In Deng’s newest piece, (we’re interpreting the lone standing surfer as the eponymous Rebecca), Rebecca is singular, the only figure riding a wave—others paddle, tread water, swim, but she is the only one upright. The ocean is bold, and Deng’s brushstrokes imply dazzling movement. The surfer’s board mimics one of the ocean’s many colors, giving the impression that she is walking on water. Her hair is blown back dramatically, and her stance is powerful and strong. If this isn’t the energy we need right now, we don’t know what is!
Environment is as much a character in Deng’s work as any human figure. Case in point: the seawater contains multitudes—its texture and color are not uniform, but layered and mysterious. When placed in conversation with our two earlier surf-themed editions by Deng, Gung Ho Go and Surf Dreams, the water in this piece is darker, cooler—perhaps revealing a moodier sea. Deng is an expert at capturing the ocean’s many moods through color and texture, and also through the stories of the figures. Gung Ho Go’s tumbling surfer has a playful vibe, while the numerous bobbing characters in Surf Dreams give a softer, more idyllic feel.
In an interview with It’s Nice That, Deng explains: “Every illustration is a story and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the interaction of the people in them. How are two people going to react to each other? How are they going to respond to their environment? How do they exist in these spaces when alone? You can create an engaging picture with just contrasting body postures.” In considering Rebecca, and especially in viewing her three oceanic editions together, it’s easy to see how Deng accomplishes telling multi-faceted stories without words.
“Every illustration is a story…” – Sally Deng
Water seems to hold meaning and fascination for Deng. In addition to the three surf-focused 20x200 editions, she’s the illustrator of the children’s book Yusra Swims, about a Syrian refugee who becomes an olympic athlete. Deng again: “The ocean is such an awesome and overwhelming force—it (makes) me feel small and insignificant, which (is) very freeing.” In Rebecca, we see that feeling play out in the smallness of the figures, most of whom are partially submerged. Some seem to be watching the lone surfer glide across the water, while others are gearing up for their own run.
It’s tempting to think about Deng’s piece as a way to grab hold of a slipping-away summer, trap it like a firefly in a jar. But the wild and rowdy sea of Rebecca resists being held, and seems to insist that time moves—we can’t stop summer turning into fall anymore than our surfing figure could stop the waves from rolling. And just as important, she wouldn’t want to—she would lose her position among the majestic if the water below her stopped moving. Rebecca is a reminder that time ebbs and flows like the ocean, and carries us along through smooth and rough waters.