Dancing with the SkyIllustrator Catia Chien chats with Guu about swing dancing, what makes a good children's book, and why slice-of-life stories trump the hero-in-tights adventure.
By Byron Tsang
Feb 1, 2007 | “I like to draw and jot down information about unfamiliar insects when I come across one,” says Catia Chien. “I also like swing dancing and drinking soup. I go swing dancing at least once a week and most of my friends know that I would rather have big bowls of soup -- the soupy kind, not creamy -- everyday than anything else.”
Born and raised in Aclimacao, a neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil, soup-drinker Catia Chien was a daydreamer who spent much of her time outdoors, observing curious bugs. In Sao Paulo she learned to speak three different languages: “I spoke Portuguese at school and a mix of Taiwanese and Mandarin, both home taught, with my mom and dad.”
Today her interests are as varied as her trilingual vocabulary. Chien soaks up This American Life and audio books while she illustrates endlessly enchanting worlds, worlds unreal and ethereal. It’s easy to see how the fertile imagination of her past has flourished in her artwork. Previously working freelance for independent films, Chien has crafted stories for the Flight and Belle and Sebastian anthologies; she’s also displayed her talent in galleries in Los Angeles and Chicago. Automatic Pictures and Nickelodeon have hired her, and Houghton Mifflin will soon publish her first children’s book, The Sea Serpent and Me.
Who did you look up to in your youth? Do any artists come to mind?
I have a profound admiration for my big sister, Louise. After my dad passed away, my sister did the growing up for the both of us. She has been my mentor over the years from small things, like organizing and planning, to big things, like career and life. I also have eight aunts on my mom's side who are all strong-willed, independent thinkers with plenty to say about everything.
I grew up reading Monica comics by Mauricio de Sousa. I loved how the characters had adventures, much like my own, were not superheroes in the traditional sense because they lived in a simple neighborhood and just had fun adventures being kids. Nowadays, I am still a fan of comics and still seem to gravitate towards slice-of-life stories and not epic accounts of heroes in tights. Those don't interest me at all. When I saw The Triplets of Belleville for the first time I almost fainted. It's beautiful. I have the same feeling about Beyond by Koji Morimoto. I also like Craig Thompson, Hayao Miyazaki, Sargent, Mary Blair, Winsor McCay, Tadahiro Uesugi, Jane Campion, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and many more.
In what ways has your diverse upbringing affected your life?
I grew up in an eclectic community in Sao Paulo, and I don't remember ever feeling the pressure of fitting in. So essentially, other than that, I could understand my parents and grandparents when they spoke a different language other than Portuguese; I felt this was not something that represented my difference from everyone else. This has definitely affected my life in some ways. I’m not immediately scared off by differences and am also pretty keen on traveling.
What does your family think about your career as an artist?
My mom is funny about it. For a while the phrase “starving artist” was engraved in her mind as my financial tombstone. But now that I’ve taken on various projects, my mom has settled on being happy about it. My sister has always supported me because she understood. We are both artists -- she’s a brilliant pastry chef who also makes sugar sculptures.