Interview with Artist Stacy Nguyen

Stacy Nguyen graciously contributed the art to Issue 3: Things Unseen, an issue that threw up visual and design challenges by its very theme. Stacy is a graphic/web designer, illustrator, and writer working in Seattle. She is a former news editor and the current editorial consultant for Northwest Asian Weekly, the oldest Pan-Asian weekly still in print on the West Coast. Her illustrations have won awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Stacy earned her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.

What led you to choose the particular images you illustrated for this issue?

My general goal was to not be too literal with the images because all the pieces (and literature in general) tends to not be so literal, but beautifully figurative. I’d read each piece at least three times, at different times, to kind of absorb it. I didn’t really think I could ferret out the author’s intention with each piece—that’s not realistic or really the point in stories—but I did want to do right by them, to kind of show an earnest effort in drawing from the story and synthesizing something that reflects the mood of a story. With some pieces, the concept came instantly and intuitively, like “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Others I felt like I labored for a while, like “A Brief History of the Occult.”

And then of course, I decided on the style from the start—the pop art-y, flat, burst of color, in a square—and so I also couldn’t help but pick concepts that fit in that theme. So, there were … no images of sweeping landscapes or stuff like that.

On your website you mention you’re interested in “marrying the visual with the written.” Could you talk more about the relationship between the two?

I actually went to college to study creative writing. After, I ended up working at a newspaper, as its editor. I have a writing and print journalism background, so now, as a designer, I have a special affection for words. I’ve worked with designers who don’t get words, and I’ve worked with writers who don’t get design—and these people were very talented, but it was just how they were built and sometimes (a lot of the times) when you put creative people together with different ideas on how a page or site should look, it can get intense. I think, being someone who has worked both sides, I can often be a mediator in projects, advocating for written content when I truly think it should supersede design, and vice versa.

It’s also super useful to be a writer who designs, because typically, the writer on a project—say, a technical writer—knows a crapton more stuff about a given topic than the designer—who puts the content in a brochure. That’s just the nature of their work. And when you design or illustrate, the more you know about the topic, the better the work will be.

How do you see this informing your artwork? What about the artwork for this issue?

Sometimes my affinity for words is a bit of an obstacle, though it’s mostly good. Speaking in terms of journalism and in really broad strokes, I think writers and editors have a tendency to want to cram in as many words as possible. Designers are better about maintaining the functionality and readability of a page. Sometimes I get too enthusiastic about a written piece and I let the words overtake the page. It’s an ongoing issue of mine, but I think I’m getting better.

For this particular Golden Key issue—I think my writing background helped the images stay purer. I didn’t want the writing to end up conforming to the art—that is, I didn’t want to draw some picture I thought was randomly cool and then retroactively force parallels between an image and the written source. That’s whack and you may think, “That’s whack. Who does that?” But it’s a pretty easy trap to fall into. I had to actively work to avoid doing that. During “The Death of a Hamster,” I was so enthused with the concept—sooo excited—that I worried that I was falling into that trap, with the written content conforming to the image. While it didn’t keep me up at night and I went ahead with it, I still sometimes half-wonder when it’s brought up.

You work in a variety of media (graphic design, web layouts, woodworking!). What are the differences, the similarities? Do you have a favorite medium?

Easily, my favorite medium is anything digital. Sometimes I pick up a real pencil and my body recoils.

I love working digitally because of Ctrl-Z. That’s a joke—but not really. I prefer working really fast because I want to get out my ideas fast, so I don’t forget them, or so I don’t lose momentum. I’m the kind of artist that needs to shove things out in a hurry because I value that spontaneous and imperfect burst of thought. Because of that, sometimes going old school, like the woodworking or painting, feels almost painfully slow.

Of course it needs to be and that’s kind of why those disciplines are special, and that’s why I dabble. Sometimes it’s nice to do something with your fingers and hands, things requiring dexterity. It’s always, always nice to have something tangible at the end, too.

But I get really bored really easily, so that’s why I like digital the most. I also like the fluidity of digital. I like that you can color something and not have to fully commit to it. You can flip a layer of color off and on and go back and forth and experiment, at little cost. In contrast, you can’t really do the same thing with paint—sometimes you have to even wait as paint dries. It is painful. I hate erasing things, because it drives me nuts, not even because of the ghosting on the paper because you can’t really ever fully erase something, but more that the eraser bits come off the eraser and get in the way of the page. I hate having to brush off the bits. I don’t like the actual act any of it, so I usually never use an eraser. I often draw directly in ink in my sketching process so that my mind fully commits. Man, I really, really hate manually erasing.

I have one art piece that’s like 24 inches-by-36 that’s done entirely in pencil in an art class. My teacher made me do it. And that’s the one and only finished/polished thing I have done entirely in pencil. BECAUSE I HATE ERASERS SO MUCH.

This issue is the first time we’ve featured color illustrations, and the color in the pieces you did for us is so vibrant and lovely. Do you think about color much in composing? How did that factor in to these images specifically?

Nope. I didn’t think about the coloring during conceptualization. After coming up with an idea, I put down the line art (digitally, haha), and then I revisit the story and put down a color. I didn’t draw the line art based on a color idea I had.

This goes back to the mission of good design, which is to 100 percent serve a function. If I were to become smitten by some color combination before the concept/line art, then the line art would end up conforming to the coloring. And in this case, I felt the line art superseded the color, so it had to come first. Coloring was super easy, though. It was based on the tone or mood or emotion of a piece, and I barely had to think about it by the time I had gotten to that point.

How did you approach the challenge of illustrating the unseen? Was your impulse to make visual the thing the story obscured, or were you more drawn to highlighting the peripheral characters and elements with the artwork?

The former more than the latter. I also made a lot of images darker than I was comfortable with—because the stories associated with them made that decision for me. I’m specifically talking about “Push With All Your Love.” I really liked the detail on the fly. And then I made it so dark that all those details were almost impossible to see. It kind of makes me wince. But I think that made sense for the story and, of course, the theme of the issue.

And this is cheating, but I guess I’ll reveal that my general read on the stories is that nearly all of them had this raw repression associated with gender, relationships, and sex. So nearly all of the images speak to that in a sneaky-ninja kind of way, if you look for it. For me, that’s probably the most important “thing unseen.”

What are you reading now?

The labels of every processed food item I eat. I read news stories every day. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. I really want to read Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.

Who are some of your favorite artists and illustrators?

Ahh, no one likes reading these pretentious lists! But go look at Victo Ngai’s portfolio and barf over all her talent. I like her layering. I am obsessed with Fu-Tung Cheng’s concrete work and how he edits his own work. Jim Lee made me want to learn to draw people and not just flowers. George Nakashima’s woodworking improves upon what is almost already perfect (large wood slabs). Those are four of my faves and they are all ethnically Asian. Asian people are cool.

More about STACY NGUYEN at:

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