Izzi Vasquez leans against a work desk in a cluttered and colorful art studio, wearing bright red boots and a magenta-and-white respirator mask
Izzi Vasquez in their studio at Happy Gallery Credit: Kaina Castillo

Izzi Vasquez is a multimedia artist who has helped some of Chicago’s most celebrated musicians with the visuals for their visions. Vasquez has created animations and designed album packaging for the likes of Kaina, Sen Morimoto, Nnamdï, and Kara Jackson.

In their art, Vasquez gives new form to the lessons they learned from their grandmother, a nurse who made dolls and artwork to help soothe her patients. At the time Vasquez lived in Texas, near Austin or El Paso, and often visited their grandmother when the two of them weren’t under the same roof. “She would also make these mosaic tiles out of broken plates, tiles, and seashells,” Vasquez says. Their grandmother passed in 2020 and never had a proper funeral. As a 100th birthday celebration and memorial for the matriarch, Vasquez presented the exhibit “I’ll Plant You a Garden” at Happy Gallery, which opened earlier this month and closed November 29. 

As told to DMB (Debbie-Marie Brown)

I’ve never really had jobs that aren’t drawing-related or art-related in some context.

One of my first jobs was a sign painter with Whole Foods. Pre-Bezos, the company used to hire in-store artists. Every store had one or two, and you might paint, for example, a giant peach and do lettering over it. There was an older man I worked with who was a sign painter for his whole life—he really showed me the ropes. I did an apprenticeship after that with a sign painter in Seattle, doing menus and gold-leaf windows. 

But art is something I’ve always done.

I feel like I don’t even have a beginning, because I’ve been drawing since I was a tiny baby.  When I was a kid, I used to have my mom write out what I was saying, and then I’d illustrate it into books. I was always drawing bubble letters all over people with Sharpie in middle school. Around that time I’d also enter T-shirt design contests. I entered one for Jason Mraz around 2001, and I remember drawing all the T-shirts out. I was even chosen as one of the finalists, but I don’t remember what happened after that.

As a kid, my grandma showed me how to do mosaics. She lived in a really colorful, Easter-colored house, and we would go to garage sales, find secondhand stuff, and remake it. That’s a big reason why I, as much as I can, use secondhand materials in my work. 

It was when I went to college for design at the University of North Texas in Denton, which is a huge jazz school, that I started making promo posters for people. 

I had been involved in the DIY music scene since high school, traveling from Austin to Denton to see my friends play. In college, I started making stuff for people because I just like doing posters. I used to email bands and ask if they needed one. I also started playing drums for a lot of bands and did that through 2019, primarily. The college house we lived in hosted a lot of shows in Denton. ​​I was tasked with making all the promo stuff for bands I was in, plus friends’ bands, plus for general shows in the house-turned-DIY space, which I was helping facilitate.

I worked for the 35 Denton music festival in college, and Kyle LaValley, who moved to Chicago like myself, was the head honcho. Ten years later, she was working for Sleeping Village and helped me land a gig doing the branding for Thick Mall, a vintage clothing pop-up fair at Sleeping Village catering exclusively to people who wear larger sizes. 

Back then I also worked for my college’s dining halls. I planned and executed the design for a huge project. They paid me minimum wage, but me and one other person (who wasn’t a student) redesigned all of the interior dining halls with different themes. One was festival themed, another was western/southern-cooking themed, and we went big with it. There was one cafeteria where we designed the facades to look like the town square of the city we were in—it included some of its iconic buildings. There was also a vegan cafeteria, so I designed lamps and huge wall graphics that were kaleidoscope-style vegetables. It was pretty freaky and fun. I remember we got to work with the people who fabricate for Legoland. 

While in undergrad, I did an internship designing all of the promotional materials for the SIMS Foundation in Austin, which provided mental health resources for musicians. It was sophomore year of college that I started painting signs at Whole Foods. 

And then I moved out of state. I moved to Seattle with a band I was in, Baby Jessica, and did a sign-painting apprenticeship while there. I worked with Nordstrom too, designing their packaging for a year. I ended up working at this place that did museum graphics—like, interactive and experimental exhibits. We worked with the Seattle Symphony, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. I did a World War II exhibit for [the Flying Heritage museum near Seattle].

Before I moved from Seattle to Chicago, my band Baby Jessica would host out-of-town bands at our place. The first Chicago band that stayed at our house back in 2016 was [Nnamdï’s group] Monobody.

When I moved here in December 2019, I came knowing quite a few people through hosting shows and playing the same DIY-circuit tours, but those were the only people that I knew. I grew closer to a lot of people from here, who usually are touring all the time, during the pandemic when everyone was stuck here. I moved here thinking, “I’m gonna focus on just the art for a while,” but ended up in the same place, where I work with a lot of musicians. Most of the work that I’ve done has been with people that I’m friends with, or for friends of friends. 

I came to the city knowing a few bands already, like Finom, who I met in Seattle. I met Kaina and Sen Morimoto a couple times when I would come visit Chicago. But I didn’t know anyone super well. Well, I knew Nnamdï well. But I mostly moved here because I liked the vibe of the community and the music scene. 

I’m not a very good networky person. I just enjoy being around people who feel similarly driven by art and music, people willing to put their whole ass into it. The Sooper Records people were the first people that I really knew here, and I felt we had similar ideas and visions about art, music, and how to operate within those spaces in a way that feels like you get to keep your dignity. I loved that. From there, all of the collaboration felt natural. 

a collage of three images: hand-drawn animation projected on an onstage screen behind a live band, a concert poster, and a purple vinyl record with the back cover of its sleeve
Three examples of Izzi Vasquez’s work: animations projected onstage at a Kaina show, a poster for Macie Stewart, and a vinyl design for Kara Jackson Credit: Concert photo by Emily Nava; other images courtesy the artist

My work with artists here has been a lot of physical record designs. The first one I did was Sen Morimoto’s self-titled album in 2020. I also did his album Diagnosis. I did a couple of posters for [his band], and one was for a gig they played in Millennium Park.

When it comes to physical records, I design the actual album packaging, not just the front of it, including promotion materials. Sen’s had a whole foldout. I did Kaina’s too, and hers came with a sticker packet. For any song of Kaina’s that didn’t have a music video, I made a looping animation, and that played at her release show. They projected my animations for each song she played, which was so fun. I also did the layout for Dusty Patches’s Newtok, which is based around a series of paintings by Jennifer Cronin. It’s fun to have one or two things to work with, and figuring out how to expand upon that initial reference to have each album feel like its own branded system.

What’s most fun for me is to listen to albums before they come out, and to try matching the tone of the album to the visuals of it. Artists sometimes already have an idea for how it could look. But I always make people a mood board and expand upon what the references are. What kind of color schemes does the music convey? Is it warm? Is it frantic? Is it minimal? 

Also on Sooper Records, I did one for Lynyn, the electronic project of composer Conor Mackey of Monobody, based on images created by Owen Blodgett. I used generated images that almost look like glass sculptures, and it gave the layout a weird, digital, minimal feel on top of the sonic experience. 

I’ve done layouts for Nnamdï. He designed the cover for the Black Plight EP, and then I did all the artwork for the physical release. It’s a seven-inch record, and the labels on it are cute because they’re just the middle fingers from the front of the EP. They just go in a circle when you play it.

I designed the entire campaign for Kara Jackson’s album, Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? That was one of my favorite things I’ve worked on. I got to create a lyric zine for it, and she let me go crazy with it. It’s 90s medieval style mixed with a lot of warm nature—the back looks very cinematic. It’s been crazy seeing that album on Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” list. I’m so proud of her.

Most recently, I designed a poster for Jamila Woods. But it was for a secret event, so I didn’t get to post it.

One of the most fun places to see my work is onstage. Of course I get excited to help people get their album covers to the next level, especially since they’re gonna see it five million times. But I think seeing my work onstage has been even more exciting than that. Having my animations huge and projected onto the stage at the Metro for Kaina’s release show was so sick. I feel like it really took her performance into a much bigger visual realm, and I was so happy because I feel we work so well together. We have similar tastes too. 

I also do airbrushing, and I airbrushed a jumpsuit for Nnamdï that he wore for his release show. It had symbols from all of his past albums on the front of it.

I love getting commissioned for animation—honestly, it’s my favorite thing. I did one fully animated, hand-drawn music video for Macie Stewart. I recently did another one that was partially found footage and partially hand-drawn that came out over the summer, for Maeve & Quinn. They’re identical twins from Alaska who have beautiful folk songs. Two-dimensional hand-drawn animation is without a doubt my favorite work. 

YouTube video
Izzi Vasquez animated the video for Macie Stewart’s “Maya, Please.”

Ultimately, I try to work with everyone that I can. I do a lot of trades, or I try to work within people’s budgets. I think that’s another reason people come to me. I really want musicians and artists that I believe in to have good visuals. It’s so important now, where everything is video and Instagram. If you don’t have a solid visual journey, then it’s hard to promote stuff. 

I try to take other, more corporate jobs to help pay the bills so I have the leeway to work in people’s budgets. Same with the clothes I make. I try hard to keep everything within an accessible sizing. I always make sizes up to a 6X. I just feel so honored whenever any musician wants to work with me, because I feel like they’re putting their baby in my hands, and I can’t let them down.

What I need people to know is that mostly I’m sitting at my house drawing pictures of dumb bugs and shit. I’m at home alone, all day every day, tinkering around with different objects, making silly things. It’s honestly weird to talk about having done things for this long. Day-to-day, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything ever besides drawing silly pictures and making stuff out of beads and writing emails. That’s what people should know. In your dream job, no matter what it is, you’re gonna be writing emails.