Martin Hsu is a horse and two fish, of Chinese blood and Taiwan born. He draws inspiration from nature, animals, blush in the young, and wrinkles in the old. He is grateful for the road that’s been paved by ones before him, and hopes to express his gratitude by taking each step firmly and respectfully. Above all, he loves his family, honors his heritage, treasures his friends, and misses his dog. He is staying busy working with Giant Robot and has an upcoming show entitled ‘Homeroom’ which channels the essence of carefree art as a child. Fingerpaints, crayons, chalk and color pencils. We were all budding artists in childhood, and we had the freedom to create every mystical creature and dream we envisioned. The early years were full of drawings that were hung in the kitchen gallery, where everything we made was welcome and immediately sold into the hearts of our loved ones. We sit down with Martin and get the lowdown on his art and future projects.
Having duel worlds of both Chinese and Taiwanese culture bred into you, how has this altered your vision of art and how it should be appreciated?
Martin: Having been born in Taiwan of Chinese descent has had tremendous impact and influence on my art not for political reasons, but rather family reasons. One of my biggest inspirations comes from my amazing grandparents who have been through times I can’t imagine. I used to sit next to them for hours listening to these incredible stories of poverty, struggle, and war. On top of being extremely inspired, I realized just how incredibly blessed I am. I have nothing but love for these great guardians and can only hope to illustrate my respect through art.
You are in the midst of building a new brand of characters with a new website, merchandise, and designer plush toys. Can you give us a taste of what we expect to see?
Martin: I’m currently in the process of developing an exciting new brand consisted of a group of lovable misfits called CRAKENS. The original designs for these characters first surfaced back in 2004 for an artshow where I created a series of illustrations of creatures inspired by my interest in the environment and love for creepy yet cute creatures.
CRAKENS are made of half land and half sea animals; for example, Crabby Bear is half panda and half crab. They are a result of mass pollution by the humans and are capable of surviving in any environment which makes them the ultimate winners of evolution. CRAKENS are also direct descendants of the Kraken from Greek mythologies and Godzilla. Inspired by their predecessors, they take pride in knocking over power plants and disposing oil tankers to defend their beloved nature and woodland animal friends. The ultimate objective of these peaceful and gentle giants is to restore nature one claw-hug at a time.
Back in 2003, I had the privilege of creating a little red-headed girl called Ruby Gloom which started as T-shirt designs and accessories for Hot Topic. Ruby later became 2 illustrated books published by Abrams and an animated series produced by Mighty Fine and Nelvana. I believe CRAKENS has the same amount of commercial appeal and potential. Currently, I’m very excited to be working with a group of enthusiastic people who believe in the identity of CRAKENS. We’re working together to produce fun, smart, and unique products by using eco-friendly materials which include designer T-shirts, handmade plush toys, limited edition vinyl figures, mobile games, animated shorts, and much more. I highly encourage anyone who’s interested and intrigued by Crabby Bear, Puffer Puss, and Octobunny to visit the official CRAKENS website for all the latest monstrous updates!
You graduated from California State U in Fullerton with a bachelors in the arts; would you recommend formal education for any professional creative? Were there any experiences or skillsets that your degree led you to that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to conquer?
Martin: My college years back at CSUF were some of the most important days of my life. I was surrounded by people who were passionate and ambitious about art and music of all kinds. The comradery often led to new self discoveries and inspirations. Aside from an education in fundamental principles, I can’t imagine not having been surrounded by these talents at such a crucial period in my artistic life. My instructors and colleagues were a constant resource for ideas and had tremendous impact on shaping my professional career. I cannot recommend it enough.
Your illustration works rely heavily on color and your past clients involve many children-themed companies such as Nickelodeon, Disney, and Leap Frog. What is it about this demographic that appeals to you?
I find a lot of inspiration in children and animals for their truthfulness and innocence. I’ve also always been intrigued by children’s television for its appeal and entertainment values.
It wasn’t until I started working professionally in the animation industry that I found out just how challenging and complicated the production process is for a seemingly cute and fun show. My experience as the character designer on Nichelodeon’s Ni Hao, Kai-Lan was absolutely incredible. I had the opportunity to create ultra cute characters and introduce my native language Chinese Mandarin to the American audience. I also had the amazing privilege to design characters for Disney’s Kick Buttowski and Fish Hooks for Disney Channel. These shows were produced for a different age bracket yet share the same amount of consulting and testing behind the goofy characters and vibrant backgrounds. All in all, It’s tremendously rewarding after all the hard work to see these shows being genuinely appreciated by kids and adults alike.
Can you describe your creative process a bit?
Martin: Well, a successful creative session normally starts with a cup of freshly roasted coffee. It’s then followed by a long period of brainstorming involving researching for reference images, related history and stories, and flipping through lots of art books from my library. A lot of these books are of the art from Studio Ghibli movies and of some of my favorite painters and designers. Once all of the information is gathered in my head, they are processed randomly on pages in my sketchbook. At this stage, I tend to let the pencil do most of the work by jogging down all sorts of sporadic thoughts and ideas including tiny sketches of strange creatures and sentences to describe the feeling I’m trying to evoke.
Lastly, if I’m lucky, some of these small thumbnails will be turned into constructed compositions and made into illustrations, T-shirt designs, or original paintings. This is when I reward myself with a second cup.
Which medium is your favorite to work on, plushes (toys), apparel, or illustrations?
Martin: I think my favorite part of the creative process for any type of application is actually the development stage. The reason probably has something to do with the amount of creative freedom this stage offers. At this point, I’m not being restricted by the medium or form the idea will potentially take up, but rather anything goes and sky is the limit.
If I had to pick, my 2 favorite mediums are probably T-shirt design and original artwork for one common reason- they are most challenging for me hence the most rewarding. A good T-shirt design in my mind is composed of multiple ideas, crafted in the most iconic way, and able to deliver a powerful message within seconds. The same principles apply to traditional painting, but with more liberty for development since it goes on your wall and not on your chest.
Could you tell us about the Miyazaki Club line, the importance of keeping the spirit of nature alive, and your contributions to the American Red Cross Earthquake Relief?
Martin: Anyone who knows me well would know I have an insurmountable respect and admiration for Miyazaki-sensei, and I would be the first to admit to my man-crush for his integrity and artistry. I was first introduced to Studio Ghibli films by Miyazaki-sensei while growing up in Taiwan in the early 80’s. It wasn’t until my animation days at CSUF when I began my obsession over the power and message his films carry. One of the main reasons for my love for Miyazaki-sensei’s films is our shared interest in animals and the environment. In my mind, his films are the perfect representations of important current events and issues some might not have the encourage to bring up for discussion. Somehow him and his team are able to raise awareness in the most fantastical and entertaining way through moving castles, floating islands, and giant white wolves. His effortless lines in his storyboards tell the most captivating stories and are compiled through nothing but trial and error and incredible pencil mileage.
Aside from his artistry, I also have tremendous respect for Miyazaki-sensei as a person. He is someone who never compromises for his visions, openly admits to his faults, and quietly steps away from the spot light. He’s a stubborn man who stays true to his believes and works hard to deliver them. Miyazaki-sensei is a mentor to me for both art and life. I can only hope to be so lucky to have accomplished a small percentage of his achievements one day.
As a tribute to his inspiration, I recently made a T-shirt design called the Miyazaki Club based on the Mickey Mouse Club from the 50’s. I made it for nothing but selfish reasons so I can be in an imaginary Miyazaki Club and be able to share my love with other club members alike. The design has been a huge hit among Studio Ghibli and animation fans so far with 10% of its proceeds going to Red Cross for Japan. On top of this small donation, 2 days after the massive earthquake hit Japan, I coordinated a small personal fund drive by donating 100% of all proceeds from my online shop to Red Cross Japan Earthquake Relief for a week. We were able to raise close to $2000 from generous donors who happened to like my art. I felt it was the very least I can do for the amount of inspiration Japan has given me with Miyazaki-sensei leading the way.
Of course, we have to ask what you favorite Miyazaki film is…our would have to be Nausicaa! Yours?
Martin: With no surprise, I get asked this questions a lot. Sometimes during an intense animation conversation at Comic Con or random geek out moments at local coffee shops. And to be honest, I’ve always had a tough time picking a favorite Miyazaki movie because I like each for different reasons. Each film is so distinct and special in its own way. I love Ponyo for its innocence and vibrancy;Howl’s Moving Castle for it’s subtly illustrated love; Princess Mononoke for its juxtaposition and giant wolves; Only Yesterday for its delicate reflection of life; and Porco Rosso for its friendship and comradery. I think the one film I can watch over and over again would be Totoro. It’s the most personal to me. It always takes me back to my childhood when I used to spend summers at my grandparents’ house in Taiwan. It was a place hours away from the big city and surrounded by limitless possibilities for adventure. My cousins and I used to ride our bikes in perfect formation up and down every hill. We would explore unfamiliar territories on major roads and rice fields. It was a simple time filled with gourmet Chinese food, family bonding, and self discovery. I’ve always thought none of it would’ve been so magical without some sort of guardian above looking after us. Perhaps we also had some giant cuddly creature that lived up on a tree in our backyard.
You’ve been a busy guy! With no sign of you putting on the brakes anytime soon, tell us about your two man show coming up in October at Giant Robot LA?
Martin: Giant Robot is one of those special places in my heart. I was ecstatic when I first discovered it back in the days and it has connected me to Asian American culture and contemporary art ever since. So needless to say I’m extremely honored and excited to present a body of personal work there in October 2011. I will be showing alongside the very talented Lawrence Yang with all new works at GR2 titled, Undercurrents. The show will open on Saturday, October 15th and run until November 16th, 2011.
The series of paintings I created for Undercurrents is based on the concept of light in darkness. It’s also inspired by my fascination with sea slugs and coral reefs. Currents are the source of life and death in nature. What lies beneath the surface is unseen and often forgotten, but it’s also where much light and magic can be found. My intention was to explore the color, vibrancy, and luminosity of the deep. Angelic creatures serve as messengers of life. They examine undiscovered feelings hidden away from the obvious by bringing light to the darkest places. I think there is much beauty in the dark and life is brighter than we think. I’m very proud of this show and hope people will find it to be as magical as I do.
I usually end these interviews request that you give creatives some advice but more specifically I wanted to ask you to give advice on how to keep hustling, remain inspired, and how to keep motivated?
Martin: I would be the first to admit it’s not always easy to keep producing and maintain focus on what’s ahead. I very often fall victim to procrastination or just general laziness. At times like these, I try very hard to remind myself of how incredibly lucky to be where I am and to do art for a living. I walk on a road which has been paved by ones before me and I would be a fool to not take full advantage of it. I try my best to keep a constant perspective on not just art, but life. I often ask myself where I’d like to be down this road and I do all I can to aim for that goal.
I am extremely blessed to have such a supportive family who has given me a stress-free and safe environment to create. As cheesy as it may sound, I’d like to make them proud. It’s this continuous search for happiness, life fulfillment, and family pride which have inspired me to keep pushing forward.
Want to keep tabs of Martin’s upcoming exhibits and future works? Follow his cookie crumb trail below: