The Q&A: Yuko Shimizu

By Peggy Roalf   Monday August 5, 2013

As an artist, what are some of your favorite things about living and working in New York?

I spent part of my childhood outside of New York City, went to middle school in Westchester, and came into Manhattan every Saturday for Japanese school, very close to where I live now, when that area was very sketchy. For me, New York was always my second home. I am more comfortable here than in Tokyo, where I felt I never got accepted when I went back there for high school. In Japan, it is very difficult when you stand out. I had very different life experiences, way of thinking, way I presented myself and the way I spoke (not good English, but not great Japanese either). So, from age 15 to the time I came back again to New York, I was always felt like an outsider.

In New York, difference is appreciated, not shunned. There are people from all over the world, who think, talk and act differently. And all is good.

Most importantly, people who have big dreams, and are ready to work hard toward those goals, flock to this city. I love it here, and I love those people who always keep me inspired and motivated.

How and when did you first become interested in art and illustration?

I think it came gradually. I had been drawing ever since I was a kid. Like many other kids in Japan, I initially thought of becoming a comics artist. But then realized I love making pictures, but not so much telling stories in sequence. So I gradually came to an idea of pursuing illustration.

What was your first commercial assignment?

My first job was exactly 11 years ago, in late June 2002, for the Village Voice. It was a small b&w spot illustration for AD Minh Uong, who now works at New York Times (whom I still work with).  And why is 11 years is an anniversary, not 10 years? Because, it is the first time that my second career (illustration) exceeds the time I worked in my first career (corporate PR), which I did before moving to NY to enroll in SVA to study art. 

What is your favorite part of the creative process? 

Research before coming up with good ideas (it is a reminiscent of time I spent in corporate PR field. Research was everything). Also the actual physical act of drawing with brush and ink on large watercolor paper. Mark making is very meditative.

Do you keep a sketchbook? What is the balance between art you create on paper versus In the computer?

I haven’t kept a sketchbook in years. I do all my sketches on archival quality copy paper, then file them in binders. I have kept every single drawing from every single job I have ever done. I am on binder number 39 right now. I use my computer a lot, but for me, it is just a coloring tool. It is where it feels like work: a necessary evil. Whereas the physical act of drawing on paper is fun.

What is your favorite time of day for working? How do you spend the first hour of your work day?

I tend to work long hours but I'm most productive in the morning, as well as after 5 pm, when there’s less distraction from E-mails, calls, FedEx and UPS. I recently started getting up earlier to come to studio (photo above) earlier than usual.

The first hour of my work day is usually spent answering e-mails, checking and replying comments on my Facebook page, updating my blog and websites whenever necessary. An hour or two can easily go by like that. And I am still trying to figure out the most efficient way of going about this process.  More and more social media stuff goes on, but I am not sure if it gets easier.

Hair Tree, 2013, for AI CIO Magazine, AD: SooJin Buzelli. 

Who and what are some of your strongest influences?

My idea of influences is that, while you are still in school you should get inspirations and influences from anyone and everything in the field. Then after you become professional, leave them behind and get inspired from other things. At this point, I believe the biggest inspirations come from everyday life and from travel.

I find that when I travel, I'm fascinated by public and mass transit systems, and that each one works in a completely different logic. It doesn’t make any sense at first, then once you get it, it totally makes sense. I was just in Bogota, Colombia to teach a workshop. Local illustrators took me on a tour by public transportation. Sort of semi-illegal min-busses that run ultra-fast on the highway with doors half open—that was an adventure!

What are some of your favorite blogs/websites for inspiration?

Internet can suck you in and can waste so much time, so I don’t surf around as much. I check a few good articles daily on Fast Company’s design site, which I find it fantastic, with design, technology and inventions. Another one I love is Yatzer, a Greek design site where I always find great inspirations. And, I am not sure if it counts as website, but I streamline WNYC radio station on my computer all day long. I haven’t owned a TV in years, and all the news pretty much comes from WNYC. I have picked almost all the books I read and albums I listened to through interviews and reviews on WNYC. I depend a lot on them (and I am a sustaining member).

Has social media been a boon for self-promotion? Or do you have methods you’ve always used that still work?

When I started in 2002, there already were websites and e-mails, but clients still called up for portfolio drop offs.  It is so much easier for the newer generation to have their work seen through websites and social media. Social media does not come naturally to me, but I do try to utilize them as much as possible. At this point in my career, it is hard to judge what exactly draws clients to hire me for new projects, but I do definitely feel the help of the social media. Illustration is art, but it is also a small business. And you have to be your own publicist whether you like it or not. So, whenever I write posts on blog, Facebook or on Behance, I do try and think like a PR person from my previous career. 

Where did your idea for your recent book Barbed Wire Baseball originate? What was the most difficult part about getting from idea to finished art?

My first children’s book just got published in May by Abrams. It is a strange feeling, because (probably unlike many artists) to illustrate a kid's book was never on my wish list. I didn’t write the book (it was written by the very experienced Marissa Moss), so the idea obviously did not get originated by me.

It was very hard, to say the least. In the midst of the project, I got really sick (probably from stress and overworking) with severe ringing in my ears. I am so used to working on a short-term projects, creating a book from start to finish  (with the page count increasing in the middle of the project), it felt like there was no end. It also involved a long and tedious research process on WWII and Japanese interment camps. (One regret was that I didn’t have a chance to visit Gila River internment camp, which I would have done if I had more time). But, to see this published in a full book form made me forget all the stress I had to go through. It meant a lot to me when the owner of Books of Wonder personally told me how much he loved the illustrations. Maybe it’s like a new mom who says it is so hard she will never have a baby again, then you see the baby and all the pain goes away.

For The Progressive Calendar, 2009. To commemorate the legalization of interracial marriage; AD: Nick Jahlen.

Where do you teach—and what do you like best about teaching?

I have been teaching at SVA’s BFA Illustration department ever since I finished SVA’s MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program in 2003. So it’s been 10 years already. Illustration is a lonely business; we sometimes sit in front of the drawing table or the computer for days without really talking to anyone. Teaching gets me out of my own little bubble. I teach students what I know, but students also teach me about things I don’t know anything about. Besides, it is important to interact with people from a different generation. Younger people are always the windows to the future. I also travel as much as possible for school visits to different US cities, as well as conferences and workshops abroad. It is a great way to see the different part of the world, get to know people and culture, make friends. Life is richer that way!

What advice would you give to a young illustrator who is just getting noticed?

Keep your feet on the ground, and be nice and easy to work with. Think and work like a small business owner. Don’t just look right in front of you. Look further in the future. Where do you want to be in five years, where do you want the industry to be, and what do you should be doing to get there? A long lasting career starts with looking far into the future. 

Yuko Shimizu worked in large corporation in Tokyo doing PR for 11 years before moving to New York to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an artist. She received MFA from School of Visual Arts Illustration as Visual Essay program in 2003, and has been illustrating since. Her work may be seen on The Gap T-shirts, Pepsi cans, DC Comics covers, on the pages of The New York Times, among other places. Newsweek Japan has chosen her as one of “100 Japanese People the World Respects” in 2009. Her work has been featured in American Illustration every year since 2002 (knock on wood).