For our inaugural SUNDAY SPOTLIGHT, we are highlighting illustrator and cartoonist, Jen Tong! She discusses how the pandemic has affected her day-to-day life and creative process. We also talk about how she comes up with her adorable characters and how to deal with artist's block.
Interview with Jen Tong
You were one of the first artists that From Here to Sunday stocked. Thank you so much for being a part of this wild journey! How do you feel about selling your work at a brick-and-mortar store?
I think it’s amazing. Brick and mortar shops are so important to providing spaces for people to interact with art in person and discover new works in a curated environment.
Completely agree! Has the pandemic affected your creative process? Were you still able to do any screen-printing?
In the past year, I’ve had somewhat of a hard time staying focused creatively. I’ve mostly worked on my paintings and drawings, and having deadlines has definitely helped. I’ve put my screen-printing work on hold for now, but I definitely plan to get back to it soon.
The pandemic has truly forced all of us to pivot the way we approach work. I'm glad you are able to work in other media in the meantime. Has living upstate changed the way you go about your work day-to-day?
Things up here are more quiet and slow-paced. My approach to my work day has mostly remained the same, except nowadays I’ll spend a little more time cooking my meals and taking walks around the neighborhood to soak up the fresh air. Living upstate with a lot more space means being able to have a dedicated studio, which is nice!
Yes! Taking more time for yourself is so important, especially to allow for a creative mind to explore and wander. Your work has a wonderful tactile quality to it, whether it is a screen print, painting, or hand-made book. How do you decide what form each piece takes?
I usually start with the medium or form and decide what images to create from that. I’ve enjoyed revisiting many themes across various mediums, and often the work ends up taking a life of its own. For example, an outer space scene will have a different look as a painting versus a silkscreen print or a risograph zine or print. It's a lot of fun and very stimulating to be able to explore working in different mediums.
That does sound fun! What is your process for coming up with your adorable characters and fantastical landscapes? Does it start with a particular shape or color?
Sometimes it starts with creating a character and building a world around them. If there is a particular theme I want to explore, or a mood I want to capture, sometimes that will dictate (maybe inspire or influence?) the color scheme. When it comes to illustration, I tend to skip the preliminary sketching and doodling process. I usually dive right into working directly on the canvas until it feels complete.
I love how improvisational your process is. Who are you inspired by?
I’m inspired by a lot of anime and manga from my youth. Also Star Trek, and Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy, as well as Tove Jansson, Moebius, and the films of Studio Ghibli.
You were speaking about having trouble staying focused creatively. When you feel stuck, what do you do to get unstuck?
Taking breaks for me can be pretty helpful. I’ll take the time to tend to my plants or cook something really good. Reading a good book or zine is always inspiring. Some works I have read recently: Ocean Vuong’s “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”, “Prayer to Saint Therese” by Alabaster Pizzo, “Worf” by Mariangela Le Thanh and Sanaa Scherezade Khan.
Does your identity as an Asian-American woman inform how you approach your work? And has the latest racial reckoning changed the way you think about and navigate creative industries?
Many of the themes I like to explore in my artwork are rooted in fantasy and the surreal. At the same time, I bring a lot of myself and my experiences into my creative process. Some of my works are about connecting with nature and spirits. Other times it’s about relationships (romantic or platonic), or the isolation that comes from loneliness. Much of which ties back to my own lived experience as an Asian American woman.
I’ve always known that BIPOC folks haven’t had the same advantage or opportunities as others. I felt that the latest racial reckoning was inevitable and is bringing more awareness of something that has been happening for a long, long time. I'm excited about the conversations happening now that encourage diversity and inclusivity in all spaces. On a personal level, I am looking forward to the prospect of participating in more inclusive and diverse exhibitions and collaborating with more folks of color. I’m excited to hopefully see long term change in the art world.
What is one piece of advice you would give to a young creative who might be struggling in this challenging time?
Do what makes you feel good. Making paintings has been a helpful outlet for me, as well as taking time to relax as much as I can. I think that having that balance is so important.
That is so true, and I hope many people will take that advice to heart! Speaking of things that feel good, what is something that brings you joy?
I love traveling and experiencing food from different cultures.
Yes, I'm a huge fan of your account @jentongeats!
Lastly, what’s an organization you’d like our community to learn about or donate to?
A big THANK YOU to Jen for taking the time to speak to us about her process and pandemic life!
Jen Tong was born and raised in San Francisco, California, and is currently based in Brooklyn and upstate New York. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts for Cartooning and Illustration. She creates various art comics, interactive visual narrative books, silkscreen prints, and zines. Jen has worked on several freelance projects and has exhibited her paintings and illustrations nationwide.