Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2020: Spotlight on The Brilliant Martin Hsu
For the month of May in 2020, I wanted to showcase a few Asian Pacific American creators and artists for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). There are a number of amazing APA people out there that I wish I had the chance to meet and interview. With that being said, I am truly excited for you all to get to know the individuals we are privileged to highlight this month. Today, I am excited to introduce Martin Hsu.
I first heard of Martin when I visited a Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Immediately, I was drawn to one work of art in particular, the one depicted below. I knew right away that it was my favorite. As luck would have it, my friend informed me that she knew the artist of the piece: Martin Hsu. Soon, a friendship developed.
I have been fortunate enough to meet Martin both at his booth at San Diego Comic-Con these past few years and the few times he was the Artist in Residence at WonderGround Gallery in Downtown Disney. His artistic style is a beautiful union of traditional and modern with an homage to his cultural roots. It truly has been a pleasure getting to know Martin. I hope you all enjoy learning more about him as I did.
All images and photographs were provided courtesy of Martin Hsu.
When and how did you get into being an artist?
Martin Hsu: Some of my earliest and fondest memories from childhood in Taiwan are of my cousins and I crouching around a small tea table at my grandparents’ house, and drawing on loose sheets of paper torn out of a day calendar. Yeye would watch over us while Nainai made dumplings from scratch.
In elementary school, I drew from my favorite manga like Ranma ½ and characters from Weekly Shonen Jump. I remember preserving my graphite drawings with strips of clear scotch tape before framing them with cardboard.
My family and I moved to the U.S. when I was 13-years-old so my middle school and high school days were mostly filled with private tutors, ESL classes, and FOB survival. The topic of studying art in college didn’t come up until the applications were due. The idea of becoming an artist seemed far-fetched and unrealistic, so I listened to my mom and chose graphic design as my major.
All it took was one typography class for me to realize graphic design was not my calling. Thankfully, a life drawing instructor saw light in my sketches and recommended a new department on campus – entertainment art. Years later, I graduated with a B.F.A. in animation at California State University in Fullerton.
In the following 10 years as a professional character designer, I created and illustrated a character called Ruby Gloom, designed Kai-lan, Yeye, and all of their friends on Nick Jr.’s Ni-Hao, Kai-lan, and worked on Kick Buttowski and Fish Hooks at Disney TV Animation.
In 2012, I got an art studio in the Mission District in San Francisco and began my current profession, an Asian American full-time artist creating original works inspired by family, history, culture, nature, and Hayao Miyazaki.
What do you enjoy drawing?
Hsu: It brings me tremendous joy to draw cute animals cuddling one another. Especially when these custom drawings are commissioned by friends and gifted to their loved ones.
What’s been one of your favorite pieces to create?
Hsu: Lily’s Kitty was created with acrylic paint on a 24″x36″ wood panel. It portrays an intimate scene between a little girl named Lily and her secret friend, an ancient monstrous koi fish named Tiger Koi who lives in a lily pond. Tiger Koi is the size of a grey whale with a head of a tiger. He only comes up to the surface when Lily visits. It’s a classic tale about a little girl who feeds a feral cat in secrecy. One day, she follows the Tiger Koi through a portal and begins an adventure in a magical kingdom.
What medium/program do you typically use?
Hsu: I like to paint with watercolor, cel-vinyl, and acrylic on paper and wood panels. Adobe Illustrator fulfills my OCD design tendencies perfectly.
What is your drawing/artistic process like?
Hsu: As a self-taught artist, I’ve stuck to what feels comfortable for me. My process is simple: rough ideas in sketchbook, tightened sketches on Cintiq, print out sketch to size of wood panel, tape, transfer drawing and paint.
What are some resources you would recommend for artists of color?
Hsu: Resources I turn to for inspiration include the Asian art section in bookstores, natural history shows, and Studio Ghibli movies.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Hsu: Don’t forget to dig into the past, interview living family members, consider the future but look within to find light, water, and fire.
What advice would you give yourself five years ago? Five years down the road?
Hsu: Same advice – I have everything I need right here with me. Continue to make good art. Make my art.
I know you’re influenced and inspired by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Where else do you find inspiration? Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
Hsu: I am in love with traditional Asian art. Especially 17th century huanniao (flower and bird) paintings. I am hugely inspired by master poets and painters from the Edo Period such as Ito Jakuchu. As a naturalist at heart, I would vote for Sir David Attenborough as the President of the Universe.
What are some projects you have taken in the past?
Hsu: My favorite projects include working with Sanrio, Disney, Google, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
Can you tell us what it’s like to make art for Sanrio? How did you get started with them?
Hsu: Creating officially licensed art for Sanrio feels like taking a ride on Doraemon’s time machine with Hello Kitty as the pilot. I grew up being surrounded by Sanrio products, but never dreamt of painting Hello Kitty, Pochacco, or Tuxedo Sam. I was first invited by Jamie Rivadeneira from JapanLA to participate in Hello Kitty’s 35 Anniversary show back in 2009. Since then, I’ve created original works for Sanrio’s 50th Anniversary, Hello Kitty 40th and 45th Anniversary exhibitions.
What are you currently working on now and can you talk a little bit about each of these projects (that you’re able to disclose)?
Hsu: Well, right now I’m staying home and working on small watercolor paintings of cute animals making wishes under the cherry blossom tree titled ‘Sakura Wishes’. This series is part of an online art show I created titled ‘Shelter In Love’. Basically, I release small drawings, paintings, and custom figures to sell online to try to make up losses due to recent comic con cancellations and gallery closures. The theme is focused on joy, warmth, and finding light in dark places. It’s about all I can do to cheer people up.
Do you face any challenges as an artist of color? How do you combat those challenges? What sorts of challenges do you think still exist for artists of color?
Hsu: I think the biggest challenge I face as an Asian American artist is my duty and responsibility to represent my people and myself clearly and strongly in the media to the public. My approach has always been to make the most insightful, dynamic and beautiful art I can to spark interest in its viewers. This challenge of racial and cultural representation will always exist. It’s up to the artists of color of today and tomorrow to paint the world with the biggest and mightiest brush.
How do you integrate your culture and your representation into your art?
Hsu: By feeling into the past, being with the present and creating a future.
You bring in a lot of your culture into your artwork and expression; why does representation matter so much in what you do?
Hsu: Because I am Dragon Boy. I’m a descendent of the Dragon – it is who I am and all I know. I am on a treasurous path of self-discovery through deep waters, barren deserts, forbidden mountains with my dog, Dragon Dog Shaohei (Blackie). We are alone on this quest. But along the way, we find friendship and kinship in other humans, animals, and creatures of all colors. It is our differences that unite us, and unity makes us stronger.
Representation matters because it is the only way we are heard in silence and seen in darkness. To quote Rumi, “Shine like the whole Universe is yours.”
Where can people find you and your work (social media, storefront location, etc.)?
Hsu: Please visit www.MartinHsu.com for my gallery work and www.MartinHsuDesign.com for Dragon Boy and animation work. Follow me on IG: @martinhsuart and @martinhsudesign You’re also invited to visit my Gallery Store in San Francisco.
How can people support you and your art?
Hsu: Buying art you love is the best way to support me. You’ll find prints and paintings of cute animals and Goldfish Mermaids in my Online Art Shop. You’ll also find books and figures of Dragon Boy and Studio Ghibli fandom in my Online Design Shop.
Thanks for the love, Martin.