Photos by Micah Pegues
Christina Chung is a 24 year-old illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York. Through a line and pattern-based style, she creates illustrations that are sensitive, delicate, and infused with symbolism. Chung spent her childhood blackberry-picking and pirouetting in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, her summers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and her angst-filled adolescent years in the hot and sweaty melting-pot known as Singapore. She has since left her island-city home of 7 years and has graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York with a BFA in Communications Design with a concentration in Illustration. She likes cats, coffee, Earl Grey tea, making to-do lists, devouring books and the smell of lavender.
Q: When did you first get involved with the arts?
A: I feel like I’ve always been inclined to be a creative person for like as long as I can remember. My parents definitely encouraged it especially my mom and it wasn’t until the end of high school when I started to think of it as a possibility for a career.
Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: I am inspired a lot of the time by nature, especially plants and flowers. I also draw a lot of inspiration from my heritage; East Asian art, textiles, religious iconography. A lot of illustrators that I look up to actually live in New York, which is really cool as well. For example Yuko Shimizu, Victo Ngai (though she recently moved to LA), James Jean, and then some of the older ones that really inspire me are Kay Nielsen, Alphonse Mucha, and the like.
Q: You have a lot of similar patterns in your work and other themes. When did you develop your style?
A: I definitely didn’t always have my style. If you go back to how I was working towards the end of high school and compare it to now, it’s completely different. I would say that, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t intentionally find my style. That’s something that art students struggle with enormously. Everyone is trying to be an individual as quickly as possible, and it’s really not possible to do that. It’s something that you find after you’ve made a lot of work, and that’s how it worked out for me. For me it was a combination of drawing inspiration from other artists – from different aspects of my life, just making a lot of work, experimenting, doing different things that I thought were fun, and somehow it all came together.
Q: How did your work and life change when you moved to New York?
A: Moving to New York is directly correlated with the start of my career in art. Although I didn’t start making money until after school, moving here is what started me on the path to becoming an illustrator, because I came here for art school. The combination of being at art school and being surrounded by other creatives and professors, as well as the fact that New York is such an epicenter of art and culture, and a lot of people in the industry are all based here – it just makes for an environment that allows you to grow creatively and I definitely did exponentially. It’s not necessary at all to go to art school, but for me, I think that it really helped speed up the process and I wouldn’t be where I am had I not come here. It was very monumental for me.
Q: What do you hope to do with your art?
A: The first goal I’d like to be able to reach is to be able to continue what I’m doing now, freelance illustration, and just be very comfortable financially. That would be wonderful (laughs). Beyond that, I’d like to be able to explore different aspects of illustration cause it’s a very broad industry and I don’t have to be stuck in one niche. For example, I’d love to be able to write and illustrate my own children’s book at some point! And, hopefully, my illustration career will allow me to travel as well, that’s what I hope for myself.
Q: How long does it take for you to create a piece?
A: It can vary. I do like to keep tabs on how long it takes. Usually a piece, the very simplest of pieces, can be up to ten hours and some of the more complex pieces take up to twenty. So within that range is usually what it takes me, depending on the nature of the project itself. My process is very dependent on a strong sketch and thumbnailing stage because illustration depends on the concept more so than, say, fine art does. In the world of commercial art, you’re not necessarily creating it for yourself, it actually has a purpose beyond that.
For me, concept is really important and I have to be confident in what I have there before I can actually move on to creating the post itself. It starts at the thumbnailing and sketching stage and from there I move on to the final piece. If I’m working with a client, they’ll be a part of that process as well. For example, the sketches have to be approved by the client before I can move on to that.
Q: Why did you choose illustration? Did you begin with fine art or have you always leaned towards this particular form?
A: I’ve always been interested in pursuing a creative career. Up until the end of high school I was actually thinking of becoming a writer. I studied in the IB program at school, so in my IB art class, the structure of the class was so that we would find an artist and study their process and I had happened to have found a Taiwanese illustrator, his name is Jimmy Liao, and I was just enamored by his work. I don’t think up until that point I really had a concept of illustration as commercial art. Like I knew what illustration was in terms of it being pretty pictures and picture books, you know like an actual career path that you can take. When I was studying this artist, that also just opened up this door for me in terms of possibilities for the future. And that’s pretty much where it started! I applied for half liberal arts schools and then half arts schools because frankly I was afraid. In the end I did go to art school. It all worked out (laughs).
Q: Do you think your relationship to art is different as a person of color, as someone who is not as equally represented in traditional media?
A: Definitely. For me, first and foremost as a consumer of art, just in the world, be that through the medium of tv or film, I really for the most part, never see myself represented. Growing up as an Asian-American, for a good amount of my life, I didn’t realize that because to me I was American, I wasn’t... you know, to other people I was Chinese before I was an American, but that’s not how I identified, at least as a kid. This is going somewhere else (laughs). It wasn’t actually till I moved to Singapore, that I was made very aware of other people’s perception of me. I guess I was just in a very nice environment in Seattle, where I was never bullied for being different. So for a large part of my life, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t being represented, so it didn’t affect me negatively, but as I became more aware, it’s just something that feels unfair. It almost feels like you don’t exist in their world, but we are here, we are alive, we’re people. For me as a person of color that creates art, it’s really important for me to do my part in representation. What I like to do is, unless it’s required of me, every figure that I’ll feature in my pieces are people of color, unless I’m doing a portrait of a specific white woman, and of course this isn’t shaming white people at all, it’s just that because for the most part, the media doesn’t represent us. If I don’t do it, who will?
Q: Who are your current favorite illustrators or artists in any medium?
A: There are a lot of young illustrators that are emerging and making super exciting work. I think some of my favorites right now are Chelsea Beck, Kim Salt, Wenting Li, Richie Pope, there’s a lot. There’s some super exciting things that are happening, especially on Instagram, which is where I find a lot of artists. A lot of them are here, which is awesome, cause you can actually reach out and meet them. Those are a few of my favorites right now!
Q: If you had free reign to create whatever you wanted, what would it be?
A: I think one that’s always there is to write and illustrate a children’s book. Aside from that, I’d love to do maybe a gallery show examining the Asian-American experience in the United States, I think that would be really cool. Maybe I should do that (laughs).
Q: What’s important to you?
A: I could answer that in very many ways. Because one way would just be representation, but in my life in general as well as in the illustration industry, it’s really important to stand up for yourself, make yourself heard, and that’s not in an arrogant way at all. There’s a lot of voices out there, and you have to stand out somehow. It’s also just really important to be nice. The world is really small, and you don’t know what burned bridges will come back to haunt you. Be nice!