Shawna X on ebbing with colour as both illustrator and mother

Ahead of her turn at Us By Night festival, we interview the vibrant & highly graphical artist about her journey from light to dark, all the way across to motherhood.

Independent visual artist & creative Shawna X is known for her vibrant and highly graphical image-making for clients in music, fashion and technology, across mediums in digital, spatial and motion spaces. 

Beyond collaborations creating unique experiences with brands such as Adidas, Adobe, Ghostly International, New Yorker and Squarespace, she enjoys projects discussing cultural identity, the female gaze, sexuality, and the modern creative process and analytical commentaries on social stereotypes. 

We last spoke to Shawna about the 'follower bias' affecting professional illustrators in getting work; now, ahead of her turn on the Us By Night stage in Belgium next month, we catch up with the New York-based artist to discuss her multi-disciplinary practice and self-initiated projects.

Lisa Hassell: In what ways did your upbringing shape your personality and artistic development?

Shawna X: "I attribute my creative development to my cross-cultural upbringing; everything taught in my household was in some ways opposite of what was taught outside of it; for example, individualism vs. collectivism.

"In Chinese culture, I am taught to act accordingly with my community & family, whereas Westerners think it’s necessary to have your individuality. My parents clung onto their traditional ideals more so than some other immigrant families, which made the pull even harder.

"This dichotomy existed in almost every aspect, from money, gender roles, sex, to food, and whilst it was challenging in many ways, the dichotomy helped me form my own opinions on this role in life, without necessarily adhering to what was taught.

"I believe artistic and creative development often begins from a pursuit of a subjective point of view, and the more I developed myself outside of what was told, the further I walked the path."

LH: Your work has been described as ‘light, feminine, and slightly sexy’ (It’s Nice That) – can you tell us about how your energetic and colourful style has evolved?

"My work is a reflection of myself, which means it’s constantly evolving as life ebbs and flows.

"Throughout the years it has gone from ‘light and feminine and slightly sexy’ to ‘dark and feminine and very sexual.’ Now, as a new mother, I am in a space of power, energy, and even confusion; this newfound identity has translated into my work in terms of subject and colour.

"I’m still drawn to very strong and vibrant palettes but translated in deeper, heavier hues."

LH: What are some of the key themes you explore and tackle in your work? How does making art help you make sense of these ideas?

"Currently as I am going through a complete identity shift, I am readjusting my perspectives in image-making and what I am creating as well as expressing these in my creations.

"I’m obviously drawn to this stage of motherhood, one of the bravest journeys I’ve ever embarked on (and something which previously I was weary of and didn’t expect to be in.)

"It’s connected me to so many others who have chosen the same path, regardless of their background. Motherhood has connected me to a space in the time years ago when I first started, a place where I’m playing without expectations."

LH: In between working on commercial projects you still manage to devote a lot of attention to self-initiated projects. Can you talk about some of your highlights over the last couple of years?

"One of my favourite project to date was Fuck Your Manners at A/D/O last June (below). The idea came to me during my first trimester, and fuelled with hormones and emotions, I was able to explore my inner feelings and thoughts regarding some personal internalised shame and guilt regarding my identity as a Chinese-American child of immigrants.

"I really pushed through the idea in a new physical way. As a visual person, it’s always exhilarating to showcase your mind in an immersive experience."

LH: Exploring a multi-disciplinary practice takes your work into different areas from sculpture to 3D, to print and so on. Why do feel it’s important to experiment with different mediums?

"Currently I’m learning glassblowing and mould making which is very different than my day-to-day, but it gives me a new appreciation to experiencing the creative in a different way.

"I suck at it, but what’s amazing about sucking at something is remembering that all of us sucked at something before we got better. Since I am so comfortable with creating visual art through illustration, I need something new to give perspective."

LH: Has your creative practice changed since becoming a mother? Has it affected your design thinking or the types of projects you pursue?

"It definitely has. I am much less hard on myself to create and am way more open to experimenting. I think more about how I feel, where my energy is derived & how it’s spent, rather than where I am going.

"This is such a vital piece to my creative craft and I haven’t felt such a deep need to explore in a long time, without any specific attachment to the result. I’m truly in an exploratory stage in my life."

LH: Do you ever have periods of self doubt and creative block and if so, how do you overcome it?

"In the past I dealt with creative block with such heaviness, I would wallow, vent to others, lament on how I’m not working enough, making enough, doing enough, then sadistically scroll on Instagram after.

"Ever since I’ve leaned into the self that is open, I started detaching myself from the heaviness. These days when I am in a slump I don’t feel it as deeply, I observe it, and do something else, knowing full well this too shall pass."

LH: We often ask our interviewees if they have some advice to pass onto creatives who are just starting out – can you share something you have learned? If you could go back in time and give some advice to your younger self what would it be?

"Be kind to yourself."

LH: You’re lined up to speak at the upcoming Us By Night this September – what can festival attendees expect from your talk?

"I’ll definitely get personal."

Digital Arts By Night: Look out on our site for more coverage of Us By Night this September.

Read next: No to numbers, YES to art! Shawna X and other illustrators on surviving the 'follower bias' 

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