Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Interview with Costa Rican Illustrator, Wen Hsu

Ever since I came across Costa Rican illustrtor, Wen Hsu's work, I have been totally enchanted. Because of her, I have fallen in love with molas, the Kuna artform that inspires a lot of her work. In a previous post on Caribbean children's illustration, I made the point that Caribbean children's illustrators need to be more inventive with their work. Well, Ms. Hsu is certainly surpassing my expectations of inventiveness! Her stunning work brings together the intricate dimensionality of traditional Chinese paper cuts and the brightly colored geometrical patterns of molas, to produce indigenous visuals that retain the mythical quality of storytelling. The luminous quality of some of her illustrations gives them a glowing poignancy that somehow reminds me of sand animation, while the geometric designs evoke the studied spirituality of Buddhist sand mandalas. Interviewing Wen Hsu on the blog today, I feel like I am in the company of greatness. It is an honor indeed to present her to my readers. Without further ado, here's what she had to say.


Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Wen, I really appreciate it.

Thank you for your wonderful work with both your blog and ezine. I feel very honoured and am very thankful as well.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Wen Hsu interesting?

I hope that my work is interesting, most especially to children. And I think that if I had to choose one trait that made my work what it is today, it is my mixed/hybrid heritage. Like most of Latin America and the Caribbean, I am fortunate enough to be part of cultural symbiosis. I am myself specifically born in Taiwan, but raised in Costa Rica since I was two years old. This allowed me to grow up in the cultural (and natural) richness of our continent, absorbing all sorts of cultural influences naturally as a child, adolescent and adult. All this background permeates onto my work at all levels, conscious and subconscious.

You have been involved in a lot of different types of projects including museum exhibits, architectural projects, book design, and your own Mareas Couture Headpieces company, yet you repeatedly state on your blog that illustrating children’s books is what you love best. What is it about children’s illustration that speaks so strongly to you?

Ever since my first childhood memories I have loved stories: Reading them, listening to them or making characters and their stories up in my imagination. Since I started playing with stories at such a young age, I started drawing them before I could write. This is how my lifelong love for illustration simply happened, just like that. Stories are still part of my favorite playtime with my niece and other children, and many illustration ideas come from it.

I know next to nothing about Costa Rican children’s illustrators (or children’s writers for that matter.) Here in the islands, children’s illustration is still a very underdeveloped field. What is the status of children’s illustration in Costa Rica right now? Is it a recognized artform/ profession? I have heard of the GAMA Forum of Costa Rican Illustrators. Are children’s illustrators well-represented in GAMA?

Illustration in general is still a rather undeveloped professional field here in Costa Rica as well, even though there are very high quality children's illustrators like Vicky Ramos, Alvaro Borrasé and Feliz Arburola. I believe that the reason for this is that Costa Rica is still a small emerging market, where most creative professions suffer from a lack of standard fees and working processes, as well as the general misconception in the country that it is a sort of "hobby", instead of a profession. Fortunately some disciplines are gradually paving the road, such as Graphic Design, Interior Design and Architecture.

GAMA is a group of Costa Rican illustrators and Illustration fans. It serves mainly as a communication and discussion forum, where we can share experiencies, ideas and career opportunities. In fact, this is where I learned of the NOMA Concourse back in 2008. We have also learned that a first step into evolving the illustration market in Costa Rica is to have some sort of pricing and process standardization. We hope to "educate" our clients and potential team with this and move towards more sustainable professional relationship one step at a time. I believe there are similar situations in a lot of emerging markets and countries around the world. and in a way,we are all pioneers. So it is important to share our experiences and learn together.

Let talk about your work. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice? What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations? What is your process for creating an illustration?

From a few years back and up to today, I am most interested in experimenting with cutting paper and coloring it with different media, mostly watercolors and a little bit of gouache. This works great for children's books as it combines the simple, clean edges and dimensional feel of cut paper with the wondrous variety of textures and color combinations yielded by watercolors and other types of brushwork. This also allows for different styles that can adapt to all age ranges as well, as cultural influences. In Nadi & Xiao Lan for example, I combined the traditional Chinese papercut aesthetics with that of Molas made by the Kuna women in the Caribbean coast of Panama. Although these are very different cultures with extremely strong aesthetic languages, they merged seamlessly when worked together with the same paper cut technique.

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (often called the “Caribbean side”) has evolved differently from the rest of the country. I know that in the coastal province of Limón for example, almost half of the inhabitants are Afro-Caribbean or of Afro-Caribbean decent (mainly of Jamaican ancestry), something that is evident in the cuisine, architecture, language and music of that region. How do you view the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and have Caribbean cultures had any influence on your work?

I live in a small city on the Costa Rican Caribbean called Turrialba. It is not in the coast, but the Afro-Caribbean (as well as Asian and Native Costa Rican) influence is very strong and much more evident than in the rest of the country. Although Turrialba officially belongs to the province of Cartago, Turrialbeños (Turrialba locals) consider themselves much more akin to Limón. It was one of the important stops on the old railroad, that started on the port of Limón and transported goods and people to the capital city, thus a big vat of cultural mixes.

I go to the coast all the time and draw much of my inspiration from it. The weather is unmistakeably Caribbean and it definitely has a specific environment that is not found in the rest of Costa Rica and a very important jewel in our country's culture. As you mentioned, everything from architecture to cuisine, music, dance and language has a completely different and unique. In fact, I daresay it is one of the Costa Rican richest cultural "hotspots".

Towards the South of the Caribbean coast, there is also a strong Bribri (Native Costa Rican) influence, which makes for a very evident and unique mix in towns like Manzanillo, Punta Uva, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. You can find Costa Rican Caribbean food all around the province (and in Turrialba of course), such as Panbón, Rice and Beans, Rondón and Agua de Sapo. In Limón you can see the main Caribbean historical buildings in the province, such as the Black Star Line and the Post Office among many others.

One of Costa Rica's best loved song writers of all time is the calypsonian Walter Ferguson from Cahuita.

You recently finished illustrating and writing a children’s book about the rain forest animals of Costa Rica which you are now pitching to publishers. This is the first book that you have written and submitted for publication. Can you tell us more about this project? What was it like to go from illustrating children’s books to writing one?

It was actually a pretty fun endeavor. This is a rather simple book for younger children, which does not mean it was any easier to conceptualize, write and illustrate. I chose a topic that I know very well from my daily life and personal interests: our local natural world. It feel like it is always better to work with stories and themes that come from my own experience. It feels more intimate and therefore has a truer voice.

What was it like winning the prestigious Noma Concours Prize for Picture Book Illustration and presenting at the ACCU-NOMA Symposium in Tokyo, Japan? What major thing, if any, did you take away from that experience?

It was the biggest surprise. I never would have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be awarded such a prize. The whole experience was might blowing and it was also surprising to realize that Japanese people genuinely appreciate children's book illustration and illustrators. My pieces for the competition were acquired by the Chihiro Foundation and Art Museum, which was also an amazing surprise and honor. This foundation is dedicated to preserving Illustration from all over the world, for today's children and new generations to come.

Thinking back, I think that the major event was to encounter the wide variety of wonderful styles and sensibilities that exist in the World. As I viewed the exhibition of the winning works, I found this incredible kaleidoscope of different values and points of views, as well as the realities and challenges we all encounter in life as individuals, families and communities.

You have worked with people from all over the world. Do you find that there are cultural barriers/language barriers and if so, how do you navigate them? 

Cultural and slight language barriers will always exist when you work in international teams, especially if you work remotely through email or phone, when everybody is in different countries. Luckily there is English as a common language, as well as translators. Usually everybody involved is very patient and understanding. So far, everybody I have worked with has been very kind and great team players. Details and feedback are carefully cross checked and there is definitely a lot of information and emails going back and forth. Fortunately, the projects I have worked on have been a lot of fun.

Having people from different cultures working in the same team can also be a big plus. I have had editors and art directors give me a completely unexpected point of view that I would have otherwise never thought of. All this "rubbing" of cultures and ideas goes into the process and results in a richer book. I think that as long as everybody in the team is open and honest, things will probably run very smoothly.

One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Would you be open to illustrating books by Caribbean children’s authors and if so, do you think you can bring anything fresh or unique to Caribbean children’s books?
Yes, I would definitely be interested in illustrating Caribbean children's books.. I love the tropics, my Costa Rican Caribbean home and all its stories, so it would be a dream come true to bring some of its beauty into books to share with others.

As for bringing something fresh and unique, I like to think that we can all bring some of it to the table, be it illustrators, art directors or writers. In my case, it is perhaps the fact that I live in a part of the Caribbean which is not as well known or labeled as "Caribbean", like some of the islands. The Costa Rican Caribbean, and I believe the Central American Caribbean in general is not very well known. Yet there are very unique elements in the Central American Caribbean that are found nowhere else, like the Garifuna in Honduras and the Bribri-Afro Caribbean zambos in Costa Rica. On the other hand, I also have Chinese/Taiwanese heritage in my background, which is not uncommon in Costa Rica, but is still a bit unknown and unexplored.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

The best and most secure way to contact me is via email, to this address
Also my phone number is (+506) 2556 2272 or (+506) 8384 2813, but email is definitely the surest way to find  me.

Wen, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. It’s been a real pleasure conversing with you. 

Thank you! The pleasure is all mine! It is always wonderful to share with people who love children's books as well as illustrations, so thank you very much for this opportunity.


Born to Chinese parents in Taiwan, Wen Hsu has lived in Costa Rica since she was two years old. She earned an Advanced Degree in Architecture from the University of Costa Rica and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in Rhode Island, USA. Hsu has illustrated several children’s books including Salina by Marianela Ortuño Pinto, Sebastian by Michael Stewart, Historia de un Árbol (History of a Tree) by Ricardo Cie, and For the Love of a Cat, a Buddhist story which she illustrated for Katha, a “profit for all” organization impacting social injustice and economic poverty in urban India. Hsu has received honors for her work as an illustrator, including the Adobe Scholarship for Excellence in Illustration and the 2008 Grand Prize in the prestigious Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustration contest organized by Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) for her own book, Nadi & Xiao Lan. Hsu makes her home in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

Related Links

Wen Hsu’s website
Wen Hsu’s blog