Oct - 2019

Programmed to Create

Sharyn Chan Header

Sharyn Chan is a multi-talented creative with an impressive array of backgrounds and activities, having been a computer programmer, an award-winning motorcycle racer, a dancer, and most recently, an artist. With such an eclectic lifestyle, this accomplished mind goes above and beyond in all that she chooses to pursue.

Chan has always been one to draw since her early childhood. Once high school came around, she began considering college and where she’d like to go with her career. At the time, she didn’t really know of too many artists, other than her cousin, who was a graphic designer. Turned off by the prospect of not having creative freedom as a graphic designer, she started taking some computer classes to study the then-new field of Computer Science, based on a suggestion by her uncle. Having really enjoyed the classes, she worked her way up to become a computer programmer and worked as one for an impressive thirty years, all while continuing to draw throughout her entire career. She only completely shifted to pursuing art full-time in 2010. Why the change? The engineering firm that she had been working at went from having software as a part of engineering projects to becoming an all-software division: “We became a little cog in a big mechanical wheel and you just didn’t really know what you were doing, and you didn’t know what the end was…It just was no longer any fun because it wasn’t a more personal-feeling type of thing”. However, she explained her time as a programmer has “absolutely” helped her with her artwork, having made her extremely comfortable with computers and picking up new programs.

Although Chan mainly works with two-dimensional art, she’s collaborated with many different 3D artists in the past, including the immensely talented and frequently mentioned Tracy Lee Stum, who was the first to expose her to the world of street art. Having participated in motorcycle races for nearly twenty years, Chan was riding with a crew when one of the members began dating Tracy. They became acquainted at a Christmas party after Stum started talking about her art and the upcoming i Madonnari festival in Santa Barbara. Another guest at the party owned a Vespa shop and offered to sponsor a square for everyone willing to take part in the festival. Immediately interested, Chan signed on and arrived the morning of the festival to begin the square with Tracy and around twenty other collaborators, an experience she recalls as “mass chaos”. The event was three days long and Stum took notice in Chan’s enthusiasm and dedication to the piece, working from the beginning to the end of each day. The next year, she offered Chan another opportunity to work with her on another piece and she accepted with gusto. Later down the line, she was able to create her own pieces because the event organizer had run out of artists. Stum and Chan continued to work together throughout the years at various festivals in Florida and across the nation. Their first major client collaboration was a large 2D piece done in Spain years ago for a new bank credit card. Though they no longer collaborate on artwork, the two still remain good friends to this day.

Chan’s process for each piece varies, mostly dependant on if the elements are defined or not. She keeps a folder that she adds images to every time she sees something that might inspire her and likes to look back at it and ask herself what looks like something she’d like to bring to life as a street painting. Having begun her solo work with a variety of animals, more recently she’s produced unique pieces that cleverly combine posed people with complementary animals that intertwine as one: “For example, if I want to do a dancer, I’ll start looking for dancer pictures, something that reads well, looks pretty, and doesn’t look awkward”. Once she finds the right photo for her human subject, she’ll scour the Internet for the best-fitting animal: “So I will for example look for a Betta fish and use that as the dress, or maybe wings on the arms of the dancer…so you really have to look for the right bird or the right fish, or the right tail”. After finding the right person and animal, the last piece is deciding what the background should be: “Sometimes I do patterns, or I put in a mandala in the back. Sometimes I put clouds, or like a wall-stencil-like pattern”. Once she’s decided on the background, it’s a matter of compositing everything together on Photoshop, blending the animal with the person, and starting to draw it. The entire process can take about a week, or more if she can’t find exactly what she’s looking for.

Photoshop is the main piece of software Chan uses in her design process. As for hardware, she started by using the grid method for the physical painting, wherein a grid is placed over your image, as well as on the ground you’ll be working on, and the piece is drawn using the grid system to get the correct proportions. This, however, takes a long time to complete. After a while, Chan realized her time could be better allocated rendering instead of drawing, so she began using the pounce method, which is where your design is printed out, has holes poked into it with a wheel or an electro-pounce (which uses electricity to burn the holes in), and is laid onto the ground where you’ll be working. Next, chalk is dusted over the top of it to transfer the image onto the floor, and the painting begins. To print out each of her pounces, Chan utilizes a reprographics shop that prints out blueprints and other digital graphics because it’s much more cost-efficient than Kinko’s and similar stores. When out in the field, she uses either chalk or paint, depending on what material she’s working on and where it’s situated. When working with Tracy, they would often create pieces on vinyl because it lasts for a few days before getting trampled and thrown out. Sometimes she works directly on asphalt or cement, and sometimes she works on tile or boards, it all depends on where the client wants each piece to be.

Chan’s most intricate and time-consuming piece was completed last May. It’s an absolutely gorgeous 16” x 12” piece containing three dancer-angels posing in mid-air with an elegant frame, a church in the background, and lovely pink decorative designs on either side. The entire piece took nearly a week to complete, with extra time spent on perfecting the three figures. Along with all the drapery and folds in their dresses, she took a lot of time perfecting the faces of the dancers, explaining that humans are really good at picking up flaws in people’s faces: “The human brain is awesome at recognizing human faces and knowing that something is wrong with it. Animals, not so much…But with human faces, you really have to get it right on”. The three figures took the longest to perfect, and the designs on the top and edges of the frame also took some time. Everything else, she says, was done fairly quickly.

Coming up with these unique creations is no easy task. Chan explained that for her, the most challenging part of creating each piece is thinking up and putting together a good design, “something that people can relate to that I also enjoy drawing”. Every once in a while, festival organizers provide a theme, which can be really challenging in and of itself. Last September, for example, she was given the theme of “respect” around the time Aretha Franklin passed away. Not wanting to do something typical or cliché, she racked her brain and came up with a unique approach: An old monochromatic Native American holding out his hand along with a Bald Eagle flying overhead, clutching one of his own feathers as a gift to the Native. The reason she thought of this is because “a lot of times, especially in recent days, a lot of kids take eagle war bonnets or whatever and take them to raves and it’s very disrespectful to the Native Americans, so as a sign of respect, the eagle is gifting his feather to him, because he has respect for his environment and for the birds and all the animals, so that was my little respect thing”. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to see much of the other artists’ work because the festival ended up getting completely rained out. Despite the rain, the restaurants that sponsored it allowed the artists to hang out and draw indoors, and that’s where Chan completed the drawing for the piece.

Chan stays inspired by just seeing what’s out there: “There’s so many things that look fascinating, especially when I start mixing animals and people, there’s so many ideas that you can do that I think are fun, so that’s kind of how I stay inspired. [Combining different animals and people] is kind of my thing right now, I think by next year I should start painting things other than animal-people hybrids, but I don’t know what yet. I’m gonna have to mix it up in my mind and see what comes out of it”. She explained that she decided to share her artwork with the world because festivals give her the opportunity to draw/paint on such a large scale with other artists and spectators around: “It’s fun to meet new people⁠—you get to learn so much from other people⁠—I just started going to whatever festivals I could find that would bring me there because I was sort of trying not to spend a ton of money”. Her next step after participating in festivals was putting up a website so that others could see what she’s done. Since she’s not been working much with Tracy lately, she realized she needed to get some more work of her own under her belt and started working with other artists on murals. Her good friend and fellow artist Shawn McCann recruited her to work on a massive 6,000 foot mural of Gotham for Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. McCann was the architect of the piece and had the idea to include a bunch of buildings in the piece, so each of the artists had fun putting in buildings from their home cities and hiding other fun easter eggs within the artwork. The owner of the candy store loved the Gotham mural so much, he wanted to have a different mural made. This time it was themed after Disney’s Frozen and other fairy tales. It was a smaller mural (about 3,000 feet) but a lot more fun for the artists because they got to include things like an enchanted forest, Little Red Riding Hood, books growing from a tree, and a spanning bookshelf with various fairytale titles tucked in its shelves. Now with the experience working on murals, Chan is more confident in approaching others and offering them a commissioned mural, something she’s now moving more towards.

When her pieces are done with just paint, spectators can walk on them and interact with them. Chalk, however, doesn’t fare as well and wears off easily. Generally when working with chalk, she’ll create a spot where people can stand and instructs them to stand there, but there’s always those who still walk across the chalk part to get to the spot. If tempera paint is used in addition to chalk, it’s a lot easier because certain areas can be painted and still have people stand on them. If the piece isn’t going to be permanent and will eventually be destroyed, it can be done on boards or vinyl so that people can stroll all over it without ruining it. Chan loves seeing the public interact with her finished works, she says the most fun part for her is seeing the rare few who know how to pose with a piece and have fun with it: “When people look like they’re jumping in or hanging onto something or pretending something else is happening, that to me is the funnest part. When you get all done and you can pose people, and then they look at their picture and they go ‘Ahh, that’s really cool!’, otherwise they will literally just stand there”.

Drawing and art are a major form of expression for Chan: “It’s a way to express whatever’s inside of me. I guess I love creating things that I feel are pretty, so when I create my artwork, I feel that I am trying to create a thing of beauty…that’s in the eye of the beholder, though. I don’t usually try and make statements, occasionally they have been statements, but inadvertent statements”. When asked what her advice for aspiring artists would be, Chan offered her own bit of practical advice: “You’ll hear ‘Just go for it!’ and that’s not always practical, so I would say first of all always, always keep on doing your art, but you may have to do things like get a job and earn a living because your art isn’t able to earn you a living yet, I mean I was a computer programmer for thirty years before I became a full time artist”. She explained that she saved up the money she made as a programmer and was still able to draw in her downtime. Once you realize you’d rather be doing art full time, you’ll at least be at a point where you’ll have some savings to keep you going, because “when you first start out, unless you’re lucky enough to get hooked up with someone like Tracy…it’s really hard to get your own job”. She says it’s a little harder to find mural work on her own, but that it’s nice to have savings and other things to fall back on that allow you to have some downtime if you can’t find art jobs: “Obviously, never stop doing your art. If you want to sing, dance, or draw, just keep on doing it, but you can still do that kind of stuff while you’re working”.

That’s some solid advice from an experienced multi-faceted creator. Throughout all her years of activities, Chan has never stopped drawing, and her persistence shows in her impressively detailed works. Her experience can teach us all a valuable lesson: While it’s important to follow your passions, realistically it’s also essential to make decisions that will provide you with a stable income so that you can make a living and have enough to survive in today’s world. Keep pursuing whatever it is you want to do, but ensure you’re being financially responsible at the same time and you will be just fine. 

To learn more about Sharyn Chan’s eclectic background and see more of her beautiful artwork, visit her website at http://www.sharynchanart.com.  

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