Although Angie Zou‘s rise to fame on a worldwide scale took some time, it seems to be gaining momentum. Through the prism of spirituality and culture, her work investigates questions of personal identity, generational trauma, and gender. The illustrator’s Hmong and Chinese heritage and ability to interweave modern-day issues make her a trailblazing storyteller for marginalized communities.
The artist has become well-known for her flowing, shaded tableaux in digital illustrations that blend the past and present via the use of characters from her growing roster of personal and commercial works. By using subdued and earthier color palettes, she frequently evokes the aesthetic of eastern Asian art which in turn, aids her one-of-a-kind designs. Additionally, her works include a number of themes that try to shine a light on the shared interior narratives that we all possess.
“I read this somewhere and I regret not being able to cite the book but ‘to create a portal to see the unseen is an ultimate gift of art.’ I think this is probably the most important aspect to my work,” Zou shares with us. ” When I started exploring a spiritual relationship with myself, my work transformed and so did the way I looked at art. One of my goals is to use images to communicate a world of the subconscious, the unseen.”
Below, we had the pleasure of speaking with Angie to get an understanding of what inspires her illustrations, important lessons she’s learned over the years, stories behind her work, and much more. Continue scrolling to read our conversation.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with your art, please could you talk to us about what initially gravitated you towards creating illustrations and this current chapter in your artistry?
I was always into art-making as a kid— whether it was drawing, painting, or making random things with household objects. I grew up in a pretty quiet suburban town in Michigan and my parents were always busy working so reading, writing, and making things was all I did to pass the time. As I got older, I found that making art and writing were my outlets for emotional expression and catharsis. My family is multicultural and polygynous which felt, at times, alienating growing up, so it was my way of connecting with something outside of myself and providing solace to myself.
Now, I still use art to form a deeper understanding of my experiences, as an outlet, and as a form of connection to the world around me. My personal practice is concerned with giving color and form to moments of internal experience and external manifestations of those experiences.
If you can recall, at what point in your life did you recognize the power that art and other forms of creative expression hold so much power?
After watching the film “Arrival” (2016), I started to think about how ideas and perspectives are intangible and incorporal but materialize in our physical world and design our systems— literally creating our realities. Art is powerful because it influences conscious thought as well and subconscious thought. It aims to reach the roots of our inner worlds, influencing what we think is real, what we want to move towards and away from, and recontextualizing and expanding our understanding of who we are and what this experience is. I think of art as a vehicle for insight and the effects of this connection is truly what is powerful.
I would love to unpack your illustration style, can you talk about the intent behind the color, materiality, and style of your work?
In terms of material, I’ve been working in digital illustration for 6 years and I’ve been painting with airbrush for 1 year. I’m also interested in the opportunity to form an expanded interdisciplinary practice in illustration so that I can better “illustrate” a reality, an experience, a moment. I’m drawn to colors that speak to each other.
Some colors (like grays and muted tones) give space and elevate the voices of colors that are bold and activate a space (like crimson, fluorescent colors). I love textures that feel like smoke, liquid, ice, fire, etc. that all have such a unique interaction through reflecting and refracting light. While they can’t be held, their presence is seen and felt— the way emotions are sometimes so intense and influence so much of our decision but can be hard to give words to.
I find that your work is often laced together with spiritual undertones, particularly in pieces like 2021’s “The Curse” and “The Strings That Tie Us.” To what extent do you find making art a spiritual pursuit?
I read this somewhere and I regret not being able to cite the book but ”to create a portal to see the unseen is an ultimate gift of art.” I think this is probably the most important aspect to my work. I didn’t grow up around fine art or anything as a kid so I found most art in museums to be uninteresting. When I started exploring a spiritual relationship with myself, my work transformed and so did the way I looked at art. One of my goals is to use images to communicate a world of the subconscious, the unseen.
Out of curiosity, how often does New York and the cultural milieu influence you given that you frequently explore themes such as identity and trauma?
I see New York as an integral part of my identity but because I’m still so close to it, it’s hard for me to consciously distill that part of myself into my work. New York makes its appearance through the muted color palettes I’m more naturally drawn to, the cloudy textures, the luminescence amongst the dust and grain.
I’m also influenced by the contemporary feminist painting scene in New York and artists who have and are making a rise like Robin F. Williams, Larissa De Jesús Negrón, Sascha Gordon, and more who are exploring similarly difficult themes and drawing power from their exploration into these vulnerable spaces.
Instagram as well as some of your work with companies like Splice and Refinery29 bring instant exposure of your art to thousands of people. What role has the Internet taken in your career, and how do you see it affecting the art world as we transition into Web3?
The internet is an incredible tool to share knowledge and learn new skills, especially as someone without an art background or formal art education. It’s a great place to build a platform, make industry connections, and meet like minded artists and people. I’ve also learned so much through illustrating for editorials like Refinery and Splice. Working closely with art directors has taught me a lot about how images and text can work together and build on each other as well as how I can improve my eye for visual communication and better speak through composition and color in my own style.
I’m interested in what kinds of alt-spaces and cultures for artists will emerge as a result of Web3 and how that will influence who is seen and what is given value and voice as a result of decentralization.
When reflecting on your work over the past several years, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
Inviting the thing I’m fearful of into my life is almost always a good idea. If it’s painful but fun pain, it’s a sign I’m growing. 2021-2022 has been a pivotal span of a year in my life and one where I made several decisions which were destabilizing, which pushed my work into new mediums and styles as a result.
I decided to separate with my partner of almost 4 years, committed to attending RISD’s MFA Illustration program, started a new job at Vice Media/Refinery 29, started teaching myself to paint with airbrush and acrylics on large scale canvases, and moved 3 times. Every decision I made led to new experiences with unfamiliar challenges that forced me to grow and continue occupying this untethered and vulnerable space.
With that being said, as much as you often leave your art up for personal interpretation, what is the greatest thing that you’d like for people to take away from your creations?
If I can make you feel something through my work, whatever that means to you, I think it’s valid and I’ve succeeded in connecting.
Angie Zou is currently accepting commissions for 2023. Please contact [email protected] for more info.