Intro by Shanon Weltman / Interview by Ray Jones
Illustrator and current New Yorker Cun Shi (pronounced SHUN, not KUN) might be a new kid on the block, but he’s ahead of the game. His portraits capture an incredible realness in both likeness and essence. His surreal illustrations look like stills from experimental anime films, or frames from an old timey comic strip like “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” Ray Jones talked with this recent SVA MFA alumni to see what it’s like to be Cun.
RAY JONES: What is your earliest memory of wanting to be an artist?
CUN SHI: My earliest memory… I would probably say my earliest memory was back when I was a kid. Both my parents are artists; my dad is a painter, my mom, she was a ballet dancer. My dad was always working at home, he also collected a lot of stuff. Junk that he found all over the place, y’know antiques, stuff like that. So, at the time when I was in that environment, seeing that stuff, that was probably the first memory that I can recall thinking, ‘This is really cool’. I wouldn’t say it was like a serious consideration at the time, but I think I was more keen to becoming an Astronomer or something. [Laughs] But, I didn’t really give it any serious thought despite the fact that I grew up in an artistic environment. Until I was around 21.
RJ: So wait, wow, what were you thinking of doing up until then?
CS: I got into graphic design way before I started to really seriously do any kind of drawing or doing any kind of formal training. It was something that I picked up, just as a kid, when I wasn’t playing computer games. I got my first PC when I was… I can’t even remember how old. I started playing Star Fox and Doom on it, specifically Doom. [Laughs]
RJ: Ah yes [Laughs]
CS: Somewhere along the way I got a copy of Photoshop and started messing around, y’know. That’s what I was mostly doing before I ever considered drawing, up until then it was mostly graphic design, self-taught. Sort of just playing around and experimenting with stuff.
RJ: Was there a particular artist that woke you up to ‘Hey I can do this for a living, I want to do this?’
CS: Yeah, definitely. My father being among the first, but at the time I wasn’t too aware of anybody that was well known. It was mostly local people that I met. One of the huge artists that had an influence on me at the time was a really good friend of mine who was a local artist in Beijing. He was making a living doing art and selling his paintings. He wasn’t incredibly well off but he was very dedicated and he loved what he did. Actually, when I went back to Beijing after high school, we actually went on a road trip. We kind of backpacked our way half way across the country. I brought a sketchbook with me and we spent six months on the road. It was during that period where I found my wake up call and realized that this was something I really enjoyed doing. It was there with me all along growing up, even though I was more interested in graphic design as a profession. I was always doodling, sketching. Even when I was in high school, I was more or less known as ‘The Art Kid’. I didn’t play sports or anything, I was pretty scrawny and nerdy [Laughs].
CS: I think that was always there, it just took a little more to bring it out.
RJ: What artists today do you feel are speaking a similar sort of visual language as the one you’re expressing now?
CS: There’s quite a few, but most recently I’ve been looking at a lot of work by a lot of Japanese artists. One artist that speaks a lot to me is a Japanese graphic designer by the name of Tadanori Yokoo. He’s been influencing my work quite a bit. I got to know his work through David Sandlin, it was during the [SVA] MFA course. Another artist that I look at a lot is Peter Doig, who I believe is Scottish. He does a lot of very surreal watercolors and things like that. I also have a library at my studio, I have quite a few in there. It’s a little bit all over the place, I try not to focus on one specific artist. Sometimes I’ll see paintings that really hit the spot for me. There’s another Japanese artist, his name is Makoto Aida. He did this huge painting with all these people in a blender. Blended. It’s pretty… bloody. [Laughs]
RJ: I think I’ve seen that one!
CS: Yeah, visually, it’s a very powerful painting. When I saw it I was like ‘Oh my god, [Laughs] this is crazy.’ I get inspired by stuff that’s on the edge a little bit. You know, not your everyday contemporary serene landscape or stuff like that. If a painting has a very powerful visual punch to it, I’ll definitely check it out. Another artist that really inspires me is Giger. H.R. Giger, the guy that did Alien. I really enjoy his work. I got a book of his a few years ago at a flea market somewhere. It was a pretty extensive book with a lot of interviews. I was aware of his paintings before, but I never really actually learned about him until that book. Just, wow, this guy is a genius.
RJ: Let’s talk about work now a little bit. Do you have any rituals or common practices before you start a piece?
CS: I clean my studio. [Laughs] Yeah, I try to keep my working space clean, not too cluttered. It wasn’t always like this, but I kind of discovered that when I clean up my studio before I start a project, in a way, it’s almost like getting rid of whatever, the negative energy, or just anything that’s lingering in my mind. Just sort of starting a fresh template. At some point while I was working I realized it really helped. I kept at it and it became a ritual.
RJ: Cool, cool. How about walking us through your process? Picking one piece in particular if you wouldn’t mind telling us more about it.
CS: Yeah sure, my process differs a little bit, depending on if I’m doing personal work or commercial work. Commercial work, for example, a piece that I recently did for The New Yorker. The project was for the Electric Zoo Festival, which was a huge electronic music event. So basically, what I do for a commercial project once I get the assignment, and I’ve read through the copy and have a good idea what the director is looking for, I’ll usually start doing pretty heavy research. Read books, look at photos, anything that I can get my hands on that’s related to the project at hand. I try to find something that will start a chain reaction in my mind. At this point, sometimes I get an idea instantly, other times I rely on this process to help me find that idea. Once that happens, I’ll start sketching and there’s more notations rather than actual drawings. They’re pretty rough. When I start to refine it, it’s usually started very rough, kind of gestural, structural forms. The composition and what not. Sometimes when I draw, I will draw and then flip it over because when I stare at a drawing for a very long time, it sort of gets engraved in my head. I start to not notice how bad it actually is.
RJ: Ah [Laughs] yeah, I understand that.
CS: I guess the drawing phase, getting everything down until you ink it… you ink your stuff too right?
CS: Yeah, getting it to that point takes a while. When I flip it over and get a new perspective on it, then I’m like ‘Oh, shit, I have to redraw this and that’. Eventually once I’ve refined the drawing, I’ll use a lightbox and refine it again. Then, I’ll finally ink it. Once I ink it, I’ll start coloring. Most of the time I color digitally, usually with just two colors, or sometimes I will start with just one, and try to keep things simple. Depending on how I feel, I’ll do a value study with just that one color, kind of letting it carry on from there. I rarely have a color scheme in mind when I start working, sometimes I do, but most times I work on the go. For personal work, I usually let the idea come to me instead. Going back to what I was saying about having ideas accumulate through research, I try to be on the lookout for stuff that inspires me out in the world. It could be a book, a line I read somewhere, a photo in a magazine, it’s tough to predict but when it’s there I like to make a mental note of it. Sometimes I will actively search for it, other times it will accumulate to the point where the idea just comes out. Usually when that happens, it happens very automatically. I could be at least where I don’t expect. I could be sitting on the toilet, [Laughs] going for a walk somewhere, and it just hits me.
RJ: Looking back at this Electric Zoo illustration, did the art director think about all those little creatures down at the bottom and all that? Or is that all from you?
CS: That was from me, but I think the AD contributed a big part. This particular art director is Jordan Awan. You know, when I did it, it was part of the rough sketch I sent him. He liked it a lot. I didn’t know whether he would go for it because I gave him three sketches. They were all really different. He really liked it and encouraged it. For this particular project and the other pieces that we work together on, he gives me a very good amount of freedom to do what I want. Which is something I really appreciate from Jordan. And, for some reason he very often picks the sketch that I want to do the most.
RJ: [Laughs] That’s good.
CS: [Laughs] Yeah, so I was very fortunate that he picked this one. It was the one that I wanted to do the most.
RJ: Well it came out great, man, definitely.
CS: Thank you.
RJ: What is one crucial piece of advice you’ve learned over the last few years? It could be art related, it could be otherwise.
CS: One of the most important things I learned when I was in the MFA program. It was a big help to push my work to another level. I would say, learning to do the kind of work that I really wanted to do. To set up the work I should be doing. When I first got into the program, I don’t know if you felt the same way before you got in, but my work was kind of all over the place. At the time I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I brought a bit of skills I’d accumulated but I just didn’t know how to put it together. I would see people’s work and I would be like, ‘this is what I should be doing’. Basically, I think at the time, I was seeing through other people’s labor. I really didn’t have a clue as to how to make that true on my own. I think seeing people’s hard work come to fruition, the research and the stuff they’ve done, it was in a way kind of intimidating at first. I kind of felt lost and really was kind of driven by other people’s work ethic. Something that was internal. After I got through the program I realized just having the courage and confidence to go internally and draw from yourself. The result that comes from that is much, much better, than anything I’d done in the past; it feels right. I’m being true to myself and my voice, what I want to express, rather than something that comes from elsewhere. I would say, learning just to do things that I wanted to do and not for the sake of trying to get jobs. I remember having an interview with Nathan Fox and he sat me down and was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ This was like the beginning of the first semester. [Laughs] I didn’t have a damn clue. I was like, ‘Editorial?’ [Laughs] You know? I don’t even think I knew what editorial was at the time. I would start to do stuff, thinking maybe this is what will get me work and what not. I was totally heading in the wrong direction and I didn’t realize it. It took me sometime to realize I should really just do what I want to do to get enjoyment out of it.
RJ: That’s really good. I really connect with a lot of that. That was definitely a lot of my experience too during MFA. A lot hero worship from afar and ‘Yeah! I’m on the same track, so I must be heading to the same destination.’ [Laughs]
CS: Yeah, yeah [Laughs]
RJ: But I didn’t see all behind the scenes thinking and planning like you’re talking about. Definitely. [Laughs]
CS: Yeah, it’s crazy. Sometimes it’s like you don’t get a chance to meet these people and you feel like they’re kind of doing the same thing, so you must be headed in the right direction. Yeah, there was definitely a lot of hero worship. [Laughs] Just seeing people’s work, I was just like ‘Ahhh! I wish I could start doing stuff like that!’ Not realizing at the time, it was completely the wrong mindset and thought process.
RJ: Alright now, we’re on to the last question. This one is kind of off topic. Not related to anything else: What was the last physical plastic music CD that you bought?
CS: Last physical plastic music CD?! [Laughs] Oh man, you mean like Sam Goody type? [Laughs] For me, maybe when they had Tower Records?
RJ: When was this?
CS: I think it might be a West Coast thing, it’s like Sam Goody, just more of an exclusive record shop.
RJ: Is it like Virgin Records?
CS: Yeah, a little bit similar, not as big. A little bit more Mom and Pop sort of, which is cool.
RJ: Oh, okay.
CS: The last hard copy music that I bought… Actually, the last piece of music I bought was an old Art Tatum composition from a street vendor on Prince & Spring, when I was on my way back to the studio from a live drawing session. There were at least ten crates of records and I couldn’t help but take a look. I’m not a huge Tatum fan but I really dig the cover art… and I got a great deal for it.