Written By: Rens.Eno
There’s a Japanese proverb: “Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu,” which in English means “If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub,” or as we like to say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Japanese artist Yuko Shimizu has ventured into a path where art was out of the question coming from a traditional Japanese family. Although she never escaped the imagination that thawed out visually on paper, later in life she pursued a secure path that her family might have accepted more than art; Advertising and Marketing. She pummeled down the corporate life for over 10 years, until she realized she was having a mid-life crisis, and figured it wasn’t her life’s calling. Her allured mind probed determinedly to follow the footsteps of her desired dreams, and moved to New York City to study illustration at the Schools of Visual Arts as a full-time student for 4 years. Now you can find this acknowledged artist in various parts of the world giving lectures, teaching classes at schools, and illustrating for large corporations.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained; she truly has caught her cub. It’s inspiring to see a person go after her dreams and take it for the win.
“Okay, WOW, you’ve had all these big time clients: Microsoft, Pepsi, Visa, MTV, Target, The Gap, Playboy, Time, and I know there’s more that I can’t pick from the top of my head. Out of all your “big” clients, which one was your first? Did you feel intimidated or scared?”
Well, when you just line up those names, it sounds good. Artists post bios on their website and its’ job is to make us look good, right? Of course, there are no lies there; I have worked with those clients for real. But they didn’t all come overnight. I started illustrating slowly around 2002- 2003. One of my first clients was NY Times. Yes, sounds big, right? But they have multiple sections of paper coming out 365 times a year, so they need tons and tons of illustrations, and in fact, a lot of us illustrators’ first job is from NY Times. It was a space about three or four small postage stamps.
Of course, I was nervous! I was just starting out. But in reality, those full pages NY Times cover illustration jobs almost never come as your first jobs. You start small, and slowly slowly build up your experiences and therefore your client list. Microsoft jobs came one year, and Pepsi different year, and the Gap different year… And by the time those clients came to me, I was experienced enough to not get freaked out, or star-struck by the client name. Of course, every time a client calls me and wants to work with me, it is another excitement, and slight bit of nervousness. Because I want to do a good job each time.
Out of the clients you worked with, which one did you enjoy working with the most? What was the project about, and what did you do for them?
I don’t have a favorite. Each project is very different, working with different people too. So every experience is fresh. Some of them I like because I have a lot of freedom and try out something new, others because it is a great collaboration, and sometimes it’s great because the client is just so nice.
How do you feel that Newsweek Japan has chosen her as one of “100 Japanese People The World Respects” in 2009?
I am definitely genuinely really thankful, flattered and everything else. At the same time, when they contacted me, they just said they wanted to feature Japanese people who are doing interesting things abroad but not known in Japan, so I thought it was more of a casual interview/feature. It was a huge surprise when the issue came out and my mother called me and said ‘Oh my god this is such a huge deal!’ If the writer had told me in advance what it was, I would have declined, because it sounds a bit too overwhelming and I don’t think I deserve it. But of course, it makes my resume sounds absolutely fantastic, and I am so fortunate to be chosen as one of 100. And the funny coincidence is what turned out to be that one of the editors was my high school classmates, and art director there I used to know from work when both of us used to work in PR in corporate for different companies in the same field. The world is soooo small!
Yes, it must feel good knowing that you’re in the top 100 respected people in Japan! The people of Japan must feel even more so proud of you that you’re the inventor of Hello Kitty. Haha. I’m kidding. You must get that a lot? Do people often mistake you as the creator of Hello Kitty?
Yuko Shimizu is a very very common name in Japan, like Emily Smith, or something like that. So there are thousands of them out there. But of course, my name sounds so exotic and special outside of Japan… And people often get mixed up. I don’t see how that is possible, but it looks like it is.
I do not have a Wikipedia page, but she does. And people keep adding my website, or my information onto her page. I got Wikipedia account just to fix those mistakes. But of course, I don’t pay attention so much and someone links my website again, and then I start getting fan mails from girls all over the world! Yikes.
I personally am not, and was not even when I was younger, into cute or cutesy character designs….
By the way, “Yuko” can be written in many variations in Chinese character, and I don’t think our names are written the same way. So, I don’t have to worry about Japanese people mixing us up, at least.
“Everybody Who Is Honest Is Interesting” – That’s an interesting title for a mural you did, especially for the library in the children’s section. How did you come up with that concept? And where can people find the mural?
Well, I came up with the image, but did not come up with the concept or the line itself. This set of 11 murals was a collaboration between designer Stefan Sagmeister, and myself. It was done through the Robin Hood Foundation, a local New York City charity whose purpose is to fight poverty. One of their many projects is to donate libraries (from designing, building to donating everything inside the libraries) to struggling public schools with low funding. It was an honor to get involved in this project where those people I respect and look up to are donating their time to create great libraries. Of course, working with Stefan was a pure bliss!
Well, about where you can find the mural… It is in Public School 96 in the Bronx. Although students spend many hours there learning and reading every day, I doubt it is open for public to go see.
Regardless if the public could see it or not, it will be seen by many children. I think it’ll still reach out to those young creative minds. Do you feel as an artist that you need to leave a positive imprint and message to the world?
I think that’s a very interesting question… I think, regardless of what you do, we all need to leave positive imprint and message to the world. It is just the occupation I have happened to be seen by many people. But even if you are doing something that is not seen by anyone, your existence is seen, by someone around you, and positive message is always necessary, especially in this uncertain world.
Have you yourself going through uncertainties before you found your calling artistically?
I am always through uncertainties. I mean, I am not cynical or negative, but it is just how life is. Isn’t it?
Nicely said. Let’s talk about your art. You mentioned on your website that you’ve learned different techniques by guessing other peoples techniques and experimenting with your own theory. Are there any artists out there that you referenced over and over again over the years?
Hmm, I have been drawing and painting for so long (since like I was 2 years old), so whomever I was obsessed with at one point is not relevant to what I like at other point. I started drawing imitating Japanese manga and anime, obsessively (and what I learned at age of 12 or so never left me. My work still looks like manga a bit, although I haven’t read them since like 1984). Then I wanted to be sci-fi fantasy artist and religiously looked at Frazetta, Boris and Jeffery Jones. Then Gustuv Klimt and Egon Schiele, Aubrey Beadsley, Kay Nielsen and Arthur Rackham.
The funniest thing I tried to copy was about 15 years ago, I got obsessed over Japanese illustrator Katsura Moshino. His work had these thin lines and flat colors, almost like an old Disney animation type of look, but really hip and cool. I tried out many different mediums to get that look. Painting, cutting papers, anything! As it turns out, he was using very early version of Adobe Illustrator! So funny. It still cracks me up. But because I tried to get that flat look using paper, I got really really good at cutting and making images with color papers. I don’t do anything like that now, but I learned a lot about color schemes and color combinations back then which I still use the knowledge of now.
Of course, there are artists whom I go back over and over… Hokusai and Kuniyoshi are some of my favorites, Alexander Rodchenko is my hero, so are Stenberg Brothers…..
But if I had all the money in the world, the first thing I will be getting is Jeff Koons’ stainless steel bunny sculpture.
Wow. I feel like you could teach us so much about all your experiences in the art world. Then again, you are a teacher are you not? Do you find yourself teaching your students steps you took to learn? Like color combinations from cut outs? Or perhaps a day where your students learn the fundamentals of anime?
Yes, I have been teaching at School of Visual Arts in New York City since 2003. Of course, I teach fundamentals of illustration, how to start thinking and creating like a real illustrator, and giving advice and critique on their technical skills. I try and expose them to a lot of different types of art to open themselves up and learn from them. But more importantly I focus on them to really think of who they are and how to put their personalities into their work. I am a believer that ‘style’ comes from within each artist and style is not something you look for, or force you to create.
I think American young kids now-a-days know a lot more about anime or manga than I do, and I don’t really expose them into something they are already into themselves. Besides, the last anime I saw was Akira, at the theater, when it came out. So when it comes to knowledge of manga and anime, I am pretty much useless.
You may be the teacher, but do you feel like your students have ever taught you anything?
All the time, and often in a really odd way; I give them some advice, and I hear myself talking, and tell myself, “oh yeah, why don’t I do that myself?”
Also, when I see young artists just excited to be drawing and painting, and want to be drawing and painting all the time, I feel like ‘wow, I have to get that freshness back!’
You travel the world to give lectures; do you feel that being around different diverse cultures has brought in some depth into your art?
Definitely. Travel is my favorite pastime, and I try to go anywhere and everywhere I am invited to as long as they fit into my schedule. People often ask me for artistic influences, and to be honest, travel is by far the biggest influences and inspiration to my work.
When you travel to a place you have never been, everything you see and experience is fascination. I especially love finding out how public transportation works in different countries; New York, Paris, London, Munich, Berlin, Copenhagen, or Hong Kong are all very different. But they all function quite well. Finding these things out fascinates me.
Any advice to aspiring artists who are struggling finding who they are, or finding their style, or artists who went to school but can’t find a job as an artist?
When people hear that I teach in art school, they often ask these two questions.
1) are there talented students in my class
2) do I know who would make it in the future.
Both of the answers are yes, but not equal. Although there are many talented students, and often people think those are the ones who make it, but in reality, talent is just one of the factors and a young artist can use it or not use it.
Sometimes, very talented ones don’t work hard as much as ones that are initially not as talented in the art school stage. This has many various reasons. Some think they don’t need to work hard because they are so talented, some are scared of their talent and can’t work as much, some are lost, and others don’t have the drive….
Actually, the ones who make it are the ones who are really focused and motivated and works harder than anyone else, because they just love what they do and want to get better. Of course, if one is both talented and motivated hard worker that is like success waiting to happen. But often, classmates dismiss those who are less talented and hardworking, but we instructors know that their motivation and drive will soon bloom into a prosperous career.
Well, the long story short, just love what you do, be as hardworking as possible, and even when things are tough tell yourself one day it will happen, and keep working toward your goal. And then, anything is possible.