Senior Shani Chiu makes art from fear

January 18, 2022 — by Annie Liu & Joann Zhang
Inspired by their brother, they plan to pursue game character design.

A face drowning in quicksand, a screaming figure bound in gauze — senior Shani Chiu’s art isn’t afraid to get scary. But a sense of complex beauty underlies many of their haunting works, like their graphite illustration of a man crammed within the parameters of the page. His gaunt, puppet-like face and terror-stricken eyes subtly contrast with the pretty floral pattern of his pants, though the concentric circles on his blazer hypnotise and deepen the tightening gyre of panic conjured up by this piece. 

“I really liked this concept of something being scary but also beautiful and captivating at the same time,” Chiu said. “So I tried to put that eeriness but also that sense of beauty into artwork as well.”

The illustration, which they posted on Instagram alongside the caption, “Claustrophobia,” emerged from Chiu’s own experience with claustrophobia, which has made driving and staying in small rooms uncomfortable, if not unbearable. 

“I tried to portray an unsettling feeling. I like how scary art is able to affect people,” said Chiu, whose AP Art and college portfolio centers on phobias. “It’s fascinating that people have these different reactions toward certain things.” 

In another portfolio piece, captioned “fear of drowning in quicksand,” a terrified eye just barely surfaces from the sand, which subsumes the rest of the face. “I wanted to show how desperate and afraid the person was despite not being able to see many of their features,” Chiu said. The same sense of nearly feral helplessness is present in much of their work, but a greater motivation towards understanding and empathy drives these frightening pieces.

“Fear is something that is stigmatized, looked down upon and not often addressed,” said Chiu. “People are unable to understand each others’ fears, so I tried to create art pieces that would inflict the same feeling the person with that phobia [would experience].”

Themes of the taboo, particularly regarding mental health, also color much of Chiu’s work. Their art often reflects what goes on in their life: In an untitled painting made at a low point in their life, somber blues surround a figure with roughly painted red horns and wings. Raw-edged brushstrokes and a face replaced by scrapes of red are unnerving and unsettling. 

During difficult times in their life and mental health, they “tend to go more towards a morbid theme” and add more emotions and the feeling of helplessness. Their usual sources of inspiration are aesthetics and their mood, and also different media — as an artist with ADHD and autism, Chiu often hyper-fixates on games and TV shows, and enjoys drawing characters and celebrities.

Chiu also creates their own characters, with complex and often marginalized personalities— sociopaths, psychopaths and sadists. Chiu wants people to feel conflicted when they see their characters’ personalities. Their inner turmoil and their divergence from the norm make the characters interesting for Chiu, who admits they “really like making characters with a bit of a crazy personality.”  

One of the characters Chiu is currently working on, a girl with an eyepatch on her left eye, stands with her hands on her hips in a tough, belligerent stance. She’s supposed to be “the ultimate loan shark,” and was designed for a fan game of the popular Japanese video game franchise, Danganronpa.

Inspired by their brother, who majored in game art, Chiu plans to pursue a career in character design, possibly game-specific design, with the goal of creating their own game one day. 

“My brother is a really big influence on me,” said Chiu. “When I was younger, I would always watch him drawing, and it really inspired me to do the same.” 

Chiu’s friends and family are extremely supportive of their artistic career path. “They already had to go through my brother so they’re already eased into the idea of it,” Chiu said. “And my friends, they’re not in that traditional mindset but they’re also involved [in art], so they understand.” 

As they approach the end of their high school career, Chiu is considering attending San Jose State University or Laguna College of Art and Design. But ultimately, they just want to go with the flow and see where life takes them. 

“If you don’t enjoy yourself, then what’s the point of doing something?” they asked. “I want to show people that no matter who you are, if you love doing something, then you can do it.”