Diana Joleen: How A Dream About A Bunny Awakened A Sleeping Artist
No one knows where their life will go, but in Diana Joleen’s case, it went full circle. A brutal car accident forced her to stop working. And then came the gift. A reawakening of her inner artist. Now, with her no-holds-barred creations, she’s rocking an artistic career, designing customized pieces for luxury brands and streetwear, and starting to dabble in NFTs.
As a child, Diana Joleen leaned on her little inner artist to make her happy. Her dad worked for an international telecommunications company, so the family moved a lot, living in countries around the world. Her limited resources and materials forced her to get super-creative. So, she remembers doing things like drawing in the sand in Saudi Arabia. “I just gravitated toward creating something out of nothing,” she says.
It wasn’t until high school when Joleen got her own art kit and learned to do things such as stretch canvas. She wanted to study at a school for the arts, but her parents thought the road to happiness was paved with a polished title: a doctor, lawyer or accountant. She put her dream on a shelf and went on to study business administration, instead. Joleen started a family and began working in asset property management, overseeing a region with 33 buildings in 17 cities. “I was high on life. I was making a good income, the company car, the office, the title — all of it,” she says.
Ironically, one day in 2011, when she was going to interview someone for her job, so she could move up to a director’s position, she got into a car accident, turning to see a car headed straight for her as she was driving through an intersection. She screamed and lost consciousness. The next thing she remembers is lifting her head from the steering wheel and calling 911. But she couldn’t even tell the dispatcher where she was. Mississauga, Ont.? Brampton, Ont.?
Joleen had severe injuries: head trauma, a concussion, and neck and spine injuries. It was a long journey just to be able to walk properly again, to drive and to work. For three years, she tried really hard to go back to her previous life. On days she couldn’t drive, Joleen sat at her desk. She worked through migraines, sometimes blurred vision and ringing in her ears that forced her to pretend to hear what people were saying. “It was brutal,” she says. “I’m thinking, I’m in my 30s. I have kids. This is my career; I’m going to fight.” The battle came to an abrupt end when her doctor deemed her unable to work and told her to focus on getting better. Joleen became anxious and depressed. She started experiencing insomnia.
But one night, when she couldn’t sleep, she had a watershed moment. She found her 20-year-old paints downstairs. She expected they might be dried up or clumpy, but they weren’t. She had primary colours and a small canvas. “It felt like a tremendous sense of comfort,” she says. Joleen finished a piece and posted it on Instagram.
Someone asked if it was for sale. At first, she said “No,” but then “Yes,” because, after all, she had no money coming in.
She started painting furiously, filling up the walls with her artwork. Sometimes her hands would shake because of her disabilities, so she started to blow on the canvas, using her breath as a tool to spread the paints. In three years, Joleen sold more than 100 paintings, most of them for an extremely low cost. “I was so insecure, so uncertain,” she says. Eventually, a fine arts curator wanted to represent Joleen, and she signed with him, but when the pandemic shut down everything, she had to pivot and represent herself again.
She reached out to designers, curators, gallery owners and publishing companies, and one magazine agreed to take one of her paintings as a giveaway. Joleen finished the piece, but one night she woke up, grabbed her iPad and drew a bunny she had dreamt. She wrote “Bunee” next to it (she’s not even sure why she spelled it like this) and went back to sleep. Joleen handed it over as a giveaway, too, so Bunee was launched on Instagram in summer 2020, and people just fell in love with Bunee.
Joleen started to realize how the simple image could be parlayed into something much bigger. She created her Artist Series, customizing the bunny for each artist and ended up with a wait list that extended into 2021. Bunee also began to become associated with luxury brands, such as Lamborghini Bunee, and some Bunees are sculpted with unbelievable materials, including 24-karat gold and silver, and smothered in Swarovski crystals. She has launched limited-edition merchandise, with a percentage of proceeds going to SickKids Hospital. And then, bigger news. She sold the TM licensing rights to a European company, but she only agreed after they let her fulfill her charity commitments (and she still reserves the rights to the name).
Joleen is so open with her art, and so the universe came together to help her create another winning character. “I was overlapping two Bunees, then the bunny head was looking back at me — this creepy, more edgy, more mature-looking skinny bunny,” she says. She took the B and the e off, and called it “Üne,” the umlaut over the u symbolic of Üne’s face. Üne will be strictly digital art, NFTs and merchandise. Some people want Üne on a hoodie, and she’s happy to oblige. “That’s the beauty of art. There’s an unhindered sense to it, because I’m not trained,” she says. “I’m just doing what I feel — and all my series have been born on the heels of emotion.”
Asked how she would describe her style, Joleen says it’s all over the place. “I think my brain tends to gravitate toward abstract, and I have a tendency to gravitate toward landscapes.” It’s all there on her Instagram — hard-edged contemporary, modern, pop, sculptures, digital and abstract paintings. And for Joleen, who is still dealing with mental health issues, art is like a safe friend. “It’s everything for me,” she says. “When it comes to mental health and art, I think it’s a direct link — it’s like breathing.”
Her advice for budding artists? “When it comes to art, there are no rules: follow your instincts,” she says. And Joleen would give her younger self a bit of advice, too. “Don’t be scared: no more self-doubt, no fear.
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL