Welcome back to the Artists of Color series! I’m honored to share that this week’s interview is with Virginia-based cartoonist and illustrator Shannon Wright. I first came across her work on instagram, and was immediately taken by her captivating characters, vibrant color palettes, and clever story-telling skills. If you are new to her artwork, then you are definitely in for a treat!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
I’m an illustrator, cartoonist and fan-fiction enthusiast (I throw that last one in there because I love it so much). Born and raised in Virginia, which is where I still currently reside. In terms of my work, I would kind of describe it like fun-fetti cake; just this whole configuration of colors and spots of sweetness that yields something enjoyable. I wasn’t always super confident in coloring, so it’s been a rewarding journey to get better at it, learn, and it become a statement of my work and as a whole...who I am as a person.
2). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
I feel like almost every art kid’s answer is the same; when we were old enough to pick up a pencil or crayon and draw. I’ve always been in love with it, it felt familiar and like home. That’s cliché but it’s true. Ever since I was a little girl I knew it’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Whenever someone asked, the answer from elementary school up until now has always been the same: artist. It wasn’t until halfway through college did I realize the specific kind of artist I wanted to be. I sought out illustration first but then was introduced to comics along the way.
Thankfully, my parents always approved of my career path. That was reassuring and just a confidence booster so I did everything in my power to get better and make it a tangible thing and something I could live off of. I’m really grateful for my parents and just my whole family being my biggest supporters and cheer squad, while I talked and dreamed and chased after an art career.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I went to art school, but some things were self-taught even during those years. Despite being at a university, there were a lot of times where it was just me and some Youtube videos to figure out how to tackle things digitally or figure out a program. There are aspects of art school that I do think better prepared me for the industry, but with social media and better accessibility, that’s shifting, and I’d say for the best. I’m personally a fan of those lacking funds or resources to attend an institution being able to have almost direct access to the industry and a chance at a professional art career at their fingertips.
4). There is an authenticity to your characters, which makes me feel like I know them in real life. I especially admire your ability to tackle political subject matter and representation with your art, and make it feel accessible. Is this intentional? And what are the challenges of taking on potentially hot button issues with your art?
I’m really glad you feel this authenticity with my characters, because that’s first and foremost what I had hoped would come across. Having my work be accessible and convey this sense of representation is very important to me and all around intentional. Being in a more commercial art field, the ones consuming my work are everyday people. I want my characters to reflect those who are reading the articles/magazines/books my work is attached to. I really like the ordinary with some fantastical elements sprinkled in there every so often, but for the most part I find comfort and joy in the mundane and the mundane tends to be accessible.
In terms of the challenges that come with tackling more “hot button issues,” I’d say the biggest challenge is just running into the backlash and possible onslaught of hate that comes with having your art attached to an article or opinion piece. I try my best not to read the comments, they can get really harsh even when they’re not directed towards the art, but since you’re still a part of the project, it’s hard not to take it personally. My goal when taking on said “hot button issues” is just illustrating the tone of the article to the best of my ability and with knowledge, taste, cleverness and my own unique mark. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I don’t. It’s all a learning experience.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
I’d say my biggest obstacle I’ve faced in my career is being sought out to tackle primarily black trauma and struggle. Or have people hit me up to only tackle issues revolving around blackness, but not blackness in the sense of joy or discovery. With editorial, and for the better portion of my career, I’ve seen clients hit me up only during Black History Month or when the political climate is REALLY bad or when a traumatic event has occurred to black and brown bodies. I’m still overcoming it, those jobs have become more scarce, but only after I spoke up about marginalized creators being expected to shoulder their trauma and identity in all aspects of their life, even in their art. I still take some of the heavier jobs because I do believe there’s a need for the people with the lived experience to tackle those issues, but there has to be a balance. A person isn’t one dimensional and like my white peers, POC and marginalized creators have experience to delve into other topics and bring those to the surface.
Ultimately, I’m overcoming that obstacle in my own career by speaking up, shifting my work’s focus, and being upfront with clients and my agent about what I want my work to focus on. My identity still shines through in all I produce, but I want my likes and interests to also do the same, and those aren’t always revolving around my struggle as a Black woman.
6). Does representation matter in art?
I wholeheartedly think it matters. But not just in the characters we see projected on screen or in a book, but who gets to have a seat at the table (shout out to Solange). Representation in art doesn’t hold much weight if the ones being represented aren’t present to make it. Speaking for children’s publishing, since I’m shifting into that medium, there was a report put out stating only 9% of books featured African or African-American characters, but the real alarming statistic was that only a third of that content was produced by said demographic. That ratio is skewed and a serious issue.
Representation and diversity can’t be things we uphold if there’s still gate-keeping in who actually gets to create. We put a lot of emphasis on representation and making sure it’s visible, but it can’t only exist in a fictional landscape and mainly through fictional characters. Real-life representation needs to be visible in our staff, our sales teams, our editors, and those holding power. In those creating.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
The first thing I’ll say is, if you are being asked to tackle a background or experience unfamiliar to your own, see if you can pass it on to someone who has that lived experience. See if you can bring others to the table. Opportunities arise for people all the time, opportunities that may be out of our realm of expertise, but if you have the chance to shift that opportunity to another individual with a better grasp on it or who is starting out, I say do that first.
With that being said, if you are an artist representing a background or experience not your own, PLEASE do your research. Research, ask questions, hire a sensitivity reader so you get it right, or at least as close to right. We joke all the time, but Google is free (for now at least), so take that extra effort to do yourself a favor and get it right. We won’t get stuff right all the time, that’s just a reality, but folks can tell when you go the extra mile and when you just bullshit your way through it. Are you genuinely trying to represent that background, or is it a cash grab/for brownie points?
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
Oh man, this is a hard question. I feel like I’ve been thinking about this question for the majority of my life, and I still don’t have a solid answer. I really like Clementine from the TellTale Walking Dead series. She’s such a badass and someone I see a lot of myself in. I also want to protect that child with my life, despite her being fictional.
Susie Carmichael from Rugrats is another. She’s just so iconic, and a black girl that I think a lot of other black girls took solace in. She didn’t put up with Angelica’s mess and was a true friend and protector of the babies, plus she was voiced by the legendary Cree Summer.
This is my last one, but I really like Toph Beifong, both as a child and when she’s older in the Avatar series. Between her humor and her skills, what’s there not to love? She is such a multi-dimensional character with faults and strengths, and I just love her.
Clementine from The Walking Dead game (top), Toph Beifong from Avatar: the Last Airbender (left), Susie Carmichael from Rugrats (right).
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
Ashton Sanders. I first saw him in Moonlight and wow, just wow. He completely blew me away, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Even with such a big role and a name attached to one of the best movies of this generation in my opinion, I still think he’s so underrated. I want to see him in every indie film and even more mainstream films. That is, if that’s something HE wants. I’m certain people know him, but he’s one of those actors I want everyone on this planet to know about. He’s worth it and just fantastic.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
I’d say create what you want to see, for YOU first, and not what you think people want to see. It’s basic advice, maybe not the most grand thing to be said, but it’s true. Some of my proudest and happiest moments as an artist have been when I finally visualized the story or images I wanted to see. In some ways I’m creating for younger me. Younger Shannon would be so hype to see that I’m making slice of life stories and pieces about kids and adults having fun and being human.
I’d also say your voice is powerful so use it. I’ve been hired simply for voicing my concerns and thoughts. I’ve been hired for speaking passionately about a subject. I like to believe it’s a big reason my work is shifting into something more true to myself and who I am.
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
I’m currently working on my first graphic novel with Varian Johnson! It has a long ways to go, it’s been kicking my butt if I’m being honest, but I’m really excited for it. It will be published through Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, sometime in 2020 (fingers crossed). It’s about these twins, Maureen and Francine, and all the drama, anxiety and unfamiliarity that comes with starting middle school. Not to mention this journey of becoming your own person, which I imagine is twice as hard when you’re a twin and people treat you as interchangeable. It honestly encompasses everything I love: representation, family dynamics, self doubt, friendship. I’m biased, but it’s going to be a good book and one I can’t wait to physically hold when it’s done.
Also in the pipeline are two other kids books, I’m Gonna Push Through, which I’m working on with Jasmyn Wright through Simon & Schuster, and another I’m not sure I can quite mention yet, but that is being published through Scholastic as well. I’m working on some book covers, but I can’t go into much detail with those either.
I think my ultimate dream project would be to create a short film or even a short, 10-13 cartoon series. Nothing too long, but I’d absolutely love to see one of my worlds and characters projected on the screen. When time allows, I want to learn animation and get better at storyboarding so I can have a more direct hand in making that dream become a reality. But for now, I’m really happy with what I’m currently working on.
Thank you so much, Shannon, for sharing your story and your gorgeous art with us! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Shannon's answers resonated with you, please comment and share her interview far and wide.
And be sure to follow, support, and share her work through the links below: