Q&A with Contemporary Artist Yuko Shimizu

When the Folio Society needed a contemporary artist for its recently published volume of medieval Japanese Fairy Tales they went straight to Yuko Shimizu, an award-winning illustrator and educator based in New York City. No, Hello Kitty fans, this is not the same Shimizu who created the iconic mouthless, bow-wearing white cat, but she is a great talent in her own right. Named "One of the 100 Japanese People the World Respects" by Newsweek Japan in 2009, Shimizu has racked up accolades for her work as a graphic illustrator for DC Comics, The New York Times, Wired, as well as designing for the Gap, Target, and Pepsi. In short, Shimizu has found the sweet spot for artists living by their craft. During a recent trip to Europe Shimizu graciously answered a few questions about her Folio Society commission, her work process, and what she hopes readers will learn from this project.

Of the 170 stories in this collection, were you familiar with any of them from your own childhood in Tokyo? Were there any that were new to you or that surprised you? "Monk's Jokes," for example, surprised me.

The author, editor, and scholar Mr. Tyler has deeper knowledge in Japanese history and classic literature more so than much of the population from Japan, I must say. These stories are not your typical Japanese folktales. These are well-researched and legitimate old stories that most people in Japan have, sadly, forgotten. 

Just like kids who grew up with Disney versions don't know the real Snow White story, or how Little Mermaid ends in original book, the stories I grew up are similar, but also very different from the original stories in this book. I only knew a handful of stories, and even those handful had different twists, endings and teachings from the kids book versions I grew up with. I was constantly amazed reading the book.

How did you research this project?

I am fluent in both Japanese and English, so it made my research easy. I looked up the specific things that are mentioned in the story, mostly on Japanese websites. I did visual research as well as reading written materials. I don't use Japanese on everyday basis, but for a project like this one, my language skill comes in handy.

You've worked on a range of projects, from magazine covers to children's books. What made illustrating a book of medieval Japanese tales different? Or is there a similar process for every illustration project?

In fact, every project is different. I used to work in a corporate office setting, and I had to quit because I really couldn't deal with having same/very similar routine every day. I lost track of time. I couldn't remember something happened a year ago or five years ago. I love illustrating, because every project starts from scratch, and each needs its own process from the start to the finish, which is different from any other projects that are previously done.

Your work is a combination of ancient and modern techniques: calligraphy brushwork that is digitally edited, creating a refreshing and unique aesthetic. Your other work often has a more edgy feel, but Japanese Tales runs more traditional. Could you talk about your decision to stay away from a more contemporary look? Also, the endpapers and cutout clamshell case are silvery and divine.

It's more shifted toward traditional, because the project and the subject called for it. These are very very old stories, much older than Shakespeare. So, they call for being treated as such. I like the edgy looks, but not everything needs to be edgy either. But of course, though the images look mostly traditional, they are also made with very contemporary technique, and I hope these drawings become bridges between the old world where those stories were created and the contemporary readers who are reading them now.

I can't take credit for how beautiful the book design is. My art director at Folio Society, Raquel Leis Allion designed them, and it was a huge surprise to see the amazing attention to the smallest of details. I love how gorgeous the book and slipcase design came out!

Did you have a favorite illustration or character? The double-page spreads of "The Invisible Man" and "The Dog and his Wife" are my favorites.

I like them all for their own different reasons, but it is true The Invisible Man was the most labor intensive of the set.

What do you hope your illustrations will teach readers about Japanese stories and the culture they come from?

Illustrations are the doorway to lead the readers into actually reading the books. I hope my images help them in that sense. Reading the actual tales, you really learn about the tradition, history and the customs of Ancient Japan. I am a Japanese, and I still learned a ton from them. I hope the readers will enjoy the process of reading, and learning and discovering something new from them.