Name: Ann Shen
Current City: Los Angeles, CA
Hometown: Orange, CA
Occupation: Illustrator, author, designer.
Los Angeles-based illustrator, author and designer, Ann Shen has been dreaming up stories since childhood. A graduate of UCSD and Art Center College of Design, she's worked with a handful of publications and brands. Her first book, Bad Girls Throughout History hit the shelves September 2016 and there's another on the way.
Read on to discover more about Ann's journey.
In a few sentences, tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Ann, and I’m an illustrator, author, and designer based in Los Angeles, California. I was born and raised in southern California, where I spent most of my time writing novels and dreaming up stories. I went to UCSD and graduated with a degree in Writing and Photography, then moved up to LA where I worked for a few years at non-profits like 826LA and Planned Parenthood. In 2008, feeling stuck and realizing that I was spending all my time reading design blogs, I took my first figure drawing class. I fell in love and decided I was going to go to art school for a second degree. I started building my portfolio and planned to keep on applying until I was accepted. However, I got into Art Center College of Design my first try and studied Illustration Design there. After graduating from art school, I worked in-house as a graphic designer for places like FIDM and Mattel before striking it on my own three years later. I got my first book deal just a few months after taking that leap, and have had the honor of working with clients like Disney, Facebook, The New York Times, Papyrus, and many more. My first book, Bad Girls Throughout History, was released September 2016, and my second title, Legendary Ladies, will be coming out April 3.
What attracted you to the world of illustration and lettering and how would you describe your style?
The moment I learned about people who illustrated commercial art for a living, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I knew that someone had to make all the patterns on clothes, candles, home goods, and all the art we see in advertising and media – I just didn’t connect the dots yet. It wasn’t until I started reading design blogs and meeting art students at CalArts, where my husband was going to school at the time, that I realized art could be a career. I’d describe my style as whimsical, colorful, and thoughtful.
You've worked with a handful of great companies/publications like The New York Times, HarperCollins and Disney. Do you have a dream collaboration?
I have so many dream collaborations – Target is a major one right now. Also Starbucks, Kate Spade, and Anthropologie (again).
Bad Girls Throughout History is your first book (congratulations!), we'd love to have you reflect a bit on what that process was like—from R+D to the books hitting the shelves. What were the highlights and speed bumps along the way?
Thank you! I created Bad Girls Throughout History while I was in art school seven years ago; it was for a very open-ended project where the only parameter was to make an edition of ten. So I decided to make a zine about something I was really passionate about – which were females who have broken the rules and did things their own way. I was feeling so lost and trapped by all the trends and tastes of the male-dominated teaching staff and illustration industry, and I wanted role models of women who had done things their own way. I read an article about Ada Lovelace and was so fascinated to learn that she was the first computer programmer – not first female, but first. I also loved reading about her salacious personal life; it was a lightbulb moment that all these incredible women all started off just like us. Flawed, complex, and insecure. So the project was born to seek out more bad girls like her, the females who dared to defy expectations and be the first to do something different – despite all their shortcomings and oppression.
A speed bump, in the beginning, was during my senior review: the project was not well-received by my teachers at all. They just tossed it aside and said it “didn’t make sense”. That was a moment when I realized I didn’t care anymore what they thought. For the next five years, I’d work on it in my spare time – making a second volume, sending it out to design blogs, taking it to craft fairs, zine fests, etc. Matt Groening actually bought both volumes when it was a zine and gave me great encouragement on it, another highlight!
One day, my literary agent spotted it on a blog I didn’t even know it was featured on and reached out to see if I was interested in turning it into a book. That was a huge turning point for me – finding someone else who understood the importance of this project and ready to help take it to the next level. We hit it off, and I worked on a book proposal with her for the next few months before sending it out. At the time of the proposal, there were no comparable titles and people either got it or didn’t get it. After we sent out it, I was prepared to wait for months – but the next day, we already had editors who wanted to talk. It was an incredible experience, speaking with so many editors who were interested in the book and totally understood my vision – something that I really struggled to garner all those years.
Another highlight was working with my team at Chronicle Books and finding a group of talented people who really supported me and my books. I was given a really aggressive timeline because once they made an offer on the book, they wanted it out ASAP – and so did I! So the research and writing of the book was done very intensely – in about four months when there had been no written content at all. Then I had an additional two months to paint 80 new portraits – we wanted the book to feel like a rich new edition beyond the zines. They really trusted me with my vision and work, and I valued our relationship because they gave me great feedback, but also always considered what I wanted.
Of course, one of the greatest highlights now is all the readers who write me about how the book has inspired them or tag me in pictures of their young kids falling asleep with the book in their beds! It’s grown beyond my wildest dreams, and I only hope it reaches more people who need it.
Do you have any other projects/exhibits/collabs on the books you'd like the readers to know about?
My second book, Legendary Ladies: 50 Goddesses to Empower and Inspire You, is coming out on April 3rd, also published by Chronicle Books. I’ll also be at Disney’s Wonderground Gallery as their Artist in Residence for the month of April.
As a talented and successful illustrator, author and letterer, what's one nugget of wisdom you can offer to fellow visionaries and artists around the world?
Believe in yourself. I know that this may seem super trite, but it’s honestly the most important thing you can do because at the end of the day, you have to believe in your ability to pursue your dreams. You are the only one who needs to, too – and sometimes it may even feel like that.
Say money and time were not a factor, what career would you pursue/how would spend your days?
I’m very fortunate to say that I’d be doing a lot of the same things – painting, writing books and being creative. I’d probably also spend more time traveling. I love traveling because it’s so heart-opening – and devote time to becoming really excellent at cooking and playing music. I’d also love to buy and redesign a cabin in the woods.
Discuss the importance of female friendships in your life.
All my friendships are very important to me. I have great friends who are male and female and are different balances of masculinity and femininity. It’s valuable to be seen and heard, and I’m very fortunate to have good friends who hold space for me and for whom I can do the same. It’s a privilege to be entrusted with the care and well-being of another person, and I respect that honor by loving my friends very fiercely and loyally – I’m a Scorpio. I’m very observant and have a close inner circle of true friends who have given me incredible support, empathy, and guidance through many great and difficult times in my life. The older I get, the more I realize how rare it is to find true friends. Friends truly are the family you get to choose, and I want to only be around people who elevate me and inspire me to be my best self – and for whom I can do the same. Like Rumi says, “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”
Who are some of your greatest influences?
Some of the greatest influences on my work include Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Alice and Martin Provensen, Freddie Moore, Rene Gruau, and the list goes on… A few of my greatest influences professionally speaking, as in how they poise themselves and their work in the world, include Mindy Kaling, Beyoncé, and Oprah.
If you could have dinner with any woman in history, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
My great great grandmother. It would be so fascinating for me to meet a woman I’ve never met before but is responsible for my existence. I’d love to know what her life was like, what she cared about, what her dreams were, and what she would think about everything now. I saw Ava Duvernay wearing a shirt that said “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams” and it has stuck with me ever since.
What are you grateful for?
I’m so grateful for the people in my life and our relationships – with my husband Ryan, my friends, my family and the amazing people I get to work with professionally. Good people make my life meaningful and a pleasure.
Do you have a personal mantra or quote that inspires you?
Stay hungry, stay humble. Make good work and be good to work with. And always be the hardest worker in the room.