Friday, March 30, 2012

Flower Watching In Spring
Here's a recent piece that I did for "The Washington Post". It's for the 100th anniversary of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. I rarely get calls to do covers, and when I do, it can be sometimes be a bit fickle because (being a cover) there is so much importance placed on it, and so sometimes, things can feel micromanaged. This assignment, on the other hand, was the very opposite of that. Tan Ly who was the art director and my collaborator on this project worked together to create a cover that hopefully captured the beauty of the scene in a more poetic and romantic way. Yes, we still had to show parts of Washington, but we wanted to do it in a way that was hopefully less expected and obvious. The key illustrations along the bottom traces the history of the Cherry being brought over from Japan to Washington D.C. It moves from left to right, as petals from the first panel, and ultimately lands onto a fully bloomed tree in front of Washington's Capitol Building. The title is "Flower Watching In Spring" as noted in the Japanese characters on the left, done by my friend and fellow illustrator Ai Tatebayashi.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Gods of Work
I'm still trying to find a new rhythm to the way that I work. Since this year began, I intended on taking a moderated sabbatical of sorts. This has been a fantasy of mine, to be able to spend a year to pursue those projects that I've dreamt about. But then I hear life calling (or is it my landlords?) and I a begin to see the ephemeral nature of my thoughts.
I've been working non-stop for the past several weeks, and have tried to find a way to manage my time. I have two days of continuing ed courses per week, as well as five hours (per week) interning for a fashion designer. This adds up to fourteen hours a week, plus the one day a week when I teach at SVA, results in a total of seventeen hours (on the low end) of work done outside of freelance illustration, on a weekly basis. And I insist that this is a low end figure because it doesn't include over-time, and the time spent on homework.
I spend the rest of the time illustrating.
It seems somewhat dizzying of me to have chosen to take on all of this, and I have to admit that twice last week, I threw my arms in the air and announced to some God of Work that, "I've given up!" But it was only temporary, and fortunately my boyfriend was there to bring me back to earth.
It's a strange feeling to want so many things, but then realize the limits of what can be possible in the moment. I've spent years, and continue to, trying to prove to others, to clients, to an audience, and to myself that I am capable of doing certain types of projects, and that I am "the man" for the job. And, although I do receive a steady flow of work, there are moments when I want more.
This can be taken in two ways:
1) that I'm either driven, or
2) that I'm ungrateful.
Yes, I'd say that it's definitely the former: like many people, I work very hard, and I'm also incredibly passionate about my work, regardless of the discipline. If I love and enjoy the process of doing something, I invest much of my myself in it.  That said, I do admit to the latter as well, that sometimes when I speak about work, about art making, that I sound ungrateful. But I believe these feelings arise from a place of exhaustion that is oftentimes coupled with working so fiercely, creating a guise of ingratitude, pessimism, or boredom.
So now, I have a better sense of what my limits are.
I posted several months ago about an article that I read in The New York Times Business section, that highlighted Dominic Orr, the CEO of Aruba Networks, a wireless network company. He spoke about the importance of coming close to failure (at a task) because it reveals the limits of a person, so that when these moments occur again, then s/he can improve and overcome it.
Recently, I've been learning more about focus, humility, gratitude, and where my priorities lay.
Since I graduated from art college, I have always tried to create a kind of studio practice that I enjoy. Being an illustrator allows me to do the one thing that I love, which is to draw, and to make things, and so, I want to keep this intact and protect it from things that might threaten it, such as exhaustion and a false sense of ingratitude which sometimes inspires me to sway my attention towards the heavens and holler again, at the Gods of Work.
And so my rhythm is this:
I go to sleep quite early nowadays, no longer spending hours, on nights and weekends, hanging out.  I don't drink alcohol anymore, and rarely go to bars, clubs or lounges. I honour my seven or eight hours of sleep per night, but understand that there will be those times when I will get much fewer than that. I wake up very early in the morning, and oftentimes arrive to the studio before 8:00am so that I can begin work. I still like to spend at least 8-10 hours per day in the studio, so waking up early allows me to do all of this... for now. I admit, that I do sound like an old man, but this is the way that I've chosen to approach my career in hopes that longevity will reward me. Working hard and playing hard doesn't make sense for me anymore, instead it just makes me feel as though I'm running in the same spot, and there were many times in the past, when I started to feel the floor creak beneath me.
I know, I know... this new rhythm that I described sounds a bit bland -- that it's purely about work... but I don't see it that way because of the way that I've divided up my time, and how I've chosen to focus my attention on things that matter most to me in my life.
The hours that I spend working nowadays, is much more productive. I schedule in time for lunch, and dinner, and breaks, going to the gym, and try to leave the studio at a reasonable hour. And despite the fact that there are, and will continue to be, moments when things feel overwhelming and out-of-control (ala two weeks ago when I spent 35 hours working on Saturday and Sunday!) this does come with the territory of freelancing, which I've accepted and understand.
And, so today, I throw my arms up and say, "Thank you" to the Gods of Work.

Monday, March 5, 2012

In My Suitcase
I just listened to Susan Cain: "The Power of the Introverts," on Ted this morning, while I was working. I'm not going to go too much into what her talk was about, except that it inspired me to share a story of my own. It's part of a piece that I wrote in a Continuing Education Creative Writing class at NYU. For our first assignment, we were given a sentence by another author, and were asked to use it as inspiration to write a one page (very) short story. Mine was called, "The Pond." Our final assignment was to write an 8-page short story on anything, and so having not written in that capacity since I was thirteen years old, decided to expand on the aformentionned first assignment. Here is part of my submission to the class, who then workshopped the piece so that I could make it better.
   The forest clung to the edge of the field. It looked like a place where the world ended and began. They imagined the denseness of it, the shadows that would come to life, and the sounds that would burrow and remain trapped in their ears. A place so dark that even the sun wasn’t allowed in. 
"Let’s find some shade,” Glen said, pointing to the trees in the distance. “I’m getting hot.” Cam pulled her back-pack closer to her chest. “I don’t want to.”
  By noon, the July heat had become a blanket, and the earth grew silent as the heat grew more intense. The birds stopped chirping, the ants burrowed into the ground -- the grass, and even the dust on the road, kept still. There wasn’t much of a breeze except for the occasional warm whisper of wind that disappeared as soon as it warmed the skin.
  “It’ll be fine. We can go in for a few minutes and then come back out. There’s nothing to do here but catch some grass and leafhoppers. Besides, the Elmo on your bag looks crazy from the heat.” Glen opened his mouth into a wide grin and then crossed his eyes.  
“Fine,” Cam said, “We’ll stay near the edge of it. I don’t want to go inside.”
Cam met Glen in the field near her home. She often went there alone during the summer to see what kinds of new bugs she could find. The field always appeared empty at first until she crouched down. Cam hid her face in between the tall grass, kowtowing to the coolness of the earth, nesting her chin into her hands. She was a tiny creature blended into her surroundings, peering into the green, waiting for it to lay bare its secrets to her. Blades of grass peeled apart into one, two, three pairs of legs and antennae that extended towards the sky. Some of the bugs wore armour -- helmets, which extended down into chest panels dabbed with lime greens and yellows and blacks, from which sprang legs and then feet that looked more like hooks than feet. On their backs were translucent capes that were decorated with veiny detail that would expand and flutter, lifting these creatures out of the green and into the heavens, like grotesque angels. Nearby was a pile of junk: a mattress, an old dresser, some pieces of wood, a tarp, and a rusted metal bucket. Like the armoured creatures in the field, Cam balanced these objects on top of one another to fortress her against the real world, allowing the talisman of her imagination carry her into a fantastical place. She marked this spot as her own because it was tucked away from the rest of the world, but close enough that if she stood on top of the wooden dresser, she could still see the edge of the road. 
One afternoon, she noticed a boy bouncing up and down on her mattress. It was strange to see another person in this spot because this place had always belonged to her. The boy stared back at her as he bounced up and down, his brown straight hair falling in front of his green eyes and then lifting back up again. 
   “That’s a weird bag.”  
Cam blushed, looking down at the back-pack she held in her hand, his words reflecting off the side of her face.
"Why are you carrying that? There’s no school.”
   Cam thought about the girls her age, who carried bags full of nothing. The ones who wore pink lipstick, clicking the gum in their mouths like springing rat traps while they spoke. The ones who stared through her during recess, and who constantly repositioned that perpetual strand of hair that came undone from behind their ear. 
Finishing her thoughts she said, “But I have stuff in mine. They’re not books, but I have crayons and a notebook and some lunch. I’m going to draw some grasshoppers today.”
The boy stopped bouncing. “You’re the only girl I know who likes bugs. How are you going to draw them? They’re so tiny.”
“I have a jar and a magnifying glass too.” Cam unzipped her back-pack and pulled out the items, which she handed to the boy.
He stared at the jar that still had remnants of a sticky label that had been peeled off, but was more fascinated by the magnifying glass that swiveled in and out of a maroon leather case. Glen held up the magnifying glass and peered through it with one eye. 
   “C’mon! I’ll help you catch some!”
By now the sun was beating mercilessly on their backs and so Cam softened to the idea of finding some shelter from it. She loosened the grip from her bag and swung it around onto her back, “Okay, let’s go.”
They cut through the heat, across the field. Neither of them had ever been this far out before. The cicadas hummed in the background and the trees in the distance grew sublime and ominous. Glen was the Tin Man freshly oiled, his joints pooled with sweat beneath his arms and behind his knees, and Dorothy strayed behind him walking in cautious wonder of the new world they were about to enter. 
When the two reached the forest they found a rock near the edge of it and sat down in the shade. Cam pulled out some juice from her bag and gave it to Glen who took two sips and then gave it back to Cam. 
“Did you see that big frog?” Glen got up and faced the interior of the forest. The trees were still and silent except for an occasional breeze that rustled the leaves. “I bet there’s water nearby. How could there be a frog and no water? Let’s go and see!”
Cam shook her head and looked down at her feet. She was afraid of the forest. When she was young, her father read her stories of children who ventured into the woods alone, and were snatched up and eaten by witches and monsters. 
   Glen stepped closer to Cam and slipped his hand underneath hers, fingers entwined. His palms were sweaty and warm, but it tempered her hot skin. “We’ll go together.”
Step by tiny step they moved between the trees deeper and deeper into the woods, their hands clasped to one another, and looking back every few minutes to make sure that they could still see the entrance. It was dim and cool, and the trees were so tall that they held up the sky. The ground was decorated with purple and yellow flowers and some dry branches and leaves.
“Hey. Look over there,” said Glen pointing towards a warmly lit area in the distance. “What do you think it is?”
Cam stopped for a moment and looked back at the entrance to the forest. “It’s too far.”
“Turn around. I want to get something out of your back-pack.” Glen unzipped the pack and pulled out some of the crayons that Cam brought with her. “We can use this to mark our way back.” Glen made a large X on the tree at eye level with a red crayon. “See. Just like Hanzel and Gretel except no birds or squirrels are going to eat up our trail.”
Cam smiled.
“Here. Take it. You can mark our way there.” Glen gave Cam the red crayon.
As they walked through the woods, Cam began to abandon her fear and replaced it with the task of marking their trail. Their path near the entrance that was lined with purple and yellow flowers turned into an area where the grass grew wild and tall, tickling the backsides of their thighs and ankles as they moved across it. A few steps later they reached their destination. Moving from darkness into light, the mood of the forest changed. They could see the cerulean blue sky, and the soft clouds slowly metamorphosing as the wind blew them along their course. In front of them they saw the large frog that had first drawn them further into the forest, which they eventually forgot about; it sat on the edge of the pond, a grayish-green colour with several dark spots, and could have been mistaken for a large stone. The frog was stoic and still, blinking every occasionally to ruin its camouflage.  
The days at the pond were magical. They would search for tadpoles, bare-footed, along the pond's edge; Glen liked the large ones with malformed and bulbous heads where you could barely make out a face, not the tiny black ones that looked like dirty shadows in the water. The mud squished out between their toes felt cool and gritty underneath the hot sun. They searched for twigs and branches to usher some of these tadpoles closer to them. It was fascinating to think that these creatures would transform into something completely different in just a matter of days.
   Cam picked up the empty glass jar they’d brought with them. She filled it with some pond water, a handful of rocks mixed with mud and handed it over to Glen.
"Is this enough?” She said.
"This stick's not working. They just keep swimming away." 
  Glen grabbed the jar and poured out its contents. He plunged it beneath the surface of the pond, scattering the tadpoles near his feet except for one, which swam directly into the jar.
"Here, put some of this inside of it. We have to make it think that it's still in the pond, or else it's going to die." Cam scooped up some mud, rocks, and water and dumped them into the jar.
They both looked at the tadpole moving lazily in the water; back and forth and around as though it had always known this space.
“I’ll keep it tonight,” Glen said. “Then I’ll give it to you tomorrow.
Water striders glided along the surface of the water. Cam pointed to them and Glen, cupping one of his hands, skimmed it along the surface.

* The illustration above was done for Jim Burke, for Dellas Graphic's Frog Calendar, it was inspired by the Chinese Fable of the 3-Legged Luck Frog.