Read our dozens of interviews with creative entrepreneurs and artists from around the globe - about their exciting, fun, sometimes arduous, and even challenging processes - creating work that impact their communities.
My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."
Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book.
When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art. When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas.
Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:
At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters?
The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.
You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?
My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.
Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?
Yeah, I party with them all the time.
You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art?
As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.
You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?
I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.
How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?
It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...
If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?
Go batshit crayyyyzeee.
Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?
Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.
What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?
Real life people on the streeets are the best.
How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?
Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.
Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself?
It took me a few months to track down painter/muralist Joshua Mays. As I was cyber sweet-stalking him (as my colleague would say), he was in the middle of transitioning from Philly, where he had been rooted for the past several years, to his new home in The Bay Area--Oakland.
I was initially drawn to Joshua's work after following him on Facebook for the past year or so, where seemingly like clockwork, he would release a new ridiculously dope painting pretty much everyday. His unyielding production seemed superhuman to say the least, and I wanted to learn more about his process. And so I emailed him incessantly, until he responded and agreed to an interview.
It takes two seconds of exposure to his work to realize that he's brilliant. Joshua's now ubiquitous psychedelic and otherworldly style have been coveted and sought after by recording artists, such as Jill Scott and Jneiro Jarel for album covers. He's been commissioned to create monstrous sized murals in multiple cities, and exhibited his work worldwide.
Here's a short phone conversation we had, where he shared about his ways of avoiding creative blocks, the concepts behind his work, and how he keeps moving from city to city.
So you're from Denver originally?
Yes I am.
What brought you from Denver to Philly, and now to The Bay?
I guess it’s pretty much just staying on the move, finding a more mature art scene, an art scene that will progress my career. When I was in Denver, the Denver scene was mostly in galleries, and if you went into a gallery, you'd see mostly Native American art or cowboy art, and not much in the realms of what I'm trying to construct. So I went to Philly and found a lot of like-minded and progressive people, and then it was time to move on...I just got to The Bay a few weeks ago.
You hit the ground running as soon as you touched down in The Bay, with the “Love and Momentum,” show. Can you explain how those two concepts came together for that?
That was a show that I had in February of this year. It refers to the idea of living a balanced life. It was focused on my personal flow--me doing the things that I love and just come naturally for me--and applying the resourcefulness that I've had to build as well as the work ethic. It’s about learning life moving in that direction--flowing, and creating work based upon that. In terms of the type of work that was created for the show, it's pretty much what I said. There wasn’t a theme flowing, that connected everything with each other in terms of everything being done within a certain span of time. There were certain group of pieces that I created specifically for the show while I was out here visiting The Bay.
Your work is very reminiscent of the iconic Bitches Brew artist Mati Klarwein. Were you influenced by him?
I definitely know Mati Klarwein's work, to say the least. He's most certainly an influence when it comes to the way he depicts reality and psychedelia. I definitely know his work and am influenced by him. I go back and refer to his work a lot to see the solutions he utilized for certain problems.
Your work, like Klarwein’s is very ethereal. Where does that come from? Do those concepts come from a specific spiritual orientation?
I would say my spiritual orientation is that of just being open to change, which means not having much attachment to most things. In general, I like the idea of just being an explorer, flowing in and out of different ideas. I definitely appreciate storytelling, and in general, I think storytelling is what makes art and humanity really worthwhile, and one of the things I really do love in humanity. I think a lot of what makes religion captivating as well, is storytelling--is people relating themselves to somebody else’s story, and their push through struggle. I wouldn't be surprised if a couple Millennia from now, we see religion based upon the stories of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, based upon their stories and how time also enhances and embellishes upon the narration of people's struggles.
Are there times where you feel like you hate what you are working on, or stop enjoying the project, but continue to do it anyways?
In terms of blocks? I don't. I guess I just have moments when my flow, my inspiration, is just lower than other times, and I tend to just scribble circles across a page, and just create whatever I can out of those. But I know there's so many directions that I could go creatively. I just love drawing and painting so much, so I rarely have times when I'm not drawing or painting.
That seems rare. Most creatives talk about getting blocked or unmotivated every now and then. What seems to be your technique from preventing blockages?
When it comes to creating an exhibit, all I can do is produce within my means. I just keep moving on, keep adding one thing to another thing, which leads to another thing. Being willing to jump from city to city as I have been over the past few years helps out: a new group of people, a new group of conversations, a new place to explore, the ability to take advantage of new opportunities--again just paying attention to myself, being open to what change has to offer.
It's definitely just about getting to a point where I'm not thinking too much about my work--not just not thinking about my work--but how other people think about my work. I can just imagine being blocked based upon thinking about those things that I can't control. That's what I see could cause a block.
I think a big part of creating is just losing yourself and not getting caught up in critiquing yourself too much, and allowing yourself to produce shitty stuff as well as the dope stuff [laughs]. And don't be too hard on yourself, and sincerely do the work because you enjoy it. I have to give myself a lot of room when it comes to that conversation.
Was there ever a time in your life that you didn’t know you were an artist? Or did you have a revelation at birth that you were supposed to be one?
I've been drawing and painting since--I’d say I started drawing I was 3 or 4 years old. and I haven't stopped at all since. But in terms of as a career path, it probably was more like I was 7 or 8 years old when someone said to me that I could be an artist for a living. I thought that would be cool at the time. I think I also thought about being a baseball player and a runner, because I liked doing those things when I was 7 as well. I didn't really play baseball that much, but it seemed like a cool thing to do. Then I eventually gave up on those other things, but kept drawing and painting. I knew my ultimate ability of enjoying myself and my work involved me creating art, and so I knew I had to be an artist. That opened up a door to a building with so many rooms. There was a lot of searching and finding, testing, until I came to the decision to become an artist. I’ve done a lot to get here, but I’m glad to be in the position that I'm in right now.
What’s your day-to-day like in terms of producing work?
My main work sessions are at night, usually sometime between 12 midnite to 3 o'clock in the morning.
I always listen to music, and I'm almost always caffeinated. I generally try to drink green tea, and occassionally I drink coffee, but usually I get jittery from coffee, but I do love caffeine.
Where can people buy your prints or hit you up for commissioned work?
I have a website in the works. Stay tuned for that.
Words by Boyuan Gao
All original artwork by Joshua Mays (images courtesy of Joshua's Facebook page)
Singer-songwriter and cultural ambassador, Maya Azucena, and photographer/multi-media artist RaeMaxwellare like those two gals you meet at a friend of friend's around-the-way get-together and immediately feel in the midst of good company. They're sharp, powerful, beautiful and funny; the kind of women you can chat animatedly with about world affairs and then effortlessly switch to deep ponderance over why so many urban menfolk choose to shout out, "God Bless you ma" in lieu of proper come-ons. In short, they're my kind of women.It's easy to see why the duo are a good match; Maya's talkative and open nature is perfectly symbiotic to Rae's subdued and introspective vibe. CultureFphiles spoke with the uber talented ladies about their work on Lines In My Skin (LIMS), an online photo essay, shot by Maxwell, detailing a day in the life of a woman in an abusive relationship. Azucena plays the starring role, pulling from her real-life experience in a former abusive relationship of seven years. I was drawn to LIMS via the juxtaposition of images; Azucena’s initial joyful disposition contrasted sharply with images of her and her abuser in their home. I was also intrigued by Maxwell’s use of color, saturation, and tone.
LIMS premiered as an installation and panel discussion at the Brooklyn arts and event space, Free Candy, in March of 2012 drawing roughly 100 attendees. CultureFphiles spoke with May and Rae to chat about their experience creating LIMS, how they navigate their own process of creation, and the far-reaching effects of the project.
How did Lines in My Skin come to fruition?
Maya: I was introduced to Rae through a common friend and I thought she had an incredible eye. In the course of us meeting, we also had this mutual artistic respect and so we just put it out there, like, let’s do something together. I had this vision of dealing with my domestic violence experience. I was in a very abusive relationship [for seven years] and I thought that she would be able to handle something edgy and dark. I knew it was going to be a very vulnerable experience for me and Rae’s work inspired me to have the courage to approach the idea.
Rae: I didn’t know that.
Maya: Yeah…I was brainstorming and I could see this visual image of me in a fetal position on the floor. I sent the idea to Rae and she responded that she had had a vision of that the night before. I was blown away that she had somehow come up with the same idea without us even consulting one another. The synergy somehow felt divine. I had a specific visual to photograph the interaction between me and a man. Rae had the idea to start with me being very composed, beautiful, free…and then gradually show the descent to me being balled up on the floor.
You’ve mentioned in the written piece of the photo exhibit that you believed you were strong, and that’s why you stayed in the relationship. That alters the image we have of women in abusive relationships as weak or passive.
Maya: And the thing is, is that at the time I had the same persona. My nickname was happy-go-lucky. I’m motivational and inspirational and identifiable and very sunny… people had no idea this guy kept me up all night punching me in the arms or pulling out a knife on me. I didn’t tell anyone. A couple of my best friends knew he was abusive but they didn’t have a clue of the extent.
Did you view the abuse as your own personal battle?
Maya: I didn’t view it as a battle. I viewed it as me trying to help him become the potential I saw in him…he would often say to me, ‘well, you know what I’ve been through.’ But what occurred to me was that your reasons do not constitute an excuse. You have reasons - but you are not excused from your actions and that’s what I got confused in my own reality. The other thing was that I didn’t think I was being abused. I knew I was with an abuser but…it’s just a weird perspective. I was like ‘I’m strong, I’m not one of these girls, I’m not afraid of him’ so I didn’t realize I was suffering the same circumstances of a person who is afraid to leave. It was like an addiction. I stayed because I was obsessed with succeeding. We were going to succeed at this thing. I thought I could believe in love for the both of us, and those were my errors.
Rae, how did that affect the way you came up with the storyline and shot everything?
Rae: I feel like the first time we really spoke about it [the abuse] was when we were about to shoot. We spoke briefly about the visual goal but I didn’t know her actual situation until she was in my home. I’m glad it happened that way because we wouldn’t have the product we had now. We must have about 150 photos from that shoot but we selected 50 to tell the story.
Maya: I wanted it to be really daring. I love Rae’s instincts. She pushes boundaries – she has contrasts in the images…unexpected combinations. I am, personally, wanting to push my fans expectations of me…I wanted them to be able to really get how severe an abusive relationship is.
How did that feel?
Maya: It felt very vulnerable because this is one of the first times I’ve dealt with it in art. I write about it [and] I sing about it in my songs but it’s sort of peripheral…but this was very literal.
Were there moments where you thought, I don’t want to do this anymore?
Maya: No. Never. I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.
Rae, you mentioned you had experience with domestic abuse; was that hard for you when shooting?
Rae: I think I’m really good at locking emotions, sometimes to a fault. I tend to be very visual but feel like there is a madness going on up in my head…I tend to shoot in the dark a lot with no lights - so when I was shooting, I had to ignore my own fantasy of what I think she [Maya] experienced and try to focus on what she experienced at that time. I also was thinking of what others close to me have experienced with domestic violence so I wasn’t even thinking of me, I was thinking of what other people had told me, and trying to focus on the task at hand.
Maya: It was actually very practical and technical. I didn’t feel super emotional during the shoot. It was seeing how the photos manifested once I saw how she captured these moments. I was like, wow - you do get it.
How did you feel when you were choosing the photos?
Rae: The first person who saw the photos were my mother. When my mother saw them, she started bawling…and I thought, maybe we have something here. When I’m looking at my work I just feel like I fucked it up. It takes some time. When you’re looking at an image or video over and over again, I lose perspective. So, sometimes I have this terrible fear.
Maya: When I saw the photos I was like, she nailed it. I felt so good about the decision to do this project with you. I had no idea until we were at the panel for the installation that you had any personal experience with domestic violence until then.
Rae: Because this was about you.
Maya: I know but I had no idea that this was relatable to you. When I saw the images I was blown away.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the fear you were feeling? Do you often question if the work is good or not good?
Maya: I was entering new ground on this project because my forte is singing. It was very vulnerable for me to write my story [the written element to the photography installation]. I wanted to make sure the writing had literary integrity so that people wouldn’t get distracted by some inadequacy there and lose the actual story. So, there was a bit of a fear and an anxiety in exposing myself in that way.
Rae: I never look at the photos as I’m shooting because I feel that that is a luxury. We used quite a bit of film that day.
What do you mean when you say it’s a luxury to look at images when you shoot?
Rae: I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created. Aside from lighting yes – you have to look at the picture to make sure you’ve got the lighting right more or less but once I start, I don’t look- I can’t look. So of course I’m sort of doing it to myself because I don’t really know exactly what I have just created. I just feel like it’s not fair to be able to see that…because it was never like that. No great art was created like that a hundred years ago and I have a bit of a grudge about that.
How did it feel to be at the actual exhibit/installation?
Rae: I never imagined I would end up at an event like that where there was so much support and unity. It was kind of hard to be in a room where we were the center of the attention and that was kind of strange for me but I felt so happy that I got to do this with you and that I got to help you do this.
Maya: It was groundbreaking for me. This is the furthest I have revealed this particular element of my life. I guess I had to be ready but I was super glad it was with you. It’s also the kind of thing that if it is handled improperly, it wouldn’t be effective. It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value. This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.
What did you take away from this experience?
Maya: I went to Tanzania after the exhibit. I was doing a performance as part of a community event to discuss domestic violence in the community of Arusha and the surrounding area. A male choreographer from Madagascar, who lives in Arusha, saw Lines In My Skin online and was so moved by it that he performed a modern dance piece to it in Tanzania with 8-foot high images from the photo shoot behind him and quotes from my story in rotation. He actually dressed up as a woman in a relationship and danced with a male counterpart and did this intense dance. By having the courage to tell this story… seeing how it can impact people globally and the power of art to do that and how profound it is. It was groundbreaking in their community. One, a man talking about domestic violence in Tanzania is incredibly unusual and the fact that he was so moved he dared to do something that was never before done, dressing up as a woman and performing a modern dance…this is stuff we can imagine in New York. It is unimaginable in their community. That allowed me to see the potential of this project.
Rae: The fact that I even got up on a discussion panel was unimaginable for me. I realized that if I didn’t, I would be the thing that gets women into trouble in the first place. Where they hold themselves back from doing what they really should do. I felt like I would be such a hypocrite if I didn’t just get over myself and get up there and talk. Personally, that was fantastic but the thing about me is that I’m shooting a lot for other people and so I felt so happy that I was able to give something to Maya in a way that made her feel like ‘ok, I acknowledged and I dealt with it in the best way possible.’ I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was able to give her something out of such a shitty experience. That to me is what keeps me going. I want people to look at my work and keep something that I created with and for them.
To hear and learn more about Maya Azucena's music and her humanitarian work, click here: