My name is Loe Lee, a designer and illustrator living in New York City known for combining whimsical scenes with everyday life. I’ve had the pleasure to create for clients like Google, CVS, Grubhub, and Mattel as well as local cafes and bars around the city. Outside of illustration, I am a die-hard fan of Miyazaki films, anything Harry Potter, and my mom’s homemade dumplings.
I live in New York City, which admittedly, was hard to get used to at first, but has pushed me to grow in ways I couldn’t imagine. There are endless things to do at any moment, and people whose drive and achievements have no ceiling. This could be a double-edged sword, often creating opportunities of inspiration as well as feelings of comparison or being left out. However, once you find your rhythm and your tribe of friends, the surprises and opportunities seem endless. You can meet your hero at a bar and strike a casual conversation, or you can go to your favorite coffee shop and find yourself painting a mural for them next week (both true stories!). No day is the same, and if you want something badly enough, there’s a good chance it will happen here.
I live in New York City, which admittedly, was hard to get used to at first, but has pushed me to grow in ways I couldn’t imagine.
Limitless (for the opportunities), Community (creatives love to get/stick together), Fast (for better or for worse, that’s the standard pace for this city)
My family wasn’t supportive of my career choice in the beginning. Like most immigrant parents, they struggled living here and wanted better for me – being a doctor or lawyer was the fastest ticket to stability and prestige in their minds. However, wanting to be an artist, I was the black sheep, and the disappointment and teasing/pressure my parents received from extended family and the community was a lot for them. When I started college, I immediately applied for an internship at Viacom around age 19. I wanted to prove to them that this was a viable career choice despite my own uncertainty. I changed my graduation date to fit the application criteria since it was reserved for graduating seniors. To my surprise, I received an internship at MTV Networks and met my boss, Adam Vohlidka. He saw something in me and pushed my creative limits. I received work any designer, not just an intern, would handle. He gave me additional tasks to take home that had nothing to do with the company, but to foster my own skills. It was the first time I felt like I made the right choice, and I threw myself completely into every assignment. After the ten-week internship, Adam gave me a full-time offer for a designer position, at which point I had to reveal I was still a freshman in college. He was shocked, but not upset at all. In the next few days, he was able to convince MTV to give me a part-time position. I accepted on the spot, and from then on, I worked 3-4 days a week at Viacom and attended university at night and on the weekends.
When I illustrate characters, human emotions, and whimsical scenes…that’s when I’m most fulfilled.
I just started freelancing full-time so my current goal is to make the same salary I did at my old job. Not only that, but I’d like to make work that represents me. Because New York is so wildly expensive, there’s pressure to take on any work that comes your way. This sometimes includes work that doesn’t necessarily fit my style (e.g. logos, iconography, etc.). I still enjoy doing those since it relates to my old job, but when I illustrate characters, human emotions, and whimsical scenes…that’s when I’m most fulfilled.
There are so, so many people I could name, but here are ten dream people whose work/collaborations bring me wonder (in no particular order): Lisk Feng, Yukai Du, Victo Ngai, Dion MBD, SooJin Buzelli, Dave Arcade, Gemma O’Brien, Jessica Hische, Alice Lee, Tracy J. Lee.
The women around me are strong, relentlessly honest, and utterly selfless. From my mother to my friends and the people I collaborate with, I am continuously inspired by the women around me and their tireless pursuit for self-fulfillment and growth. Not just for themselves but for their loved ones too. More than anything, I appreciate them helping me identify areas I can improve, both creatively and personally. Always being told you are “perfect” or “a natural” only stunts self-reflection and improvement. Because of this, I know to never stop growing, never stop learning.
The women around me are strong, relentlessly honest, and utterly selfless.
Unfortunately, no, there were no virtual creatives at all. That sheer lack of information, not even knowing that this was a career option, was a very large hurdle for me. Coming from a community made mostly of immigrants and first-generations, the friends and families I knew growing up were working for stability. Making a living came before seeking fulfillment. There was no one I could ask about the creative industry; I had no idea an industry even existed at all. People in my neighborhood thought I would grow up to be someone drawing caricatures in Times Square. Back then, all I knew of graphic design, and design in general, were magazines. I thought that was the only door. With a little bit of education, from Parsons New School and the people who mentored me, I learned that there are hundreds of gates to open.
On top of being a woman, you are a female of color. Often times, Asian women are overlooked, interrupted, and spoken over in any industry. I’ve found this to be the case in both my agency and in-house experiences. There is a strong stigma that Asian women, though are hard-workers, are soft-spoken and do what they’re told without questioning authority. This is an added obstacle that many other people will not have. Your ideas carry as much weight as any person in that room. Learning to express them boldly, while at the same time opening your mind to the ideas of others, has resulted in some of my favorite and best collaborations.
Find your unique style and double-down on it.
For years, I was told (with the best intentions): your style is “too feminine,” “too whimsical,” “too childish/fairytale-like” to attract commercial work. Out of fear of failure, I researched what was popular/up-and-coming and adjusted my illustrations to be more universal. Naturally, I attracted work that didn’t feel true to myself. One year, I decided to create two illustrations a week, drawing only things that brought me joy. Instead of toning down those childlike themes, I increased them two-fold. I made art more whimsical than I ever did before. It may not connect with everyone, but it was my own. Two years of incessant exploration, I was able to make the switch to illustration full-time, and have been fortunate enough to work with some of my dream clients. For people looking to turn their passion into a career, this would be my advice: Find your unique style and double-down on it. Don’t water down your artistic voice to make yourself sellable. Your style will not be for everyone and that makes it special.
Photos courtesy of Loe Lee.
March 10, 2020