Senior explores ‘fear’ through art

May 15, 2022 — by Minsui Tang
Photo by Shani Chiu
 In September, Chiu finished a chalk piece inspired by claustrophobia, the fear of confined spaces.
Shani Chiu plans to follow in the footsteps of their art-oriented family.

Trumpet players, ballet dancers and purse makers — these are the kinds of artists in senior Shani Chiu’s (they/them) family. Following in their family’s footsteps, Chiu began their artistic journey at age 6; over time, they grew to love illustration and wanted to pursue it as a career.

When Chiu entered high school, they had already considered art, specifically illustration or character design, as a career. Thus, many of Chiu’s classes are art-focused this year, including AP Drawing.

Growing up, Chiu’s brother, Ricky Chiu, served as their main inspiration to pursue art. 

“I would watch him draw in his room, and it was pretty mesmerizing because I loved his art style,” Chiu said.

At 28, Ricky now works as a freelance concept artist, and has been in the field since 2015. Despite their age difference of 10 years, Chiu and Ricky have always remained close.

Apart from traditional drawings, Chiu has also experimented with sculpting and printmaking, which are more hands-on and intricate. Compared to pencils and graphite, which are their favorite mediums to use, Chiu found it more difficult to control the medium since “one little detail could ruin the entire piece.” 

They have also worked with many different mediums, including charcoal, chalk, colored pastel, oil, acrylic, watercolor, ink and markers. 

Chiu’s mom is very supportive of their passion. When Chiu was 12, their mom took them to Chinese calligraphy lessons  so they would gain exposure to more mediums of expression.

“My calligraphy teacher was extremely strict. He told my mom, ‘Your daughter is not good at calligraphy, so she can’t be good at art,’” Chiu said. “I was bad at it, but I didn’t take that remark to heart and just continued to pursue my passion.”

Having the patience and motivation to finish a piece is one of the biggest challenges Chiu faces when drawing; nonetheless, art also has become something Chiu can “easily lose [themselves] in.” Most days, Chiu estimates  they spend around six hours drawing and sketching.

In 2019, Chiu won a Scholastic Art & Writing Silver Key with the observational drawing “Tea Party.” Though it remains one of their greatest achievements, they were surprised to hear they had been selected as one of the reward recipients, since they felt that the piece was less reflective of their creative thoughts and more of their technical skill.

They were also a part of a Twitter group in 2020 that gathers artists who draw pop culture idols while incorporating the artists’ own culture: For example, inspired by their Japanese heritage, Chiu drew Yeojin from the K-Pop girl group Loona in a kimono, and the drawing was featured in a fan-made magazine that includes a collection of artists like Chiu who make fanart for Loona. 

They began commissioning their work to get a taste of being a professional artist in 2020. Thus far, they have sold more than 10 pieces. Currently, headshots cost around $20; torso and up drawings cost $40; and full-body drawings cost around $60. 

“My drawings were a lot cheaper when I first started, because I thought my drawings weren’t valuable enough,” Chiu said. “I do see more value in my drawings now, but probably not to the extent of what other people would think.”

However, they soon realized that having others dictate their style and elements in their works can be an arduous task; instead of art being a relaxing hobby, they constantly wondered whether their commission was valid in others’ eyes, in addition to the pressure of deadlines set by their customers. However, Chiu has also found commissions to be helpful when experiencing art block, as the guidelines and requirements provide them with an idea of what to put down on paper.

Although there is not a common theme across all of Chiu’s works, they enjoy drawing darker concepts to reflect their fears. In August 2021, for their AP Drawing class, Chiu, not planning to submit their works, started a portfolio pertaining to the concept of phobias. The time to complete drawings range from one hour to a few months. Currently, they have 15 pieces including eight completed drawings and seven sketches, which explore concepts including thalassophobia (fear of the ocean) and automatonophobia (fear of animatronics).

One of Chiu’s favorite drawings was inspired by the K-Pop band A.C.E, with members Jun and Chan swimming together in blue and red hanboks, respectively.

“[Their art] has a lot of diversity and [Chiu] puts a lot of emotion and uses symbolism in her art, which I find very unique,” said junior Shannon Wang, a close friend of Chiu.

Their most recent piece in the series features ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, which was completed digitally in mid-March. The drawing utilizes back print paper as the background, which makes the snake stand out. Moreover, the drawing consists of vibrant, neon green colors that contrast with the background, evoking a sense of alarm, since bright colors in nature are associated with warning signals from organisms.

At first, Chiu thought this drawing would be a great opportunity to focus on details because the only focal element was the snake’s head. However, the intricacy of the piece and the excessive use of green soon became discouraging, as the amount of color green soon began to distract them from their creative process.

“I was so relieved to move on from this piece,” Chiu said. “I felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted off me.”

Despite these occasional moments of burnout, drawing for Chiu is comparable to venting in a diary — it is an outlet for them to creatively express their feelings. For example, they utilize the placement of certain items, posture of subjects, specific techniques of shading and color choices to implicate a deeper meaning in their works.

Chiu likes to play with different techniques to add more meaning into the drawings they create, such as sketching with markers instead of a pencil. Using colors they normally wouldn’t use such as duller or neon colors and placing contrasting themes next to each other, Chiu creates juxtaposition in their art.

“My emotions flow naturally out of my mind and onto paper,” they said. “[This] doesn’t happen as often with words.”

Chiu will be taking a gap year after high school to work more on their portfolio and experiment with different art styles. After the gap year, Chiu plans on attending De Anza College before transferring to a general university as an illustration major.

“I’m really looking forward to the opportunities that I’ll have after I graduate high school so I can experiment and expand my art career,” Chiu said. “I hope to become a freelance artist, since working for a specific company feels too restricting for my creative options.”

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