is a lot of potential in a platform such as this. I would write more about my art here in the future, or embed things I’m working on.
On Her Favorite Story She's Published on Vocal:
Don’t think about it—first thing that comes to mind:
What is one thing you couldn’t live without?
A pen and paper!
Favorite Artist at the moment?
I’m really loving Matisse’s use of color. It pops.
Favorite Artists of all time?
Fragonard, and many more.
Favorite Musical Artist at the moment?
Favorite Song of all time?
Favorite Album of all time?
Favorite Movie of all time?
Cats or dogs?
I love both cats and dogs, but birds are my faves.
Favorite travel destination?
Day or Night?
Favorite local restaurant?
What’s your go-to late night snack?
What are you currently binge watching?
What are you currently reading?
The Penguin Book of Mermaids, edited by Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown. It’s a compilation of different folk stories or fairy tales from around the world of mermaids and water creatures.
If you could speak a new language, what would it be and why?
Armenian! I am part Armenian and would love to know more of the language. <3
Favorite story you read on Vocal by another creator?
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Denise! Inspiration is common, but dedication is rare. Setting off on this huge journey takes a lot of courage, and it's fantastic that the Members-Only challenge added more wind to your sails. We can't wait to sign up and see the places you travel via paintbrush on this spectacular "visual journey through the world." Congratulations again on winning the grand prize! This victory is well deserved.
If you love Denise's work as much as we do, be sure to keep up with her here on Vocal and on Instagram. Keep an eye out for the first installment of her Armchair Traveling Collection in early September. She'll be keeping us updated on IG.
Thanks again, Denise!