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In the Studio with Joey Yu

Joey Yu is my favorite kind of reporter; updating her followers on her fantasies and surroundings through colorful drawings, and people-focused paintings, the 24-year-old London-based artist creates a magical reality. Since studying illustration and animation in school, Yu has tapped into curation and the business side of art, as her personal work becomes more surreal.

Milk visited her studio to chat about self-confidence in the art world, her favorite things (she loves spice and Allison Shulnik), and what to do with free time.

So you recently did a university talk, how was it? 

So it was actually at my old University! it was a little bit frightening because I turned up and there were first years, second years, third years, and also MA students. My old tutor said that it was one of the biggest turnouts that they’ve had at a talk. So, yeah, I was a bit taken aback- but I feel like I’ve done a few talks now, and I was confident; I just spoke loudly and I think it was good. A girl emailed me afterward, and she said that she was really nervous about her last university year. She told me she got some ideas from the talk which would put her more on track, so I think I did what I came to do!   

What were the main topics that you discussed?  

It was sort of an overview of what I did at university, what I did when I left, and all of the pitfalls and the things that you find difficult as a freelancer; me giving them all the tips that I could basically.

 What is your top tip? 

There are so many female illustrators studying but not as many in the industry. I think a lot of it has to do with not being confident in asking for enough money, or just being confident in putting yourself out there.  Being confident and demanding for more, and knowing your worth is one of my biggest tips. 

In another interview, you’ve said, “I’ve known that I wanted to do this since I was tiny,” when asked about your career choice. When you went into school, did you see a path for that? I feel like a lot of people end up kind of changing their major once they’re there, but it feels like you’ve been very set on your path? 

Yeah, I think so. Well, I didn’t really know what specific jobs there were or exactly what I was going to do when I was growing up. All I knew is I wanted to just draw pictures. Like the things that I did in my spare time I just wanted to do that for my living. So I just kind of kept going and kept going, and I studied art at school until I was in college [high school.] For a moment, I thought I should do fashion. I got a little bit confused just because I felt like I learned so much. And this almost sounds like a really stupid reason but, I chose to stick with illustration and animation because my friends were doing it, which it sounds silly to follow what my friends were doing, but I think it was because I knew that they had a really strong work ethic and I did as well; knowing that I would be doing a course where I was surrounded by like-minded people, and we would bounce off each other, I would thrive the best in that kind of environment. It made me realize that this is the one for me.  

And when art kind of becomes more of a career and a means to live, how do you keep it exciting?  

Lots of personal projects. I’m always coming up with things that don’t earn me money, basically. I keep it very much on my own schedule. I’m quite a chilled out person anyway, and I take things as they come. I don’t really get too stressed out. I’m just daydreaming or thinking up things that could be a fun side project. So when I’m not making editorial or newspaper things, then I’m just drawing for fun, and that’s really nice, and I’m experimenting and I’m playing, or I just don’t do anything. I just prioritize my mental health.

Allowing free time is super important, and it’s interesting to see how people use that free time.

And making sure you have that thing that you do for fun, that doesn’t earn you money is so important.  I go to dance classes, I’ve been doing that for a while. And I did some part-time drama classes for a bit. I’m not doing this because I want a different career. I just do it for the reason that I need to move my body, and I need to exercise my brain in a different way, and that’s my outlet.  

Very often, people (especially when they’re reaching 24-25-26) think that they cannot pick up new skills or new hobbies because they think that they have to be the best at it; they’re afraid to be a beginner. Can you imagine if the world actually ran like that? I think some of the best artists and the most incredible new thoughts and ideas would not exist. 

That’s so true. Like the whole thing, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” you so can! I think you have to stay learning throughout your entire life.

Tell us about your work as a curator, do you think it’s influenced your practice as an artist; seeing the bigger picture and business side?

Yeah, so after doing a lot of stuff when I was studying, I was doing curation stuff as well. I think, for one, it definitely made me- not streamlined, but I knew how to email people, I knew how to talk to people in the right tone of voice and approach. I was the person who was working with artists and commissioning them. So when it came to my own work, I think that made me more thick-skinned. I knew that when I was getting an email from a curator, and someone was saying, “That idea doesn’t work, you have to do something else,” because I had been on the other side, I knew that it wasn’t something to take personally. 

Your work has a very strong narrative element to it. So, what stories are you trying to tell?

I’ve been thinking about this more and more recently, about what I’m trying to say, and for a lot of the work, I’ve been trying to tell my story. In terms of autobiographically, and sort of telling people what was going on around me. I think Frank Ocean just did an interview, and he was saying for people to expect you to sort of open your heart up and say it all, it’s actually quite demanding. That there’s something exciting in the fantasy, making things up.  I think that’s something that I’m also interested in nowadays,web-weaving and spinning stories. I want to explore that more.

What stories are you interested in most from other people? You talked about this idea of fantasy – do you have any specific examples of things that you’ve been interested in recently?

Oh, actually…I basically write down everything I see, so I’m going to just have a look at it in my book.

What does your book look like?

Bullet points, and then little notes next to things that I’ve seen.

I saw The Farewell, that’s an autobiographical story. It’s really stunning, I was sobbing. I really like films like that, that feel almost as if you’re watching it real-time, and you’re just seeing a glimpse into someone else’s life.  I think Roma has that same feeling where it’s very slow and drawn out in a human way.

I saw Midsommar recently, and Sorry to Bother You. That’s really good, but it’s insane, on the other end of the spectrum. The whole story is mad. The way it’s shot is crazy. I guess Midsommar, as well, it’s punchy. I like those extremes. The sort of paired back, very realistic films, and then also the complete opposite, where it’s just screaming at you. Films that scream at you!

In another interview, you were talking about a series of work that you have done and you referred to them as “reportage drawings.” And I really liked that. If you were to look at your sketchbook now, what have you noticed? What would you report about your surroundings?

I cannot seem to draw landscapes without people. I think it’s all about the person and them interacting with space. And the way…I just love watching. I love seeing how someone rests their weight on one leg; you can see so much in a person’s posture. So I think that definitely is prevalent in all of the works I do; I kind of document someone inhabiting certain areas or certain spaces.

And what projects are you working on right now?

I’ve got a couple of ones that I can’t say anything about, because they’re like N-D-A. One I’m doing that just for fun, is with my friend, Ben. He and I are making this sort of surreal story about a Chinese restaurant. This is one of the first things I’m doing in a long time where it’s storytelling, for storytelling’s sake, it’s just make-believe. We’re making this animation stop motion style, so it won’t be out for a while, but it’s in the works.

I’ve seen your vases (that originally started as drawings.) They are so beautiful. I sent them to my roommate, and I was like, “We need this in the house.” How else do you see your art moving past your sketchbooks and into items? 

 I think that’s one thing that I’m really pushing for 2020. The 2020 vision is things that exist in real life that people can hold and touch, and there’s something…I don’t know if I can talk about it yet, some of my things are being made into a sort of collection? Which is coming out next year. There is something that people can actually have and wear. I want to do more films and more books because it’s nice to be permanent. It’s nice to last a bit longer.

Are you curating any shows at the moment?

Not in the near future. Hopefully next year though. I think next year will be the year.

So what do you listen to you? What do you read? What’s your favorite thing to eat? What makes you happy, essentially?

Where do I start? Favorite food? I like spice. Anything with heat. Also- you get this in Hong Kong cuisine, things that are boiled or steamed, and it’s quite healthy. When people think of Chinese food they think of a lot of fried things and it can be heavy foods, but from the part where my mum is from, it’s super light, and bouncy, and fresh. So I also like that sort of style of food as well. Just like, eating everything. Recently I’ve just been eating olive bread, focaccia with olive spread on top.

Favorite artists?

Definitely, Allison Schulnik, have you ever heard of her? She does these amazing videos made out of plasticine, I was watching them last night. She works with plasticine in a completely different way; like not Wallace and Gromit-y at all. She almost makes it look like fabric, like a soft fabric, and it’s billowing in the wind. I saw Faith Ringgold’s exhibition recently. She’s really great. Oh, I mean I say it all the time but, Maira Kalman. She has like a sort of, funny and 90s New York humor. She did these beautiful paintings and narratives that go along with it, that I really like. She does a lot of stuff for the New Yorker.

Anything else you think the world should know about you?

Um, I don’t know… the main thing I think is, that I’m trying to get more surreal.

Images Courtesy of Lauren Maccabee

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.

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