Welcome back to the Artists of Color Interview series! This week I am speaking to San Diego-based art director and illustrator Shof Coker. I met Shof through mutual friends at the CTN Animation Expo, and was blown away by his gorgeous work when I looked up his instagram afterwards. I am certain that you will become an instant fan of his work as well, and hope that you enjoy reading his interview as much as I did!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
Hi! I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and came to the States for college in 2005. After graduating with a BFA in Illustration, I’ve since worked in video games as a character designer for Sony, Activision, and in film as the Art Director on the documentary/animation, Liyana. I currently work as an Art Lead at Jam City in San Diego. Story specifics usually drive the look of my work, but I've always worked with hybrid forms and techniques to evoke a personal style of storytelling mood- my attempt to unearth an impressionistic otherworldly-ness often in naturalistic settings.
My influences range from Alex Toth, to Njideka Ankunyili Crosby, João Ruas, Miyazaki, and Luis Barragan. I keep searching for methods and techniques that will help hone the nuance of my mind’s eye.
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?
That’s my brother’s fault. He roped me into comics and drawing quite young. We’d copy art from comics, and create our designs for games and grand adventure stories based on Yoruba mythology. My parents are both artists, so they were quite supportive and encouraged me to do whatever I loved. My dad is a painter and retired art professor, so he’d give me lessons often as a kid and I was always surrounded by his projects and friends that worked in the Lagos art community. He thought I’d be an engineer or an architect as I loved building things from Lego and creating things from left-over household materials. The practice and appreciation for art was always there, but I didn’t truly fall in love with art as a life until college. There I found the education, mentors, time and space to believe in it as a life ethos.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I studied at the Memphis College of Art in Tennessee. It was essential for me to attend art school, as it taught me a breadth of practical tools, very many valuable methods of problem solving and art theory, as well as a deep appreciation for art history. I also learned that personally, the key to improving as an artist isn’t all about competition and graft, but mostly your capacity for empathic understanding.
Before college I chose animation as as a career because I thought I wanted to make films like Toy Story. I realized that 3d animation combined all the things I loved, and since then I’ve sought ways to combine my love of other animation forms in that framework. I majored in illustration, as using images as a platform to communicate ideas in several ways is my strongest suit.
I’m a self taught 3d/digital artist. Before college, I used 3d software early in my teens and worked for a couple of years in Nigeria at an ad agency, and a television series pitch. I’ve maintained the practice using several 3d programs over the years.
4). You recently worked on an incredible independent film that brings a story created by South African orphans to life through animation. What was it like to work on this film, and to share the film across the African continent and around the world?
Thank you, I still feel lucky. Liyana is a unique and rare story of some very brave kids that tell a one of a kind epic adventure of their own design. It’s rare that a project fits my sensibilities so perfectly. It was a project with a grand responsibility and a lot of creative freedom. It’s the best piece of art I’ve worked on to date, and the process was a genuinely refining fire. Sharing the film with audiences all over the world has been truly rewarding, and I couldn’t have envisioned the path I’ve since taken with it. Liyana has been to over 30 festivals and won 20 awards so far, most recently the grand prize for best feature at the New York Children's’ Film Festival.
Seeing and hearing reactions last year of local audiences in South Africa is an indescribable feeling. Mostly quite humbling, because I hadn’t envisioned the level of appreciation South African audiences would have for a story audiences felt was reflective of their own unique rhythms and 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’ve ignored mental/emotional health in favor of work output in the past. It’s affected relationships I’ve had in the past. I’m not sure I’ve overcome it. I’m more aware of the issue and communicate better though. Also as an immigrant artist, the pressures of maintaining a visa did not always allow me to make career choices with the greatest ease. At times that pressure was paralyzing.
6). Does representation matter in art?
Incredibly so, yes. The affirmation of association with collective cultural identity is invaluable, not just with various people of color, but in connecting humanity. I’d love to meet someone in my travels, say a Czech, and have the spark of a conversation be a Chimamanda Adichie story, and chime in with my love for early Czech film and animation. Nuance of experience is a beautiful thing, and understanding it through art is the empathic understanding that can establish dialog with anyone.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
That raises tough questions of cultural appropriation and exploitation. I recently finished a short comic about a space Eskimo. It had nothing to do with Inuit culture, but a good friend of mine grew up in Alaska, and I liked the motif as dressing to celebrate him. In most artistic endeavors, I feel it’s ultimately about honesty, and a grounded understanding and connection to that subject or story being depicted. In that manner, you can always write your truth in any fiction. Another example is the Black Panther movie, which I feel is a story set in Africa about Africans with a lot of African truths, but still essentially an American story and the better for it. Done successfully for a few reasons, but specifically Michael B Jordan’s character and subplot was the vehicle for managing the writer and directors’ truth about a background that wasn’t their own. Conversely, the film Five Fingers for Marseille is a South African film set in a South African township that uses the American story trope of a Western as it’s storytelling framework, and conveys its truth expertly through this lens.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
Aang from the Avatar Airbender series. It’s a wonderfully crafted adventure universe and nothing beats flying on an air glider with a giant smile on your face.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
Early on I think it’s imperative to focus less on the burden of giving your under-represented collective identity a voice. Creating art from your personal experience is the authenticity you should be most concerned with. The rest will take care of itself.
As far as practical advice goes- Art history is your friend. Perhaps pull more of your references from outside of your field, i.e. expand the scope of your reference. I.e. If you are a painter, try and look at what architects are doing, or even further, how scientists design schematics for Boston Robotics, hah.
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?
A short allegorical love story I’m developing. A chunk of quality time to develop Outcasts of Jupiter into a proper book.
Thank you so much, Shof, for sharing your story and your stunning art with us! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Shof's answers resonated with you, please comment and share his interview far and wide.
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