San Francisco Opera | Where Opera Meets Illustration: An Interview with Shawna X

Where Opera Meets Illustration: An Interview with Shawna X

When announcing its 2020–21 Season, San Francisco Opera faced a dilemma: how to illustrate productions that were entirely new to the American stage.

That’s when we turned to visual artist Shawna X, whose illustrations brought splashes of color to the pages of The New Yorker and New York Magazine—not to mention her work for international brands like Adidas and Warby Parker.

Not only did her ultra-pigmented artwork communicate the hope and energy of our upcoming season, but her explorations of womanhood made her a natural choice to illustrate two productions debuting on our stage: director Matthew Ozawa’s Fidelio and the West Coast premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Communicating via email, Shawna X gave us a peek into her creative process — and how she translates complex themes into imagery.

San Francisco Opera: Why did you become an artist? How does your background inform you work?

Shawna X: I have a vivid imagination that I feel communicates best through a visual language. I am just drawn to this craft more so than anything else I have ever done in my life, and continued on!

San Francisco Opera: You have this vibrant, pop-art-inspired aesthetic. How did you arrive at your style?

Shawna X: It took a lot of iterations, but similar to trusting my intuition, when I arrived at it after exploring other aesthetics, I knew this fit me best.

San Francisco Opera: You provided illustrations for two of our most provocative productions this 2020–21 Season: Beethoven’s revolutionary Fidelio and the dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale. What’s your process for learning and distilling these complex works into a single piece of art?

Shawna X: To create any work, I must understand the mood, energy, and theme. So understanding the overall tone was the first step in distilling the work, and thankfully San Francisco Opera was able to guide me with that. I also was able to read over detailed descriptions of each act, as well as the stage scenes — which all fit together nicely to distill down the exact emotion we needed to depict in each artwork.

San Francisco Opera: The Handmaid’s Tale, in particular, has become a cultural phenomenon, and the visuals Margaret Atwood dreamt up — of a divided society identified by starkly colored clothing, like the handmaids’ red cloaks and white bonnets — are widely recognizable. How do you come up with something new and surprising when dealing with subject matter that is already so widely known?

Shawna X: I don't want to strive for new or originality; that's a lot of pressure. For me, I wanted to be guided by the essence, and I know with my unique perspective, whatever work I make will be distinctively me.

San Francisco Opera: In Fidelio, we meet another revolutionary female heroine, standing up against an oppressive system bent on stifling dissent. What did you find most compelling about this story, and how did you set that to illustration?

Shawna X: I like to be subtle and suggestive in my work and give guidance but also room for the viewer to take the art as they wish. The story was about following a beacon of light in dark times, something we have all experienced at least once in our lives, so I took that feeling and translated it the best way I could visually.

San Francisco Opera: How can music like opera inspire the visual arts? Has it inspired you in your work?

Shawna X: I believe music, visual art, and performance all inform each other. Together we lead culture and give context to this complex experience called life.

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