Disney artist Mingjue Helen Chen on creating this year’s poster for Europe’s best boutique art conference/rave

The poster represents artists coming together from around the world to create something magical – as well as bringing out your inner child.

Now in its seventh year, THU (Trojan Horse Was A Unicorn) is equal parts an art conference and a rave. Last year it saw 1,400 people coming together in a new location, Maltese capital Valetta, to learn both from well-renowned artists and each other – and come together to indulge in creative activities from art challenges while dressed up as Mexican wrestlers and Power Rangers to life drawing classes hosted by concept artist Nadezda.

Tickets for this September conference have recently gone on sale, promoted by this softly striking poster by Walt Disney Animation visual development artist Mingjue Helen Chen, who has previously worked on films such as Wreck-it Ralph and Big Hero 6. She’s also a previous Knight – as the conference calls its speakers – giving a talk in 2017.

The poster was based on this year’s theme of The Legend of the Seventh Unicorn, and a creative manifesto by the THU’s founder and host Andre Lourenço and concept development/copywriter Joana Vale. The manifesto – and the theme of this year’s event – is about creating a dialogue between you and your inner child: drawing on their innocence and lack of preconceptions, but also showing them just what you’re capable of. Imagining what your 13-year-old self would make of your skills and work now is a great way to engender pride in yourself and what you create.

I caught up with Helen over email, who also kindly let us see some of her work in progress, including the feedback she received from Andre and Joana.

Neil Bennett: What did you make of THU when you spoke in 2017?

Mingjue Helen Chen: "I've been to conventions and art events before, but nothing like THU. To me, it felt like Space Camp or something. You have hundreds of artists gathering for a week with no other goal than to enrich each other and themselves.

"It’s an amazing experience. I was very humbled to be there and to experience it alongside my art heroes."

NB: What made you want to take part in creating the poster?

MHC: "Well, Andre was kind enough to ask! I told him he could fire me at any time. I was really nervous to contribute in this way to the festival – especially knowing how many amazing artists he connects with every year. I couldn't believe he'd consider me for something like this. I mean, previous posters were done by Kim Jung Gi, Iain McCaig, and Alberto Mielgo to name a few."

NB: What was your response to the brief?

MHC: "To me, it read like a coming together story, where people unite and discover something new, or discover something old in a new way. The first thumbnails were very hard for me express that feeling visually, I felt like I kept on trying to make a movie poster or something.

"My second round, I got some ideas and thoughts from Joana, who wonderfully encouraged me to go for something different."

NB: On a conceptual level, how did you want to represent that visually?

MHC: "The Trojan horse is a very recognisable symbol, usually seen as pretty chunky and utilitarian. Unicorns to me are kind of the opposite of that so I wanted to bring some of the magic and surreal qualities to it.

"It's still a wooden trojan horse, but a more whimsical one, and one hopefully we haven't seen before. It was also important to me that the seventh tribe members not show their faces, because at THU, everyone is welcome, and I wanted it to feel like those 7 characters could be any of us."

NB: Tell us about the composition and choice of colours.

MHC: "To put it bluntly, I wanted to use the colour palette that would set it apart from previous years, mostly because I can't compete with those on an artistic level. The composition is fairly simple, and I initially approached it much more graphically.

It was Andre and Joana who suggested I bring more depth to the piece by adding layers of atmosphere – Andre even did a drawer – and I totally agree. It shifted the focus and allows the poster to breath better.

3D artist Victor Hugo Queiróz and visual development artist for animation Fernando Peque also contributed to THU's feedback to Helen.

NB: THU brings together a diverse set of speakers and attendees from many different backgrounds. Was your use of children that are representative of a wide range of genders, ethnicities and body shapes a conscious choice to represent that, and/or just something that you’d do anyway?

MHC: "It was a conscious effort from the beginning. It isn't possible to represent the whole world in just seven people, but I tried to get a good slice – and hope that people will see the intent.

"I don't usually work with characters in my day job, but things like inclusivity and representation matter a great deal to me, and I would be conscious of it regardless.

NB: Will we see you in Valletta in September?

MHC: "That's the plan!"

Tickets for THU 2019 are currently still on sale. THU has also just announced a three-day event in Japan in May 2020, following its most recent single-evening event in Tokyo.

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