Alhambra Source readers may be familiar with San Gabriel Valley-based artist Jee-Shaun Wang’s illustrations. His colorful images, such as a long, dark hallway with a looming ghost, a large legacy oak tree, and the Mars rover exploring the Red Planet, have accompanied stories on the site. Wang’s illustrations engage the reader’s visual imagination and enhance the written word.
Wang, 24, describes himself as "5’6” and a half, hair, and no dental insurance,” a humble self-image that contrasts heavily with the complex imagery in the Mark Keppel High School alumnus’s portfolio, a collection that evokes the language divides and split identities of his San Gabriel Valley roots.
Wang grew up in Rowland Heights near the southeastern border of the San Gabriel Valley. He started drawing at the age of seven when his mom forced him to go to art classes with his older sister. He thought of art as a hobby during school and didn’t consider pursuing it as a career until a fateful bus ride to a newly opened art gallery in Alhambra, Gallery Nucleus.
"I was 12 or 13 years old and went to their first opening and it was really fresh and had a lot of things that appealed to me," he says.
When he graduated from Mark Keppel in 2008, he decided to follow his sister’s footsteps and attend art school. “She went to art school and I visited her once, and all they had to do was draw all the time and I thought that was so cool,” Wang says. “I thought that was a great way to spend college.”
Wang’s sister wasn’t the only family member who influenced his career. His father's old items, strewn about the Rowland Heights home he currently shares with his parents, have inspired his work. Old Chinese comics, Japanese prints, food labels, and Indian writings are just some of the objects that find their way into his drawings.
Wang's mother and father were not excited when Wang decided to move to Baltimore to study illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Wang’s parents, Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States in the 1970s, were concerned that he wouldn’t be able to support himself or his family as an artist.
Despite his parents’ protestations, Wang moved more than 2,600 miles east. Living in Baltimore was an extreme change for Wang, and he found himself culturally adrift in an urban city with harsh weather conditions. “But the biggest change was the fact that this place was not overflowing with Asians,” Wang wrote in a 2012 Alhambra Source article, "My Mandarin Problem". “I didn’t feel welcome. I felt invisible and I was certainly shorter than the average white person. For the first time in my life, I felt Asian.”
On top of feeling like a foreigner in a foreign town, Wang was not sure of his chances of success as an illustrator. He was surprised that many of the artists that he admired on the Internet were his teachers at school, but they were not confident in their students’ chances in the field. His professors told him that only 10 percent of his classmates would be working after school.Still, he continued to pursue his passion. “They told me this in my last semester and I thought, ‘What else am I going to do?’ I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Wang says.
After graduating in 2013, he spent another year in Baltimore showing his portfolio to galleries and publications trying to land a commission. Wang was elated when the New York Times used one of his illustrations for their Book Review section, but the moment of success proved to be brief.
"I thought it would be smooth sailing from there on, but it was more like sailing right into a rock,” Wang says.
Wang is unsure of where he is heading since his return to the San Gabriel Valley, but for the moment he wants to travel more and draw from observation. To pay the rent, Wang has been working part time in landscaping and construction. While an all-day working schedule can be exhausting, Wang says he is even more inspired to do his art at the end of the day.
“All is good."
Interested in contacting Jee-Shaun? "Commissions and collaborations are always welcome!" Wang says. "Just shoot me an email, call me, or find me on the street."