Found this article while doing some spring cleaning on my computer. Back in 2006, when I was but a wee sophomore, I had to conduct an interview for my History of American Illustration class. I figured finding a cool illustrator to agree to it would a bit of a scattershot, so that's why I was surprised when my first choice, New York-based Yuko Shimizu, said she would do it. I was so geeked. Based on my questions, Yuko said, "If I were your teacher, you will receive A+ for this project." I think I did.
“I Am Certainly Not Trying To Ride The Wave”: An Interview with Yuko Shimizu
Yuko Shimizu’s Society of Illustrators Award-winning piece “Panda Bear Girl— The First Asian American Super Heroine” does a pretty good job of giving you an idea of what Yuko Shimizu is about. Our heroine is clad in a combination of Superman’s red cape and the black and white markings of a panda, bounding over the Mt. Fuji-dominated skyline of Tokyo as she draws her samurai sword. Her hair is tied up in two buns, and her legs are covered in thigh-high stockings. It’s sexy and funky— the perfect combination of American sass and Japanese tradition.
That’s Yuko Shimizu for you.
It’s no surprise those are Shimizu’s esthetics, as she grew up in the center metropolises of both Japan and the United States. “The similarities are that they are both big cities, and big capitalism cities,” Yuko Shimizu says when asked to compare her new home in New York, New York to her hometown of Tokyo, Japan. Everything else is different. If they were similar, I would not have moved, I don’t think. Tokyo is the center of Japan. NY is the center of the world, where everyone in every field who has ambitions comes.”
Yuko Shimizu made the journey across the Pacific in 1999, when she decided to leave her job as a businesswoman and pursue a career as an artist. She did public relations for illustrators for a number of years before she realized that she didn’t want to help artists sell their illustrations; she wanted to make illustrations of her own. But art was always something that she was interested in.
As a preteen, Shimizu was a fan of manga, Japanese comics. Not only did her childhood love of manga teach her how to draw, but it also gave her an appreciation for the artist’s work ethic. One of Japan’s best-known manga-ka is Leiji Matsumoto, who left a lasting impression on young Shimizu. “[What I love about Matsumoto is] that he stuck with his gun,” Shimizu says of the artist, who persistently wrote space operas and drew in an unconventionally crude style. “He had long years of not being successful, but he never changed to accommodate others, he kept working on what he loved till the audience realized how good he was in what he did. It is a basic philosophy as a true artist.”
It is also Shimizu’s philosophy, and it was the key to launching her career as an editorial illustrator. After graduating from New York’s School of the Visual Arts in 2003, Shimizu brought her portfolio to the New York Times and presented the art director with a book she made called “Letters of Desire”. The book, whose pages consisted of erotic alphabet-themed images ranging from “Anesthetized Adolescent ” to “Zip Up” and “Zip Down”, was turned down by the art director because it was too risqué for the New York Times to use. Shimizu left the interview jobless, but the art director called her back the same day and hired her anyway after he saw the (PG-13 rated) illustrations on her website, www.yukoart.com.
It’s hard to tell whether the alphabet book landed her the job or not in the end, but it certainly got her noticed, which is half of the battle. “Definitely [show] the samples of what you love to do and what you do best. That is how you get work,” she says. “General samples won’t stick to people’s mind. If your work don’t stand out, you will never be noticed.” Shimizu adds, “Be a good business person, not so much as a person who does good business, but as a person who's responsible, organized, polite, respect others... just like anything else you do.”
Since landing that job, Shimizu’s career took off at a rapid rate. In 2005, I first saw Yuko Shimizu’s work from an illustration she did for Rolling Stone Magazine’s review of the latest album by rock n’ roll super group Garbage. The image of the band’s redheaded songstress, clad in a melting candy cane-striped dress, stuck in my mind as a very striking illustration. “I didn't know anything about the band,” Shimizu admits, “but when they called and told me it fits how I work, I trusted their intuition. I did tons of research, and I really like the look of the band. I only did one sketch, and one revision before final. It was quite an easy, but really exciting and fun job. They pretty much let me do what I wanted.”
The piece was since accepted into the Society’s of Illustrators, along with an illustration she did for PLAYBOY for which she was awarded a gold medal. Clients of Shimzu’s this past year range from all over the world and all across the board, including SPIN, Readers Digest, Cosmo Girl!, and The New Yorker. She also had work published in many books, including Illustration Now!, It’s a Matter of Illustration, and Handmade.
When looking at Shimizu’s body of work, a number of recurring elements are prevalent. Aside from the aforementioned synthesis of East and West, Shimizu has her own repertoire of esthetic choices that turn up in her work, including striped clothing and gooey, oily slicks of liquid. However, these recurring elements aren’t conscious trademarks of Shimizu.
“I have no intention of putting a stamp onto my work. I never do things just because it is cool. Everything I put in has to either have certain meanings, or visually work,” she says. “I started drawing stripes because I like just drawing black and white… and stripes make it easier for me to add three dimensionality to black and white work. I needed more different patterns, so I started drawing polka dots; I usually use it to add texture to water. I am kind of over it, although I still love to draw them.” So for Shimizu, these are more characteristics of a period of her art than they are characteristics of her as an artist as a whole. “I despise repetition (doing things over because you know it works), and I felt I was doing too much of them for a while. It is actually meditative to draw dots and stripes, but I decided I had to take break before people start thinking I can only make images work with dots and stripes.”
Shimizu just doesn’t want to get pigeonholed for her artistic sensibilities; she doesn’t want to get pigeonholed thematically, either. Like the craze for Japanese prints of the Nineteenth Century, Shimizu’s career comes during another period a West obsessed with Japan. All things Japanese are enjoying a level of popularity in the West like never before. Walk into any bookstore chain in America and increasingly larger sections are reserved for translated manga; flip on the television and you’ll find a steady market for animé, or Japanese cartoons. Coincidentally, the surge of Japanese culture in all levels of the U.S. came at around the same time that Shimizu landed in New York, when animé like the groundbreaking Cowboy Bebop aired on American TVs and kids were clamoring for Pokémon.
“I don't read manga, and I hate Japanese anime, so it has nothing to do with me really,” Shimizu says at the mention of a fad. “People love to make connections just because my work reminds them of traditional Japanese art or animé, but I really don't care for that.” It is hard not to make such a connection, however. Several of Shimizu’s illustrations make a reference to the poster child of the first Japanese boom, Katsushika Hokusai and his seminal print “In the Hollow of a Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa”. In one, a woman decked out in a rising sun bikini and geisha hairstyle sips a cool drink while Hokusai’s wave crashes behind her. In another, nude figures are swallowed by what looks like a living creature in the shape of the tsunami.
Furthermore, Shimizu’s artistic process references the prints of Hokusai’s era as well. She inks her drawings with Japanese calligraphy brushes, which add a line quality to her work that is at once imperfect and elegant, and distinctly Eastern. She then infuses Twenty-first Century technology by scanning her art into Photoshop for coloring. With the aid of a computer, Shimizu is able to make her illustrations as new or old looking as she likes. Some of her illustrations could easily pass for woodcut prints, with layers of color that look faded with a grain like texture.
Are these allusions tongue-in-cheek?
“I am certainly not trying to ride the wave,” Shimizu says, pun possibly intended. “I am too old to think of jumping onto the trend. I lived too long and experienced too much to think of those short-term things that won't last. I just do what I love to do, and keep changing, experimenting and taking risks so my life is always going to be fun and exciting. If I get attention because of Japanese boom, I really can do without that attention.”
Shimizu is experimenting and branching out as an artist, and isn’t just limiting her career as an editorial illustrator. “I am an illustrator right now, but I do not categorize myself or don't limit, or draw lines between what people categorizes,” Shimizu asserts. “We are a type of people who always want to try something new. It will be the end of the world if we get bored of what we are doing. So, I don't think I will stick to just illustration.
“I just finished working on my first products. They are being manufactured in Australia. It is a very small company, but run by great people, so I wanted to try it out,” she says. The company, called NookArt, will be producing wallets, journals, and greetings cards emblazoned with Shimizu’s art. Another application of her art was a Silver Medal she won for SPECTRUM, a science fiction/ fantasy annual. “My work is not Sci-Fi fantasy, but I wanted to prove that something different can be applied to that old-fashioned field. I was a fantasy Sci-Fi geek as a child, so I would love to go back to my roots if they allow me to.”
Science Fiction conventions? The backs of wallets? What else is left for Yuko Shimizu to put her art on? At this point, Yuko Shimizu is a lot like her creation, Panda Bear Girl. There’s no stopping her.