Interview: Jonathan Jay Lee

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In a Time Out exclusive, Ysabelle Cheung chats with illustrator and artist Jonathan Jay Lee

Hong Kong based artist Jonathan Jay Lee has drawn Marvel characters, beer labels for Kronenbourg and, most recently, a collection of superhero girls for Italian brand Superga.  Ysabelle Cheung watches paint dry at the Superga flagship shop, where Lee is custom designing shoes in store for the month, and talks to the comic fanatic about luck, the fickle art industry and staying alive…

In your biography, it says you came to a fork in the road when you moved to New York at age 18: illustration or medicine.
Oh, that was kind of a joke! You know, Asian parents’ mentality.  There was this expectation that I was going do something realistic for an Asian grownup. But then, I think I came to a point where I had to do what I do now. So even if my parents didn’t support it, if you want anything that bad, you’ll find a way to make it happen. But luckily they really turned around since then. And I think they really fully support me now, which is nice – especially when you embark on a difficult path.

I suppose by anyone’s standard, being an artist isn’t easy.
With any career you choose, if you want be successful, you’ve got to work for it.

When you first started, how soon were the projects rolling in?
I guess in school. I was at the Parsons New School for Design in New York City – I started getting some works when I was a student there. I was lucky because my first big gig was Marvel comics… so I thought ‘Okay, great, I can actually do this!’ and the weird thing is, when I came back to Hong Kong to visit, I started getting a lot more work.

I held a solo exhibition at The Fringe Club on the suggestion of an old teacher; I did a lot of research and then with the help of friends, put together a show. I made press releases, posters, postcards, sent them all out, called people up, looked up galleries and design companies. But I was actually really lucky because off of that, I was invited to illustrate for Kronenbourg, which has been one of my bigger gigs. That was about four years ago.


Strange Tales MAX for Marvel Comics

Has work been consistently coming in since then?
Oh no. Not at all. It’s up and down.

What about your collaboration with Superga? How did that come about?
I was actually referred by a friend, Chris Keith over at hk2stroke.

There are six ‘supergirls’ that you created for Superga. How did you create these different characters?
I just thought about what kind of girls would wear these kind of Superga shoes. We created the whole concept and drew it all out in just two weeks. Each girl has her own story and character, so you kind of know what they’re thinking. Or at least what they might be thinking! It was a lot of fun.



Design for Superga

To you, what’s the difference between commercial and personal art?
My own stuff – I like to draw a lot of comics and I try to propose them to publishers. I have to survive though and keep doing all these projects, and that’s going to take away a lot of my personal time. But I actually prefer doing the client stuff, because I like working with different people and it’s fun to do all kinds of collaborations that I wouldn’t do on my own. I do a lot of live painting too for corporate events. On stage like a monkey.

A monkey?
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s cool because it’s mostly for events that are like parties. So I can have some beers, make some art and then I get paid at the same time.


Live painting for Likemindedpeople at Azure

Have you ever thought about going back to New York, the mecca of comics?
If I had an opportunity to drop everything and go back, I probably would. But having said that, I don’t think I could have been as successful as I am now. Hong Kong is a lot smaller and it’s a lot more competitive there. Maybe in like 10 years.

What’s tough about being a full-time artist?
Good question. Staying healthy, I think. When you’re working on your own, you just forget to eat or don’t eat properly, you forget how many hours you’ve been working or you sleep really late. Also juggling several different projects at the same time because, personally for me, when I get into one thing, I like to go all in. It’s hard to switch gears.

What’s next after your residency at Superga finishes up?
I was one of the judges for Secret Walls… I’ve also got a few magazine gigs coming up. And comics! More comics.

What are your comics like?
They’re kind of like short stories. I think if you embark on an epic at the beginning, it’s too much. I like to do a little series, glimpses of lives and stories of people that I’m trying to tell. There’s a lot of things I want to do that I just haven’t done or gotten round to yet. I want to bring it all into existence, but you know, you have to survive as well. I’m trying to find more regular gigs so I can stay alive. 

If you could give one piece of advice to your past self, what would it be?
I think I’d tell myself to be smarter. I didn’t have a great mentality when I began because I would always say ‘yes’ to everything and then wouldn’t sleep. I’d always lie when people gave me projects and say ‘of course’, I can figure it all out overnight. Now I’m a little older and I’m taking more care of my health. Working smarter means being more productive rather than just partying and spending all the time.

If you had to choose one art tool to use for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Hmm. A computer.

That’s cheating!
Ok…. a brush. Any paintbrush. Maybe a brush for makeup. [Laughs]

What do you want to be doing in 10 years’ time?
To be waking up every morning drawing comics.

Lee is custom painting shoes at Superga flagship store in Harbour City, TST, until Mon Sep 30. Check out his work at jonathanjaylee.com.

 

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