Huilin Gui reconnects with her childhood in a series of delightfully nostalgic illustrations

The Wet Market © Huilin Gui

New York-based illustrator Huilin Gui captures everyday moments from her childhood spent growing up in China in a beautifully nostalgic series of images titled Home.

As an artist, Huilin Gui is interested in memories, nostalgia and everyday moments. Her latest series of images, Home, ties these themes together as she looks back on her childhood raised by her grandparents in China. Made with watercolours, coloured pencils and collages, these illustrations shy away from special occasions like birthdays and family events and instead focus on the unsung details of day-to-day life.

For Huilin, this creative decision was borne out of her fear of forgetting her memories. She was concerned that she would be unable to recall her childhood experiences one day, so she fought back by frantically recording fragments of recollections whenever they came to her.

“Another reason behind creating this series is that I grew up under the care of my grandparents,” she tells Creative Boom. “That period was filled with happiness. However, as time passed, many shared memories with them remained in my childhood. Through this creative process, I was allowed to weave new memories with them, as if the present me were reconnecting with them.”

Dining Room © Huilin Gui

Square Dancing © Huilin Gui

When capturing everyday moments like watching a chess match or going out to the wet market, Huilin says this is because they resonate with her more than big parties and special events. “These moments are closely tied to personal experiences,” she says. “Apart from those present and ‘in the moment’, no one else knows them. This uniqueness makes everyday moments feel like a little secret only shared between me and the individuals involved. They feel even more precious to me.”

Depicting everyday moments presents something of a challenge, though, as by their very nature, they are not usually documented. To help bring her memories to life, Huilin turned to any available photographs taken when she grew up. This led to her focusing on hutongs, the narrow streets traditionally found in northern Chinese cities.

“This is even though I wasn’t raised in a hutong environment,” she reveals. “During my research, I gathered numerous hutong images as references. A few resembled the environment I grew up in, and I found that using hutongs as the background helped the storytelling and added an interesting element to the visuals.”

Indeed, this research helped Huilin to communicate the general ambience of the time and place she grew up in. “I know these drawings don’t portray the complete essence of life back then,” she says. “But I find joy in immersing myself in these memories. They make me appreciate the present more and give me the courage to embrace the future. Nonetheless, I don’t have thoughts like, ‘it would be nice to go back to those times’ simply out of nostalgia.”

Grandma’s False Teeth © Huilin Gui

Notable everyday moments in the Home series include a drawing of a bathroom where a child contemplates a pair of false teeth. “Its inspiration comes from a whimsical childhood moment when I used to brush my teeth at my grandmother’s house,” Huilin explains.

“Like every child, brushing my teeth was no fun for me. So when I saw my grandma’s false teeth soaking in the cup, I couldn’t help but feel envious. Back then, I dreamt of having a pair of false teeth, just like my grandma. Now, looking back, I find it really amusing.”

Elsewhere, the Street Corner illustration taps into her old daily life and how her grandfather would pick her up from school. “I would ride my little red scooter ahead while he strolled along leisurely behind, carrying my school bag,” Huilin reveals.

“This scene also holds many hidden stories, such as the vendors along the street. During my childhood, you would frequently spot them, adding vitality to the city and providing convenience to the residents. However, after a series of reforms, their presence is no longer found in the city.

“The illustration also features a Kodak photo lab. With the widespread use of smartphones, the excitement of going to a photo lab and waiting for the photos to be developed has become a thing of the past.”

Playing Chess © Huilin Gui

Living Room © Huilin Gui

Out of all the images in the series, though, Huilin’s favourite is Living Room. This was the first piece she created for Home, and initially, she did not think it would become a longer series. “My sole intention was to bring the images in my mind to life,” she says. “I was uncertain if I could make this illustration work, so when I finally brought it to life on paper, the sense of fulfilment was immense. It motivated me to transform my childhood memories into a series.”

Living Room uses a weird perspective, stacked elements, and “somewhat naive” pencil strokes. Even the composition, which features a dark television at its centre, is off-kilter. These features all combine to make the illustration truly interesting, though.

“It captures a childhood scene of me watching TV with my grandfather in the living room. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of my grandfather in this house, so rendering this illustration is the sole testament of our shared memories.”

Street Corner © Huilin Gui

Besides the unusual compositions in these illustrations, Home also saw Huilin experiment with collage for the first time. “I would first fill in the background elements with watercolours and coloured pencils and then add the pre-cut collages into the composition one by one,” she explains.

“The process is fun, like playing with a dollhouse. I am like a child, carefully placing all of the miniatures I selected into the dollhouse, turning it from emptiness into a space filled with details and vitality. The use of collage also imparts a feeling of piecing together different memory fragments.”

As for where Huilin intends to take the series next, she teases that it ties into her ongoing interest in picture books. “While this is an illustration series, I believe it provides a solid foundation for my future picture book projects,” she concludes. “I do intend to draw inspiration from these illustrations and create a picture book based on them.”

Grandma’s House © Huilin Gui

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