Shawna X is an all around innovative graphic and visual artist that aims to create a world of her own through her art. From designing posters to pins, to even swimsuits, there is not much Shawna can't do. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Shawna has lived in major cities like Chicago and now, New York City where she is working the creative hustle full time and has quite the impressive resume. She has worked for a number of companies like Nike, adidas, Twitter and Warby Parker. Not only is she constantly pushing her creativity to the limit, she is also always staying conscious of herself and what is around her as a way to fuel her art. We got a chance to catch up with Shawna about what inspires her, living in NYC, and how her identity and spirituality come to play in her art. Check it out below!
What inspired you to pursue art?
When I was 4, I made up a story about a pig that thought balloons were grapes, so he ate them and floated into the sky. I didn’t know how to write, so I drew the sequence of the story in comic form and shared it with my parents. They loved it. Then I drew more. That was my first introduction to art.
Drawing was always my personal way to connect with others. Instead of buying presents, I’d draw something for friends' birthdays. Soon, other kids started asking me to draw a favorite cartoon character, a portrait, their pets. I learned to make friends through that exchange in elementary school, as I barely spoke English and was one of one five minorities in my entire school. Art made me connect that bridge between me and everyone else, especially when I was most alienated.
Throughout my life, my sketchbooks led and broke through so many blockages of communication, from hard-to-deal emotions to language barriers. My art has taught me more than I can consciously teach myself, my favorite works often resonating an afterthought from an emotional breakdown or even people watching at a bar.
I suppose I never really pursued art as a career - I pursued it to understand myself and in turn, understand people. I owe the universe for this talent I was given that I can express myself in ways that can also be inspiring to others.
You have created a unique lane for yourself through your work, was there ever pressure to conform to industry standards?
As a creative, there is a constant struggle between answering to your craft and maneuvering who you are in the set ways formed by society or people around you. I believe our role as visual creators is something that much of society doesn’t understand, thus, in turn, undervalue, reject or take from our work for their own benefit. In addition, money, security and acceptance always comes to play for us which creates that pressure to conform to standards. Recently, I created work for a big corporate client, who later informed me that my work wasn’t included because of the ‘explicit’ nature of the pieces I post to my Instagram. If that had happened to me earlier on in my career, I would’ve completely restructured what I was sharing to make sure it fits the mainstream standards and satisfy the clients who can pay me.
Since I’m a lot more comfortable at this point of my life, I have realized the importance of separation - professional and personal - and that is the biggest relief from that pressure to ‘sell out’. I also realized that being paid doesn’t mean you are gaining respect; that respect comes by standing strong in what you represent, your voice, in addition to passion and perseverance.
Personally, I don’t make work for everyone; I want to focus on that small, niche group of people who are inspired or receive fulfillment from what I make. Professionally, I do not shy away from creating for a mainstream audience if it calls for it - I never shoot down an opportunity unless it seriously derails me from myself.
Was it difficult making the move from Portland to NYC? How did you overcome some of the challenges you faced?
I had moved to Chicago from Portland prior to New York for a long relationship. During that time I worked mainly in advertising but never quite felt fulfilled creatively. That boxed-up feeling challenged me to pursue on my own: I had my own greeting card line, learned metal-smithing and sold jewelry, learned photography (especially helpful for those product/lookbook shots), sold vintage clothing with a friend, tried to participate in at least one gallery show per year, etc. I tried, experimented and failed. When some of those endeavors faded, I noticed I was still drawing, it was the one thing that persisted when everything - I mean everything - ended.
I basically did the thing people do when they are lost, wanting a change but not sure of what - cut ties to everything that gave you security but made you indifferent, then move to NYC. With no prospect of work or friends, I found a craigslist apartment in Manhattan, Chinatown and arrived at 2am. My first meal was a wonton soup at the dingy restaurant downstairs that was definitely sitting in room temp from a few days before. New York was daunting - a bustling city with so many people but everybody is lonely as hell. It’s a city that chews you up and tests you - your character, values, and relationships. Ultimately that test showed me I was a lot more resilient than I thought I was, and through that I gained a profound self-love. That sort of confidence made me realize that this art thing is something I really should focus on. Thankfully through this process, I’ve met some amazing individuals who are supportive and help me through all the creative ruts I weave in and out of, especially my current boyfriend who is also a creative and understands me through this process so well.
I believe my experience, which feels pretty great so far, is the result of conscious alignment: once you are aligned within, the world will align with you - not always so directly, but it has ways to give you hints that yes, you’re doing fine, because you’re doing what makes you feel good for yourself.
“Start cutting through the bullsh*t and realize what is being fed to you on a daily basis and actually analyze and criticize what you like, what you don’t like, and what you aspire to do.”
Do you draw a lot of inspiration from the creative culture in NYC?
Definitely. It’s such an amazing place for all sorts of culture here – you can have a job in any field if you want it. You can live any lifestyle you want as long as you can afford it. This place is expensive, and people really have to hustle to maintain a life here, so the energy is something I’ve never experienced before. I have a lot of respect and are inspired by people who craft a life that is unique to them, people who aren’t bound by what others think is acceptable, who go for it and prove everyone wrong; you meet tons of people like that here.
Your work uses the silhouette of the female body as a muse quite often, is there a specific message you’re trying to get across to your audience?
I dug up some work from when I was 13, and then again from when I was 21, and found my fascination with the female body has never faltered. My family is quite suppressive of that subject matter and still won’t talk about sex or related issues with me. I do feel that by disregarding our sexuality, we are ignoring an essential aspect that makes us who we are - which is the reason why I enjoyed exploring it even more. I’ve had people criticize my work, especially the pieces with more sexual nature regarding the female body, as for ‘shock value’ or for attention. Honestly, art for me is an expression: it can be serious, funny, abstract, or totally crude - but ultimately it makes people think; and for anyone who regards this type of work as explicit, well then I challenge why they would find certain aspects in life that is so natural - and so human - to be so difficult to accept.
Design relies heavily on deadlines and staying productive, how do you keep yourself focused and organized?
This depends a lot on projects. I just signed on with an agent in LA (H+ Creative), so that process will be quite streamlined for me. In the past, for client work I usually always start with initial contracts and timeline dialed in. I will commit to a timeline, a deposit, a license agreement before I start a project. This usually helps me organize my work from ‘fun’ to more professionally oriented. If you do not have this aspect of work in creative, then a lot can be misinterpreted. It’s good to set up a strict protocol before the fun happens. Though I have to say there are times when deadlines are challenged - and when I’m traveling or focused on personal matters it can be hard to keep things on track, but I do my best.
What does “X” symbolize in the grand scheme of your brand?
It’s a homage to my Chinese name - Xiayun (Sia-yoon, translates into Summer Rue). For a long time I was ashamed of my identity that manifested when nobody knew how to pronounce my name - so when deciding a screen name for deviant art in 2002, I didn’t want to shed that aspect of me but didn’t necessarily want to confront it either. It is a nod that both cultures, although I do not fully identify with neither, makes me who I am.
You have a third eye symbol on your website, what are some books that brought you closer to yourself and your spirituality?
Power of Now is a really good read about staying in the moment and not letting thought take over intuition. I really also like The Alchemist as you can read it at every phase of your life and find another meaning. For a more grounded way to approach life and looking at beauty in darkness, shadows, and all that is subdued by bright shiny things (but disregarding some of the sexist and imperialist view) - In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. I’ve also been rereading In Watermelon Sugar and other poems by Richard Brautigan. I think writers, especially Richard Brautigan, are artists as they paint a very specific portrait or scenery from their mind - that to me is spirituality in itself.
Has there ever been an artist that has had a great impact on your outlook?
When I was starting out, I was especially influenced by Asian women artists, such as Audrey Kawasaki or Stella Im Hultberg. these days as my work strays away from pretty, fairy-like feminine drawings to a more simple take on complex objects, I realized a huge influence was my former Digital Arts professor and artist Michael Salter (michael-salter.com) . He is known to create very simple, minimal illustrations and installations of huuuuuge robots and planes made of styrofoam. He was the first person to introduce me to the art of simplicity, and how to create very complex stories with basic strokes and forms. He was also the one who pushed me to pursue this direction in life, so with that, I owe a lot to him and the teachers I’ve had who have helped formed my path.
What advice would you give to other aspiring multimedia artists?
I think it’s important at a young age to really start cutting through the bullsh*t. To realize what is being fed to you on a daily basis and to actually analyze and criticize what you like, what you don’t like, and what you aspire to do. There is so much sh*t out there in the world, and to define your own voice and style in the world of so much shit, you have to cut through the crap to what speaks to you.
What is one of your goals for 2016?
I have a solo show called Netscape as part of BOOM Bushwick, an annual event that takes over Bushwick, Brooklyn, showcasing various artists, filmmakers, musicians, and vendors. The show is September 29 at Powrplnt, a really great space dedicated to events focusing on POC, LGBTQXI and youth communities - it's also a space where teens can come take classes from artists for free. My show is a personal exploration of my 'fall' into the digital platform in the 90s. I will be painting a mural and large canvases, something I have not explored in awhile as most of my work is digital.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
In light of a new wave of the feminist movement, MISSBISH asks interesting women in various industries to share their stories. It’s pretty awesome to be amongst some DGAF ladies who are making it work for them, regardless of how they are identified by anyone else.
Photos by: Carmen Chan