Emily Chu

Illustrator, graphic designer, textile designer, graphic novelist

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Emily Chu is a Chinese illustrator and visual artist based on Treaty 6/Edmonton. Emily’s work flows between commercial illustration, visual arts, community-centred arts engagement, and public art murals. Emily is passionate about storytelling and perserving heritage thorugh arts. Her murals can be found at the Edmonton Chinatown Multi-Cultural Centre, Alberta Craft Gallery & Shop, Loblaws Ice District, ATB Edmonton/Red Deer, and Millenium Place, to name a few. Emily recently finished illustrating a youth non-fiction, Get Out and Vote! by Orca Books. She is currently working on a graphic novel about “the last house in Chinatown” funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.

At what point in your life did you learn about design, and what drew you to it? 

I was inspired to go into the Arts from a very early stage. I took drawing classes in a classical artist’s basement since the age of five up until the age of 17 (very technical drawing). In high school, I knew that I wanted to be a painter or artist, and I took the Art IB program to learn more about the different streams within the Arts. But I honestly did not consider design or illustration until first year studies at the Alberta College of Art and Design. And even then, I was more intrigued by the program’s competitiveness than really knowing much about the field. 

To be honest, at 18, I almost went to New York to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. I had a sudden change of heart last minute that summer before post-secondary (I panicked about the tuition and the specialization), and I ended up going to ACAD, taking the Visual Communications program. I would say that I was lucky that I made the right choice, but the path was very cloudy at the time. 

Describe the first office where you worked as a designer.

It actually wasn't that long ago. My first job out of school was at a textile distribution company, working in marketing, with little graphic design aspects of the job here and there. I took the job because I was afraid to freelance fully right away out of school. I did take on identity/rebranding jobs and annual reports here and there while I was working at my full-time job. 

I also was working on my graphic novel project (HYMN Graphic Novels) in the evenings and weekends. But the marketing job itself was not very creative—it was just a safety net. Luckily for me, the people that I worked with were very friendly, and I also learned a lot about the textile business. Shortly coming out of that job, I was able to land many freelance contracts to design textile collections. From there on, the work got more and more illustrative as I've slowly gotten involved with markets, editorial, and making my own retail products. 

What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day?

I check my email. If I need inspiration, I make some tea, go for a walk, or listen to some 90s gangster rap music. I used to go to the gym every morning in 2016. Regardless of the activity, I like to start my day with a scheduled activity. It is very rare that I just jump right into work.

Who do you consider to be an inspiring woman (alive or otherwise)?

My mom is my biggest inspiration. She has a incredible work ethic, has a strong network of supportive friends,  and is a tough lady altogether. She has always been very supportive of all of my career and life choices, and she always instilled in me never to be satisfied. 

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What inspires your work (professional or personal)?

I used to look outside for inspiration—nature, colours, textures. I still do now, but I find that I have started to rely on people for inspiration: relationships, working with emerging artists, and also being introspective and looking within myself. 

I think that is because of my view of art and design has changed in the passed few years. External inspiration of art and nature is mostly aesthetic, and it inspires the “beauty” of my work. In recent years, I've been less interested in aesthetics and more about the context and narrative of the project. I am now more excited about stories, relationships, and experiences. When I get stuck on a concept, I like to call a friend or talk it out with a peer.

What project are you most proud of?

I am always proud of myself whenever I take on a longer project. I've worked on patterns and editorial jobs for so long that I rarely do work that goes on for more than two months. I like to juggle multiple jobs at once. It keeps me focused, excited, and busy. Other than teaching (I teach illustration at Edmonton Digital Arts College), I have never worked for more than one year at a salary job.

What is your personal or professional motto/philosophy?

Probably something along the lines of “Make, think later.” I believe that it is always a good idea to stop what I'm doing (unless the project deadline doesn't allow for it), and trust my intuition to create when inspired. 

I also think that art sometimes is too much “talk” and not enough “do.” I just want to create, and what better time than when I am inspired or when I get an idea? It's like a dream—If I wait too long, I will either forget the idea, or I just won't feel as passionate about it because the feeling is lost and cannot be translated 100%.

What was your educational experience like?

My post-secondary educational experience was confusing. I didn't know that I wanted to work in applied arts. During my first year of art school, I was struggling to pick between Fine Arts and Design (once you go into Design in second year, it's pretty much too late to change your major). And then once I went into Visual Communications (VCD) in second year, I really struggled to figure out my major between design and illustration. 

I truly believe that I may be a stronger print designer, but I chose the path of illustration because I felt it was more honest to who I am. The sad thing is that in school, the structure is pretty much divided into paths. By choosing VCD, I could no longer take classes in painting, printmaking, and glass blowing. By choosing Illustration, I no longer was able to take advanced type classes and motion graphics. I am an extremely open-minded and optimistic person, and school was very restrictive for me and it forced me to make some important decisions. But I'm glad that in real life after school, all of the different art forms are much more integrated!

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If you weren’t a designer, what career would you pursue?

I would probably be a painter, a jewelry maker, or even a cake decorator. These were all of the different paths (and electives in university) that I had to give up to pursue illustration and design.  My childhood dream was to be a musician (I loved to sing and was also in choir for most of my life), but I can barely find the time to even expand my art practice to include print making and embroidery! Another life, or perhaps retirement!

Name a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night.

Animation and 3D is becoming integrated in visual commercial arts. I am afraid of not being able to keep up with the advances in the industry. For me, I book projects one to three months in advance (since my projects are mostly short). So in order to dedicate some time into learning these skills, it requires me to take time from my work and accept fewer jobs. That's perhaps the only challenge of being a freelancer. 

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when starting?

There's plenty of things that I wish that I could have done differently. I could get into details of different schools I could have attended, doing more residencies, etc.,  but I don't think any of it actually matters. I believe that no matter what route I would've taken, I would be working (likely in similar kinds of work) and I would be happy. I'm very optimistic in nature, and I don't really feel much regret about decisions that I've made in the past. However, If I were 18 again, I would probably take a gap year before post-secondary. At that time, too many decisions were made in a very short amount of time. It would have been nice to slow down.

As a woman, what sacrifices have you had to make in your professional life?

Luckily, very few. Now, I don't have children, and I have a very supportive family. I also grew up with very powerful female influences (women tend to run my household). Being Chinese and having some communist background in my mom/grandma's upbringing meant that my female household leaders grew up as champions of gender equality (much of the older generation of my family are engineers, regardless of gender). 

I've never really felt like I had to fight any restrictions, or to make significant sacrifices. Yet, I know that I am lucky, because many women do. I also understand that prejudice exists in our community. However, since the design and illustration fields are heavily female and multicultural, I am optimistic that we can support each other, share resources, educate each other about the industry, fair pay, etc. 

Which of your traits are you most proud of?

I am extremely empathetic and also very driven. The empathy helps build meaningful relationships—I am usually easy to talk to and easy to get to know. I learned this from my mom. She taught me that business success has much to do with a person's character and how they operate. In the off-chance that there is a personality clash, nothing is resolved if you do not listen and show that you care. 

Is it possible to be unique or original in the Internet age?

Yes, I believe so. But the only originality that matters is work that is honest and personal. I am just starting to discover this. Art is subjective, so if I compare myself with other artists, there is always someone who is more unique and original than me. However, if I just compare my work to my own and create from a very honest place, that work is original, because I am original, and no one else is able to replicate that. I love to see what others are making, but when it comes to inspiration, I feel more passionate about making personal work when I disconnect from the web.

What are your plans for the future?

Currently, I am taking some time off to re-invest in myself. I am going back to art fundamentals and rediscovering my style and process. I have to mentally make time for this, because if I do not plan, personal work (which links to my artistic development) never happens. So for the rest of this year, and perhaps into early 2019, I will be exploring painting and new media. I am very excited about this and how it will impact my plans for the future. I am not currently making any concrete plans or goals for the next five years, or any predictions on where my practice will go—I'm hopeful that this experiment may inspire that path to go into unknown territories. 

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