Issue 15: What can't be put into words
7 min read

Issue 15: What can't be put into words

One of my favorite artists who has chronicled the tumultuous year that is 2020 is my good friend Gu. Her comics have touched on her experiences helping a friend get PPE from China at the height of the pandemic in New York. She’s illustrated the history of Juneteenth and tributes to Breonna Taylor, Oluwatoyin Salau, and others. Her series about her relationship with her mother is a tender and honest reflection on adolescence, culture shock, and class. Her art always cuts to the heart of difficult emotions and her empathy comes through not only in her illustrations, but also in the ways she creates creative opportunities for others.

We first met in 2016, bonded over having tech day jobs while doing creative things in our free time, and became fast friends and supporters of each other’s work. In today’s newsletter, I’m excited to share a Q&A with Gu about her creative journey, process, values, and inspirations.

Q&A with Gu

What has been your path as an artist?
I've been drawing ever since I was little. I used to draw on walls and my mom would get so mad at me. I've always made comics in secret or posted them online under a pseudonym. I was not the most popular kid growing up so they provided me an escape. It took me so long to decide to post my art more publicly. I used to be really shy about sharing anything. I originally made a fake Instagram account to post some of my doodles and didn't realize people could find me because it was linked to my email and phone number. You would think that as someone who works in technology I would have been able to figure that out. But so many people have been really supportive and I feel so lucky I get to share my art online with the people I love and beyond.

Four panels of a comic by Gu. The text: "I used to draw a lot when I felt lonely or sad. I often forget why that was/is the case. I could see it and feel it."
Last comic panel by Gu. The text: "warmth."

In this comic about why you draw, you describe a really wonderful moment in your creative life where you "began to love something for [yourself]." How has the internet (fandoms, fanart/fanfiction, online communities etc.) influenced you and your work?
I used to spend all my time on I would end up reading more fanfiction about a series than I would the series itself. I really love diving deep into things and getting to know the fandom around it. It's a really amazing feeling when you connect with someone on something you both deeply care about. For instance, I’ve recently been so into Steven Universe (created by Rebecca Sugar) which centers around a young boy and magical humanoid aliens called the Crystal Gems. There is so much great fanart around it and I get so excited when someone draws a character I like in their style. Two recent examples are the #SailorMoonRedraw challenge and #SixFanarts tag.

#SailorMoonRedraw examples: gastonpacheco_art // Rocketboiart // Chelsea_Saunders // jvzmina // meeshell_t

#SixFanarts examples: manny.oe // ActionHankBeard // jow4ni // peomichie

It's also such a great way to get inspired by an artist and it makes me feel less alone knowing that there are many others that get excited by the same things I do. There have been many times people have tried to show me that caring so much about something is uncool but I think being passionate about something brings so much color in my world. It inspires me to create things that make people happy and helps me continue making art.

Illustration by Gu of Sailor Moon
Gu's illustration for the Six Fanarts challenge

I love your comics, some of which are autobiographical and others which discuss broader topics like forgiveness, resilience, and overachieving. What's your process for writing and illustrating a comic?
Speaking out loud isn't my strong suit. I tend to mumble, bring up random things, and lose my train of thought. Ever since I was little, I had so much trouble getting my thoughts out clearly. This was probably because I had to switch between English and Chinese a lot and somehow became not so great at either. I didn’t do very well in English classes and often didn’t know how to convey my emotions when speaking Chinese. Writing and drawing ended up being the best way for me to show my feelings to others. One time, I had a massive crush on someone and drew an entire comic about why I liked them.

I usually just try to get everything out I've been thinking in a given time period through a notes app and translate it to a comic. For instance, the primary reason I draw comics about my mother is because I never feel like I can put into words, English or Chinese, how much I appreciate and admire her, but also how I sometimes experience these negative emotions of pressure and guilt. It's nice that I get to use comics as a way to put into illustration what I often can't put into words.

In your day job, you work on educational tools. You've also organized hackathons, taught workshops, and hosted doodling sessions. How do you think about art and creativity in relation to education and community?
The work I feel passionate about is centered on providing open access to educational resources, which for me, translates to making technology and art accessible. Art and technology allow people to create and get their voices out there, but there is often gatekeeping in both fields. I got into hosting events and working on educational tools because I believe that people should feel free to explore their interests without feeling like they need to speak or write a certain way in order to have those interests. I also hope people get to experience the boundless creativity and possibilities of tech and art when they're not just used as a means to an end.

Where do you turn to for inspiration?
There are so many places! Most of my inspiration comes from my friends, either through the content they create or share. Beyond that, I watch a lot of animated films and series and look at the team that works on them. It started with Toonami and expanded from there. Every year, I make a habit of going to the IFC (when it was open) to watch the Oscar animated shorts and write down the ones I liked to see who animated them. I also have a habit of immersing myself in the fandoms of various animated series and sometimes spend many, many nights and days finding who makes fanart of the series.

Separately, I love checking out who is exhibiting at my favorite museums and zine fairs. I also use their websites to discover artists and browse their work. Here are some museums and fairs I've enjoyed.

New York, where I'm based:

  • The Noguchi Museum
  • Museum of the Moving Image
  • American Museum of Natural History (I love exhibits on space and the moon)
  • Mmuseumm
  • Pioneer Works
  • New York Tech Zine Fair
  • Comic Arts Brooklyn
  • Printed Matter's Art Book Fair
  • Botanical gardens in general are a great place to sketch and find inspiration
  • Really cool work at the intersection of art and tech done at teamLab and ARTECHOUSE

Outside New York:

  • Louisiana in Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Nezu and Mori in Tokyo, Japan
  • 798 Art District in Beijing, China
  • SFMOMA and Tiny Tech Zines in San Francisco, CA

Gu is an illustrator and technologist. She cares about open access to education and is interested in illustrating soft power and the gift of connection. She has a forthcoming newsletter and can be found on Instagram as @gubean.

A tweet that shows a message for "fellow artists." A cat with tears in its eyes gives a thumbs up and says, "If at least one person likes your art, consider that piece of art a success. (Even if that one person is you.)"

Creative resources

  • Costura Creative is offering two workshops with José Olivarez in January 2021.
  • A nice Twitter thread of things that have enabled writers to write, i.e. website blockers, joy and healing, community, deadlines, virtual writing cafes, and my personal favorite: revenge.
  • Jenny Tinghui Zhang on getting her MFA in Wyoming: “I was so happy that I allowed myself to become comfortable, and in becoming comfortable, I also forgot about the person I wanted to be: a writer.”
  • I love all the year-end book lists, but my absolute favorite is NPR’s Book Concierge which is so comprehensive and has a wide variety of filters. Each recommendation has links to purchase the book from independent booksellers or to check it out from your local library.

Recent reads & other media

I’ve been catching up on my reading goal for the year (52 books, as always). I finished Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Linda Holmes’ Evvie Drake Starts Over, both of which I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for fun, propulsive reads with rich characters. I loved Jillian Tamaki’s collection of short stories/comics, Boundless, which discusses digital phenomena and contemporary life in innovative and eerie ways. You can read the preview pages of the comic “SexCoven” here. One of my favorite poems from Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency:

A picture of Frank O'Hara's poem "For Grace, After a Party"

E and I watched My Neighbor Totoro for the first time. I’ve also been rewatching a lot of Bob’s Burgers because they have the best holiday episodes and amazing guest stars. Paul Rudd as Tina’s imaginary horse! Jenny Slate as a bully who farts a lot! Jon Hamm as a talking toilet!

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

Doing something simply because you enjoy it. Cheese grater hack. A modern Edgar Allan Poe. A lovely carrot cake in memory of one of my favorite GBBO contestants of all time, Luis Troyano. Welcome to Crowtok. Excellent contributions to Ratatouille the Musical: Anton Ego’s introduction and Colette’s Kitchen Tango.

A picture of Jon Arbuckle with surrounding text that says "I'm a triple threat. I don't know shit, I don't get stuff, and I don't understand things."