Jemma Bortz’s characterful illustrations find a sweet spot between cute and profound

“I’ve always drawn on walls. It was something my blessed parents had to come to terms with after I found out what permanent markers were. My mother, the queen of arts and crafts, ignited my dream to become an artist. She took every opportunity to encourage me to develop my creativity. I also watched too many cartoons as a child and Disney movies really inspired me,” explains Johannesburg born and based illustrator and mural painter Jemma Bortz of her artistic beginnings.

She has forged her creative path in her own non-traditional way. “For a long time, I knew I wanted to be an artist but had no idea how to do it. After school I went into a French and mathematics degree. Having no direction, I dropped out and found myself a job at a cupcake shop called Rubinella, in Melville, owned and run by one of the most creative people I have ever met, Cameron McAlpine. Cameron showed me the art of baking and was a sentient role model.”

Her time as a cake baker as well as a life changing tragedy emboldened her to focus fully on her creative practice. “I left that world to pursue a career in the arts but I was faced with my low self-esteem and this proved to be a challenge I wasn’t equipped for. My brother died in 2013. It has made me understand the brutality and fragility of life and pushed me to let go of the illusions and make well sure that I pursue my passions because he didn’t get to.”

The beauty in Jemma’s work is in her playful execution of imaginary worlds and characters but the subtext of her pieces are more sombre than her aesthetic conveys. “I can’t seem to escape from most of my work turning out to be ‘cute’, especially if there’s a character involved. I have always wanted my art to be more raw but I guess watching copious amounts of cartoons and animations will do that to you. I’ve learned to be okay with it. People relate to big eyes and sad faces, it reminds them of the innocence of infants or rather, how painful their childhoods were. I draw inspiration from the oddity of the world, the pain of existence and death, the depth of people and the humour in it all.”

Of her working process, she tells us, “It’s mostly traditional pencil, ink and water based paint. I’m learning how to use soft pastels and oil paints from my incredible art teacher, Linda Panicco, who is patiently training me. I can’t wait to experiment with those.”

Currently, Jemma is preparing for her first solo exhibition titled Cupcake Collection, which is set to happen at events space Assemblage on 29 June. She will be presenting a large body of original drawings and paintings, all inspired by the cupcake shop she worked in and the people who she met there. “That was a difficult time of my life, softened by the delight of baking and sharing delicious treats with incredible people. This is dedicated to that time,” she shares.


To view more of Jemma’s visit her website.


Between 10 and 5