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Conversations with Zhenyuan Shi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Zhenyuan Shi. 

Hi Zhenyuan, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
I have always been drawn to art and stories since I was a small child. I was born and nurtured in Shanghai, a city with a vibrant art scene. Being exposed to art and artists of many backgrounds and techniques constantly as a child inspired me to appreciate the diverse range of art forms and subsequently incorporate them into my own artistic practice. 

When I first moved to the United States, I majored in film production, where I learned a lot about using framing, lighting, narration, and other techniques to make interesting stories. The strength of the imagery and how much story can be conveyed in just a few shots astounded me. In addition, while attending film school, I created movie posters for other directors. I finally discovered a passion for design and pursued a master’s degree while studying new media and design. 

I really pushed my limits and explored a variety of art and design mediums during graduate school, including graphic design, physical computing, installation, writing, printmaking, etc. No matter what kind of project I’m working on, I will always think in a multidisciplinary manner thanks to this experience. I made the decision to pursue printmaking and digital product design after graduate school. I currently work for Spotify as a product designer and am also a printmaker who mostly uses the Risograph printing technique. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I had a difficult time finding my artistic voice when I initially moved to the US. I had to make art for an audience whose upbringing and identities were very different from mine after having just left the cultural setting I had grown up in. It was a constant struggle for me to decide whether to write what I truly felt or to try to produce art that would appeal to a wider audience. Having worked my way through this challenge helped me find the specific audience that would enable me to express myself in a manner that is true to who I am. 

Throughout my creative path, I’ve been fortunate to have met and worked with professors from RisoLab, an NYC risograph printmaking studio. Each of them uses a distinctive printmaking technique, and they have demonstrated numerous ways an artist can express themselves via their work. The fact that they are all quite successful printmakers while having very distinct methods and philosophies for doing so is very inspiring to me. That encouraged me to concentrate on developing my artistic philosophy rather than making an effort to cater to the art market. 

For me, the key to overcoming obstacles is to focus more on your own practice rather than attempting to find external affirmation. Challenges, in my opinion, sometimes present opportunities for reflection, for deepening one’s current practice, and even for making strides in one’s career. 

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
During the day, I am a product designer at Spotify, and in the evenings, I am a printmaker. I am largely responsible for designing the product’s user interface and user experience at Spotify. I’m a member of a team called Music Expression, and we create tools that help artists express themselves more effectively. 

I am continually inspired by artists such as Gitte Maria Moller, Cynthia Alfonso, and Chris Lloyd who embrace the metaphorical and supernatural potential of image-making. I am frequently enthralled by their inventive use of abstraction and symbolism in their visual language, as well as their ability to translate their artistic practice across various materials and mediums. 

I primarily use the Risograph printmaking medium in my work as a printmaker. Writing a poem to describe my thoughts on a topic or whatever is on my mind generally comes first when I start a print. The poem is then “translated” into visuals by me utilizing color, symbols, abstraction, etc. I love the expansive world that abstract symbolism and images give, as well as how much it enables viewers to construct their own worlds from my work. 

The uniqueness of my prints comes from the fact that I merge techniques from comics and abstract paintings. In my art, I frequently employ comic panels to depict motion, emotional fluctuations, and ephemeral elements. I then blend these panels with abstract imagery, symbols, and environment to establish the piece’s underlying tone. 

One piece of work that I was really proud of was “Fading at 1/1000”, which investigates the duality offered by technology when it comes to capturing nuanced moments and feelings in life. The artwork was chosen and displayed at a group printmaking exhibition at UsagiNY this year. 

We’d love to hear about what you think about risk-taking.
In general, I consider myself a risk-taker in terms of my creative approach. As an artist, I feel it is necessary to take risks; otherwise, you may remain in your comfort zone for too long and fail to improve your skills. I also feel that taking risks can stimulate creativity. When I decide to approach a piece of artwork or design in a way that has never been done before, I frequently find that it inspires me with new ideas. 

I think the biggest risk I’ve ever taken was switching from filmmaking to design and art. Although I loved film as a medium, I didn’t feel that it was the one where I could express myself the most. I’m pleased I took the chance since design and printmaking really did help me discover my artistic voice. In the near future, I intend to expand my visual language beyond 2D and explore with a wider range of materials, including sculpture, fabric, and mixed media. I aim to produce work that infuses larger places with symbolism, poetry, and interactivity. 

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