Sketchbook Artist Profile: Q&A with sunshine gao
Posted February 28th, 2022 by Blaine Garrett
The local comic artist, who participated in the 2021 Sketchbook Project, offers insight into their own creative and professional evolution
We at MPLSART are excited to unveil the results of the 2021 Sketchbook Project!
Following the success of the 2020 Sketchbook Project, which was started as a way to connect and support artists during the pandemic, this second iteration features an entirely new roster of 70 local artists, who contributed 120 pages of original work to a series of five sketchbooks that traveled around the Twin Cities throughout 2021. The sketchbooks have been compiled into a beautiful 88 page limited edition hardcover book available exclusively via a Kickstarter Presale that is now live. All net-proceeds from the sale of the book will be directly distributed to the participating artists.
As we gear up for the Kickstarter, the related exhibition at Gamut Gallery in March, and the auctioning of the original sketchbooks by Revere Auctions in April, we wanted to spend the next few weeks introducing you to some of the amazing artists who contributed to the project in 2021. You can see a full list of participants and timeline of events here, but in the meantime, meet sunshine gao!
sunshine gao was born in China and raised in Indiana and Kentucky. They studied ecology and philosophy, cooked noodles, and sold produce.Now, they draw stories about home – in all its forms, with all its complications. They live in Minneapolis. As one of the 70 artists contributing to the 2021 MPLSART Sketchbook Project, we wanted to learn more about sunshine and their artistic practice.
Excerpt from the artist's contribution to Green Card Voices' Our Stories Carried Us Here: A Graphic Novel Anthology.
Blaine Garrett: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got your start with comics?
sunshine gao: Well…I drew a lot when I was a kid. I ended up going to an arts high school (more out of apathy towards other schoolwork than anything), where the instruction was pretty traditional and cartoons/anime discouraged. It was a great experience, in a lot of ways, but I was ultimately discouraged by the fine arts scene and wanted to broaden my horizons. I went to a pretty intellectual college, where I studied ecology and philosophy, side-eyed the arts students who didn’t bother learning to draw, and tried to absorb what I could. Finally, I decided I’d rather be drawing and telling stories than anything else, and here I am.
That’s the chronological, beat-by-beat version. The truth is that for a lot of my life, I’ve struggled with community, relationships, and social drama. Coming out of college, I felt deeply isolated and held tight onto anything that seemed it would help me connect to others. Drawing stories was a choice of desperation – storytelling seemed like a way of sharing my experiences, and helping myself and others feel a little less alone. Now that I’ve been cartooning for a while, I don’t have to think about it in such an intense way (though sometimes, still!). But at first, it was a lifeline.
BG: What brought you to the Twin Cities?
sg: I’d vaguely decided I wanted to make comics, but honestly? It was still kind of half-hearted. I was scraping by, working and cooking. Exploring and learning and growing, to be sure, but I wasn’t yet doing what I said I was going to do. Eventually, a friend of mine dragged me out to my first comic convention (CAKE, in Chicago) and that rekindled some fire. Seeing so many people making so many cool things was exciting and intimidating and…comforting. It felt like a scene I could be in, and belong.
At that point, I applied to grad school – more to gauge my own ability, than anything. A lot of the cartoonists I’d met at CAKE had graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, so that’s how it got on my radar. When I did some research, it turned out that MCAD actually has one of the oldest comic programs in the US. I got a pretty good offer from MCAD, decided that it was worth spending a couple years focusing on developing my comic practice, and enrolled. I’ve been in Minneapolis since.
BG: What do you see as your role as an artist and storyteller?
sg: I don’t really think of myself as an artist…barely even a storyteller, really. I think assigning too much importance or meaning to those labels can be dangerous. It can distract from other, more valuable things. I’m a human being trying to connect with other human beings – that’s about it. True, I’m spending more time and developing more skills to do so than most. But that’s how I like to see it. It keeps me grounded. It’s certainly shaped my choices in the last couple years.
That’s a bit simplistic though. Nabokov once said that “all art is deception,” and I do believe that. There’s something underhanded about art/storytelling technique – everything you do is aimed at getting the audience to respond and understand things in a particular way. Anyone who doesn’t admit this is selling something. (Well…I suppose I am too, literally). The flipside, however, is that all worthwhile art and stories are honest. I think my job, and everyone else’s, artist or not, is to witness and share the truth of our lives and the world around us. If there’s anything special about artists and storytellers, it’s this: we witness more carefully, and lie more skillfully, in order to share a truth more effectively. Fiction or nonfiction, skillful or naive – that’s what it all boils down to, in the end.
BG: How did the events of 2020-2021 affect your practice?
sg: In practical terms, the last couple years basically ground my practice to a halt. I graduated in the Spring of 2020 [from the MCAD MFA Program], and my last month of school was spent in lockdown. I was preparing my thesis project for print and I’d lined up a bunch of conventions/workshops/residencies/etc, and the pandemic shut down all that.
On a personal level, it made me step back and re-evaluate what I was even doing as a cartoonist. My thesis project was a graphic novella about community safety literally titled "ACAB". Then George Floyd was murdered, the pandemic raged, and I asked myself – is hiding in my room and drawing the best way to tackle this right now? And my answer was, no. So I didn’t. I wanted to engage with things on the ground, not in my head. I looked for what I could address with my hands, right now, right here.
At the same time, I felt lost. Narratives were shifting, ideas were spreading and morphing at lightning-speed, sides were being picked. It seemed like there was no time to slow down – that if art and story were needed at all, they were needed to serve a cause. It took time for me to admit that I didn’t like this. To accept that I’m only comfortable when my work is grounded in truth, not only a mission.
Now, I’m drawing more. I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile my practice and my life, my career and my community, my perspective with the needs of others. Other artists may have done so with less trouble and less self-doubt. But I wanna draw (and live) in a way that feels right to me. Y’know? So I’ll keep trying, with my head and my hands and my heart. One day, it’ll sort itself out.
BG: What is it about comics as a medium that draws you in versus painting, for example?
sg: Unlike painting, comics is a mass storytelling medium – and storytelling, by nature, is a way of understanding and sharing experiences and ideas. Even a story about complex topics has to be clear, understandable, and accessible – not words frequently associated with the "fine arts". Despite that, I’d argue storytelling demands much more of both creator and audience. A graphic novel or comic series is made of thousands of little “paintings.” It might take hours to read. But as long as you’re able to hold your reader’s attention, you have tacit permission to shape their reality.
Compared to other visual storytelling mediums, comics also provide a much greater degree of control. I mean that in a couple different ways. Firstly, a cartoonist is essentially a production crew unto themselves – they are simultaneously the writer, designer, director, “cameraman,” “actors,” etc. It’s a lot of hats to wear at once. It can feel a bit overwhelming, but it also means nobody is interfering more than permitted, and your successes and failures are all yours. …I have to admit I was never good at group projects, haha!
Secondly, comics have unique control over narrative pacing and timing. For instance, film is watched second by second – but in comics, you can expand a single moment into a dozen panels, or compress minutes and hours into two of them. A film camera can zoom in or out, to provide different perspectives on the same screen. But in comics, you can blow the “screen” up into a whole page or shrink it into a fragment of a corner. There’s a wealth of narrative tools that are uniquely available to comics, an absolute embarrassment of technical riches.
BG: A lot of your work focuses on individual stories rather than grandiose visuals or epic narratives that are typical of mainstream comics. What guides your style?
sg: To be clear, I have nothing against grandiose visuals or epic narratives! They can be a lot of fun. On some level, everyone likes heroes and villains. But real heroes and villains are rare. You’ve heard the saying that “everyone is the hero of their own story,” right? There’s some value to that. But I don’t believe it. We are just as often villains, side characters, and powerless bystanders – if we always see ourselves as the hero, it’s because we’ve smoothed out the wrinkles that conflict with that narrative. More and more, in life and in art, I’m looking at those wrinkles.
I said I wanted to help people feel less alone – a lot of artists and storytellers try to do that. But truthfully, a lot of #relatable comics out there make me feel more alone, not less. Growing up, I always felt distant from whatever group supposedly included me. I’m deeply skeptical of the stories people tell now about their identities and their beliefs, and of the self-narration that dominates social media. When we’re able to see ourselves in grand narratives, we often feel a part of something greater than ourselves. But by ignoring the things about us that conflict with that narrative, we also become less than ourselves. Less solid. Less real. In my work, I try to honor the specific reality of my characters and of the people around me – wrinkles and complications and all.
Reality humbles all stories, if we’re willing to pay attention. That’s what guides me. Whether visually, narratively, or conceptually, I’m trying to develop the tools to navigate reality without neglecting its complications and contradictions.
BG: What’s the comics landscape like in the Twin Cities?
sg: I still feel like a newcomer to the Twin Cities, and I don’t get around as much as perhaps I should… so I can’t really speak with much authority. But it’s fairly strong, I’d say. Many cartoonists (whether local/indie or national/mainstream) live in and work out of the Twin Cities. MCAD has one of the oldest and most robust comic college programs in the states (which is why I came here in the first place!), and other Twin Cities schools are adding more comic instruction all the time. There’s several well-regarded indie publishers in the area, like Uncivilized Books, La Mano 21, and 2D Cloud. Several conventions as well, like Fall and Spring Comic-Con, Twin Cities Zine Fest, and Autoptic. I’d highlight Autoptic in particular – it’s a bi-annual convention focused on indie comics, local and otherwise, and it’ll be hosted again this August! Safety permitting, I’d strongly encourage folks to check that out, there’ll definitely be a ton of great work there.
More than anything, it feels like a good place for newer comic creators. It’s relatively easy to start exhibiting at the conventions in town, the community is fairly welcoming, and Minnesota has much better public arts funding (and better small-grant funding) than most other places. It’s a local scene, with the camaraderie and warmth that entails, that’s not lacking in quality or thoughtfulness. I can’t compare it directly to bigger scenes, since I have little experience with them, but I’ve felt it’s a good place to grow.
BG: Did you approach your pages for the Sketchbook Project differently than your other work? Did it have an impact?
sg: Mostly, I was grateful for the opportunity to reflect on and crystallize some of what was in my mind. The main difference was the scope of the work. In general, I prefer to take a broader, more comprehensive view of things – but if you’re putting a year or two onto two pages, there’s only so much you can fit. That’s always a question in storytelling, isn’t it? What you choose to show, what you choose to omit?
Not to say I didn’t mean what I wrote in my pages. It’s not the whole story of my last couple years, but it’s a true story of my last couple years. Less a summary, and more of a slice. A slice of the truth. A tree cookie from a truth forest. Sometimes that’s all you have room for, and sometimes that’s enough.
BG: Do you have any hopes and dreams for your artistic career/the city/2022/etc?
sg: I hope we can all be a little braver, a little kinder, and a little more honest in the years to come.
BG: Do you have any advice for artists/youths wanting to get into producing comics/zines/etc?
sg: My honest advice is just to make them. Pick up a pencil and draw or write. Fold some pages into a book and staple it. Give it to someone else. There is such a joy in knowing that something exists that did not before, and that you were the one who made it.
When I started printing and selling my own zines, not too long ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I read some basic online tutorials and I found a community Risograph machine to use and I still messed up. The printer kept jamming, and I printed the front and back of the pages wrong, and I tore up my fingernail hand-folding staples because my stapler was janky. But when I was done, even though they were crude and amateur, I was really proud because it was an actual zine, look, the pages fold and everything! And when I went to art school, I realized that even though I didn’t know my way around InDesign, I still understood the process of making a book a lot better than a lot of my peers.
There’s no substitute for just making stuff. You don’t have to go in totally blind, of course – there’s so many resources and guides available, online and off. And there’s always skills to improve, principles to remember, programs to learn, rules to study. But the important thing is to make stuff. Have fun. Laugh if it turns out bad. Keep making stuff.
BG: How can people best support you and your work right now?
Sg: You can read most of my work for free online at sunshine-gao.com. You can also follow me on Instagram @sunshine.gaoh. I’m not always the most active, but that’s where to look out for whatever’s coming up. Locally, I also have a few books on consignment at Boneshaker Books, which is a radical volunteer-run bookstore that’s well worth supporting.
Aside from that, I’ve volunteered with the Sisters’ Camelot (food share with delivery to at-risk households), F12 People’s Kitchen (mutual aid group cooking hearty, dignified meals for the homeless and others in need), and the Walker Church (mutual aid hub providing space to many great groups in the last few years). All are worth supporting, financially and otherwise. Or donate to any other local mutual aid group that’s close to your heart. Volunteer. Make some phone calls. Hell, get to know your neighbors. Whether through stories or anything else, we can all help those around us feel a little less alone.
BG: Thank you so much for your time and contributing your work to the 2021 MPLSART Sketchbook Project. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do next.
sg: Thanks for putting this together! I’m a fan of these collaborative projects, and I’m glad to have been part of this one. ◼︎