Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Edition 23 — Stephanie Wu

A Collective Community

Wu pictured at AFH as an Exhibitions Intern.

While Stephanie Wu was drawing long before she’d ever heard of Artists For Humanity, AFH is where she first discovered what it means to have an artist community. Now, as a recent graduate of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a BFA in Illustration, Wu holds a dream of one day opening her own independent publishing studio and artist collective. “I put a lot of emphasis on community and having a community when you’re doing work,” she said. “I don’t think I could be doing any of my work alone.”

“AFH was the first time I really had an artist community.”

Wu’s commitment to community shows itself in more ways than one. Her last semester at RISD, she and her friend led a virtual workshop that centered around building a design community.

Wu pictured as an adult.

“‘[The workshop] was about building a design community that is collective rather than hyper-individualistic because I feel like that’s the rising trend of design. Everyone is competing with each other rather than being in community with each other. Our workshop was a response to that.”

They aim to have another run of the workshop in the fall that’s both bigger and better. In pursuit of this, they’ve recently pitched the idea to powrplnt, an artists network in Brooklyn, NY, and this time they hope to run part of the workshop in person.

Evident through Wu’s goals and aspirations, community is instrumental to how she functions as an artist — and it all started with AFH. Wu first joined AFH in the Painting Studio in 2015 as a high school sophomore at Boston Latin School. For Wu, AFH provided the space, time, and institutional support that she needed to make art. Not only that, but the paid nature of the job provided incentive to create and taught her that despite what others might think, her art has value.

Wu working in the Painting Studio at AFH

Wu would often grow frustrated with people who assumed that she didn’t deserve to get paid for her art because she enjoyed it.

“Recognizing that [art], as labor, should be compensated for is important.”

AFH taught Wu that her art has worth, and she believes that because she learned that lesson young, she’s learned to not settle for less than she deserves. It is her hope that other young and aspiring artists will also learn to believe in themselves and their worth.

One of Wu’s works from the Painting Studio at AFH.

While Wu had been sketching and drawing since she was a child, AFH is where she first learned to paint. Under former AFH mentor Stephen Hamilton’s mentorship and influence, Wu’s first painting was a self-portrait of herself dressed in Chinese garb — a nod to her culture. After that, she began developing her own style that caught the attention of many clients, and the commissions started rolling in.

Wu remembered the very first time she sold a painting. She was at AFH’s summer exhibition when her friends came up to her to tell her that her painting was getting sold. “I sold two paintings that night,” Wu recalled with a smile. “I took a snapchat of Brenda [Leong] wrapping them up!”

Still, Wu’s favorite memory from AFH involved a group trip to New York and a Reebok collab. Having worked with AFH’s Graphic Design Studio to design three sneakers for the brand’s “Hijacked Heritage’’ campaign, Reebok then hired AFH to design the campaign’s activation experience. “They wanted painters to ‘live paint’ in the Reebok store in New York,” Wu explained excitedly. “That was a fun time.” Along with other consumer experiences such as sneaker customization and designer meet and greets, the activation tripled the retail location’s sales reach.

For Wu, AFH accelerated her progression as an artist and helped her realize that she wanted to pursue art in college and as a career. She rejects the idea that she came out of the womb drawing. “I don’t think I was like that,” she said, laughing. “I think like anyone else, I had an anime phase and that started it.” But it was on the way back home after a day at AFH that she realized art was in her future.

“I remember distinctly at one point I was drawing on the train and I thought, I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

One of Wu’s works from the Painting Studio at AFH.

After this epiphany, Wu decided she would only apply to art schools for college, and with the plethora of work Wu had produced at AFH, she had no trouble putting together a winning portfolio.

While at RISD, Wu gained a background in editorial illustration and art directing. Much of her recent work revolves around personal storytelling and navigating experiences, and is often informed by the politics and people around her. For example, Wu’s project Concentric Circles focused on what it means to be Chinese American and part of the Chinese diaspora.

A gif from Wu’s project, Concentric Circles.

“Conceptualizing the Chinese American diasporic experience with the metaphor concentric circles, I curated a selection of experiences important to my understanding of identity.”

Wu elaborated on her project by saying, “All of those within a diaspora are connected to a central axis, a homeland. However, our distances can vary physically, generationally, and culturally. Our identities are complexly layered intersecting with race, class, gender, and sexuality. This is a mere attempt at peeling back my own layers. We all have our own concentric circles.”

In the summer of 2019, Wu came back to work at AFH as an Exhibitions Intern. She worked with Leong on art installation and curation. “It was interesting to be at AFH from the other side,” she said. She explained that as an intern she was finally able to work downstairs in “The Office”, which had always seemed a bit intimidating as a teen.

Lately, Wu has done a lot of work with risograph printing and has enjoyed participating in zine swaps in her time since graduation. This past June, Wu took part in a virtual Zine fair hosted in Hong Kong. “I have to mail a bunch of zines to Hong Kong now,” she laughed. Professionally, Wu was recently offered a Junior Designer position at The New Yorker.

Wu’s recent Zine work.

“I saw the logo change!” Wu exclaimed in regard to AFH’s special 30-year anniversary logo. “It’s actually crazy to see how much [AFH] has expanded since I was there,” Wu said. “And it’s definitely a pretty known name at this point as an arts and cultural center in Boston.” Wu is excited to watch as AFH continues to expand in the future both in terms of space and number of studios. “Maybe I should go visit,” she contemplated as the interview wrapped up. “Maybe I’ll stop by.”

See more of Wu’s work at https://stephanieswu.com/

Written by Casey Chiang