In the Studio With Sena Kwon

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 9, 2022

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the tablet?  

Sena: Pen first. I have been drawing since elementary school, when I had no access to smartphones or tablets. I appreciate this analogue time that offered me various mediums such as watercolors, inks, crayons, conte and more. I find some of my students are not used to traditional mediums in which they can’t undo their strokes on paper. I encourage them to not be afraid of messing up drawings by accidentally swiping with their palms and regretting “mistakes”. It’s all part of the practice. 

PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work? 

Sena: I live in a neighborhood called Crown Heights, right next to Prospect Park, in Brooklyn. It is my favorite place to go for a walk every day. Not only is it full of greenery, but I feel safe and welcomed in my neighborhood that celebrates cultural diversity in seasonal changes. 


PR: Please describe your work space and how it contributes to the artist's basic condition of working alone?

Sena: I have been working in my home studio since finishing grad school. As much as I love socializing with colleagues, I need my own space where I can work in peace. I used to get narcoleptic in the daytime depending on my stress level. I blamed myself for a while for not staying awake after getting enough sleep. Now I cope with it much better by taking power naps without anyone around to notice.  

PR: What is the most indispensable item in your studio? 

Sena: It would be my laptop. I initiate my process with traditional mediums using inks or charcoals on paper and then I colorize the scanned images, with my process usually finishing with digital touches. So my work space can be anywhere. Like many illustrators, I like the nomadic lifestyle my laptop offers. 


PR: Do you keep a sketchbook? Digital or analog? If yes, how does that contribute to your work process?

Sena: I stopped carrying sketchbooks when it felt like it was not for me anymore. Recently I have been drawing on random papers and keeping the ones I like. It turned into a huge pile of drawings, but I feel free from working in a same-size book. At some point in the future, I might go back to sketchbooks. 

PR: Do you use photographic reference materials very much? If yes, how do you avoid the pitfalls that can arise when working from reference?

Sena: I use photographic references only for details and scale. For me, dependence on photographic references barely leaves any room for creativity since I get too caught up with hyper-realistic expressions. 


PR: If you could work in just one medium for a year what would that medium be?

Sena: I would pick pencils! I already had an experimental project of making a small booklet entirely done with graphite drawings. The zine (above), called ‘Flip, Flop, Tick, Tock’, is a documentary that portrays one whole year of an illustrator’s daily life in spreads of 12 months and 24 pages of hours. I remember spending a whole month working only with various graphic mediums. I took a long break from pencils right after the project, but am still proud of myself for not giving up. I would like to do more projects playing with graphite textures.

 PR: What kind of breaks do you take to clear your head when working to a deadline?

Sena: Besides going for a long walk in a park, I don’t have an effective break in the middle of work. I would rather take a long break in between projects than small breaks between sessions. I used to work as a graphic designer in a college design lab that collaborated with big corporates in South Korea. It was a very hectic work environment, chasing after deadlines under heavy hierarchy and work loads. It grew on me as my work habit to power through any project. Sometimes I wish I could work in a more relaxed state, but deadlines and relaxation don’t get along so well with my projects. 

PR: I noticed that mythological subjects are a big influence in your art. Can you tell the readers where your fascination with these characters arose and how they inform your work?

Sena: I have lived in different countries including Japan, Australia, Canada, and now in the U.S. since I was a child. Art and movies were a small window that introduced me and my sister into new cultures, and mythologies were a great example of storytelling to understand each culture. It naturally led us to become visual and verbal storytellers.

I also enjoy metaphors in mythologies as a way to analyze unexplainable phenomena, and situations in storytelling instead of more theoretical approaches.

PR: Do you see a lot of museum and gallery shows? What’s the best takeaway from seeing art shows rather than looking at online media, books, magazines?

Sena: I value both gallery visits and print and digital materials such as books, graphic novels and animations. I see that people are excited with the idea that the global pandemic is about to end. I am still cautious about outdoor activities in public places, although I miss art spaces. Hopefully I’ll participate in more social activities over the summer in galleries, museums and studios.

PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

Sena: I feel my work is about to end when I start removing components from the layout and making more space. Most of my works are highly detailed, and it took me a long time to notice that my work looks better with empty space.  

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from in your work?

Sena: I can think of more inspirations that boost my creativity besides cinema, mythologies and metaphors. For example, drag is one of my favorite forms of art to celebrate both femininity and masculinity. I enjoy the humor of it and their passion for fashion, makeup and lip syncs. Those queens' bottomless effort motivates me on paper and screen.


PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment?

Sena: I would love to work more on projects about public health, specifically reproductive health, producing materials about women’s bodies and rights. I had a great experience working with the Baltimore City Health Department on brochures on STIs that encourage patients to celebrate their lives after infections. I wish to have more opportunities to use visual language to deliver more accurate information on this subject and to become a voice for diversity for the community. 

Sena Kwon is an award-winning illustrator and comic artist from South Korea, currently living and teaching in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Illustration Practice and a BFA in Visual Communications Design from the University of Kyunghee in South Korea. She enjoys visual narrative mainly using ink and graphite materials, especially portraying international myths, religious parables and carrying a voice for feminism and diversity. Her biggest inspiration comes from Sprint Prints (Chunhwa in Korean or Shunga in Japanese, pornographic images made in medieval time in East Asia) and visual storytelling. Sena’s upcoming solo exhibition will be at the Gallery JijiJyangin in Paju book city, South Korea in mid-December. The show will mainly present her relationship with body images, and self-love.
Social Media: @kwonsenart    inthestudiowith