Yuko Shimizu is an award-winning Japanese illustrator based in New York. Her work showcases Japanese heritage addressing a range of serious issues including sex, race, and cultural identity. She is currently an instructor at the School of Visual Arts.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I don’t know if there is any.
Live and learn.
I took a long winding paths to where I am now (I studied in regular university and majored in advertising and marketing in Tokyo, then got corporate PR job which I stayed for 11 years, then moved to NY to study art for the first time in my 30s, and started my second career in my late 30s.) I certainly didn’t enjoy not knowing what I really wanted to do, or work in the corporate environment that was not suitable for me. But looking back, nothing was a waste. I learned so much from doing everything.
If I can redo my life, I would take the exact same long path. I am illustrating for about 15 years now, but I don’t think this was possible if I went straight to art school at age 18.
I am in peace with mistakes I made in my youth and thankful for them.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I don’t know if I hear of much recommendations as I have been working for quite some time now. But looking at my students, I have to stress that they should not worry about what’s in style right now. They tend to feel that they have to change their style to fit what’s popular to get jobs. It doesn’t work like that. The ones who do something that stand out get work and keep going for a long time. I have to keep telling them they just have to stick to what feels true to themselves.
Also, what is NOT recommended that is important is that as long as it is your occupation and means to pay bills, art is also business. Half of the time we are taking care of our business side, negotiating, e-mailing, invoicing, maintaining website, etc, etc… Just because one is good at making art, if one is not organized to run his/her small business, it won’t go far. Taking care of the business side is not working on the dirty side. It’s a crucial part of being a professional artist.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
That I worked in corporate job for whopping 11 years, and I knew from the day one, I was not cut for a corporate world. I am not good at office politics. I am still allergic to being in a group environment that involves more than 5 people. That’s when politics can start. I know you can be diplomatic and maneuver it, but it just drive me crazy. I have seen many people climb up corporate ladder because they are really good at sweet-talking to their superiors. Those who do good work, but have their own opinions are constantly getting pushed down. Oh the (Japanese) corporate world. It was just too much.
Why I ended up being in corporate office job for so long? One is obviously I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was young. Also, I did like the job in PR. And I had some great bosses and coworkers whom I stay in touch after all these years, and despite I often talk shit about my previous life in corporate world.
The darkest time came when I got not just one, but two mentally abusive bosses. It was probably around two years or so before I left the job.
I was crying in the bathroom all the time, and I was just miserable.
I clearly remember I often felt that I was hitting the rock bottom.
But when you hit the bottom, the only way to go is float back up.
I really seriously started thinking about what I really wanted to do with my life. How can I get out of that situation, and not just to escape, but to make my life better. I was also around 30 years old then and really feeling I need to grow up and make adjust decisions.
This dark time period really made my mind clear. As hard as it was back then, I needed that period to have a courage to jump into the whole new life.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Hmmm, to chose one is hard….
That I take every project seriously and responsively.
That I treat good communication and building trust is the success to every job.
That there are peers and friends and community who are very supportive and helpful to each other.
That never to stop experimenting and being an artist. Every drawing should be treated as something new.
What is your morning routine?
I try to wake up by 7AM, but it also depends on till what time I stayed and worked in the studio the night before. Sometimes I stay till quite late.
I take breakfast seriously, so I make real breakfast with tea, ginger-lemon-mint drink from scratch, eggs and cerial… something like that.
I also bring my own lunch, so depending on how much food I have in the studio (I don’t prepeare lunch every single day. I prepare real meals, and bring them every few days and eat for a few days. ) I make something to bring as lunch. I have an old dog who needs to take serious amount of medication, so that needs some preparation as well.
I bring my lunch, my bag, and also my dog to the studio. I am always carrying so much stuff.
Luckily, home is near the subway stop, and it’s a very short commute, and then short walk when I get off to the studio. Total of about 30 minutes.
I can take express train and get there faster, but I usually intentionally take a local train, so I have like 5 more minutes to read. When I am really busy with work and teaching schedule, 15 minutes train ride each way, total of max 30 minutes is all I can allocate for reading. And it’s my relax time. I don’t really check my phone on the commute. It is so easy to waste my time not really doing anything but checking my phone. I do that too often anyways. So, at least, allocate commute for my reading. It’s very important.
I get to the studio, and the day there depends on what is the most rush.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Take at least one day a week off from the studio, and not do anything. Well, I do read and cook and all that, but not anything that stresses me out. I don’t even take a subway on the day off. It helps me to recharge and refresh, so I can get a good productivity back in the following week.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
On top of what I wrote, when my productivity is down from overworking, I give up and go home to get rest. Working with low productivity just elongate the time I waste. It’s much better to come back and tackle the work refreshed.
For the same reason, though I sometimes have to endure sleeping less than I like, I never do all nighters. It won’t work for me, or for my project outcome.
When I have a mental block, take a break or sleep on it so I get better ideas.
When in hurry, take it slow.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
I guess I just answered that above.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I sat with this question for a while. And, I think I can’t think of a book or books that influenced my life.
I probably read more books than average. Around 30-40 books a year. While it is rare to meet books I absolutely love (maybe 2-5 a year if I am lucky), I also read plenty of books that are really really good.
Books and travel enriches my life. Seeing the world, and experiences people’s lives from completely different points of view. Understanding the world a bit better by reading and traveling. I even think of reading like virtual traveling. You get transported to the unknown world for the duration of reading. I am lucky to be able to travel to many places for work. I know not everyone have the same luxury. Books, on the other hand, can be obtained for free (if you go to a library), but give us as great experiences as traveling.
Influence from books depends on our own experiences, where we are in our lives, and what are the main issues at those points in our lives. I seldom reread the books that had big impacts on me in past. Usually, it ends in disappointments. While a book can be important for me at a specific time in my life, it won’t have the same impact when I am in a different stage in my life.
So, move on, keep reading new books, keep getting new impacts and new influences. They all influence my life in some way or another. And I can’t wait to meet new books and new experiences in 2018.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I had to move with my parents to New York when I was 11 years old. Lived in Suburban NY for four years. I didn’t know any English. Every day was a struggle, at least first year or two. My mom said, “you can accomplish anything if you work 3 times harder than the others”.
I keep that in mind for anything I feel it is impossible. It is a good quote.
Then I asked my mother about it recently, and she had no recollection.