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About the Cover: Music

About the Cover: Music

How melody and motherhood push this month’s cover artist to explore her own ultra-vibrant aesthetic.

Shawna X says her first memory is of making a drawing: she was two years old, watching her dad draw her doll and attempting to copy him. The Portland, Oregon, native then went on to take drawing lessons throughout her childhood, tried a digital-arts program at the University of Oregon—where she majored in advertising and journalism—and pursued a career in advertising and design. But the 32-year-old says it wasn’t until about three years ago that she seriously considered making art her career.

“I was always in pursuit of this side of my life,” says the artist, who’s now based in New York. “Slowly, it fused with my livelihood.” Since then, she has worked on everything from murals at SXSW to editorial illustrations for clients like the New Yorker and the Guardian. She even designed a volleyball court for Adidas. For Topic’s June cover art, Shawna X translated her love of another medium—music—into an abstract image full of rhythm and swing, complete with her trademark radiant colors.

Speaking from her home in Brooklyn, which she shares with her partner and their six-month-old daughter, Shawna X recounts how she moved from the commercial design world to full-time art-making, and opens up about the soundtrack that inspired this month’s cover.

When did you become aware that being an artist was even a possibility as a career?

Honestly, it wasn't until three years ago. It's something that I always strived for. I dabbled in many other creative fields. I was in advertising, then design and product design—all these very traditional creative careers where you can actually have stability. I taught mobile design for a few semester at Parsons, and most of my students wanted to take product design because that's a stable job in a creative sphere. Drawing was always a side hustle until, one year, I realized it was showing me a lot of opportunities. Then I just went full on into it.

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What was the first big step that you took away from that more—as you said—stable career path?

I realized I was always drawing and doodling at work, which is funny because it was what I always did throughout school. If there was downtime at work, I would end up just creating something, whether it was for a freelance assignment or for pure entertainment. Then I got an opportunity for Adobe that kind of came out of nowhere. They came out with a new suite of Adobe products in 2015, and they sent three artists to a place where they would be inspired, and filmed our process for the Adobe Creative Suite launch—they sent me to White Sands, New Mexico.

I hadn’t even been aware that opportunities like those existed. When it came to me, it was surprising, and it really made me aware I could actually try to do this professionally, and I could always go back to a job if I ever wanted to. At the end of that commercial, I said something that went, “I’m never going to work in an office again!” And that stuck with me. It has worked out so far, luckily, and I feel very blessed and appreciative of that.

I do think I effortlessly follow my intuition. For me, I was definitely in the blur for a really long time, but I followed this feeling of You should do this, without understanding why. That’s kind of why I have a kid now, too.

How old is your baby?

She’s six months. She’s awesome. With her, too, it wasn’t something I had planned for. It was very much like, This happened—you should go for it. I’m really happy I did, because being a mother has vastly improved and challenged me. It gives me more perspective and value in myself, my work and my relationship with my partner.

I feel like my work has vastly changed since I’ve become a mom. To be a mother is to extend your capacity for love and fear on both ends. The energy which was once boundless is now limited, but pulsating much stronger than before. Everything is has more gravitas, every action is more planned out, yet on the other side, everything feels so lighthearted because you have such profound love for this creature that you birthed. I think a lot of my work now is about these feelings. It’s visceral, more emotional.

I can see that in the piece you created for Topic, too. What were your first thoughts when you were approached about creating our Music issue cover?

Music is what drives me. I have background music playing at all times—silence is great, too, but I am definitely moved by melody and tune. I wanted to showcase flowing, a fluidity, because that’s what music is to me.

Shawna X’s initial sketch, adding “I want to create movement with abstract shapes — flowy, zigzag, straight — representing different speeds and feeling of music.”
She continued building on this concept, with the introduction of more abstract shapes while leaving significant negative space, representing silence and adding contrast.

What kind of music did you listen to while you worked on this?

I’m in this nostalgic track right now with everything: I listened to the band Little Dragon—they have really mysterious and haunting melodies that I like to listen to when I’m working. Sometimes I listen to whatever techno mix is on NTS Radio.

When I’m painting a mural, I like to listen to things that are a little bit more upbeat, but when I’m working on the computer, I realized that a lot of music that channels my work best is sadder tunes, like Portishead. I really like older Björk music, and her new album is pretty amazing as well. Or shoegaze—that helps me a lot.

How did you arrive at the aesthetic that you work in now? Who are the people who inspired you?

I did a lot of exploration before I arrived here. My work prior to this was very subtle. I realized I was holding back a lot—I wasn’t someone who had necessarily been in the art world or doing this professionally, so I was looking at what was out there instead of inside of me. But I kept on gravitating toward radiance, toward bold and vibrant colors that, logically speaking, meshed terribly together. I kept on pushing and pushing.

I found artists like Peter Max, who did a lot of really psychedelic art in the ’60s—all his work is really fun, really captivating. He’s in his 80s now, and I’m pretty sure he’s still drawing, which I’m really inspired by. (Note: Max seems to have lost the ability to paint, as this crazy story makes clear.) Also Tiger Tateishi, who worked in the ’70s in Japan. He made a lot of comic-form, six-panel paintings.

The Topic team gravitated towards filling the frame a bit more, so the piece felt full and rich, trying to represent many styles of music.
The last draft with color added, before animation.

What is your process like? How do you get started on a piece?

I like to visualize it in my head first. I think meditation has really helped me visualize well—having that place where I can see what it looks like. Because if I don’t see what it looks like, I can’t put it on paper or on the computer. Once I do, it feels really good; something just clicks immediately. Then I try to communicate the visual in words. If I can communicate a visual in words, I can 100 percent communicate it visually. Then I just go full-throttle on the computer. I’m also trying to practice more on paper these days, because it’s a different type of art-making. But I’m more efficient on the computer, and that’s where I go immediately.

What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I am working on a lot of editorial this year, which I’m really surprised by and happy about. I went right to commercial work—after three, four years, now it’s becoming more editorial-based. I’m also trying to focus on my own personal projects, which I haven’t done in a while.

I really want to do more work that has to do with modern motherhood, and I’m trying to find different mediums to execute it: I’m looking at making textiles, rugs, and also at creating whole rooms, so it’s not just a flat image. So you’re experiencing motherhood, or my concept of what that is.

This year, because I’m a new mother myself, my energy has been pretty concentrated. I want to make sure I apply it with effort—and apply it in the right places.

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