michelle jing chan
Michelle is a queer digital artist who grew up in the Colorado, studied in the Northeast, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. During this conversation, we explore her path to pursuing art, the healing effects of creating, and the future of representation in media.
Vanessa: Why don’t we start off with a quick introduction to yourself?
Michelle: I was born in Colorado and grew up there. My mom is from GuangZhou and my dad is from Hong Kong. Growing up I lived in a town in Colorado that didn’t have much diversity or many other Asians. In school, I was bullied for being Asian and that led to some internalized racism and shame later on in life. When I went to college on the East Coast, I was around other Asian people for the first time and learned to embrace my identity and be proud of being Asian. During the pandemic, I had a “rediscovering” of my lifelong love of art, which was something that I always had loved, but didn’t pursue into adulthood once I got busier with other academic and work commitments. The pandemic forced me to slow down for the first time in my life and to think more critically about what made me feel fulfilled. One thing led to another, and now I am a children’s book illustrator, so yeah! That’s a little bit about me
Vanessa: Yeah, no—I saw on your website that you have a degree in engineering and economics, so I was going to ask you to elaborate on if you always intended to make a career out of art and was it difficult to make the switch from a STEM degree to navigating the artist world?
Michelle: I did not ever think that it would be possible to make a career out of art. Part of that is because of a similar experience that a lot of other Asian American people or children of immigrants face: your parents and your grandparents fight so hard for stability for you, particularly financial stability. Growing up, there was this expectation that I needed to honor their sacrifice by going into a career path that was more traditional and more stable. It wasn’t until the pandemic when I realized “I have everything that I thought that I wanted, I have everything that my parents worked hard to give me, but I still don’t feel like my life has fulfillment or meaning.” And that’s what led me to rediscovering my childhood love for art. I just kind of fell into this situation, and I feel very lucky about the way that things happened to work out. To answer the second part of your question, I actually still have a full time desk job now. I think at some point in the future, I would love to transition to doing art in a more full time capacity. But right now, I’m just trying to focus on building out my publishing experience as an artist and understanding what it would be like to do this as a full time career.
Vanessa: Ah yeah, so far in your journey, it still seems like the beginning. I recently saw on your website that you had your first book deal, so congratulations on that-
Michelle: Thank you!
Vanessa: Yeah, no it’s really amazing! Was there something in particular that drew you to being a children’s book illustrator?
Michelle: I got contacted first by an author named Julie Abe, who is also Asian American, and writes middle grade fantasy novels that are based on Japanese culture. She contacted me and commissioned me for a project for her book’s preorder campaign. Talking to her was my first introduction to the publishing industry and realizing that publishing could be a good fit for what I’m passionate about and my skills. That is how I was introduced to the world of children’s book illustration and publishing. What drew me to it and what still does is the ability to tell stories that showcase diverse characters and to promote empowering messages that I wish I had when I was growing up. Then for, um… *laughs* I’m sorry, could you remind me again of the second part of your question?
Vanessa: Yea, it was basically *laughs* actually yeah, I think you basically answered the second part of my question pretty well, it was just what drew you to being a children’s artist/book illustrator. Kind of just to build off of the idea of positive representation, you have this very fantastical, whimsical style, very fantasy-esque for most of your digital drawings. I was wondering what inspired you, was it always, just like, you had this style or was it something you had to develop and rediscover for yourself?
Michelle: I’ve always loved folklore, fantasy, and mythology. I remember reading stories about Greek mythology in the library when I was growing up, and every night my mom would also verbally tell me and my brother Chinese folktales that she remembered from her own childhood. I grew up with a vivid imagination and a deep love of those things, but again a lot of the material that we had available to us was very Eurocentric and had characters who didn’t represent us. It’s important to me now as an illustrator to show fantastical, magical adventures, but to show them being experienced by diverse characters. I hope that the message to viewers is that you too have a place in these worlds and you belong in these kinds of stories as well.
Vanessa: I definitely agree with that. I feel like a lot of people have this idea of representation for Asian-Americans. For so long, Asian-American representation has been the nerd or these tropes that you have to fit for actors. I’ve heard a lot about LGBTQ movies just being about LGBTQ struggle and nothing else. So, considering your childhood in Colorado to you now, do you think that representation has gotten better over time? If so, what has contributed to that?
That’s a tough question. I think on one hand it has gotten better. I remember when I first got into the publishing industry, I started reading more children’s books that were being published today as opposed to books that I grew up with. Reading and seeing the variety in them, I was so pleasantly surprised to see that compared to when I was growing up, there are many more books with Asian culture, LGBTQ representation, etc. That was so heartening to see. Same with looking at the mainstream movies that are being made now. Encanto comes to mind as a recent one. So I think in some ways representation definitely has gotten better in terms of there being more works that do feature diverse characters. But that being said, we still have a long way to go.
Something that I have been trying to educate myself more on since I started working in the publishing industry is intentional diversity. It is important to show diverse characters, but it’s also important to make sure those characters are well-rounded and have defining traits other than simply existing in the story to be a member of a marginalized group. I think real progress will come in the long run with creators being more thoughtful and intentional about representation and developing characters whose identities are multifaceted.
Vanessa: I definitely get what you mean, like trying to find the balance between being genuine with the diversity you are trying to showcase versus just having this like…I think what comes to mind is companies having rainbow logos during June for pride month for corporate display and what not. It is definitely something that we are moving forward and being better with, so how do you think you are contributing to that? Is that a goal for you? Is that part of what motivates you to draw, to add to this genuine representation and whatnot?
Michelle: Yeah, it is. I’ve tried to be really intentional with every illustration that I put out. That is not to say that every illustration I create is one that I spend months and months doing research on. Sometimes I am just drawing a personal illustration for fun. But I hope that the legacy I have in publishing is one that does showcase diversity, empowering messages, and compelling, engaging stories in a thoughtful and intentional way. That is my goal regardless of whether it is just a fun and lighthearted piece or a more serious piece.
Vanessa: Definitely, and I feel like I can see that in all of your pieces, whether it is inspired by your own heritage or including other BIPOC people. More for you and like personally, you said you’ve always had this love for art that started as a child, versus then going to college and reconnecting with your art finally. I want to ask more about your evolution with your relationship with art, especially now that you are trying to make a career out of it. Do you see your art as a way to share your art with others or maybe more of a way to personally explore and reconnect with your own heritage and identity or maybe a combination of both?
Michelle: I think it is a little bit of both. Primarily art has always been for me a way to express myself and express things that I didn’t know how to verbalize. I have talked before about how I have a lot of feels *laughs.* Art has always been a way for me to express those feelings in a way that feels safe. It’s kind of like this weird paradox: the act of creating anything and sharing it with the world is a vulnerable one where you are opening yourself to possible rejection and criticism. But on the other hand, I guess I always viewed art as a shield that allows me to express myself in a way where I can let the illustration speak for me. Art has always fulfilled that purpose for me, but I’ve recently learned that art has also helped me understand my own identity better and heal from traumatic experiences. I have had several messages from people who have seen my art telling me “you’re not alone, I experienced the same things too, and we should be proud of who we are.” I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear that until I was getting these messages and connecting with other people through my illustrations. On a related note, rediscovering my love of art and falling into the publishing industry has also helped me continue healing from intergenerational trauma in my family even though it wasn’t necessarily something that I consciously set out to do. Publishing has introduced me to not only great picture books, but amazing books in other genres as well and has given me an opportunity to connect with my parents over these books. There have been several times where I have read a book, and it resonated with me so hard that I’ve talked to my parents about it or sent them a copy saying “hey, I think you’d really like this!” That has sparked some really vulnerable conversations where my parents have opened up to me about their experiences and things that we never talked about before. That has been another unexpected silver lining of all this. To bring it back to your original question *laughs,* yeah, I think art has fulfilled the purpose of allowing me to express myself, but it’s also allowed me to heal from my trauma, and continue this process of healing from intergenerational trauma in my family.
Vanessa: I think it’s really great how you were about to heal your inner child, but also extending your art to reaching out to your family. I think that is really amazing. I have more about your childhood. You grew up in Colorado, then you went to the East coast for college, and now you live on the West coast. Your different experiences in the Midwest, the East, and the West of America, there are obviously contrasts between the cultures in all these places. Does that make you hopeful for America and representation for Asian-Americans in the future? Or do you find that there is a disparity between all these locations?
Michelle: It’s tricky because I do wonder if I had grown up in an area that was more diverse that maybe the likelihood I would’ve gotten bullied for being Asian would have been lower. But we can see, unfortunately, from the anti-Asian hate crimes, that just because you are in a bigger, more diverse, or more liberal city doesn’t mean there is no racism there, plus systemic racism still exists. As to how this makes me feel about America, it’s hard to say. I think most days I’m still very optimistic about the future of our country and our world. I’m constantly blown away by how smart, compassionate, and empathetic kids can be, and they give me hope for the future of our country. At the same time, I have to be honest: there are definitely some days where I look at the news, especially during this time when there’s been so many attacks on our community, and our future does feel bleak. Overall, I am still optimistic, but it is up and down. I guess that’s just how progress is. The arc of progress is a long one and big, systemic, real change doesn’t happen overnight.
Vanessa: I think that’s well put where there are the good days and there are the bad days, but overall hopefully there is a positive trajectory overall. I want to talk about…well, on your website, and I’m pretty sure Instagram as well, it says you donate your commissions to an Asian nonprofit for Asian American women, I’m pretty sure? Yeah, so is that something important to you? Personally, do you think that contributes to the message of diversity that you try to put out through your art?
Michelle: Yeah, totally. Just to clarify, I don’t donate my commissions, and I am also not taking personal commissions these days because of other publishing commitments, but I do donate all the proceeds from my shop where I sell prints of my art and merch. I donate all the proceeds once every three months with a different recipient each time. Part of the reason why I decided to donate all the proceeds is that I feel very fortunate right now that I am not depending on them as my only source of income. I find it very meaningful to not only hopefully make an intangible, emotional impact with my art but also a tangible, quantifiable one too with these donations. I also currently use a print on demand site for my shop where a third party takes care of all the shipping, printing, and logistics. That’s another reason why it made sense to me to donate my shop proceeds because I wasn’t putting my own capital into making merch.
Vanessa: I think that’s something that runs through the theme of your art where it is a personal thing, but also you are able to give back to the community. For you, healing your inner child but also being able to reconnect with your family and these donations as well, with you being able to combine your passion with causes that you support. That sounds really amazing. I have a final question to wrap all this up: you’ve definitely had such a journey to get where you are now, I know art is not your full time job yet, but do you have any advice for younger people looking to pursue this nontraditional path for Asian-Americans?
Michelle: I feel like I’m not the most qualified *laughs* because I’m still figuring it out myself, but what I would say is to find what gives you fulfillment or meaning. Like I said earlier, if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that life is short for all of us and nobody can predict the future. We all only have one life and you get to decide what makes it meaningful for you.