Yao was born and raised in Tianjin, but came to the United States as an exchange student at the age of 16 and lived in Rockford, Illinois before she moved to Seattle and received an Associate Degree in Fine Arts at age 18. She then moved to Memphis, Tennessee studying conceptual art and creative writing on a full scholarship from Memphis College of Art. Because of her love for graphic novels and narrative art, Yao has found her passion in illustration and has finished her BFA in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, New York. Yao Xiao believes that stories are a basic form of communication that helps to bring people together, and that in every story there is personal truth. Her job is to create these personal truths through her art. We discuss her struggles, her artwork, films and more! Read below for the full Q&A…
What struggles did you have moving to the states late in your teens? Did any of these hardships help you find yourself as an artist and something you wanted to pursue through formal education?
Yao: Even before I came to the States I’ve always been the transfer student everywhere I went. I got good at adapting new environments and challenging situations. As a young person, solitarily was a large part of my identity especially when I was living in a different country alone and moving about every year. I spent a lot of time by myself but I always made new friends through my art. I very much enjoy to this day seeing people smile when they can relate to what they see. I didn’t hesitate at all to change my major to Fine Art from Business Administration when I first moved to Seattle and went to college at 17.
If you stopped at receiving just an Associates degree do you Think your career would be drastically different now?
Yao: I don’t think I would have stopped making art—although being in school taught me a great deal about having a necessary dose of discipline; besides, going to SVA brought me to a whole new network of artists in New York. I have a lot of appreciation for my formal education in illustration, despite the fact I did make a lot of my friends and work connections outside of school.
At any point did you ever consider moving back to China? For instance, to attend the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, which boasts a rather imposing concrete building. I hear the gallery uses three out of its four floors to display varying exhibits.
Yao: It’s interesting that you asked—I actually did study in the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts building when I finished middle school; I spent the summer taking a crash course in painting, and teaching myself Photoshop. It’s a neat place! Although I never quite considered moving back to China, mostly because it took a lot of time and effort to settle here in the U.S. Moving back would be a big change to get used to all over again. Although going back at some point to explore their new art scene is on my to-do list, it is sometime farther in the future.
Telling stories is obviously an important part of your work. Did your creative writing experience give you an advantage in your art versus other artists, you think?
Yao: Growing up I wanted to be a writer, a scientist and an artist. Being an artist allows me to do all of these things—telling stories, inventing new elements and painting beautiful pictures. I think it is common for visual artists to have a secondary medium—writing, music, dancing—and for me it is a wonderful experience to be able to describe a sentiment in different mediums. I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage per say, but it definitely adds depth and fun to what I make.
What are some of your favorite Asian films or anime?
Yao: I’ll have to go with “Farewell, My Concubine” by Chen Kaige for film and “Cowboy Bebop” for anime! Farewell, My Concubine is such an intricate film; every detail was planned out beautifully. I constantly look back to it for color, mood and costume design. I look at Cowboy Bebop for its depiction of a future with merged cultures.
Could you explain a bit about your stance as a female artist in today’s society? Does looks matter? Should you rely on ‘skills’ alone to succeed? What is the grey area within this argument?
Yao: In my honest opinion, when it comes to self-promotion there is nothing wrong with anyone choosing to utilize their own resources. Be they masculinity, femininity, attractiveness, superb craft, awkwardness, foreign status, or simplicity and neutrality. I personally think it is unfair to value certain advantages over others, and that it is simply impossible to stop people from being who they are. Rules are made by people and they can be broken by people; I certainly don’t expect anyone to rely on one thing alone, in order to succeed in this world.
How were you tapped for Katy Perry’s ‘We Can Survive’ concert poster? How did that gig come about?
Yao: Right before the VMAs I was invited to illustrate the opening page for Entertainment Weekly’s Fall Music Preview. Katy Perry was one of the three female artists that I drew portraits of for that job. It turned out that she loved the portrait and reached out to me for a concert poster! I was very thrilled. It is always special when an artist or musician liked their portraits. It means, for me, that the mood and spirit I tried to capture was also what they wished to convey in their art, which makes me happy.
Aside from Katy Perry, you’ve illustrated hot button figures such as Miley Cyrus. What is your honest opinion of today’s pop culture and how does it inspire your art today?
Yao: I think pop culture comes on strong, changes fast, and goes away before anyone has the chance to win an argument about it. I like it when good craft is recognized, and when a piece of art inspires its audience in a positive way. People in our society are so over-whelmed with information; it is impossible to not have a bias. Trying to follow public opinion won’t get anyone anywhere. I make sure the message behind my art comes organically from me, without going through a public filter. The portrait of Miley Cyrus for instance, I focused on what I liked about her, that she demonstrates a bold re-branding of her image and that today’s artists are about leading their fans instead of trying to please everyone.
Your work covers a wide variety of subjects. How do you achieve balance as an artist to make sure you’re not pigeonholed as a certain ‘type’ of artist?
Yao: I keep an open mind. I never thought it was bad to be a certain ‘type’ of artist, so long as that is what the artist loves to do. An open-minded artist never tries to steer away from anything, especially the things that everyone says to avoid. For me, ‘trying to make everything the same way, every time’ was an actual goal I set for myself one year, so that I could completely focus on the storytelling. I think not viewing ‘typecasting’ as a ‘dead end’ actually keeps the paths open, since style is really only one of many aspects of art making.
Lastly, any advice you can offer up to your fellow creatives?
Yao: Make honest work, work really, really hard, and have an open mind.
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