Artist iAMi: Danni Gilbert on following your art’s desire

Danni (second from left) with Sail Creative

What did you dream of being when you were a little girl? I, obviously, was going to be a princess, then a ballerina then an actress or perhaps a journalist. 

Like many children from working-class backgrounds, those hopes came crashing down in my teens. My career adviser looked at me and promptly sent me off to the local car showroom for work experience in an office. Then life took over, with all its ups and downs. (As I wrote in How to become a journalist, it was a fluke that I ended up with my dream role.)

Danni Gilbert, aka 44-year-old illustrator iAMi, hit a similar barrier in her dream to have a career in art. 

“Coming from a working class background, I think I believed it wasn’t possible for me to achieve better things or have a creative career,” she says.

Instead, she “dabbled” in a variety of jobs, her life largely laid out for her by having her son at the age of 21. Like many of us, too, she was hit with imposter syndrome – “I’m getting better,” she says – and so merely looked at art and design colleges with awe.

But her desire didn’t go away and, in her late 30s, she decided it was time to follow her dream.

Fast-forward a few years and Devon-born Danni is now building a reputation for her bold illustrations. From her base in Newcastle, where she’s lived for many years, she is using her art to create social change and tell stories for those without a voice, with themes encompassing female empowerment, identity, love and sexuality.

Here, Danni tells us more about taking the leap from part-time jobs to becoming an artist, the difficulties she faced and why the art world needs more midlife and beyond people…  

How did you start as an artist?

I have always loved art, right from the get go. I struggled academically at school and found it hard to focus on other subjects but art was different; it was the only time I could switch off from my troubles and express myself away from the usual peer pressure we all experience. 

But I was never very confident in my own abilities so despite walking past the art and design college and peering in, I never believed that world was for me. 

Coming from a working class background, I think I believed it wasn’t possible for me to achieve better things or have a creative career. After dabbling with mental-health nursing, having my son at the age of 21 and then moving to Newcastle from my home city of Plymouth back in 2001, I spent years in part-time jobs. 

But the burning desire to do something creative never really went away and so I decided to attempt to finally get on the path, somehow. 

With no portfolio of work to show or any art qualifications, I decided to do a portfolio-building course and life-drawing classes. This led to a foundation diploma in Art and Design at Newcastle College. 

It was here I really thrived. Being much older than everyone else by a good 15-20 years meant I appreciated the opportunity and grabbed it by the horns. 

I got a distinction and this enabled me to go on to study a degree in Graphic Design at Northumbria University. I loved every minute of it and worked my butt off to get a first degree with honours. I originally wanted to study fine art but was worried I wouldn’t find employment and with my son to support, I chose to go down a more commercially viable root. I’m glad I did now. 

What was the most difficult thing about moving into the art world?

I think self-belief was the biggest hurdle for me. 

There’s this perception that art isn’t for everyone, that it’s exclusive and hierarchical – which in some spaces it is. However, I’ve become a strong believer and advocate that art and culture is for all of us regardless of ability, class, race, gender or sexuality. It absolutely has to be inclusive and this is the ethos that I am passionate about. Standing by it has led me to meet, work with and support the most amazing people. 

Has your age helped or hindered?

When I first started, I was really aware of my age. At college, I felt like a fish out of water as if I stood out and really struggled with imposter syndrome. Even now, when I attend creative events and exhibitions, I notice that it seems to be a young person’s game.

But that doesn’t stop me as I look at some of my creative icons, such as Bob and Roberta Smith or Morag Myerscough of Studio Myerscough, who are out there owning it. 

There aren’t enough older people getting in the mix and I’d like to see more on the scene, especially at a local level, although there are a few of us knocking about! 

My life experience has been crucial and I don’t think I’d be as creative without it. All those cultural references, experiences, films, music and memories act as a library for inspiration and it really helps to join up the dots when creating ideas for projects and creative work. 

Tell us about your name iAMi?

It comes with a spoonful of irony! It’s really about being proud of who you are, not being afraid to take up space and express your unique identity. 

It was inspired by the fact I have struggled with my own. 

Coming out as bisexual at the age of 43 and still very much in a process with that, struggling with imposter syndrome and feeling like I don’t belong – and also with my mental health and feeling I can’t be open and honest about it – led me to want a bold name that said I was proud to be me. 

The irony is I was too afraid to use my own name as most illustrators do so I hid behind another name instead. I haven’t yet decided if this was a good decision. 

How would you describe your art?

The most commonly used word that I’ve heard people say when it comes to my illustration work is: “Positive”. 

When I draw, I usually tend to be in happy place. I don’t feel creative when I’m not, which can be a challenge. And mainly, when people see my work, I want them to feel positive, too. So I use a lot of bold, colder and simple lines so it’s easy on the eye. 

Most of my work is inspired by gender, women’s empowerment and sexuality, which I use as my voice when I don’t have the words to talk about my own experiences. 

What message do you want to give?

I hope that in everything I do creatively, a strong message always comes across. 

I’m lucky in that I get to work on a huge variety of creative projects with people who share the same ethos as mine. I work with Sail Creative, a socially motivated creative agency which is a huge passion for me. Mandy Barker, my good friend and creative wing-woman, set up Sail and works tirelessly to stay activist in her approach to working and we have a positive influence on each other. 

I also run creative workshops, which is my way of getting to do grassroots work with communities and diverse groups. 

For me, whatever I’m working on it needs to positively impact someone or something that I care about.  

What made you smile today?

I’m on my way home from London, full of fire in my belly after being asked to be a part of the Creative Pride launch at We Built this City on Carnaby Street to celebrate London Pride. I can’t believe my work is being shown and sold in such an amazing place. It also resulted in me being asked to show my work at Adidas Original in London for Pride. How awesome is that!!

I also got to meet lots of talented LGBTQ+ creatives and illustrators and was referred to as one of the 12 most influential UK queer illustrators.

I’ve been quoting that all over the place. I might get it printed on a T-shirt.

Photos: iAMi. Sail Creative

What was your dream job when you were a child? Did it come true? Let me know below…

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