August 5, 2016

Spotlight: Lis Xu

Illustrator Lis Xu discusses breaking into illustration and Toronto's art scene.

I recently got the chance to speak with Lis Xu, an extremely talented illustrator based in Canada. We spoke about her experience with illustration, defining her artwork's style, and getting involved in Toronto's art scene. I’ve completely fallen in love with the style of Xu’s work and can’t wait to see what will come next for her.

The Le Sigh: How did you initially get into illustration? 

Lis Xu:
I had very little idea of what I’d wanted to do after my first degree, which was in Mathematical Statistics, I only knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a job in my field due to the fact that I had little motivation, bad grades and few references. I’d always been drawing through lectures, and beside homework. I also thought that I was good at it, and so I started to consider art school.

I had some exposure to the Toronto art scene through friends, and felt that illustration was an interesting combination of many creative disciples that I was interested in. It also felt possible to have a somewhat objectively correct opinion in it (aka, a ‘correct answer’) versus the intimidatingly open interpretation of conceptual art. I liked a lot of illustration work that I saw, and decided to do my best to have fun and learn from this creative field.

TLS: You definitely have a certain style that applies to all of your pieces – have you always had this style or has it been a long process of figuring out a consistent look for all of your work?

LX: I’ve read many thoughts on style and how different artists go about acquiring theirs. This post by Greg Ruth is a good and true read. I see style as the result of one’s unique problem-solving skills combined with their amount of technical skill. I think that style (regardless of chosen medium, whether it be illustration, painting, design, etc.) should transcend its visual look, and the author is recognized through the way they have communicated (by illustrating, painting, designing, etc) the very idea itself.

I struggle with extending my style across work, because my style is more the art that I love seeing, and less technical knowledge. So, to try to answer this question – yes, I have always had a ‘style’ but want to spend more time on foundational skills. My style has also changed throughout the years and I’m glad to see it do so.

TLS: I really love your zines, how did you become interested in self-publishing? Is there a large community of other zine makers in Toronto?

LX: Thank you! Toronto is pretty supportive of zine making, and there have been many zine fairs recently. I think there is definitely a resurgence in zines, and seeing different applications like small magazines and comics is really interesting and inspiring.

You can make a zine about anything, learn a ton of stuff from the process and there are really no rules. I’ve been making zines to collect my sketches and thoughts – I go through recent sketchbooks for pages, it’s kinda like a garage sale of what I think is good or what I like. Holding a zine that you’ve made by yourself is also a nice feeling.

TLS: Is Canzine a major event in Toronto? I noticed that your Exercise Book & Sketch Zine 1 were featured there in 2015 – are you planning on showing any of your zines there in October? If so, which ones will be showcased?

LX: Canzine is probably the biggest zine event in Toronto – perhaps after TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival) which hosts primarily comic publishers and artists. It’s grown a lot over the years, and I will be there this October! I will be making new material for it, but I don’t know what yet ☺

TLS: What's Toronto's art scene like? Is it easy for young artists like you to get opportunities?

LX: Toronto is a big city! There is growing interest in illustration services from other industries, especially with many illustrators doubling as graphic designers and vice versa. There are not many art collectors in Toronto but they seem more open to younger artists and newer work. There are opportunities to get out there – exhibiting at mass shows like The Artist Project, or annual craft fairs like City of Craft. While there isn’t an abundance of traditional illustration work (ie. editorial illustration), there are many other creative disciplines to explore and incorporate. Toronto definitely has a slower art scene, so sometimes it can be hard to feel like you’re moving forwards but I’m glad for its supportiveness and openness.

TLS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired the "Giant" series?

LX: I don’t think there was a specific event or person that inspired the series, but it was a general sense of ignorance around these issues that I felt needed attention. I wanted to focus on a single figure amongst its background and explore creating images with that one figure representing an issue.

TLS: Do you think that having a math degree has affected the way you make art?

LX: Not specifically a math degree, but I think after my first degree, going to art school at a later age was a good thing for me. I valued the education more, and pushed myself to be more open, especially in accepting criticism to improve my work. I often joke about how I was going to be a comfortable accountant (even though my math major had nothing to do with getting CFA certification). I’m glad for the math degree, I’m quite good at splitting bills.

You can view her work here, and purchase her prints/pins/stickers here.

Kaitlin Turner-Simotics is journalist based out of Atlanta, Georgia with high interest in music, marxism, and memes.