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Creative Durham series: Swimming in imagination

The imaginary world of Daphne Yap is a head-spinning swirl of creatures, geniuses and goddesses.

Yap, an artist in the Golden Belt campus, has filled her studio with portraits of fantastical creatures of dynamic movement and intense meaning, peppered with moments of complete goofiness. One creation that has combined the two are her many, many drawings of jellyfish.

Why jellyfish? “Well, I got these Gelly Roll pens and what glows in the dark? Jellyfish!” the 34-year-old artist exclaimed.

Although Yap’s work often hints at a dark imagination, in person, she is cheerful, almost exuberant, and punctuates her speech with animated expressions that are much like the characters she used to draw as a concept artist for Hollywood.

Yap, born in the U.S. to Chinese and Malaysian parents, grew up in San Jose, Calif., and studied toy design before working in the world of science fiction and fantasy blockbuster movies as a concept artist. From 2006 to 2012, she drew characters, costumes and sets for movies such as “Avatar,” “Thor,” “Alice in Wonderland” and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot in 2009.

In Hollywood, work was abundant and Yap was putting in 60-hour weeks, the collective result of which she has published in a book. In 2012, she followed her boyfriend to Durham, which is his hometown. Here, she still freelances for movies, including “Oz the Great and Powerful” in 2013, but has begun exploring the fine art world while also selling wares on the online design marketplace Redbubble. Yap also recently starting a T-shirt business using her own designs.



Main photo: A jellyfish by Daphne Yap. Top photo: Yap stands in front of her 23-foot-long drawing that she worked on from 2007 to 2014, that summed up the chaos and energy of that time. Bottom photos, left to right: A madman or a genius? Either way, he is thinking good thoughts. The ‘Durham Goddess,’ in one facet of her being, as the Asian goddess Kuan Yin. The same goddess in another expression, as the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

Freed from the constraints of Hollywood’s imagination, Yap’s own imagination wanders and at times touches on deeper symbolism. She explains her creative process as one that draws out her characters by instinct, and often just following what feels right in the moment.

In her studio, there are also two portraits of the “Durham Goddess,” showing two faces of the same figure. One is a fiery mix of red, blue and black as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, symbolizing dance, fertility and the sky. The other, in blue, is the Asian goddess of mercy and peace, Kuan Yin. The latter is depicted looking down but with eyes painted on her eyelids, glaring at the viewer with intensity. She is calm, but she sees, Yap says.

There are also portraits of two men with exploding brains. Are they madmen, or geniuses? One, she says, is a meditating clown. His nose is in the shape of a hot dog, and that, Yap says, does not have a deeper meaning. The other man tries to wrap up his exploding thoughts in a little bow. That does have a deeper meaning: They are good thoughts, she says.

“They are kind of serious, but they are also playing. They enjoy life. It’s a brain party,” she says. “It’s about how everyone has a deeper side and they’re not always seen.”

And there is a giant, 23-foot drawing which is untitled, that took her seven years to complete. From 2007 to 2014, Yap worked on it intermittently and it has formed into an instinctive outpouring, the purpose and meaning of which she still does not know quite how to explain. The drawing starts with a “fast forward” button and stays in a low-key, subtle stream before winding up and exploding with movement and creatures, monsters. And then, it winds down to stillness and silence, and ends, with a mixture of both unexpectedness and satisfaction, in a “play” button.

It reminds one of a bar of music gone horribly awry, or exploding with music the likes of which no one has ever heard.

“It’s a moment that vibrates out,” Yap says. “It’s a spirit figure.”

Like her glowing jellyfish, Yap’s imagination seemingly swims in a kind of floating creative dimension, from which she plucks movement and creations. Her work is in a style that is reminiscent of Asian art and textiles, but when asked if that choice was intentional, or how much inspiration she draws from her heritage, she was uncertain.

“Are we born with these little nuggets? Through your parents, you do have these emotions and stories that are passed down. You follow these emotions for a reason.”

Daphne Yap’s work can be viewed at Creative Durham is a series profiling artists, artisans and intrepid hobbyists in Durham, the Triangle and beyond.


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