I’d forgotten how many memories are held within my muscles; that after years of having not done a certain type of movement or walked along a certain type of terrain, how my body remembers, and then I wonder if it aches for these things as well.
This morning I went for a run at 6:30am. It wasn’t planned; I just woke up and decided to go. My neighbourhood looks different in the morning -- there’s a sleepiness about it that I enjoy. During the day, it’s cramped and loud and at times very aggressive, but at this hour the blocks that surround my apartment exist within a kind of in-between : dusk and dawn, slumber and wakefulness, even the air that touches my skin feels like a blend of both cool and warmth. I don’t run outside very often, much of my running is done on a treadmill and although I think a lot about many things while I’m doing this, today felt different because today I was remembering.
I reached the track about 2 miles from my apartment and decided to run a few laps around it to increase my distance. I have an app on my phone that records the details of my run; traveling from my apartment to the track, and then around it four times, and back home equates to about five miles. The track circles a soccer field, and especially in the spring and summer time it livens with people playing sports, exercising, or sitting on the grassy areas nearby. When I ran along it this morning, I remember what it was like running on a similar track as a child.
It’s a strange sensation when present experiences recall past ones that can make those memories seem almost tangible. When I stepped onto the track, I felt a rush throughout my body, like I had set foot into a brand new world. I could feel the rubber track of the surface push against the soles of my shoes into the bottoms of my feet and then surge upwards into the rest of my body. I began running faster and felt my posture change slightly, as I rounded back my shoulders and glided forward. My breath pulsed out from between my lips and I saw the bands of white on the surface to the left of my feet, and so I ran as close to it as possible without stepping over the line. As I rounded the corners, I tilted sideways slightly, and felt the muscles in my ankles and thighs engage, and strengthen. I ran faster.
The last time I ran on a track like this was when I was fourteen years old, and competing in a relay race. I was the third runner in my leg of the race, and our team was competing against the other schools within our district. We spent hours after school practicing for this moment; building each other's spirits, learning the rules of the course, how to run more efficiently, and ways to pass the baton seamlessly to one another to sustain the team’s rhythm. We wore our school uniforms, which were blue, white and silver, and I competed on a huge track in the middle of a stadium surrounded by student competitors from other schools. I remember the feeling of exhilaration as I stood on my mark, waiting for that moment until I felt the cold piece of metal in my hand. And when I did, I launched forward into infinite, and I don’t think that I thought about anything else at that moment except for running.
I have about two months to prepare for The Renegade Fair in Brooklyn, in June. At this point, these are the pieces that I'll be selling at my booth. I've decided to keep it simple, and turn my energy towards my graphic Ts; however, I'm considering (time pending) to make one more image. This morning I hung up on the wall, the work that I've done thus far. It's definitely a challenge trying to balance my commercial and personal work, for obvious reasons. I've spent several months away from my T shirt project, and it's been a good thing because it's allowed me some distance (from it). Sometimes my being too close to something doesn't allow me to see it clearly. So, hanging up my Ts and viewing them from afar gives me not only literal distance, but psychological space from the project at hand. Distance gives me the opportunity to separate myself from any emotions that may have arisen during my process, which may cloud my judgement in terms of how successful (or unsuccessful) the T shirts are. It also allows me a moment to breathe, to centre myself, and to ruminate over my next steps of how to plan, and organize and to even change my position about the artistic direction I'd like move towards from this point.
I'd love to make just one more graphic T, although I'm not sure yet. The reason is that once I resolve the sample, which might take a few tries, then I have to produce them, which means cutting and sewing, and silkscreening, the same shirt many times over. It's worse than it sounds, to have to repeat the same design over and over again. I see it as an opportunity, however, to improve my craft and my dexterity in reference to sewing, and in many ways, the process is incredibly theraputic.
I get lost in the movements that occur while I'm cutting and sewing and piecing things together.
I oftentimes still think about why I'm doing this.
Why am I spending so much time mocking up patterns, sewing samples and doing everything in-house?
The analytical part of me wonders about the value of this because in every single way, my decision to create these T's is not cost effective -- it's a crappy business model, and it's not sustainable - not in terms of time; not in terms of money. But in the midst of making these shirts, the world begins to fall away, and I start to shift my attention to how I'm feeling while I'm working, the happiness that I experience, the energy that I have, and the new discoveries that I make outweigh the uncertainty.
I use colour in a lot of my work. This was not always the case. When I applied to art college, much of the work in my portfolio lacked colour. Colour mixing, and arranging colours together was for me, not very intuitive. When I was in my foundation year, I enrolled in a colour theory class - it was a mandatory class, and my instructor's name was Renata Realini. She studied at the Bauhaus and brought her knowledge and expression of colour into the classroom. I have to confess that as a student, I felt as though the exercises were not very interesting, but in retrospect, I realized that this particular skill set could only be truly understood through practice. The assignments ranged from ones inspired by Johannes Itten's book "The Elements of Color," and also exercises from Josef Albers; mixing and painting coloured squares and placing them next to each other to see how colours changed depending on whatever they were adjacent to, and also, how its temperature would change depending on its position amongst other colours. We used colour to flatten three dimensional space, and made our own Vasarely grids to create optical effects. It was exercises on top of exercises, and although I was not able to see what was happening per se, my senses were slowly becoming attuned to this artistic element.
I've been asked by many students how I use colour, and how they might possibly become better at using it. When I hear this question, I rephrase it in my mind into something similar to this: "I'm afraid of using colours. There are so many colours out there, so how do I decide which ones to use? And how do I know which ones work best together?"
I think for someone who is beginning to explore colours, but is a bit nervous to do so, taking small steps by giving oneself restrictions can be a good thing; meaning that working with a limited colour palette, for example only 2 colours that are similar (or monochromatic) and then perhaps using a third colour, as a highlight, is a non-intimidating way to begin. How to choose these two colours is up you. Honestly, I'm one who enjoys keeping things playful in my studio, and although I do have colour touchstones (in other words, my go-to colours) frequently, I choose a colour based on the mood that I'm trying to create within a scene. For example, if it's a sad scene, then I might use cool colours, such as blues and turquoises. Or, if it's a scene that is bold and perhaps even aggressive, I may use reds, and solid blacks. As an illustrator my intention isn't only to render subject matter, but to also create moods and atmospheres. It's important for me to engage as many of the viewers' senses as possible, not only the obvious one, sight, but smell, sound, taste, and touch; colour for me is a good way to appease those senses. Once I decide on the mood of the piece, it will lead me towards selecting a base colour, or starting point. In the piece, "Death on Facebook," for The Atlantic, I chose to use blues as my foundation colour because of the topic of the article. A woman learns via Facebook, that an acquaintance of hers has died. Although there could have been other ways to approach colouring this piece, I chose to use blues and cool tones because I felt that these colours would best represent silence, and the feeling of sadness. For my drawing "Scars," also for The Atlantic, the story was a fictional piece about a woman who has a mastectomy, and decides to tattoo this area of her chest with flowers. When I read this story, I gravitated towards the hopefulness, beauty and strength of the character. I asked myself, how can I make this piece both strong and beautiful using subject matter (flowers) which are typically aligned with a kind of fragile and ephemeral beauty? My answer to this, was to make the flowers bold while keeping the delicateness of them intact. The repetition through the clustered arrangements of the flower create a kind of soft armor that the woman sits in.
"Death on Facebook," The Atlantic
"Scars," The Atlantic
I feel that it's okay to look at other artists' colour palettes (in various artistic disciplines) and apply those colours to one's own work. Again, when you're at the beginning stages of your career, you are still learning, and so by referring to other artists' colour palettes it will help you to understand the relationships between these colours. Eventually you will arrive to a point where you will have the confidence to adjust your colour palette, by adding or taking away particular colours so that the process will start to become more intuitive. I oftentimes refer to old prints, posters, and book covers for colour inspiration. My very good friend, Yuko Shimizu, describes the reasoning behind doing this as being a sound way to edit one's colour selection. When these posters and prints were created they were done using old printing methods, and so their limitations forced them to use only a few colours within an image. Oftentimes, I find that students are overwhelmed with colours, they see so much of it, and find it difficult to make a decision. Editing is the key, and referring to these modes of inspiration is a only one way of establishing a starting point when deciding how to approach using colour in one's work.
Another thing that I enjoy doing is drawing in colours, instead of using only black, or grey. Although this may be a psychological trick that I play on myself, it has become one of the best methods for myself, that has improved my colour sensitivity. Again, I would only limit myself to a maximum of two to three colours, and then use those colours to draw. Usually I would choose a warm and cool colour, for example a magenta and turquoise, where the turquoise acts as the cool value typically used for shadows. Choosing to remove black from my toolbox when sketching, forced me to work with the colours that I would have on hand, thereby making me less fearful (of using colour.)
What I've written has really been informed through my own experience, through trial and error, and was inspired by a recent question that I received from a student who asked about my colour use, and suggestions on how he could better his own. My approach reads as kind of formulaic and linear, but really I believe that colour is best understood when used with a kind of abandon. Learning by doing and experimenting is by far, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways to understand the properties of colour.
This is part of a recent letter that I wrote to a student of mine following a critique.
I'm in the midst of reading Keith Haring's Journals, and as you might guess, many of the topics he wrote about within the pages were more questions than answers, as journals might be. And in a profound way, I feel even more connected to him now because the part that I'm reading are entries that he made during 1978-79, the time while he was, much like yourself, a student at SVA. I picked this book up because I oftentimes look to the past for answers. This is something that I've done since I was in my mid twenties. Part of me of wonders if it's my nostalgia that encourages me to access those past experiences for knowledge, or whether my doing so that has made me so nostalgic. In any event, this is how I've gone about shaping my process through not only my artistic practice, but also through life. I gain much strength and knowledge through the words of others, or as a friend of mine calls it, the healing powers of words.
So to you, this is really a letter of encouragement because I wonder if where you sit now, in your career as a young artist, soon to graduate from art school, that the pressures of it, the expectations, the fear, the uncertainty are coming at you all at once; and so, it can be difficult to sift through what "needs" to be done at this moment versus what "can" be done during this time. What needs to be done is that you have to hold onto the strengths that you have as an artist, as an illustrator, and use that knowledge, and those tools to guide you forward; not as armour against the doubts and demons that will bombard you, but as tools to help you work through the those similar challenges that many artists have faced throughout history. The words of two or three of your mentors, although they are so valid, keep them on your brain, but don't feel as though you must assign so much power to their words that it leaves you blind and dizzy to your own work. Comments like these do come from a good place, and are expressed because they want for you to succeed, but sometimes shifting your work too quickly, and making rash alterations to address these creative or technical concerns about your work can be too large of burden. These moves take time, and so you must trust yourself, respect the process, and know that your attempts, although they might feel futile at the moment, will over time, and with much effort and pain, resolve itself into something that is beautiful, if you allow for it to happen.
I use the term art, illustration, and drawing interchangeably, and although it might offend some of the purist gods, it's what I've chosen to do because it gives me freedom and power to create, and to fail. For a long time, I was unhappy with the illustrations that I was making because the final products were not being recognized or validated in the way I that wanted for them to be. I remember hearing and reading some negative comments about my work from others, that it was too derivative of someone else’s, and that it technically wasn't at a level that many in the industry would view as high enough, either conceptually, or aesthetically. Of course, I devoured these statements which were then excreted as insecurities, and consequently they became threats to my illustration work because the doubt from those words began to affect my own creative judgement. I could no longer tell - I could no longer see whether or not the illustrations I made were successful.
And so, for a couple years, I hid.
I hid from the Illustration industry.
I hid from my friends and from my peers.
And I did this because I was probably angry, and hurt at the time, but most of all I needed to spend some time alone to work through the creative challenges that I faced during those moments in my career in order to bring my work closer to where I envisioned it to be..
But where I hid, where I found solace, was in a place where I would learn how to recognize the importance of process within my artistic practice. I enrolled in a summer fine art residency at SVA, and without intending to sound melodramatic, it changed my life because I was placed within a space that challenged my creativity many times over, and questioned my technique and understanding about the intentions of my work. I had no clue back then how powerful this experience would be, and how it would profoundly affect the way that I would move through my career as an Illustrator. The ideas of success that were intact in my mind soon after I graduated were attached to more tangible things, things that I could see, and touch - awards, certificates, being published, and money. And although all of those things were and still are very important to me, what I did not acknowledge back then was the importance of process; the learning through uncertainty that comes with it, discovering new ways of working, and allowing the time for my efforts to flourish.
I've stopped reading at a page in Keith Haring's Journals where he wrote that, "An artist has an impossible ambition. It is a presupposition that he will fail." I think about this word a lot, fail, but I've learned to assign a more positive meaning to it. Failure to me is a necessary place that I will find myself in various moments throughout my career. I don't view it as a prison or any kind of ultimate place, but I conceive of it as a transitional space; I spend my time there working through critical issues in my studio, and trust in the fact that I will eventually lift myself out of it.