Interview: Ann Shen

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

Ann Shen's artwork had been in my peripheral long before I even realized who she was. I had seen her work at Downtown Disney, received her book "Bad Girls Throughout History" as a gift from a friend, and I'd certainly come across countless creations of hers on Instagram. Over time, of course, I finally managed to put a name to the work, and I've never forgotten it since.

If you haven't done so yourself yet, I'm happy to change that for you. A Los Angeles-based illustrator and designer, Ann's art is gorgeous enough on its own, but it's even better when you dig into her portfolio and notice how much of it is full of strong women, positive messages, and yes, plenty of Disney magic. Making a living as an artist is hard enough on its own, but Ann's talent and work ethic is evident given her numerous collaborations, expanding product line (including pins, mugs, and more), and not one, but two published books she wrote and illustrated. Whether you were already a fan or just getting to know her, you'll surely be even more invested in her career after reading our interview. Enjoy!

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of starting your business? How did you get into art and what made you want to turn it into a career?

A: I got into art in my mid-twenties, after I had already graduated from college and been working for a few years as a writer in non-profits in L.A. I realized I was spending all my free time reading artists’ blogs and browsing for inspiration on Etsy, so I knew that art was calling me. I was miserable at a desk job, so I started taking classes at an art school before putting together a portfolio to apply to go back to art school full time. I got in the first time I applied, and I went back to school to study illustration and three years later I graduated and started freelancing alongside working in-house as a designer.

Q: What was your first piece or product to take off or find enough success that you were encouraged to do more?

A: One of my first pieces to take off was this Macaron art print. It was before macaron art got super popular, and I created it just for fun for myself, not for a job or an assignment. It got a lot of attention online, and sold well at craft shows so I was convinced to actually start an online shop and do more shows.

Q: What were your friends and family’s reactions to you turning your art into a career? Were you nervous to share it?

A: Not really because I had the wild confidence you can only have in your twenties, where everything seems possible. I did lose touch with a lot of friends who didn’t understand why I would go to art school or how that could be a career, and that was difficult at first but it’s like rebirth by fire. The friends I have now share the same degree of passion and fire about their callings in life, and that’s inspiring. My family was also confused, but supportive nonetheless – mostly because I was supporting myself and putting myself through school, so at most they just had to not say anything at all.

Q: Did you work another job while you were starting? How long did it take you to turn this into a full-time venture?

A: I did – I worked in-house as a graphic designer for three years while taking on freelance illustration work and running my online shop. My business picked up to a point where I was working two full-time jobs and all the time, basically, so I had to choose because my health couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to take a chance on myself.

Q: How have you found the process of marketing and selling your art as products? Was the business side of it something you had experience in or enjoy?

A: I discovered that I love marketing and business way more than I thought I would. Having a creative business is all about connecting with other people and helping them feel seen. Marketing and business are means to serve that. The more you answer the questions in your own heart by creating what you need, the more you serve others because if you want something, chances are, others do too.

Q: What was the process behind creating your books? Was that something that you’ve always wanted to do?

A: I’ve always wanted to create books – I just never imagined I’d also illustrate my own books as well! My first degree is in writing, and I’ve always loved writing. I put that down to become a full-time illustrator, which required all my attention and 10,000+ hours to gain a level of technical proficiency that I was happy with. With my interest in writing and art, it was natural that I started self-publishing zines. I’d send those out to design blogs, which would sometimes feature them and that’s how my literary agent found me. We crafted a book proposal for my first book, “Bad Girls Throughout History”, and sent it out to a bunch of editors to sell it. We got a deal in a week.

Q: I love that your books and a lot of your work seems centered around strong women. Has that always been a conscious choice or something that happened naturally?

A: It happened naturally because I wanted to make work I wish existed in the world, and I wanted to feature things that I was interested in. Growing up as a woman, and a woman of color, I always wanted to see myself reflected in the media I consumed (and never did). There’s a Marian Wright Edelman quote: “you can’t be what you can’t see.” So in my process of looking for role models, I started making work that would help others do so too.

Q: Favorite item in your shop currently?

A: My Best Witch pins!

Q: What advice do you have for artists looking to turn their work into a career?

A: Make good work and be good to work with. Turn things in on time. Having worked on the other side hiring freelancers, you wouldn’t believe how many artists can’t even meet that low bar. If you do good work, you’re professional and reliable, you’re golden.

Q: What goals do you have for your work going forward?

A: I want to keep expanding and evolving my work – whether that be more books, more products, more licensing partnerships. I want to keep growing as an artist and a person, and having my work reach more people who need it.

Q: Lastly, let’s spread the love. What are a few of your favorite female artists or small shops owned by women that you personally shop from?

A: I love this question! I love Little Shop of Oils for all my gemstone, oil, and witchy needs. Almost 80% of my earrings are from SJO Jewelry. I love cute workout gear from Chrissa Sparkles. Some of my favorite female artists include Christine McConnell, Mab Graves, Ashley Taylor, Liana Hee, Katie Rogers, Jennifer Vallez, and so many more!

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