Artists We Love: Lumichen Art

INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr IMAGES courtesy of Lumichen Art

Local illustrator and aspiring tattooist Szu-Yu Chen (Lumichen Art) talks to us about the inspiration behind their whimsical pieces and how art created a safe space and helps form a sense of identity and refuge.

How did you get into creating art?

I’ve always been into drawing and sketching from when I was able to read and write. I am hearing impaired so I have always been a more visually inclined person. This was probably a huge motivator for me to create. Before we realised I had hearing loss and got hearing aids to help, socialising and interacting with the world was difficult for me. This led to becoming very reserved and indulging myself into a lot of books, movies, anime, series, games, etc… Basically, things to entertain me that didn’t require interacting with people.

I was so incredibly inspired by all these fantasy worlds, characters and creatures, I started creating my own. I had been drawing every now and then as a hobby but I really started developing my style 3-4 years ago after deciding to join the Inktober challenge one year. Everything kind of snowballed from there when I started putting more soul into it.

Does your work lend itself more to the cute or the creepy?

It really depends on the mood. I sometimes like to create dark, moody subjects and meanings but nowadays, I try to incorporate more lighthearted themes with additional ethereality and magic into them. Even if the subject is creepy, they tend to fall more on the pleasant and elegant side of things.

What mediums do you prefer using?

I started off traditionally and love using pencils, ballpoint pens and ink pens. Eventually, I upgraded digitally and absolutely adore using my iPad and Apple pen. Procreate is my life. It’s a lot more portable and environmentally friendly as I didn’t have to constantly buy sketchbooks or inks that lead to more waste.

How did your unique style develop?

Back then when I started creating, all I illustrated were humans (mostly ladies). This was probably because I loved creating original characters to fit in fandoms or my own original stories. Those characters tend to be based off myself. You know, like a typical teenager stuck in a fantasy world, thinking they’re better off there than the real life. In my last year of varsity, I decided to join an Inktober challenge and it all started from there. Day by day during that October, I found love in the simplicity behind black and white works. Deciding how the lines and shapes were to form and navigating the negative spaces was just so gratifying. I personally felt that black and white pieces spoke to me more than coloured pieces do and I’m not entirely sure why. I think the simplicity is what I crave and strive for. With all these situations, problems and happenings that occur in our everyday human life, I find that counteracting against that in my art helps me find peace. From then, I leaned into my interest in flora and fauna and just illustrated purely from my heart and soul. Slowly but surely, I found different ways to evolve the forms into art pieces and developed a style I could proudly call mine and that people could recognise who it belonged to.

Do you have a piece that stands out for you?

I have too many pieces that stand out to me! I think the one that I still think about is the piece “Endless Trek” that I created for the new year to welcome 2021. The caption was:

“This year has honestly felt like an endless trek of getting nowhere. The roads felt so long and we are just here either fighting for our lives or waiting restlessly for the storms to pass.”

I drew this when it was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when everything was just so uncertain and everyone was feeling terrorised. It was just utter chaos.

I was feeling extremely lost and felt like a lot of the stability within my own inner circles had been reduced to nothing. The idea behind this piece was basically how one would feel as if they were trapped in a blizzard, in the middle of nowhere. There’s no path, there’s no indicator of where to go. Nothing. But you can’t just wait there until someone or something tells you where to go or else, you’ll probably either freeze or starve. So, you just keep walking, hoping that eventually, you’ll get somewhere. To this day, I still think about and relate to that piece. The metaphor is still so strong in my life now and it still feels like I’m walking blindly through that snowstorm.

Do you prefer commissions or your own creations?

I love doing both. Sometimes, clients come to me with the most intricate and amazing ideas that even I have not thought of or when they come to me with a concept that means a great deal to them. I always feel so incredibly honoured that out of a thousand artists out there, they have selected and put their trust in me to help them realise their vision into a physical artwork. Commissions also help me separate myself from getting too close to my art. There are many times when I am suffering an art block and I get saved by a commission because it allows me to break away from the block to create something that someone else has thought about. When I’m creating for myself, the critic and perfectionist in me is not always kind. If I am creating for someone else, I am able to put my own ego and criticism aside to do my best to create something that they would love.

What is the process for making an artwork?

Ideas typically strike when emotions are strong or if life decides to throw a lesson at me. Sometimes, it might even just be a random shower idea of something aesthetically pleasing. I usually write down the idea in the form of words so I don’t forget them as ideas are so fleeting and easily get lost. I then translate the words into a composition sketch, figuring out what subject I want to use or how the layout should be. I’d be lying if I said I do this all time as a lot of it is very much improvised and I just…art. My biggest weakness is that I love taking shortcuts so I typically don’t like planning my artwork much. I guess it can also be considered a strength as I personally believe that I create my best pieces when I’m just creating from within.

Where do you look to get inspired for your critters?

Everywhere and anywhere. My main sources would probably be the Ghibli films I grew up with and animal documentaries. I guess growing up in South Africa also developed my love for fauna and flora as it was so easily accessible in terms of distance and location as South Africa is rich in nature. Most of our recreational holiday destinations were nature-based such as safaris, forests, seaside, and so forth. My parents would always chuckle at the fact that instead of taking photos of myself or the family for holiday memories, I would take more interest in the flora and creatures I could spot.

Any local artists on your radar?

Lauren Tzung-Hui Lee is a well-known South African Chinese fine artist that manipulates paper, ink, charcoal and many other mediums to create her pieces. Her detailed mark-making and concepts behind her works are always such an inspiration and provoke more than just a single thought. While her general style and art motivations are different from my own, for some reason I always feel inspired and enlightened when viewing her works.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Two months ago, I started taking my works further by pursuing a career in tattooing. I am currently apprenticing at Little Hollow Tattoo Studio, so most of my time and energy is put into mastering the techniques behind needle and ink. Luckily, I am acquiring a lot of opportunities and clients that give me permission to progress and practice on them so a typical day for me would be turning up at the studio and working. On days when I don’t have someone booked, I stay at home and progress with my commissions (for both international and local clients) as well as work on creating content for my Patreon and social media. I used to work through the night but fell into very bad burnout that lasted for weeks. So, with lessons learnt, my evenings and nights are used for self-care and rest through gaming, a practice session with the handpan or of course, a Netflix binge.

What are your plans for the upcoming months?

We had just finished up with Comic-Con Cape Town so May is all about rest and sorting out our orders from our online shop. September is going to be our next big convention with Comic Con Africa in Joburg so the convention crunch starts NOW. I just know if I’m not starting in the next couple of weeks, there will definitely be a lot of last-minute panic!

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