Yuko Shimizu is a freelance illustrator based in New York City and an illustration instructor at School of Visual Arts. Newsweek Japan has chosen her as one of “100 Japanese People The World Respects” in 2009. Her clients include TIME, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, PLAYBOY, GQ, and my personal favorite, the poster art for Takashi Miike’s newest film, 13 Assassins. We talk about the secret to success, movies, and her dog (who is now internationally famous!). Read below for the full interview…
I can’t tell you amazing it is to see so many artists use their skills to raise funds for Japanese Relief victims. How did the charity art show Dear Japan go? Was it a success?
Yuko: I did not organized it myself, but I took part in it, both by creating a new work to be sold at the show, and as a purchaser of two works exhibited. I have two new artwork for my apartment, and someone else has a new work (of mine) in his apartment, and all the money goes to a good cause, so it was a big success. Win, win for everyone!
It is my understanding that you mentor and teach students who want to illustrate. What is your ‘golden rule’ that you always try and instill in your students?
Yuko: How I teach differs according to a student to a student, because everyone has different strength and weaknesses. But the basic thing I tell them is that it is not talent that make them successful, it is how much they want it and how much they want to work toward it. At this point, I have seen many talented but not hard working or not focused young students not make it, while not so talented but really motivated and hardworking students ending up surpassing everyone and make it at the end.
I think it applies to everything, whether art, film, music, or banking, teaching or running a store. In a way, encouraging, right? Want it, focus, work hard, simply three things that keeps you going.
What prompted you to uproot yourself and come to the United States? Did you have any regrets at first?
Yuko: I am sure your readership is those who love Japanese film and Japanese culture, and I don’t want to disappoint them, but I actually did not like living in Japan.
I won’t get into much details, but I spent four years during my middle school in New York because of my father’s work, and I was never able to adjust back to homogenous, non-individualistic, and somewhat nationalistic characteristics of Japanese culture. 18 years I was back in Japan was a struggle, trying to pretend that I fit in to the culture I don’t fit in. So moving to New York was like coming back to my home town. Although, it wasn’t so easy and there was a lot of struggle, especially in the beginning of coming back (life as a kid and life as an adult is completely different) , but overall, I am happy being back to where I belong, where I express myself.
Your 13 Assassins poster was used EVERYWHERE in Austin, Texas. Is this the start of more mainstream film projects?
Yuko: It is unfortunate not many films are using illustrated posters. I also think it was possible because it was not a mainstream Hollywood movie. In Hollywood, marketing has so much power and also the main actors, so many of the mainstream posters end up just the juxtaposition of main film stars. Too bad that many of the movie posters ended up looking the same. One of my grad school professors once mentioned of why he believes Ocean’s Eleven had a great poster: there were just too many famous actors, and you couldn’t possible put every one of them on the poster [laughs]. That aside, I hope Hollywood realizes how cool it would be to do more of those well designed posters back.
Did Takashi Miike see your poster? Did he have any thoughts?
Yuko: I actually don’t know but I assume he did, right? I know Koji Yakusho did. Because he needed to approve the likeness I did…
What challenges to you face when you create a DUNNY, rather then a regular painting?
Yuko: It was really not a challenge, but more about fun. How often I get to paint on a 3D surface, and not get art directed, or don’t need to draw anything figurative or narrative? But, ok, I didn’t know how to prime the surface of PVC so oil paint stays (I used oil based enamel paint). I hired my former assistant who was a graffiti artist to prime the surface for me. Those graffiti kids know everything I don’t!
You say that ‘success’ as an artist is a state of mind. Are there days where you feel less creative then others? If so, how do you approach these ‘dry’ periods as a creative?
Yuko: Everyone has good days and bad days. I am old enough I learned never to struggle on the bad days. Sitting in front of a blank paper on a bad day is just a really terrible idea. Of course, it you are on a deadline you have to somehow make it work, and that you can do that makes you a ‘pro’, but otherwise, I just walk away from my studio and do other things to change my mood. For example, I worked through the three day weekend of Memorial Day, but I had a very frustrating week last week, and ended up taking Friday to Sunday and also most of Monday off. Staycation! I feel a lot more energized now.
In your line of work as a freelancer, you can pretty much work from anywhere as long as you have access to your tools. What is it about New York that keeps you there?
Yuko: Technically, yes, you are right. But I am a kind of person who has to be in a very comfortable environment to be productive, so I really don’t work when I am away from my studio. New York just feels like home to me, and I don’t feel like moving anywhere anytime soon.
I heard your dog made a big splash in Mexico last summer. Is he going to be featured in anymore upcoming projects?
Yuko: He is also my studio assistant, so he does all my paperwork, and e-mailing. It is actually him who is typing this now, not me [laughs].
In a series of interviews with Asian contemporary artists, I’ve attempted to explore the use of words in contemporary art production. Could you explain what language means to you?
Yuko: Language is very important for me. I know a lot of Americans only speak English, but I believe everyone should at least try to learn a different language. Because learning different languages is about learning the different way of thinking, more important than actually being fluent in another language. I speak Japanese and English fluently, and also studied Cantonese and Spanish a bit though not good enough to speak. (I am more of a Hong Kong movie geek than a Japanese film fan).
For example, in Japanese grammar, you seldom say “I” or “you” in sentences, and you won’t know a sentence is a negative or positive until the end of it. Just by these minor grammar details, you learn so much about deep rooted culture of Japan. Or, Chinese does not have the different words for “live” and “stay”. They only have the word “live”. I always think this explains their mentality why there are so many Chinese immigrants all around the world….Language is power, language is knowledge.
Before you go, could you let us in on any top secret projects you got going on for the remainder of 2011?
Yuko: I am illustrating my very first children’s book. This is what I will be doing most of this summer. I am also working on my very first monograph coming out from German publisher Gestalten (world wide distribution) in the Fall. In fact, they just sent me the layout of the cover, and it looks really really good. I am so excited!!
View the video above to get a front row seat to one of Miss Shimizu’s lectures, and follow the links below to see her internet trail: