Thursday, July 26, 2012

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I'm reading Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit."
I've only just begun.
I read constantly, blips and blurbs from this book and that. Sometimes I take what I need from one source and then put it down. After which I pick up another book, and read bits and pieces from that. Sometimes I finish it.
Other times I don't.
I've taken the pressure off of my having to finish every book that I start perhaps because the work that I do on a daily basis is so deadline driven. As a commercial artist, I must finish everything that I start because if I don't, then it will begin to affect others who are involved in the process; the editors, the art directors, the clients, and the purchasers of whatever service or product my illustrations are connected to.
But this book, even though I've only just digitally swiped open, feels different.
A lot of what I've been doing in my studio recently has been related to the building of my skill and dexterity. The repetitiveness of my process feels new to me only because it is so new. I'm referring to the cutting and sewing and silkscreening that has been so prevalent in my practice since early this year. I think that having been immersed in Illustration since art college, it's  slowly eroded away the obvious challenging feelings that can accompany the building up of skill within a creative discipline until they become, as Twyla Tharp suggests, habits.
Her words have already begun to affect me in a way that a good conversation can with a friend, or mentor.
I think part of me is always in search of a mentor, but I find it more difficult as I get older, for whatever the reasons may be. Perhaps it's my inability in not knowing how to do so, being shy or fearful about it, or maybe through my own experiences I've concretized my own way of thinking, and so I've built up a resistance to suggestions that don't match my own -- some would call this stubbornness... I call this stubbornness.
Or maybe it's just a logical tendency to become this way after several years of working within the same creative discipline; as one gains more experience in whatever field he or she specializes, there is less of a tendency to ask others for help, and more movement towards sharing knowledge with those who have less experience.
The books that I read have oftentimes become the sources that I tap into whenever I need advice, direction, or solace. I'm particularly inspired by the experiences of others in fields which lay outside of my own. This is not meant to sound arrogant, but I do believe in the importance of having a holistic approach to one's art practice, and that means being open to the ways that others (who's professions are unlike mine) do things in order to grow a better understanding of new ways to work.
Because working in the same formulaic way, day-in and day-out can result in a kind of monotony that I assume would manifest itself in one's work. Although I have no proof of this, I can see the logic in this statement. Part of what I think is so fascinating about the creative arts, is the intuitive component of it. That even though one can plan and strategize exactly how to resolve a particular drawing or painting for example, there is still that component of improvisation, which I believe, lifts that work to a higher level. However, I think it's a mistake to assume that this quality of inspiration that shows up in one's work is somehow the product of genius, or "born of some transcendent inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute." (1) Rather it's the hard work that fuels the creativity; the exercises and the repetition that occurs within the artists' process that is the foundation. "If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge." (2)

1. Tharp, Twyla with Reiter, Mark. The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life: A Practical Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003: 28.
2. Tharp, Twyla with Reiter, Mark. The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life: A Practical Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003: 41-42.

* photo above from by Richard Avedon.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Love Takes Work

I've stopped believing in formulas for success. Whether they exist or not, I've become tired of looking for one that works. I think I gave up a long time ago. I rarely cut corners, and take the long route to get to places. And although I probably end up putting in more work than I should, I believe that the time that I spend in one spot, learning, and fixing, and making mistakes and recovering from them are some of the most valuable gifts that I've given to myself. It's not always fun, but there have been many rewarding moments. 
I believe in education.
I believe in networking.
I believe in preparation.
I believe in inspiration.
I believe in humility.
I believe in patience.
I believe in hard work.
Last night I was at a party with some friends. Yes, yes, although I don't go out as often as I used to, I did last night, and had a really great time seeing friends who I've not seen in so long, and having conversations that I didn't realize that I've been yearning to have because I've been working so much (for the most part) alone in my studio. I've been in this industry for eleven years, and  throughout this time, I've gained much experience, most of it being useful; having reinforced and challenged some views and values in both my personal and professional lives. Some of the things that I used to believe in, I no longer do. And some of the goals that I had set for myself have fallen away, and have tarnished in their level of importance. But at the same time, I've learned that parts of myself have, over the years, become more solidified, and unchanged, although I have added to this list some new things that I've begun to care more about.
The Illustrator who I am today is not like the one from seven years ago before I moved to New York. And I think part of it is from the interactions and experiences that I've had living in this city;  the friends that I've made, the projects that I've worked on, and even the neighbourhood that I've chosen to live in have all somehow left their impressions on me, which have in turn, affected the choices that I make nowadays.
I spoke with several friends last night about the personal projects that they are working on alongside their careers. Some have chosen to do both full day job, and self-initated projects on nights and weekends. While others have left their professions and have immersed themselves entirely in whatever project to which they've assigned themselves. And I wonder if much of my fascination with listening to their stories has everything to do with the fact that I am in a similar position now, within my own career. Although I'm not giving anything up per se, I am, and have for what feels like, a long time, been seeking out ways to expand my creativity and to lift my art and business to the next level. The obscurity of this phrase matches the obscurity of how I will exactly do this. 
Because frankly, I don't know.
I'm doing a lot of reading and researching, I'm sharing what I'm doing with others, and listening to them talk about what they're doing, I'm watching a lot of documentaries and I confess reality shows too, because I'm anything if not a sucker for the rise of the underdog. 
But there are so many moments when I'm confused and unsure about the direction that I should go in, and if it's even worth it.

If you've been reading my entries, you'll know that this is an ongoing theme of mine. I never said that i had answers, and I know that I'm redundant (ask any of my students), and I'm very open about the realities of my experience via my own profession, at times to a self-deprecating level, but I have a narcissistic side as well - I think he needs to be there to balance the critical side of me. There is an artist and critic inside of every Illustrator; the conversation that happens between these two bodies helps us make creative decisions. Sometimes though, I wonder if there's also an analyst inside of me as well because I could sure use the advise.

Over the weekend, I spoke at an "3x3's Nuts & Bolts" Illustration Conference, sharing whatever information that I had experientially about beginning one's Illustration career; really, it was more storytelling and wondering out loud than a didactic approach on how to look for work. My illustrations, and my lectures are an extension of myself and so there needs to be an authenticity of experience; I have to enjoy whatever art I'm making,  and in reference to my talks, enjoy whatever it is I'm speaking about. It needs to represent where I'm at presently within my studio practice, and where I'm psychologically and emotionally as well, otherwise I'll get bored.  
At the end of it, someone asked me how early I wake up to do all of the things that I do.
My answer was, "6:00 am."
Of, course this is not a militant ritual of mine, but I realized that over the past year, without exaggeration, I have been waking up very early because if I don't, then I wouldn't be able to accomplish all of the things that I've set out to do. This of course means letting go of other things in my life. However, as extreme as it sounds, it's not really that way. Making the decision to incorporate a second component to my studio practice of creating personal work has really helped me become more productive and efficient because I realize that if I'm not organized, then I won't be able to grow my career in the way that I would like.

The friends of mine who I spoke with last night, talked about their projects, their intentions and creative vision, the amount of time, money and work that they've spent towards them... their stories inspired me in a huge way. And I need to be inspired right now because it gives me comfort and encouragement to continue with the personal projects that I'm doing alongside my commercial work. There isn't often validation while I'm working on self-iniated projects, there isn't  always an audience either. Instead, what I do think that there is, is a lot of is uncertainty... and this uncertainty can be so loud sometimes, Uncertainty can make me defensive and tired, and plant the idea in my head to quit. Taking my career to the next level means being uncomfortable -- it requires a ton of work, but it also requires research, analysis, strategy and risk. These are not the most romantic words, I admit, but who said love was easy. Love takes work.

*The illustration above was for SooJin Buzelli at Plansponsor, "Finding The Best Provider."

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Sometimes as I'm walking to the studio very early in the morning I shut my eyes when I reach a part of the neighbourhood that's quiet and nobody's around. I just walk with my eyes closed. 
When the sun is rising, and the air thick with heat, I close my eyes and just walk for a few steps.
I did it this morning. 
I'm not sure why, but it's something that I did.
This morning
I passed the old asian woman who collects bottles from the trashcans near my studio. I see her every morning around the same time. She wheels a cart that's filled with bags of empty bottles, and I wonder how early in the morning she awoke just to begin her day's work. The past few times that I saw her, I knew that she saw me. Our eyes locked, and I could feel some pressure in my throat; they were words that wanted to come out,
"Jo san."
That's good morning in Cantonese. 
The problem is that I don't even know if she's even Chinese. And if she is, does she even speak Cantonese? Maybe she speaks Mandarin, or Toisan. But the words "Jo san" I believe might be quite universal within Chinese dialects. 
The old woman reminds me of my grandmother who passed away when I was in high school. We were very close, and she helped raise me along with my aunt since I was about 3 or 4 years old. It's not that my parents weren't around, they were there - except that they had to work, both of them. 
My aunt came to live with us one day, and then my grandmother arrived soon after that. She was getting old and so my father being the eldest chose to take care of her.  It's typically what happens in Chinese households, the oldest son or daughter cares for their aging parents. Still, shortly after her arrival, it seemed more like my grandmother took care of me.


I don't recall the day, or month when she passed away, but I do remember the moment that it happened. She was already in the hospital having suffered a stroke before that. She couldn't speak, and was partially paralyzed. I got a call from my father one afternoon telling me that she died. 

My grandmother and I spent a lot of time together, and at a very young age, I had the privilege to witness at close range, the aging process. She arrived to Canada being able to stand and walk with a cane. But slowly, over the years her body began to break down because of arthritis, and so she needed the support of a wall, or desk, or railing to help brace her while she moved. Eventually her body became so old that she spent most of her time in her bedroom, and because of her extreme immobility my father filled her room with everything she might need to keep her comfortable. A rice cooker, cookies and snacks, bread, hot water, tea, a television, papers and pencils, and magazines.  To pass the time, my grandmother and I played boardgames, where she sat and rolled the dice and then watched me move both her and my figurine across the board. We played Bingo, where I was both the announcer and the players, filling my card and hers with plastic chips. Sometimes we watched exercise programs on television and my grandmother would raise and lower her arms in the air over and over again, and also kick her feet in and out, while in sitting position. At lunch time, when I was in elementary school, I would go home to see her. I would walk upstairs to her bedroom and sit on her bedside and eat. She usually sat in her armchair next to a broken Singer sewing machine that we used as a table. We also taught her how to write her name and some numbers in English,
Chen Yut Sun
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
I combed my grandmother's hair sometimes, and clipped her nails; each time tracing my fingers along the crooked bones of her hands and feet.  

As her body began to break down even more in her old age, my father needed help caring for her, and so as a family, we pitched in. She could no longer go to the bathroom on her own, and so my father taught us how to change her diaper. I understand how strange it is for a teenager to change the diaper of their grandparent, but for me, and the rest of my family, it was very natural. At night time, one of us would go into her room and tuck her in. She would say in Toisan, lucky words and sentences.

"Grandmother loves you very much. Good luck. Good luck. Good luck. I wish you lots of good fortune. Good night."


The old woman is hunched over slightly, her layers of clothing spotted with dirt from her morning ritual. She wears a small hat, I expect to protect her from the sun, but moreso I believe it's to keep her grey hair away from her face because the hat has no brim. I can see that the lines around her eyes and mouth are deep, and her nose is very slight. From a distance they are two tiny dots near the center of her face. 
She approaches the corner of the street at the same moment that I do.
We stare at each other for a few seconds, and then I feel shy and look away. I continue to walk about half a block down the street and then I turn back to see her from behind still lifting bottles out of the trash can and placing them into her cart. 

* The illustration on the top right was done for The Atlantic magazine.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Love Is Cool

I began my sewing journey about 8 months ago, more or less. Prior to that, I'd been trying to teach myself how to sew, but soon became frustrated by the technical component of it. Still, I enjoyed the process of sewing so much that it became clearer that I'd probably benefit from taking some introductory classes to speed up the process.
And so I did... FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology (by the way, props to Linda, Lyla, and Marie... you all are incredible Professors).
... which lead me to take a Draping class, and Pattern-making class. I confess: I failed the latter. Yes, yes, I failed for excessive absences, but for the record, I wasn't playing hookie... I just spread myself too thin that's all, and I wasn't able to keep up. So I had to let something go: Pattern-making. Unfortunately, I had to suffer the consequences, and found myself biting down on an F-grade; and concurrent to all of this, I sought out an internship position with a fashion designer in Manhattan. Admittedly, I was exhausted -- it was so much work, but something that I chose to take on because I had the interest in wanting to learn much more about this discipline. Things rapidly became clearer in terms of how much of this new discipline (Fashion Design) I wanted to incorporate into my Illustration practice, and which parts of it I would allow to fall away. 
It has been a dream of mine to work within the fashion industry in some capacity. When I was ten years old, I'd swoon over a Canadian TV program called "Fashion Television". Afterwards, I would grab my pencil crayons and begin to sketch onto paper whatever designs I could think of.  As a ten year old, although experientially I lacked the knowledge that comes with life through age that typically informs an artist's work, it was the energy, and the playfulness about my process that I respected in my younger self. When I drew pictures of models in clothing, I had no one telling me if they were good or bad, if they were, or weren't relevant; joy existed purely in the craft of drawing.
A few days ago I completed some outfits which were shot by the photographer Ken Pao. It's in preparation for a modified Tshirt project that I'm working on (although now it may include, peripherally, some custom/bespoke fashion pieces... I really don't know yet). I have to be careful how I word this because it's easy to perceive that I'm trying to transition out of one profession into another, but I have to adamantly share that I am not leaving Illustration to pursue a career in Fashion. Rather, what I'm doing is trying to stay as true as I can to the artist part of me who wants to creatively express himself. For those who don't know me very well, this has been an ongoing theme of mine. I've been labelled on very rare occasions as a Jack-Of-All-Trades (although now that I know how to use a drill, and strum a simple tune on a guitar, I'd prefer the term Renaissance Man -- just kidding). I have feelings of ambivalence towards labels because people have tried to assign them onto me for years... as I have admittedly branded onto myself as well -- at times, to a fault.
The word gay and faggot come to mind (which I still hear every summer even in New York City. It must be the String-Bean tanks I wear...) Having said that, I've chosen to use the label of Artist and Illustrator when describing who I am on a professional level. I think these two carry with it meaning that most accurately aligns with what I do because there is flexibility within these labels' content. 
The project's process originally began as my illustrations silkscreened onto Tshirts that I purchased from a manufacturer; however, with some time, and much thought, as well as  conversations with others, and myself, it moved into a direction that challenged my initial way of approaching this project. Soon the questions of how and  why I wanted to do this started to surface. 
For whatever reasons... insecurity, fear, uncertainty, lack of motivation?... lock many of my ideas within the safety of my sketchbook. I understand that not all these ideas are strong enough to be lifted to a place where they can stand alone and hold the attention of a viewer, but I believe that too many ideas are left on the drafting table unresolved for those aforementioned reasons. It's too easy to give-up, to let my ideas steep in my brain as merely a concept; it's too easy to talk myself into believing that because I'm not certain about the life span, or life plan of this Tshirt project that it's not worth pursuing. What's more difficult is honouring my creative voice, and allowing him to speak even if the words that spew out don't fit into a category of conversation that I've been participating in for most of my career. 
My "Love Is Cool" series is still not flushed out entirely, but it will be; sooner or later, I'm not sure. There have been many "I don't knows" within this process. I contacted Ken, the photographer, several months ago to schedule a date to shoot this project, but then pushed the date back later and later. Six months after our initial correspondence I felt I needed to commit and work towards finishing the garments for the shoot. I wasn't absolutely ready, but then again I'm never sure if I ever am truly ready. Sometimes I think it's about taking the risk and acknowledging the consequences, for better or worse. That comes with the territory of being an Artist. You make something and put out there for people to love, or hate, or feel indifferent towards. I've chosen to put it out there, and have made a statement. I'm not certain about the kinds of dialogue or conversation that this project will inspire, if any, but I do feel as if I've created some kind of movement with it. Now the business questions are arising: how do I create these shirts in larger numbers especially because this is entirely self-funded, and made by myself, my assistant and my interns? How do I grade the patterns so that they can fit various sizes? Where can I affordably buy bolts of fabric for smallish runs? Can I do this alongside my Illustration career? 

* Photographer: Ken Pao; Shoes: Rickard Guy; Makeup: Nanae Itoi; Models": Mikee and Keiko.