Bold Colors & Orderly Chaos

The "Games" artist on visual storytelling, humor, and the cultural landscape

FieroChristina Lee, whose illustrations are featured in Creative Nonfiction #72: “Games,” is a Korean-American illustrator, designer, and animator currently based in Pittsburgh, PA. She has been a working artist since she graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art undergraduate program in 2014. Currently, she is an organizer of the Pittsburgh Zine Fair, communications director of PULLPROOF Studio, and digital designer at American Eagle. Graphic novels, music, and kitsch are highly influential to her work. For more, visit her website and Instagram.

In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life story.

Transparently honest about modern-day life.

You describe yourself on your artist website as an illustrator, zinemaker, printmaker, designer, and animator. What drew you to these art forms? Do you see them as related?

I view them all as forms of visual storytelling—and since I love a good story, I am drawn to these forms of art today. Growing up, I had a voracious appetite for books, which went hand-in-hand with my love for drawing and writing. I spent a lot of time in the library in elementary school, reading and creating my own stories, worlds, and characters.

When I entered high school, I discovered other forms of storytelling, such as animation, film, comics, and music videos. A few favorites include Blue Monday, a comic book series by Chynna Clugston Flores, music videos by Michel Gondry, and Æon Flux, an experimental animated series by Peter Chung. Everything I consumed during this time has shaped my current aesthetic sensibilities and point of view.

What is your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a descriptive label, what would it be?

My creative process is jumbled. I often jump from project to project and discover creative solutions through other projects. I’m often inspired by the cultural landscape, and do research to see what’s out in the wild. This research can take many forms—a book, song, or my Instagram feed. I also incorporate writing into my creative process, since a lot of my work relies on the written word. I’m often thinking about the meaning of a word or story and how it could be represented visually. If I gave my creative process a label, it would be informed orderly chaos.

What was your process for creating illustrations for this issue of Creative Nonfiction? Were there any surprises or challenges once you sat down with the essays?

To create illustrations for this issue of Creative Nonfiction, I printed out each essay so I could read them with limited distractions. I distinctly remember it was one of our last amazing days of fall, so I walked over to Baum Grove and spent about 34 hours reading. As I read through each essay, I highlighted key words and concepts that evoked strong visuals for me, and started to sketch out a few ideas directly on each printed essay. My biggest surprise when I sat down with the essays was discovering how robust the word games is, and the myriad of meanings it can take on through various contexts, such as gambling, relationships, technology, puzzles, families, and more.

Do you have a favorite essay in this issue, or a favorite essay to illustrate?

I don’t have a favorite essay in this issue because I enjoyed reading every single one of them. However, there were a few memorable concepts from some of the essays. In “Keeping Score,” Renee Aukeman Prymus introduces the concept of fiero, which is an Italian word for pride. In addition to pride, fiero also describes the satisfaction a player gets when they win a game or solve a Rubik’s Cube. Also, “Whispers from the Field,” by Sheryl St. Germain, introduces readers to an online community I was surprised to learn about: women who play online video games to bond with their sons. She also explores the concept of flow, which is the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning that gamers feel as they play a challenging game.

You’ve done illustrations for a number of publications. In creating art for a client, to what extent are you guided by a publication’s general aesthetic versus your own sensibilities?

In terms of aesthetics, I often find that publications seek me out for my illustrative style. From that end, I’m not guided aesthetically by the publication as much as I am by its content. For example, NPR commissioned me to create an illustration about the surprising popularity of ASMR videos. The article was light in tone, so I selected a broad range of colors to convey the fun content of the article. For the same publication, I was commissioned to create an illustration for an article about the rise of teacher strikes across the nation in late 2018/early 2019. Since this article was much more serious in tone, I used a limited, muted color palette to convey the seriousness of the subject.

ASMR NPR Illustration, 2017

How would you describe your artistic aesthetic?

My artistic aesthetic is bold, colorful, crass, yet approachable. These adjectives are also something I identify with on a personal level. I’m attracted to aggressive patterns and loud colors. I love twisted and abject humor.

What influences your work? What work of art or artist do you find yourself returning to?

Since my voracious appetite for reading has kept up with me today, I am often influenced by what I read. I find myself returning to books, especially comic books by Jillian Tamaki and Lynda Barry. Aesthetically, I often look at figurative painters. A few of my favorites include include Kerry James Marshall, David Hockney, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Alex Katz.

Once you’re done with a piece, what are your hopes for it?

Most of the time, I hope that it makes someone laugh or cringe. I find that these reactions are the most universal expressions of human beings.

Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?

Besides aesthetics, I gravitate toward pieces that incorporate aspects of culture-jamming. Some of my favorite examples of this include “Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire)” by Lorraine O’Grady and the Projects series by Nikki S. Lee.

Finally, what are you working on right now?

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting and playing in my creative practice. Last year, I took a TV screenwriting class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. It reintroduced me to the practice of writing that I’ve continued by starting to journal on a daily basis. I’ve also thought about creating a new autobiographical body of work that includes prints and paintings. Technically, I’ve introduced myself to gouache, and I’ve been painting portraits of the Muppets and Chuck E. Cheese animatronics as technical exercises.