The Land Around Vivian Shih


When you spend your whole life in one city, it's easy to think of it as a drag–even in a place as bustling and diverse as Los Angeles. Fortunately, artist Vivian Shih didn't join the myriad of jaded natives complaining about how transplants have ruined everything and everything used to be so much better back in the day. Instead, she and fellow creators Bijou Karman and Juliette Toma set their sights on the city to celebrate its beauty in the form of a zine and accompanying exhibition that will be wrapping up this weekend at co-LAb Gallery in Highland Park. We caught up with Shih in the final days of the exhibition to discuss influences, how she decides where to take a portrait visually, and what her workspace is like.

Let’s dig first into the title, “The Land Around Us.” What compelled you three to have that phrase define the exhibit? What made co-LAb the best place to bring it to life?
The title came to us when we were first conceptualizing the title for our zine, which we published with Tiny Splendor last year that inspired our show. We loved the play on words with "LA" being in the word "Land," representing the art that we created inspired by our surroundings in our home, Los Angeles. Co-LAb gallery only exhibits LA artists, so they were a great gallery for us to feature this body of work.


How did you refine your illustration skills growing up? Were you heavily involved in art courses or was it mostly a solo endeavor?
I was in and out of art classes throughout my childhood but as a kid, I remember feeling constrained in classes when I would diverge from "coloring in the lines" or when I drew from my imagination instead of copying references. As a kid, I would draw on the walls of my parent's home with crayons. I guess I was a bit of a rebel youth when it came to creativity. Once I got into high school, I started taking art more seriously as a form of self expression and a potential career path. I studied illustration in college at Art Center College of Design where I learned to refine my skills and challenge ideas and concepts.

Who is somebody that has helped you grow into the artist that you are today? How did their influence help you grow as a creator?
The supportive art and design teachers I've had over the years have definitely helped mold me as an artist. Other than that, while I was growing up, my mom's free spirited mind dabbled in different creative hobbies including photography, singing, and Chinese ink painting. Being exposed to this influenced me to always be creatively curious and look to other forms of art and self expression for inspiration as well.

You’ve done a lot of amazing portraiture work over the years. What things about do consider about your subjects when visualizing your illustration direction?
Portraiture is very intimate to me. I love painting faces because I feel like I am traveling through their emotions through a person's features. When I work on a new illustration or painting that involves a person, I think about elements that make me feel their vibe and try to depict that into my artwork.

With the advancement of the internet, it’s become much easier for artists to gain a platform. In what ways does this help and hinder your work?
I love social media for sharing my work across different platforms and having it get in front of eyes that would otherwise never see what I do, but it can also be tricky in terms of an extreme surplus of great (and bad) art that I am exposed to on a daily basis. Sometimes it can distract me from my own vision, so I just have to remind myself to stay true to my own vision.

You have six months to live in another country. However, you will only be able to practice artwork from one art period in that country’s history during your stay (i.e., rococo in France, ukiyo-e in Japan, etc.). Where would you go?
I would pick Japan to study Japanese woodblocks prints.


According to a post on Lost At E Minor, you wrote and illustrated a book to make guns unappealing to kids. If you were to write and illustrate another story tomorrow, what would you want to tackle and how would you see it through?
It'd be a story about a girl's love for fashion and her journey making her own clothes using found materials. I love merging environmentalism with fashion and think it'd be a fun way to merge my passions.

Describe your workspace. What are some of your must-have items to create? What pieces do you keep near you for continual motivation and inspiration?
I have a large desk that has my computer and tablet on it, with my painting supplies and artbooks to my right, and multiple sketchbooks, journals, and drawing tools to my left. I have a few plants near my desk, and postcards, prints, and photos of myself with friends on the wall.

Collaborations are a great way to fuse your work with someone else's. Can you tell us about a collaboration you've done, how it was handled, and how the final piece(s) turned out?
I often collaborate with my friends Bijou Karman and Juliette Toma, the two friends that are involved in the show, The Land Around Us. Most recently, we created a 3-zine project on the theme "PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE." We each worked on one of the words to create a mini zine, but to keep it cohesive, we chose a limited color palette to work with.