Independent Artist & Visual Director I November 22, 2018
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Growing up in China, Brooklyn-based artist Shawna X could hardly have imagined that one day her art would grace every screen in Times Square. Though she moved to the United States at a young age, Shawna explains how her experience as an immigrant has left a mark on her, one which persists in all of her work.
Shawna (in a yellow bow) and her mom during an art class.
Books Without Pictures
When thinking back to her early years, Shawna cites an unlikely source as having laid the groundwork for her career as an artist. The last of her immediate family to move to the United States, Shawna had spent several years of her childhood raised by her grandparents, whose aspirations for their granddaughter revolved around hardline academic success.
“I remember my grandparents didn’t allow me to have picture storybooks when I was a kid because they thought it would ruin my seriousness for going into academia. When I think back on it, not having the pre-made visuals pushed my imagination to come up with whatever I wanted. It actually helped me to communicate visually.”
But as Shawna began weaving together vivid worlds from the print-laden books her grandparents provided her, she too began creating an image of a life in America. When she was just 7 years old, she boarded a plane by herself and made her way across the Pacific to be reunited with her parents.
On the Outside Looking In
Though Shawna had heard and seen enough about America to know what to expect, she recalls there being a few memorable images that stood out to her upon her arrival in Portland.
“Seeing the blue sky with rolling clouds for the first time was a really different experience. That and of course the mall. I remember it had all this Christmas decor everywhere and I thought it was really amazing.”
Taking Chinese classes on the weekends and ESL classes during the week, Shawna leapt into her new life with an avid desire to communicate with those around her. Though she was able to pick up English quickly, she remembers drawing being one of her earliest means of self expression in a strange, new land.
“I drew all the time. Constantly. I even started making my own picture books, and I think I was trying to self-publish a few in third grade even.”
In spite of her affinity for the world of illustration, Shawna felt compelled to study something she deemed more stable as she grew older, ultimately leading her to study journalism at a college in Oregon.
“I pushed away my passion of art because I thought it was just a hobby; I never thought it was something I could make a career out of. Now there are so many kids going into design, but when I was in high school, I didn’t even think that was a career choice.”
After completing her degree Shawna returned to China, this time living there for a year. After having spent so many years in the U.S., she felt that she was able to look upon her home culture with a new set of eyes.
“I think the cultures, American and Chinese, are the furthest you can get from each other. China is a very community-oriented culture. How you contribute to your community determines your identity. For a really long time I thought most people there only cared about prestige and academia. But after I returned I met a lot of Chinese creatives who changed my mind.”
This reflection on her own cultural identity sparked a creative process within Shawna, one that caused her to reexamine her role as an outsider.
Being Comfortable with the Ucomfortable
After returning to the U.S. Shawna continued her art, but still only on the side. As time went on and she found herself spend more time on her art than her actual job, she decided it was time to risk pursuing her passion wholeheartedly. Now, with over 20 thousand followers on Instagram and work for big name clients like Samsung, OkCupid, and Dropbox, it’s safe to say Shawna’s risk has paid off.
The vibrant and bold style of Shawna’s work, as well as its mass appeal, at times can belie its depth and personal significance. Shawna explained to us how her shifting perspective on her identity as an immigrant was the driving force behind her A/D/O exhibit “F*** Your Manners,” a piece which questions why western norms surrounding etiquette have been held in higher regard than those of other cultures.
“It was a very personal project that took a lot of reflection and extracting years of experience. It’s all my insecurities and my self-hate, and putting that out in public in a very bright way.”
Shawna claims that her greatest insight she’s gained from coming to America revolves around the notion of trust. Sharing her work, vulnerable and introspective as it is, stems from that trust she has put into her home here. Though she has felt welcomed by the generosity and kindness she has found in the states, Shawna still maintains her immigrant status will always render her something of an outsider, but perhaps this is her own strength.
“Being a young girl integrated in a culture that didn't fully accept me was challenging in many ways. However, it made me realize not belonging anywhere wasn’t so bad. We outsiders may be looking in, but we always know where and who we are.”