24 minutes with Shawna X
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published February 14, 2017
- Portrait by Collin Hughes
When you tell your parents that you want to become a designer, they’re probably going to ask questions that derive from, Can you make money from this? For Shawna X, a New York-based designer and artist, she answered her parents concern by following her intuition and seeing where it would take her. Years later, while carving an identity for her work, brands such as Google and VICE became attracted to her spirited, minimalist pieces, which led to commissioned work and nationwide exhibitions. Some of the things we discuss below involve breaking cultural norms to pursue a creative career, and why Shawna wants to stimulate people on things they do, or don't, choose to think about regularly.
Mo: We talked about this a little bit earlier, but what fuelled you to jump from Portland to Chicago and now New York?
Shawna: Portland has a really awesome creative scene that's very small but collaborative. I guess the good thing about being from Portland is that people are very open minded in terms of creative work. Growing up, it was easy to be accepted as a creative person and someone that was interested in weird things. Well, not weird, but not conventional! It was a really nice place to be but then it's so small. I wanted to try out a bigger city and had the opportunity to move to Chicago with my boyfriend at the time. We broke up and so I moved to New York! [both laughing] It was kind of taken by relationships, but it was a really great experience for the most part.
Mo: That’s nice, because, presumably, if your boyfriend didn't move to Chicago then you wouldn't have looked into it.
Shawna: Exactly! But I also lived in China in 2010 after I graduated. So I think I'm just open to moving to random cities to try them out. I just went to Hong Kong and I really want to move there!
Mo: How was it? I was so jealous of you and Collin's [Hughes] images.
Shawna: Oh my god, it was so awesome! It's very condensed—everything is super packed. There's buildings everywhere, and it feels like The Sims—it doesn't feel like a real place! [laughing] But you can escape from it since transportation there is so easy. You can just go off to the islands or rural areas. It's a really good place that holds both authentic culture that's kind of raw and also modern things.
Mo: Were you guys primarily in the city?
Shawna: Yeah, we were in the city for a while. We were only supposed to be there for four days, but we liked it so much that we skipped out on our flight and stayed for a few more days. [laughing] We escaped and went to this place called [inaudible] and a lot of people go camping there which is really interesting because I've never seen Asians camp, [laughing] you know what I mean? It's not a thing that Asians do! So it was really awesome to see these families go on a ferry to go camping over there.
Mo: Have you ever been to LA?
Shawna: I have but I haven't really explored it well. A lot of my friends moved there recently so I want to go back and explore it.
Mo: Just move there. Don't even worry about exploring.
Shawna: [laughing] Do you like it there more than New York?
Mo: I love it there. I have this weird analogy that might explain why. To me, both places have their own vampires: New York's vampires will suck your blood and they'll tell you! LA's vampires will feed you before they suck you dry. They're both sucking your blood, but one is more transparent and crass than the other. I mean, the good thing with New York is you usually know where your relationship with someone stands. With LA, it's a bit more ambiguous.
Shawna: Yeah! And there's a good mix, it seems. I've heard that about LA, though. And also, it's because there's a lot of nature there. So I think when you're in an area with a lot of nature it frees you from a concrete jungle of fake vampires, you know what I mean? I think that's probably what it is, and I feel that way about here, too.
Mo: I feel like the creative community in LA is so spread apart. You can be 30-minutes away from someone but you'll never see them for months because of traffic and such. In New York, it can be hard to have that excuse because traffic is a way of life.
Shawna: Yeah, totally. That's one thing I don't want to experience—I hate traffic, but who doesn't?
Mo: Where do you live around in New York?
Shawna: I just moved to Brooklyn but I was in East Village before. I want to stay in Brooklyn because I feel like I can be removed from the city. I lived in this place that was infamous in its own way and had its own foursquare check-in. There is a lot of interesting art around and in Bushwick, from diy to professional murals to small galleries, I just had a solo show here in October sponsored by bad ass women who wanted to showcase art, music and food of Bushwick. I feel like the general vibe here is that people are hustling and doing their own thing. They look like they're in the creative industry, but who knows? I can't really judge someone based on the way that they're dressed.
Mo: It's a funny thing when you judge people by the way they dress, though. A lot of people kind of dress themselves like someone that they might not be.
Shawna: Totally! And that's a thing about New York that's interesting, because you'll meet people that really want to personify themselves by how they dress but it’s not who they are. Or people who really are just themselves, and I think that's why I like it here because there's a really good, eclectic mix of people.
Mo: Do you feel like you can stay in Bushwick without having to be in Manhattan frequently?
Shawna: No, I need to get around! I actually get so claustrophobic that I need to leave New York at least once a month or else I'll freak out. I like to explore different areas because I like seeing the different communities New York has to offer, thanks to the balance between a routine and an open schedule, and I have that currently in my life. It's been really helpful in allowing me to stay on top of my client work and my personal work. I think that by being here, there's just so much going on that making time for personal work is really hard to find.
Shawna: By being in different areas like East Village, Chelsea, or upstate New York, it helps me experience different types of neighbourhoods, which is pretty stimulating. There's just so much to offer and I don't understand when people just stay in their proximity. Why would you lock yourself up when there's so much in this city you could see? There's so many different types of people and I think that's what the biggest incentive in New York is: You're in a hub with people of all kinds of backgrounds. I don't want to only seclude myself in the creative scene.
Mo: Yeah, and places like New York offer accessibility towards different things in different ways. Some people might be more copacetic to New York, LA, or Miami. But I try to stay away from the Miami people. [both laughing]
Mo: What are a few places you've gone to that you enjoyed?
Shawna: I like Mexico City a lot. I like cities that are not super-developed because there's still an edge to it and Mexico City was just that. There's a sense of them keeping true to themselves, I guess. I think in cities like New York, depending on the crowd you run in, people really care about how others think about them, and they really care about how they're perceived. I guess I can't really explain other than it’s a general feel about the people in certain cities that I really am attracted to. The edge, to me, is that they're just doing their own thing, whether it’s trendy or not. I really travel for food honestly. [laughing] If I need to go to a country that has shitty cuisine, I probably wouldn't want to go. It's so stupid! [laughing] But it's a huge indicator for me. I think that's why I also like Hong Kong because there's a mix of a city that's modern and clean, but there's also that gritty-ness to it that I really like. I like the dichotomy between the two.
Shawna: I really enjoy people watching—the aspect of ‘social anthropology’—and I think it really speaks to my work; as an artist or a creative, I believe you have to like people to make good work because we make art as an expression but also as a way to connect one another. Because of this reason, I enjoy cities where I can meet different types of people who are genuine, and I think cities that are not super-developed offer that to me. I'm also attracted to nature, like Norway and Portland, because you can be in the middle of nowhere and completely escape. There's something about being isolated that makes you realise that you're just a tiny little dot in this majestic wilderness. And also, knowing that nature does not give a fuck about you. [both laughing] You're at its mercy! Every time I leave the city I realise how insignificant we are—it’s a nice realisation.
Mo: When you mentioned your admiration for social anthropology, did that support your decision to work at OkCupid?
Shawna: Yeah, it was a huge reason, because I think large part of being human is sex and love, and that's such a striving point for most people. People are driven by that, and it results from really beautiful music to violence. Sex drives a lot of different emotions so I think OkCupid was definitely attractive to me in that sense. I’ve since left the company but still admire the fact that they were able to change views on dating, gender and sex, and a progressive view that sexuality is within a spectrum.
Mo: It makes sense. I see them as encouraging a different lens on online dating. A lot of people perceive it weirdly because of the lack of tangible connections.
Shawna: Yeah, and it's not just online dating. They're encouraging different types of relationships, monogamous, open, asexual. People are complex and I think one cool thing about OkCupid is that they realise that and they address this, then they try to make it acceptable for everybody.
Mo: While working there, what did you learn personally and creatively?
Shawna: Personally, a huge part was realising there's so many different types of love out there and how people work in relationships. In my office alone, people are in open relationships and that's something that I never understood prior to working here. I mean, growing up in a pretty traditional family, you'd think about, "Oh, you date somebody. You find someone and then you marry them. And you're with them for the rest of your lives." That's a very monogamous thing, and I'm monogamous, too, but I wasn't realising that, that wasn't the only type of relationship at the time.
Shawna: I think being at OkCupid made me realise that relationships, sex and love isn’t just black and white. It's also a very sex positive environment and I think it helped me become more sex positive myself, especially in terms of art. As a kid, growing up, sex in my culture is super-tabooed, especially within Asian cultures. You don't talk about it. People don't even say "I love you", because that’s viewed as emotional and thus vulnerable. I didn't even learn about sex from my parents. So, I've always been interested in sexuality, especially with the stuff I do. The more I'm open to it, the more I'm realising that it's part of being a person.
Mo: I can relate on the idea of being in a culture where it's not promoted.
Shawna: What's your background?
Mo: Both of my parents are Muslim. My mum is Pakistani and my dad's African.
Shawna: Oh, cool. Did they meet here?
Mo: No, my dad came to America in the 80s and met my mum when he visited home in the 90s. They married and my mum came here in '96. How about your parents?
Shawna: They're Chinese and came here in the 80s. They ditched me in China with my grandparents for a bit, which sucked. [laughing]
Mo: I think it’s interesting because you get to meet family there. When was the last time you saw your family?
Shawna: My parents? I just saw them. But my Chinese family? I saw them last summer in China.
Mo: Do you get pressured to see them?
Shawna: Yes! Well, not pressure like, "You need to go see them," but pressure to follow through what I should traditionally be at, at my age. As a woman, I get a lot of pressure to take care of my family and then get married and have children.
Mo: [laughing] Right? So what do you try to tell people with your work?
Shawna: It depends on my feels at the time of creating whatever I'm making. [laughing] A lot of times what I make is very impulsive, and whenever I feel strongly about anything, I grab onto that emotion and I create something from it. For example, there's a piece I did while I was contemplating death - that everybody is going to die and regardless how you live your life, in the end, there's only one way out, you know? So, the thought alone motivates me to stimulate conversation on this subject through art especially in America where subjects like death are not wildly talked about. I want to create work that makes people talk and think. Art, for me, is both being selfish by responding to my impulses, but also balancing that with the ability to engage with an audience.
Mo: Being selfish by responding to your impulses is good, because being selfish lets you inject yourself into the work. And it's all about how you share it, too. It's amazing that you're able to share your work with everyone when you think about it.
Shawna: Maybe! [laughing] I don't know how everyone receives it.
Mo: Well, how do you receive it?
Shawna: I think, for me, it's mostly... Well, are you talking about the composition or colour or something else? What are you referring to?
Mo: I'd say the social aspect behind it—the discussion.
Shawna: At points in my life I made work to be part of something—to feel accepted. But in the past couple of years, I've been more accepting of myself as a person and who I am. That's something that I've always battled. By accepting myself, I end up making work for me. I don't want to appeal to everybody. I don't need everyone to like my work. That's not something that I aim for. I just want the people who can feel something from my work to like my work. It's a little bit niche, I guess, but at the same time, with social media and so much sharing, I think every creator’s work is so easily accessible that it opens doors to various content.
Mo: Going back to your parents, what was their take on you pursuing a creative career?
Shawna: Oh gosh. [laughing] My dad came from generations of academia. Everybody in a generation had been a teacher, professor, starting a school or some educational shit. So their idea of me is obviously traditional. As immigrants coming to America, they want the best for their offspring (basically what they came to this country for), but then at the same time they don't realise that the ‘best’ is not what they think is the best, understandably so. They wanted me to be something that was stable, like a secure career at Google or something. [both laughing] I majored in advertising for my college degree because I thought that was a good compromise between creative, art and business, which I thought would be approved by my parents.
Shawna: It was not until this last year where they actually accepted me for what I'm doing. First, because they saw me in an Adobe ad, then I started getting various clients that they knew about - that with teaching part time at Parson’s, which is a school their friends’ kids who didn’t become doctors or lawyers knew about - So that's what made sense to them.
Mo: They saw you getting recognised from a notable outside source!
Shawna: Exactly! Otherwise they wouldn't understand my work. My mum would always say, "Why won't you paint me some flowers and trees?" I'm like, "I don't even paint that much, mum!" [both laughing] I think they're now realising that there are things you can do that’s not just in medicine or law. It was a struggle, though.
Mo: It's worth the struggle, I think. I told my parents that college most likely isn't in my future. It was a very intense thing to deliver and also receive.
Shawna: That's intense! I don't think it would even be an option for my mum. There's no way that I could not go to college.
Mo: I mean, for us, we have the ability to switch that traditional narrative for future generations. When you think of it, those linear ideas of going to college and whatever stops at us. I think it’s very, very interesting where we are right now.
Shawna: Especially as kids of immigrants and people from different cultures, they didn't really put a lot of respect into the creative world because that was something they saw as a hobby, not something you pursued. And now, finally, the world is kind of saying, "Hey, you could pursue this as something that also can make you a living—a good living, if you wanted to." And so I think being able to pave that road—not really pave it since tons of people paved it before us—but in our cultures’ generation, I think it's the first time you'll really see minorities and immigrant kids doing what we're doing. Growing up, I didn't even know you could be a designer. I didn't look up to anybody, because I didn't know about them. But now you know about these people and you can see that they're making things happen. A lot of younger people are like, "Oh, I can do that, too." It's interesting because I once had a talk in which majority of the conference’s attendees were minority women. I didn't expect that at all in the past because working in advertising and design, it was mostly dominated by white males.
Mo: It's true, not just in the creative industry, but also, if not all, most industries. I've realised that most of the people I interview are white males and I shamefully didn't realise that until now. They're very talented people, of course, but for me, going forward, I have to really buckle down and find people that represent every spectrum in the creative world.
Shawna: That's really awesome that you're attentive to that.
Mo: You have to be! It's so easy to support that narrative. It's not a bad narrative, but it's one worth changing. But what's interesting about how our parents not seeing that you can make a living off of art, I think that's a general idea among a lot of parents. I have friends who's white parents were born here and they also deal with the same kind of dogma.
Shawna: We'll see what happens in ten years. I'm curious!
Mo: What's something you initially took for granted and now value?
Shawna: I take a lot of things for granted. [both laughing] I take my parents for granted, for sure. It's something that I'm realising now. As I'm an adult I'm like, "Wow. I didn't realise how much they sacrificed for me." That's a big one. Another one is the fact that I get to have fun when I work and it doesn't feel like work. When I was in advertising and various soul-sucking jobs, I was really pumped to get out of my job to work on my personal projects that ultimately carved my path. Majority of why I can do what I'm doing now is because of the self-initiated projects I made for myself while connecting with people in similar fields—that helped me a lot. So I definitely didn't realise what a value that was and how much I enjoyed it. I'm just amazed that I'm able to do what I am now, and have a lot of fun. Some of it I get paid for and some I don't, but that's totally okay.
Shawna: I took my school for granted, for sure. After I graduated I was about to work in San Francisco but then a professor, who I still really admire, was like, "Hey, I actually think that you should try our bachelor of fine arts in digital art program. We'll waive all your undergraduate prerequisites so you can just enroll." I did that, and it was basically the reason why I'm doing what I'm now doing, otherwise I probably would've gone to something corporate. I think in school, I just didn't know how to take advantage of all the resources. I could've learned how to use 3D for 3D printing I was given so many opportunity to learn and push myself, but never did.
Shawna: A lot of people take school for granted because you don't realise how many resources there is! You can learn to collaborate or use a tool for you that'll be vital for you later on.
Mo: Before college did you know what you wanted to do? Or was it discovering during your time in college?
Shawna: I always knew that I wanted to do something with visual designs but I wasn't sure what that was. I had a lot of opportunities to do that since I was in every student union, and took advantage of leading and designing projects within that environment, such as student-run magazines, but I wasn't sure if that's what I wanted to do because it wasn't something that my parents cared for. I do think that now if I were to redo it, I would probably focus more on following my intuition and not so much of what people expect of me. I can get lazy sometimes [laughing] and if I wasn't lazy in college, I would've totally went all out on projects.
Mo: What does your intuition tell you now?
Shawna: I want to do something that's more collaborative. I've been saying that for a long time but I have a lot things that I'm interested in that we've talked about, mostly with people, sex, or culture. I want to focus on more work that gives me more of a purpose. I think it's really important to realise that in your work to have a voice that isn't just stylistic, but one that could resonate with someone who’s kind of lost. There's power in that. One thing I realised, too, is that nobody knows what they're doing with their lives—no body! [laughing] I don't think anybody knows, regardless of age or status, what they're doing; they kind of just accept it. I think that's kind of where I want to get to, to just accept that’s what life is like.
Mo: It takes a lot to accept what's there. You just have to realise what's happened or approach the same thing differently.
Shawna: Exactly and just be easy about it. I mean, everything is always changing and sometimes people like the security of something that's stable, but sometimes it makes them a bit close-minded. It restricts you to see what's outside of your comfort zone. Life is always changing and accepting that is important.
Mo: Do you ever concern yourself with creatively typecasting yourself?
Shawna: Oh yeah, I hate that! [laughing] For a really long time I struggled with being cornered as something. So for right now, most of my work is illustration based because that's what I love doing and that's what I've always been doing, but I definitely feel like I'm being typecast as an illustrator that makes gradients. Everybody is like, "Oh, you're a gradient queen!" A lot of people just send me pictures where it's like, "This looks like your gradient, or, “This looks like your colour palette." I guess I have a specific colour palette that people associate me with! I hate that because nothing is permanent and as a creative—to be a good creative—you need to constantly question yourself. It's dangerous to be typecasted because no one stays the same, but people just do that because it's easy to categorise. I mean, I love what I'm creating now but I want to evolve from it.
Mo: I think there's two sides to that: One is to push away from being predictable and the other is to accept being identifiable. Some don't mind that because it gives them a sense of security in a career that doesn't entertain security. That's fine for them, but I think it's beneficial to challenge yourself to do something different.
Shawna: Everyone's different, for sure. Some people have a specific type of work that they want to focus on for the rest of their lives. But for me, I definitely don't like it because I'm always trying to change.
Mo: Did anyone tell you something before that has stuck with you now?
Shawna: That's hard! [laughing] My brother, 19-years-old, says a lot that sticks. Because he's young, he has an interesting perspective of the world, and he always gives me really good advice. I was asking him on his opinion of whether I should pursue between two projects where one was challenging and the other super easy, and he was like, "You know what, I really think the project that gives you more experience is the one you should do," and I was like, "Oh thanks!" I mean, that's something that everyone knows but to hear it from someone that's a lot younger than you, and also has a different perspective than you, means a lot to me.
Shawna: Everyone says very generic things like, "Pursue your dreams," etc, but I guess the one thing that I've really taught myself this past year is the ability to let go. It's just realising that the only thing you have control of is yourself and your own actions, emotions, and perception, right? You have no control over anybody else's actions or behaviours. Having that realisation changed a lot of my reactions and perceptions to the world and my work, especially since our work is really affected by people's opinions of it, you know?
Mo: Yeah, it is. Not only just controlling what you have but realising what you have, you know? It's about also asking what you need, I think.
Shawna: Yeah, exactly. It's all perception. You could see somebody else's life and think that they're this way or that, but you can't assume it. In the end it's just about you. But I think that's what social media does: It makes people feel like they have to project this curated life because everyone else is doing the same thing. It's harmful because it makes you not accept the realities of life, which is that it's both good and bad. And the bad is totally okay because without it, it's never going to be good.
Mo: Exactly! One last question I have for you is, "What do you find the purpose of your work to be?"
Shawna: The purpose of my work… it changes. I think the purpose, for me, is mostly communicating these deeper discussions that I have with friends that really resonate with me. And I like to poke at things that people might find hard to accept. I want to make it so that all the ‘tabooed’ things in life are easier to talk about because that’s part of humanity. So whether if it comes to sex, race, class I just want to be able to open discussion to those type of topics. It could also be fun, because I think it's important to not take everything so seriously. I think the purpose is providing a platform of... god, this is really hard! [laughing]
Mo: Don't worry, everyone has a hard time answering it!
Shawna: Yeah, it's a hard one because I feel like society is also changing, right? "Purpose" is very specific, too. For example, whatever piece I'm making for myself, the purpose for it is a very specific thing. But I think overall, it's just communicating the things that you have experienced, and communicating that in a way that visually stimulates people and gets them to talk.
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website, Instagram, and Twitter
Last thing you googled?
- I was Quoraing How to survive in prison
Japanese anything but right now I'm currently cooking at home a lot, which is great because, 1, it's healthy, 2, it tastes better when you make it.
Most of my playlists consist of Fever Ray, Little Dragon, and Blood Orange. But right now, the new Sonder EP is really great.
What are your hotspots?
Honestly, America has some pretty hotspots, especially New Mexico. But I really would love to return to the Fjords in Norway and Mexico City—either places with ridiculous scenery or with very interesting cultures rooted in spirituality in some way. With that said, I would love to go to Toraja, Indonesia where they bury babies in trees and save for your funeral as soon as you are born.
Wait, what? Okay, what're you reading?
Richard Brautigan, Yukio Mishima, graphic novels (Charles Burns), and currently reading People’s History of America by Howard Zinn.
Honestly, while I teach an app design class at Parsons, I mostly just use your regular social media app to connect. Ain't got time for more apps.
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