“Ann Xu is an Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator working in Baltimore. She graduated in 2017 with a BFA in illustration from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her comics are filled with themes of childhood, home, and relationships. In her free time, she eats too many hot Cheetos and drinks too much milk tea.”
Angela Lemus-Morgrovejo: What kind of artist are you? How would you describe your art to someone who is new to your work?
Ann Xu: I'm a cartoonist and illustrator who creates art often revolving around themes of childhood, home, and relationships! My comics are a mix of autobiography and fiction. I love to draw plants and big spaces.
ALM: What were some of your earliest influences when you started doing artistic work?
AX: I would have to say Jillian Tamaki. I drew very casually when I was younger and only got serious about it entering college, so that’s when I was the most strongly influenced. I remember reading This One Summer and feeling completely changed afterward. I’m a pretty emotional reader, especially when it comes to comics, and I think I stopped like three times to cry in the middle. Her relaxed and beautiful art (as well as Mariko Tamaki’s excellent story) made a huge impression on me as a college sophomore who had just barely started to consider making comics herself.
Other early favorites that helped me understand the kind of comics I liked are Rosemary Valero O’Connell’s short comic "If Only Once, If Only For a Little While," Jane Mai's "Soft," and Yao Xiao's "Baopu" series.
ALM: What made you want to be someone who creates art, as opposed to someone who just takes in art?
AX: I changed my mind kind of suddenly in my last year of high school from majoring in Japanese or linguistics to majoring in illustration. For a long time I had done art as a hobby but it just boiled down to me wanting to pursue a more interesting and unconventional path, as well as wanting to challenge myself. At the time, I still had no idea what I wanted to do specifically, but I've always been someone who wanted to express herself creatively. I did a lot of [creative] things, like writing, performing arts, improv, etc., when I was younger and I feel like comics are just the perfect intersection of images and writing for self-expression.
ALM: What is your philosophy as an art maker and artist?
AX: I don’t know if I really have one in particular. Mainly I just want to make beautiful things that I like. I would like to make art that stirs up people’s emotions, and I think the best way to do that is to write and draw from a place of honesty and personal experience.
ALM: I noticed in one of your earlier pieces you talk about the lack of representation for People of Color (POC) in the art world and about the need to address this by supporting more realistic depictions of POC such as those being presented by the growing number of diverse POC artists that have emerged in the past years. Because of these issues with representation in comics and art overall, do you find yourself more often creating work for yourself or with others in mind?
AX: I think I create work for myself, and then what others get from it is a side effect. I have a lot of autobiographical work relating to my personal problems, mostly coming from a Chinese-American perspective, and to be honest I’ve never made any of that with the goal of representation in mind. It was just to process my own feelings. Of course, I’d be glad if someone else resonated with it too, because I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. And I guess that’s actually what representation boils down to—the feeling of sharing an experience in common with a character.
I do tend to write and draw mostly Asian characters, both just because I can and also because that’s my lived experience. It bothers me whenever people insinuate that there can’t be too many Asians in any one story because the percentage of Asians in the whole country’s population is so small, but my own reality is that I grew up in the U.S. and was surrounded by mostly Asians my entire life. I definitely think there should never be some kind of arbitrary limit set on marginalized characters of any one demographic based on that perception. People who love to argue about how diversity isn't always "realistic" don't understand the breadth of experiences that other individuals have lived.
ALM: Food comes up in a variety of your pieces. Whether it is a reflection on childhood foods or tied to a specific family member and your connection to them, food seems central to some of the more personal works you do. Can you say more about how food came to play such an important role in your pieces?
AX: I feel like food is just fundamental to the way people relate to each other. It's comforting, it's sustenance, it's fun, and it's also heavily cultural. Certainly it's sometimes ingrained in memories that I have of particular family members, and in cases like that it's just a point that I return to again and again in my mind. And in some ways, I can define certain years of my life by the groceries my family would buy or the food I would tend to eat. Food will always play a function in our lives whether we think about it or not.
ALM: A few of the pieces posted on your website explicitly use two languages to tell the overall story (thinking in particular of Same Place, Same Time). Was this an intentional decision to not just use English in your artwork?
AX: For Same Place, Same Time, it was definitely an intentional choice when I was planning the format of the zine. The concept for the zine started with a couple of sentences that fell into a parallel format ("What if we lived in the same place at the same time?/But we never lived in the same place at the same time"), which is when I started thinking about doing a zine that can be read from both sides.
From there, the decision to use Chinese had two reasons: 1) it could be read from right to left and function as part of the format and 2) in terms of concept, I imagined that in the parallel half of the zine in which I grew up close to my grandparents, Alternate Me would have been fluent in Chinese as a result. My Chinese ability is actually very poor (although it's exponentially improved in the past two years); it took me a long time to put those lines together and triple-check everything. So it's definitely not a way that I naturally carry a conversation most of the time, although I do use Chinese occasionally for some phrases.
ALM: Across different pieces like White Tape and Sleeper Train, family comes up as a point of tension and stress for the characters centered in the main story. In other pieces like After the Dust Settles, however, family comes off as a point of deep, intimate connection to a history the main character longs for. How did those different portrayals of family come about in your work? How often does family come up in your artwork or when you are thinking about new pieces to create?
AX: The idea for family-oriented conflict mostly comes from my own worries. Currently, I deal with more internal conflict revolving around my family or the way I relate to them, as opposed to conflict around friends/romantic relationships/etc. I think it's inevitable to draw from personal experiences when writing, so although it's not necessarily a 1:1 correlation between my life and my art, the stories I've written are occupying a family-adjacent space. As a second-generation person in the U.S., the concept of family stresses me out a lot, and it's been on my mind continuously for the past several years. I'd like to branch out more in the future when it comes to fiction, but for my autobiographical work, I don't think that those themes are going to leave anytime soon.
ALM: Do you have a lot of support in your life for what you're doing?
AX: There was a lot of resistance from my family when I decided to pursue art, but I think they've come around now for the most part, although I constantly get asked when I’m going to find a real job, or when I’m going to move closer to family. To be honest I’m hesitant to tell my parents about most of the projects I do because of the personal subject matter, but they do know that I can support myself financially to some degree with art so I think they’re okay with it right now.
It definitely helps to have gone to school with artists, and to go to conventions every few months and be surrounded by other cartoonists. A group of friends from school and I do biweekly video calls now for a graphic novel book club. It's so helpful to have a place where we can check in with each other regularly face to face and support each other.
ALM: What are your future goals as an artist?
AX: In terms of specific achievements, I would love to publish a graphic novel. I’m actually pretty nervous about writing long-form works, as I don’t have much experience with anything longer than about 40 pages. But whether it’s me drawing someone else’s writing or me doing all the creative work, lately I've been wanting to just sink my teeth into a more long term project. I'd love to branch out into other mediums too and make games, animations, etc...not necessarily as a job, but just to enjoy the process and learn how to do those things.
In a more overarching way, I want to create a sustainable career for myself. I'm kind of competitive so I have to always remind myself of this, but it's ok to slow down and not try to do everything at once. I just want to enjoy making art for a long time.
ALM: What advice would you give to artists just starting out that you wish you had known earlier on?
AX: It’s not necessarily something I wish I had known earlier on, but something I’m adamant about practicing: to chase after good opportunities even if you don’t feel “ready.” I’ve always been a relatively shy person, and for a long time I was pretty unconfident in my own abilities, so to combat that I would tell myself to say yes rather than make up excuses for why I couldn’t do something (not having the time, not being skilled enough, etc). Now I’m more aware of my real limits, so I will turn something down once in a while if I know I really can't or don't want to take it, but this kind of personal rule helped push me forward in the early stages.
ALM: Who is one artist you would like to share with the AFO community?
AX: I love Niv Sekar's work! Niv makes beautiful drawings, comics, and animations with a really great sense of line and emotion. I found her work when we were both part of the same comic anthology (Power & Magic, by Power & Magic Press), and I have been an ardent fan of her storytelling since!!
ALM: What are you excited to work on in the future? Are there any new pieces that the AFO community should be on the lookout for?
AX: I’m in the process of reducing my hours at my day job so I’m just excited to get more time to work on comics and art in general. For new works, I contributed a comic to The Sun and the Wayward Wind, an anthology from my friends at Dandelion Wine Collective (the print edition should be out soon!). I also did a short comic for The Believer's June/July issue, which I'm particularly excited about getting to show people, as well as a couple of online slideshow-style comics for The Lily, a women-focused newsletter published by The Washington Post.
To stay up to date with Ann’s work, check out her website and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.