Korean American Illustrator Steven Shik Finds an Escape From Planned Obsolescence [Interview]
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” as the idiom goes. Change a light bulb, throw the old one away. Exhaust your iPhone with selfies, recipes, and text messages, then eagerly upgrade to the latest version just three years after signing the 10-page contract.
Since the 1920s manufacturers of gadgets and home appliances have teamed up to limit the life spans of their products, a strategy known as planned obsolescence. The practice serves as a reflection of ravenous consumer culture in the era of late-stage capitalism. It’s also the name of a recent solo show from Detroit-based illustrator Steven Shik. “I decided to refocus the concept [of planned obsolescence] on emotions, relationships, and expectations,” he tells NOT REAL ART. “How we can so quickly look for barriers, the ways things won’t work out, rather than how they could, how these imagined barriers can prevent our growth and success. Planned Obsolescence is about how these concepts haunted my year.”
A Korean American adoptee, Steven explores complex narratives surrounding the self through his figurative works. Rendered in mossy greens, mustard yellows, and dusty pinks, his illustrations provide a soft landing place for subtle magic to unfold. Layered among hidden faces, metronomes, and vultures, pink flowers alchemize across Steven’s work, blooming in surprising places. “The mugunghwa, or as most Americans refer to as the Rose of Sharon, is the national flower of South Korea,” Steven explains. “This symbol of South Korea contrasts with the narrative of Korean adoptees alienated from status and nationality. Does this symbol still apply to people who were stripped of being “Korean”? By re-contextualizing this symbol, the use of the mugunghwa in my art is used to illustrate and process the loss and redefinition of identity.”
Completed during a short, two-month period, the works in Planned Obsolescence are loosely connected by symbolic emotional threads. Spurred by a year of incremental and exponential change in Steven’s life, these works contemplate the beauty of being and becoming, of waiting patiently for growth and rebirth. With time and fortitude, emotional barriers fall away, overrun by fields of pale pink flowers. “[The mugunghwa flower] symbolizes Korean enduring resilience,” Steven says. “It is the eternal blossom that never fades.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Steven Shik discusses the flexible symbolic meaning of vultures, how he achieves “flow state” when creating, and what specific change led him to think of himself as a “real” artist.
On your website you mention that you explore your experience as a Korean adoptee with your art. What have you discovered in the process?
Steven Shik: My cultural identity, and lack thereof in my upbringing, created this emotional disconnect that I’m still processing to this day. Growing up as an Asian American/Korean adoptee was an isolating experience that was hard to articulate or fully comprehend. The discussion of inclusion and diversity was not a topic widely discussed back then, and for much of my early life, I didn’t have an outlet to explore this identity.
This emotional disconnection created isolating shame that made me reluctant to explore my origins, let alone create art about it. Despite this apprehension, I slowly realized that my work was driven by this unrealized identity. I began to process most of my anxieties and issues of self-worth. These were directly linked to my experience as a Korean adoptee. Exploring this emotional vulnerability gave me a sense of validation and perspective, and drove my work forward to new places that felt more interesting and engaging.
In addition to the mugunghwa flower, vultures and metronomes are frequent symbols in your work. What do they represent?
SS: Over the years I developed a shorthand to add deep meaning to my work through recurring images. The metronome was something I first started to use in photography, strangely enough. At the time I was attracted to its interesting shape, but over time it came to represent time and its cyclical nature. I have always been predisposed to obsession over time and the ways our culture measures its passing: anniversaries, seasons, years etc. The metronome was a natural symbol to explore that.
Vultures are another symbol that I give great significance in my work. They are commonly associated with death, but in some cultures, they represent rebirth. I was intrigued with this dualistic creature containing both the nature of ending and beginnings. Both symbols tap into the elements that help illustrate huge life shifts that I have wanted to delve into and explore.
The majority of the work in Planned Obsolescence was created in two months. How did you make that happen?
SS: The nature of creating things digitally gave me greater flexibility on how I approached the work as a whole. Much of the work was simultaneously in progress, and it allowed me to grow tangent ideas in quick succession.
Thematically, the show addressed familiar feelings through many different contexts. This meant that I wasn’t starting from scratch with any individual piece. Each was related and connected. The small turnaround time also forced me to commit to ideas, rather than falling into indecision and self-doubt, which can easily plague artistic projects. Second-guessing and overthinking had to be minimized to make my deadline. Consequently, it provided a level of confidence and engagement in my work that was refreshing and freeing. I could follow an idea to its conclusion without pausing to doubt its validity.
What helps you get into a “flow state” while creating?
SS: Historically I played music, TV shows, or a movie I was familiar with so it wouldn’t distract me too much, but rather would fill in background space while I worked. Over the years, I noticed that when I jumped right into the work without too much thought, I was most productive. I still prefer to have something going on in the background, but I keep in mind how productive silence can be when the work requires.
Do you enjoy showing your work? Does posting your work on social media have the same impact as showing in a physical setting?
SS: Although I love being a digital artist/illustrator, I value showing my work in person. Being able to hold a tangible piece is something I miss quite a bit from when I was working with pen and ink. This is why I try to have my work printed and presented in the highest quality possible. Seeing my work in the physical form provides a level of engagement for viewers that the small screen fails to elicit, and this is my ultimate goal.
The dreaded algorithm has wreaked havoc on my social media reach, which was only ever so-so. Posting on social media feels like a necessary evil. I still enjoy discovering new art and engaging with other like-minded creatives, but I do sometimes resent that I’m being pushed to become a content creator, rather than just a creator. My goal for “showing” work on social media is to find opportunities and connect with people who find my work meaningful. Hopefully we can all meet and experience art in analog form, too!
Do you remember when you started to feel like an artist?
SS: When I moved to Detroit, I had the earliest inkling that I was an artist. By that point I was a few years removed from graduating, and was starting to make work that didn’t feel academic. After spending 10 years in Grand Rapids, it was essential for me to move to a new environment and have new experiences. This choice to move helped me define work I wanted to create. I slowly started to get into more shows and sought out work that made me feel valid.
How do you balance working a “day job” and being an artist? Is there any overlap between skills?
SS: Besides the obvious financial benefits, the semblance of structure has enabled me to have a better idea of how to maximize my time. I work in the negative space, which makes the time I allocate to my art precious, finite. My side work experience has been in kitchens, and I’ve found a surprising amount of crossover between cooking and creating. Both require a level of planning and organization that helps maintain consistency. Planning out my week of tasks and goals isn’t much different than writing out schedules or prep lists. I even used a dry erase board for both! Maintaining the work/life balance is always a constant struggle, but I have a much better understanding of myself while doing both. I set healthy boundaries both mentally and physically, and carve out my time for art ahead of time.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
SS: I have a level of momentum going from my show, so I’ve begun to plan out what I hope to be my next solo show. I’m also working on some leftover ideas from Planned Obsolescence that I didn’t get the time to develop to my satisfaction. More broadly, I’m very excited to dive into the new year, being more active in my career. I want to pursue more editorial illustration opportunities, while looking to participate in more shows.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s).
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