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KNOTORYUS Talks to Yuko Shimizu

KNOTORYUS Talks to Yuko Shimizu

KNOTORYUS will be publishing an exclusive Us By Night interview-series, digging deep and grilling the UBN line-up on what they do, how they live, their challenges and triumphs alike. 

Studying the work of Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu is like taking a nosedive into an infinity of sense-swirling artistry and inspiration. Every detail holds a story, each line draws you to places unknown. Leaving a job in corporate PR after more than a decade, Shimizu chased her creative ghosts and caught them returning to New York to become a full-time illustrator. Awards, high-profile commissions and global respect ensued. You’ll have seen Shimizu's highly versatile work in magazines from Variety to Vibe, she’s designed for Nike, illustrated books for Pulitzer Prize winners and her drawings even ended up on MMA legend Conor McGregor’s back.

Starting off our series of Us By Night interviews, KNOTORYUS talked to Yuko Shimizu before she hits the UBN stage in November. It might benefit you to get to know her now, though. See, Shimizu doesn’t mind sharing the exact cheat codes that might’ve taken her a long time to figure out. Whether she's teaching her students at the New York School of Visual Arts about the creative process and the power of illustration or posting best-ink-use-practices on Facebook (from Photoshop colouring techniques to infinity pattern challenges), Shimizu is prepared to patiently guide you through the wonders of the pen and life.


KNOTORYUS: I would love to know what you were like as a thirteen-year-old. Can you elaborate on where you were living, what you were obsessed with, how you were dressing, what music you liked, what hobbies and friends you had and most importantly, what kind of dreams you had?

YUKO SHIMIZU: Oh wow. Is that something you ask everyone, or is this a question specifically for me? I know thirteen is a difficult age for pretty much everyone, but for me it was even more complicated.

KNOTORYUS: I love asking this, because without wanting to diminish your experience whatsoever, it was a transformative period for me as well as a lot of people I have interviewed over the years.

YUKO SHIMIZU: Well, my whole family moved from Tokyo to suburban New York when I was eleven turning twelve, because of my father’s job. In Japan, back then, students start studying English in middle school, at age thirteen. That means I had zero knowledge of English when I moved to New York and entered into the American school system. It was a culture shock on so many different levels. I had no idea what was going on in school and it was hard for me to make friends because we couldn’t communicate. Looking back I think it was the hardest thing I have ever experienced. Music and other obsessions - like what to wear and such - did exist, but when your life changes so dramatically outside of your own decisions, those things become secondary. All I remember was how hard it was to try to adjust to daily life in the USA . Awkward tween-ager. Yes. But that awkwardness was blown up to like 1000%. My family moved back to Japan exactly four years later when I was fifteen turning sixteen. Re-adjusting after four years of living in New York was an entirely different struggle. But let’s keep that story for another time.


KNOTORYUS: How much time did you spend on drawing when you were, let's say, seventeen?  

YUKO SHIMIZU: A lot! When I wasn’t in class, doing homework or studying for an exam, I was drawing. Of course, as a professional illustrator I draw a lot more now. But outside of now, I probably drew the most when I was a teenager. My college degree was not in art and I held a corporate job for 11 years, so that was when I drew the least. But then I quit my job and moved back to New York to study art and even then, there was a period I didn’t draw that much. It’s hard to believe looking back. But life has its phases.  

KNOTORYUS: As an illustrator, oftentimes you have to interpret someone else’s narrative. What is the most nerve-racking part of this process?

YUKO SHIMIZU: I’ve chosen this occupation, so it means my job is to come up with ideas and make drawings for articles, books, ad campaigns, etc. that someone else created.  I obviously like taking this on. For the most part, every project is an exciting task, rather than a daunting or nerve-racking experience. As a freelancer, I can make my own decision to say yes or no to the project, if I feel that is not suitable for me for whatever reasons, I don’t have to do it.
Of course, every challenge is, well, a challenge. It does make me nervous, but that’s a part of the job. In my mind, if everything is easy, I must be doing something wrong. Every once in a while, I do encounter articles or projects I feel like I have no idea how to illustrate. But usually, thorough research on the subject is the big helper. And I tell myself: “You can do it. You’ve always managed to. So you can deliver this one too.”

KNOTORYUS: I wanted to ask you about research. How do you approach studying up on your subject matter for commissioned work? Let's say you have to illustrate a New York Times article on sports or a musician you have never heard of? What do you do to make the characters feel authentic?

YUKO SHIMIZU: Oh, I think that’s a great question. Research is everything. If I have to illustrate musicians I have not heard of, or am not really into, I surround myself with everything I can find out about them, and I adopt a fake-fan-girl mentality for the duration of the project. I make myself believe I am the biggest fan of the subject or person. This is key for a successful project! It’s fascinating how much you can make yourself believe for a short amount of time. I am about to start a project, relatively long term, about a war in Syria. Now, I am piling up books to read on Syria. Most of the books do not have any direct relation to the project, but I need to understand the back story and the country itself in order to illustrate it, since I have obviously never been to Syria. People tend to think artists and designers just rely on our ‘inspirations’, but in reality it involves lots and lots of research. And the more research we do, the better the ideas we come up with.


KNOTORYUS: You’ve talked about having hydrophobia and that being the reason your drawings often include bodies of water. Could you elaborate on that? Is drawing helping you deal with this fear?

YUKO SHIMIZU: It’s not that I am drawing water as a therapy. It’s more that I know I can’t and am not interested in conquering my biggest fear.  And that also fascinates me. So, it is more like drawing out of fascination. I am afraid of water and I am attracted to it at the same time. My favourite movie is ‘Le Grand Bleu’, an epic film about free diving. I don’t know how many times I have watched it. Whenever I am on a boat, I can’t stop watching the surface of water and waves. Water constantly changes shape. It’s mesmerizing. I am also not really into drawing rigid shapes. I love organic shapes. Water has so much personality, movement and great arabesques. It is so much fun to draw.  

KNOTORYUS: How did Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Cunningham approach you for 'Wild Swan and Other Tales'? The drawings are beautiful. Did you pick the stories/characters you would illustrate? How did you find the right tone for that book?

YUKO SHIMIZU: Thank you! Rodrigo Corral, AD and book designer at FSG, contacted me. ‘Wild Swan…’ has ten stories and every story in the book is illustrated. When it came to the overall mood and direction, we actually sat down multiple times at the FSG office with Michael, the editors, the art director, me… to make sure everyone was on the same page. The best feedback came from Michael early on: “I am an artist, I do what I do best. You are an artist. You do what you do best”. So, he pretty much left it to me to come up with ideas. He only gave me critique when it was absolutely necessary. He had full trust in me and so did the publisher. These kinds of projects don’t come around that often.  And I am very grateful. Fun fact: When the book was already out I was at an event with Michael and he told me he Googled ‘illustrator’ and found me. I think I am glad I heard that after the publication, otherwise, I would have flipped out. So much pressure!

KNOTORYUS: Could you talk a bit about the "Fairy Tales by Oscar Wilde" book that will be available soon? You were part of a successful Kickstarter campaign for this project. It’s something I've seen more and more graphic designers and illustrators set up these past couple of years. Could you give a few tips for running a good campaign?

YUKO SHIMIZU: I am not really qualified to speak on running your own Kickstarter. Yes, the “Fairy Tales”-book was successfully funded by it, but I didn’t run the campaign. The publisher, Beehive Books did. And I was one of the artists of this collector’s edition book series. They are a small art/comic book publisher just starting out. In order to fund the books that cost a lot of money to produce, especially since a lot of them are very ornately designed, they strategize to fund it and get the pre-orders through Kickstarter. They are super smart. They are doing everything right. No compromise. The best looking books funded by people who want to purchase them. That’s Kickstarter at its best. Remember back in the day, when Kickstarter just launched? A lot of us secretly hated it, because everyone you remotely knew was running a campaign, and you’d looked like a jerk if you were not pitching in? And many of the campaigns where young women who looked like they had to wear a sexy outfit to ask strangers to fund their art project? Super awkward. I find some things I really want to back on Kickstarter. But I am more on the side of pitching in, rather than running my own campaign. “Fairy Tales by Oscar Wilde” will get published at the end of the year. I am very excited because Beehive Books does everything possible to make the best looking objects, not just good books, but really remarkable looking ones.

KNOTORYUS: So, you’ll be showing out at Us By Night this year. The first time I spoke to UBN-organizer Rizon Parein he couldn't stop talking about community and how important it is to share ideas rather than safeguard them. When I did my research on you I also noticed a real need to connect and share knowledge. From seemingly simple things like how to make an invoice to longer captions about the importance of practice and consistency. Do you feel there is a community among illustrators and other visual artists? Do you have a lot of peers who are friends?

YUKO SHIMIZU: Totally! When I started illustrating, I was worried the New York art and design world would be a very cutthroat, backstabbing, rough place. Soon I found out, oh, it’s, so, not! One of the best things about being here doing creative work is how friendly and helpful people are. I would not be working today if people who started before me, those whom I look up to, didn’t go above and beyond to help me when I was just starting out. I try to pay it forward and then those who I helped out do the same and so on. I do recommend newcomers to clients all the time, but of course recommending someone means I become unofficial guarantor, so, one has to earn it. With young artists, I am looking at how motivated and hardworking they are. How honest, genuine and nice, and if they are doing something fresh and new. They have to show us -those who are in position to help- that they can earn it. Then the rest is: Bring on the good karma!


KNOTORYUS: Your brand of community seems to mostly take on the form of you teaching and mentoring. Could you give our readers a piece of advice you wish someone told you before going into the creative industry?

YUKO SHIMIZU: Oh man, so many things we can talk about. That’s one of the reasons I teach college, you know? But the bottom line is: make sure you don’t regret something for not going through with it when you really, really wanted to. When you do it, yes, it may not work out. But if you work really hard, and if it does end up going wrong, then at least you know you’ve tried and you can move on. The worst is to regret giving up and wonder ‘what would have happened if I did…’. Obviously, you’d never find out the answer. That’s tragic and it’s what makes people bitter.  Don’t let that happen.

KNOTORYUS: I agree and I also think that if you really listen to yourself, you know what work you are destined to take on and finish. No matter how long it takes and how much stumbling you have to do. Anyway, how do you prepare for a speaking event like Us By Night? Does it make you nervous? What can we expect?

YUKO SHIMIZU: I do get nervous, but once I start talking, I start to calm down and the rest usually goes OK. I will try to gather my experiences, the many mistakes, and then the success following the mistakes. All and all, I want to make what I talk about seem like it’s not really just about myself, but also useful to the audience. That’s my goal.

KNOTORYUS: Will you be doing some Antwerp sightseeing?

YUKO SHIMIZU: Yes! Definitely! I must, must, must visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum. And if possible, I’d love to have a drink at The Jane. Does that sound too expected? I just really want to see the interior.

KNOTORYUS: I'll tell Rizon he needs to get on those reservations stat. Thank you so much, Yuko!



Article image credits:

Portraits by David Lawrence Byrd

Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu


Yuko Shimizu will be at Us By Night 2018

Us By Night 

22-23-24 November 2018 


Damplein 20



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