An LCS interview with Yuko Shimizu
Darren Di Lieto: I would like to welcome Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu to the LCS. Yuko is an instructor at the School of Visual Arts and based in New York City with a studio in midtown Manhattan. Yuko has a wonderfully unique style that has deep roots in tradition and culture while always feeling fresh and new. Over the last 10 years her work has been seen on Gap T-shirts, Pepsi cans, VISA billboards, Microsoft and Target ads, as well as on the book covers of Penguin, Scholastic, DC Comics, along with the pages of NY Times, Time, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker to name a few.
Yuko Shimizu: I actually don’t recall how and when. Working for Sanrio (the company behind Hello Kitty) is like working for Disney. You are creating everything under the company’s copyright, and your name is usually never attached to anything you design. So, I do remember I was surprised that the name was out in open, more so than that our names are the same.
Yuko Shimizu is like Emily Smith if I was an American. Every new friend I meet has been telling me all my life that they knew a Yuko Shimizu in a previous school, work, etc. So, to share the same name did not, and does not, surprise me at all. However, in Japanese names are written in Chinese characters, and there are multiple different ways to write ‘Yuko’. Technically, I believe our names are not the same, in that sense.
I am not annoyed our names are the same. I am more annoyed when people treat it as if it is anything sensational. Because it is so not.
Darren: Can I see what your name looks like as Kanji characters?
Yuko: It’s written as 清水裕子.Darren: Is there any reason you don’t sign your work?
Yuko: Ha, that’s a good question. When I was in art school, one of the professors told us it looks really bad when artists tack really annoying not good-looking signatures on their art. And I do see this quite often in young inexperienced illustrators’ works. They try so hard to design a signature, often not that great-looking, but screaming for attention. We see the signature not the art.
At this point in my life, I am sure I can make a subtle signature to place on the images, but I never picked up the habit. If someone buys an original drawing, I usually sign on the back. Also, illustrations intentionally made to look Asian often do have my name signed in Japanese and/or seals with my name in Chinese. My best friend’s mom made me three different seals for Christmas some years ago and I love them. She carved stones to make them. They’re so special.
Darren: Which of your numerous clients pays the most and which client or art director do you most enjoy working with?
Yuko: Let’s not talk about money here… Who paid how much really doesn’t help anyone other than providing a topic to gossip about. A high-paying job doesn’t mean anything other than that job was highly paid. It has no relevance to how great the outcome was.
On the other hand, there definitely are clients I enjoy working with. I won’t pick one, because lots of clients are great to work with for different reasons. Overall, clients who put an emphasis on which illustrator is most suitable for the specific project, and consider half of their job is done by choosing, are usually the best ones to work with. When they ask you to revise anything, ones who do it with confidence that that revision will make the work better are the best art directors.
But it is very true about good clients. I don’t mind revisions as long as it makes sense. Sometimes I say thank you to clients for pushing me to revise, because the outcome was much better than the original. Some clients, though, make you do revisions for the revision’s sake. And I feel that’s a ‘power’ thing. I don’t like it. I used to work from the client side, so I know how things work. I used to make people revise, because otherwise, my boss would think I was not doing my job right. It’s terrible, but it happens. And I was like 22. I feel terrible for doing that to artists back then. But it was a very useful experience working in corporate PR. I know exactly what is crossing their minds when unnecessary revisions come and I often explain the psyche to my fellow illustrators who’ve never worked from the client side.Darren: Which do you prefer, client work or selling prints and originals directly to the public? Could you ever see yourself leaving the commercial work behind and becoming a full-time artist or alternatively moving into art direction? Some people go with the flow while others have a longterm game plan, what path do you want to be on?
Yuko: I (sometimes) sell prints and originals, because the buyer knows my work as final illustration products or when I make book or comic book covers, or movie posters, they want to own because they have attachment to the final products. In that sense, I feel it is a lot different from fine artists doing fine art for fine art’s sake.
I got extensive education in fine arts during four years back in art school. It was one of the best things I had done, getting a half fine arts, half illustration education, and learning from the best of both worlds. I was able to pick and choose, and ditch what’s bad about each genre.
I thought about switching to fine arts at some point, but right now I am pretty happy focusing on illustration. You don’t sell works for huge amount of money in illustration, but if you consistently do a good job, then clients will come. While in fine arts, there is a bit more of… I don’t know how to put it, a “gambling” aspect to it? Great artists are not guaranteed to do well. If you hit it big, you hit it big. But the rest of the 99% may struggle even though some of them may deserve the recognition.
I do personally know someone who hit is really big, but she was always good. She always did amazing work, but she struggled until in her 50s. Then, all of a sudden the world caught up with her. The wonderful thing about her hitting it big is that she has not changed a bit (personality-wise. She looks way fabulous and beautiful now, but I am talking about personality), and even to this day, when I bump into her, she is just as warm and sweet and funny as she used to be.
Anyway, I choose to quit my career path in PR because I didn’t like to have a rail in front of me. I want to make my own life, not follow a given path. So, if I get bored and want to do something new, I would be more than happy to switch gears or career. The fantastic thing about life is you can make the way you want, within the possibility of what you can do, want to do, and work hard toward doing.Darren: While talking about careers, I’ve noticed you also do a lot of teaching and workshops. How did that come about and where do you find the time?
Yuko: I don’t do a lot of teaching and workshops. I teach twice a week at SVA (School of Visual Arts) here in NY. Two classes, 3 hour each. Then, workshops come about whenever schools, design organizations or conferences invite me.
I started doing a one week workshop in Venice, Italy, in the summer of, I believe, 2008. I taught four summers of it. And I loved the experience of intensively meeting with small groups of people every day for just a week, and how much each student can develop their work and thinking in that time. It is a different way of working with students once a week for a full school year.
When I am in New York, which is most of time, I am always chased by deadlines. And if there is no deadline, I still have a lot of office stuff to take care of. When I am away doing workshops, especially somewhere like Venice, it is work, but also a semi-vacation, because I am refreshed, inspired, eat great food, meet new people, and visit a country in a way I may not experience otherwise.
So, going to workshops abroad really is a great excuse for me to fulfil my passion of traveling to different destinations, seeing the world. I was invited to conferences in Bogota, Colombia and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina last year. In both of places I did workshops. I don’t think I would have visited those places otherwise. And the experience was so rich, because I was not experiencing the experience as a tourist. I was experiencing life amongst the locals. I heard about how much safer and better to live in Bogota has gotten since the early 2000s, and I cried over stories of how people I met survived the war in Sarajevo. I am not just giving workshops, I am learning a lot about the world.
Darren: Being able to visit those places and meet those people must have put life in New York in perspective. Do you feel an experience like that has an influence on your work or is it business as normal with a clear head once you’re behind your desk?
Yuko: Whatever creative artwork you do, making pictures or conceptual fine art or creative writing, at the end of the day, it is not so much about the technical skill that makes your work stronger. It is one’s life experiences, and how that affects and makes one think about the world, art or life in general, and of course, grow as a person.
It is not that travel and experiences directly affect your work. I am not making political art or anti-war art because I just came back from Sarajevo. Some people may, but not myself. However, it is like food you take in that it becomes your energy; experience becomes food for your artwork. Anything you put out there as artwork is an indirect result of your experiences.
Darren: You’re very active on the numerous social networks, have you ever over-shared?
Yuko: I am pretty much only active on Facebook. I work on my own and a day can easily go by without talking to anyone. So, when I started using my private Facebook, it was a good excuse to take a break and talk to friends or see what they are up to. (I still only accept my real life friends onto my private Facebook). Once I am on my Facebook, it is easy to stop by to my public page and maintain it.
Instagram is for fun. I use it mostly as sort of visual journal of my everyday life, and mainly talk to my friends on there as well, though my Instagram is open to the public.
Yes, I do have Twitter and Tumblr now, but mostly, things gets pushed out there. I don’t really hang out there. One can only manage so many social media. It wears you out. But, when your social media is managed by a third party, it really shows and kills the fun for those who follow. So, I try to do it on my own as much as I can.
Yuko: No, no, no. I never carry around sketchbooks! I haven’t had a real sketchbook in like ten years. I used to carry around sketchbooks all the time. When I was a student, definitely, and till the beginning of my career. Then I stopped.
There are multiple reasons.
One is a very practical reason. When I started getting illustration jobs, my very first client, AD Minh Uong (then Village Voice, now NY Times) told me to keep everything, including thumbnails and scribbles, because they will become very important record, especially when I started teaching. And that I should organize them so I know where things are.
So, I started, very early on in my career, a filing system for all my sketches and thumbnails. I draw everything except the final drawing on archival thick photo-copy paper, and put them in a clear pocket for each project, and organize them in order. I have about 40 files and a bookshelf full of sketches from every single project I have ever done (other than a few I had sold to some collectors).
Another reason is that because I have been drawing almost every day for the last twelve years or so, I have to be absolutely honest, I rather be doing anything other than drawing when I have free time. Don’t get me wrong, it does not mean I don’t draw unless I get paid. I have heard some illustrators say that in the past, and that’s kind of sad. It is just that when you draw that much, you do need a break in between, somehow, squeezed in between drawings, to keep your mind fresh. You can’t just output, output, output. You have to take in ‘nutrition’ for your mind to keep your creativity going. You cannot be creative for creative’s sake. When I am taking time off in a lakeside in Konstanz, Germany, or by the shore in Barcelona (which is where I went earlier in spring), I’d rather be walking around, sit at a cafe and enjoy the breeze, and just watch the scenery, rather than take a sketchbook out and focus on drawing the scene. I don’t think I need to feel guilty doing that. Eventually, that experience gets digested in my brain, and somehow becomes fuel to be creative later on.
I have high admiration to artists who constantly draw, draw, draw, then go to the shore and draw again. But, I don’t wish to be like that myself. I love and cherish my downtime, as well as my non-stop drawing time.Darren: What do you do for fun? 🙂
Yuko: So, I do something else that is creative, for fun and for a pastime. Creativity is part of my genes and I can never get away. But creativity or what people call ‘personal work’ doesn’t need to be another drawing I do for myself.
I LOVE cooking. I always cook and bring my lunch to work. And, I don’t mean quick sandwiches (though, I have seen some super creative sandwiches that people make). I mean a real meal. Since a few years ago, I switched my main meal of the day to lunch from dinner. I sit around a lot, so it makes more sense to eat a bigger meal at midday, and keep it very light at night. And around my studio, there is not much happening in terms of food, and anything you do get is very pricy (it’s a midtown business area).
Whenever I have time, like over the weekend, I cook. I like to try and recreate food I had at restaurants that I liked. Nothing too too elaborate, I am Japanese after all, and we tend to like simpler dishes that bring out the flavor of the ingredients. I don’t normally use cook books. It’s kind of a homemaker way of cooking. Everything is done by eye and test. Friends ask me all the time to give them recipes. I tell them to come to my apartment and watch me make it, because I can’t really explain and don’t have a recipe for anything I make. I often look inside the fridge to see what I have in there, and the challenge is to make something creative and yummy with that limitation. Or, get fresh vegetable from the farmers’ market and decide what to cook depending on what I bought. It’s creative, but it uses my brain in a completely different way from drawing and digitally coloring, and I love it.I also spent two and half years decorating my apartment from scratch, when I moved to my current apartment five years ago. I asked my moving truck to stop by the Salvation Army on the way between my old and new apartments and donated all my old furniture. I started my life from zero, except for the Barcelona Chair I bought with my torturously painful but well paid advertising job, and an ottoman bed I bought so friends can stay. I slept in the ottoman bed for the first two months until I bought a real bed and mattress.
It was one of the most fun ‘personal works’ I have done. The canvas is big and it’s 3D, but I still have to think of rhythm, flow, composition, color… just like when I am doing a small illustration for a client. I posted the process to my (personal) Facebook from start to finish, mistakes and disasters in between. One of my friends who worked for New York Magazine thought it was cool, and then my apartment ended up getting featured. That got attention and recently it got featured in Architecture Digest China.
I am very proud of the result. Not too shabby for a completely inexperienced interior designer. But, my real estate broker friend told me, if I ever decide to sell it, I’ll have to redecorate and repaint the whole apartment, because it is just too weird for anyone else to want to buy it. Ha ha. But it is OK, because I have no intention of ever selling my apartment. It’s small, but it’s my own little castle.
Darren: Since you mentioned cooking, I have to ask, what’s your favourite dish?
Yuko: I actually don’t think I have any! Whatever I feel like at that moment. But if I were to pick the type of food, I definitely still love Japanese food the best.
Darren: What does the future hold and what are you working on at the moment?
Yuko: I have been working on a new exciting book project, a collaboration with Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Cunningham. It is a special, different type of project, with a lot more freedom and creativity than what I normally do, which is creating book cover illustrations. It is much more, and much more collaborative. Also, the designer of the project is Rodrigo Corral, one of my favorite book designers, so it is exciting. It has been a lot of work, and it will be for quite a while in future, but it has been very rewarding so far. We are all putting extra effort in, the effort that is more than we are expected to put in, because we really want the book to be great, both the story itself as well as the book as an object. It will be published about a year from now. Still a long way to go, but I am having a lot of fun.The future is hard to predict and foresee. However, projects like what I am on now really make me think of what I want to be doing in future. I would love to do more projects like this. Not necessarily book projects, but projects that I can feel that I am building something different and special and bigger. Last year, when I worked with Sagmeister & Walsh to do an 80ft mural in DUMBO, Brooklyn, I felt that I overcame a lot of obstacles and accomplished something much more than I thought I could handle. It was stressful while I was at it, but it sure felt good when finished. I would love to be working on more of those projects where illustrations are not a very small part of something bigger, but the illustration itself is something a lot bigger (not necessarily size) and opens up the possibilities of what images can do.
Darren: What is it you love about drawing old wrinkly hands?
Yuko: That every line tells a story and has a history.
Darren: When are we going to see your next solo show or even a retrospective?
Yuko: I have been taking a break from showing my work in gallery space for a while. We can’t do everything we hope to be doing. Instead of spreading my energy and dilute it, I’d rather focus and dig deeper. Right now, I am in a phase of digging deeper into illustration, like those challenging projects I spoke about just now… So, no plan of gallery shows anytime soon… but of course, never say never.
Darren: If you had to stand in for one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles due to them being out of action because of salmonella, which one would you like to be?
Yuko: Ha ha ha, you are referring to the project I recently finished with Paramount?
I am actually a generation or two older than when Ninja Turtles became big. I didn’t grow up with them. I actually had to ask around friends a lot about the details when I was working on the project. I actually don’t know much about each character, to be honest… But researching for the project and actually working on it was a lot of fun.
Darren: Sushi, men-rui or agemono?
Yuko: Oh, I don’t like fried food much. Definitely Sushi.
Darren: Thanks! You’ve been brilliant and I appreciate the time you’ve given us!
That’s the end of the interview. 🙂