By Caylie Warkentin
Mikayla Hong of Artbedo is a self-taught illustrator who began sharing her work on Instagram during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first piece that garnered recognition online was that of the Federal Store, a beloved neighbourhood café meets grocer in the heart of Mount Pleasant.
For many, her work offered a sense of escapism when our ability to venture and explore were limited. A graduate of UBC’s Master of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering program, Mikayla now balances a full-time job with a burgeoning career as an artist.
Her initial success with her storefront illustrations inspired her to draw more of her favourite small businesses around the city. With her audience on Instagram having grown to over five thousand followers, she now takes commissions from local businesses and organizations, including The University of British Columbia. Her art offers a balance in her life between the technical data of her work with the joys of creativity and connection, as a portion of her sales is given back to the community through fundraisers and direct donations.
Mikayla’s work is often exploratory; she paints scenes of storefronts and still lifes punctuated with complex detail, bold uses of colour, and a striking use of shadow. Her emphasis on the minutiae — from the texture on the label of a coffee cup to the variation in colour of a single brick — creates a sense of intimacy and enchantment between the viewer and her work.
From illustrations of beloved cafés to storefronts not immediately recognizable, one gets the sense that they can see bustling movement in glowing windows, smell roasting coffee beans. Mikayla imbues a sense of warmth and palpable emotion into her scenes and brings a nostalgia to Vancouver that feels both intimate and universal.
I spoke with Mikayla to find out what inspires her illustrations of iconic Vancouver scenes.
How did you come to find the style of art that you focus on now?
I get inspired by everyday life. I started with storefronts because that’s what was gaining popularity with my account. I remember looking at a coffee cup one day and thinking, this would make a really cute print. This year I started experimenting with still life drawings, which is something I’ve always enjoyed doing.
What does the process of creating an illustration look like for you? Do you draw from memory?
I wish my memory was that good [laughs]. Usually, I’ll either go to the location and take a photo, or I’ll look through their tagged photos on Instagram, or I’ll look on Google Maps. I’m able to piece together a nice reference image that I can use for illustrating and then I do all of my illustrations at home.
How do you decide what kind of storefronts to illustrate?
I go on research outings - if I want to create a new print, for example, I might go to Strathcona and walk around the area and read up on people’s favourite businesses. Or, I’ll take a photo of a building that inspires me. It’s a mix between the storefronts that I think would illustrate really nicely, as well as staying true to what people connect within that neighbourhood. I mostly draw what I feel connected to, and hopefully what other people feel connected to.
“On top of the aesthetics, it’s also the more personal connection that I feel inclined to draw.”
When you say you’re looking for stores that illustrate well, what are you looking for?
I love working with colour. I love the look of brick, I like a striped awning. Something that catches my eye. Storefronts already carry so much character - whether they’re around for years or they’re really new and you can see how things have changed. I love to try and capture all of the little details - that’s what really makes it special.
I also do a lot of commission work. I love hearing people’s stories and why they’re connected to these places. I draw a lot of first date locations or people’s first homes. I also did a series from Chinatown in the 1970s, inspired by the past — all of the buildings and businesses I drew are long gone, but people still remember them. They connect to them.
You’ve drawn many storefronts. Do you have a favourite?
I always find myself drawn to cafés or neighbourhood coffee shops. I love going to new coffee shops around the city and trying them out. There are so many in Vancouver. I love to take my coffee and go for a walk around and explore the neighbourhood. Sometimes I see things and I need to take a picture because maybe I’ll draw it someday. I love walking around the city, whether it’s for art or not. There’s a lot to appreciate.
How does light feature in your art?
I love how light can factor into a drawing. My favourite part, and what I find really bring my artwork to life, is adding in the shadows, adding in the light. I think it really makes a building or a still life come to life because it adds depth. Sometimes it can add character if it’s a really moody scene … because Vancouver is so grey, I sometimes love to show what it looks like when the sun doesn’t appear. Sometimes people will send me photos of what they’d like me to draw but they’re like, can you make it look like it’s summertime with less grey? [laughs].
What inspired your transition to commissioned pieces?
It happened naturally. I would get approached by people saying, oh, I like your style, do you do commission work? Since then it’s been so incredible. I get to work with so many people, every day, helping to create the vision they see in their head and then putting it on paper.
Did you feel challenged creatively when you began commissioning pieces
I’ve definitely improved [laughs]. I have been challenged with certain commissions. Sometimes I’ve drawn really big apartment buildings, or houses that have a lot of really intricate detail because they’re Victorian. Those pieces have a lot of detail and have definitely been good experience. Trying out still lifes - I get so inspired by looking through Instagram and looking at the work of other artists.
“It’s nice that I control what I create and what I put out. If I don’t feel like drawing a storefront, nobody is telling me that I have to draw the storefront. It’s nice to be creative and go outside what I’m usually comfortable with.”
You donate a portion of your proceeds from your sales. How do you choose which organizations to work with?
From the beginning, I always knew that I wanted a part of the profits of my work that I sell online to go to a charity. I do have a day job so I’m lucky that I have this privilege in which I’m able to give back. I chose the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre because they do such amazing work for women in the Downtown Eastside. It’s also a local charity, which is what I usually look for when I do fundraisers with my artwork.
I’ve also worked with the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and the B.C Women’s Health Foundation. It’s a great way to give back through my artwork.
Since you started sharing your artwork, have you felt a greater sense of connection with your community?
I definitely do feel more connected. It’s been so wonderful being able to work with local businesses that I grew up going to. With Honolulu Coffee Company, I used to study in their café all the time as an undergraduate student and then I got to work with them on a project.
It almost feels full circle.
Yeah. Just this past year I worked with UBC, which was a full-circle moment for me because I went to school there and now I’m able to work with them.
“With all the cons of social media, there’s a great pro where you can connect with lots and lots of people who you can’t really meet in any other way."
*Mikayla’s prints can be ordered on her website.