Our daily experiences are rarely clearly defined in black and white terms. We can feel loved and we can feel alone, we can be confident and we can be vulnerable. Artist Katie Zhu captures this complexity in wit and color with her recent project And Not Or, a series of one hundred drawings that explore our full selves—contradictions and all.
We caught up with Zhu to talk about where the idea for the project came from, and what she’s learned about herself in the process.
Katie Zhu in the studio, photo by Aundre Larrow
You began this year with the word “start” as a guiding intention. Where did that word take you?
I had found myself in this trap of feeling stuck, in terms of my career as well as creatively. I wanted to be intentional about not letting myself continue in that space. Around that time I saw Susannah Conway’s workbook for setting intentions, and one of the exercises is to choose a word that you want to guide you. I love that kind of shit. The word “start” just felt right, so I drew it on a scrap of paper and put it above my desk at home as a guiding reminder.
I quit my job in 2018 to pursue illustration and art a little more seriously. We got a dog, which my partner and I had been talking about for a while. All of these things, looking back now, have added up. There's been a lot of change, but it's been good.
Writing has typically been my creative outlet, but after the election I found myself unable to write anything. Art was always this thing I wished I could do and wished I was good at. I didn't grow up always doodling or knowing that I wanted to do this. But in that theme of just “start,” I put pencil to paper and started putting things down, mostly just for myself.
"I didn't grow up always doodling or knowing that I wanted to do this."
I find that once you put yourself out there for a certain type of thing, you become a hub for it. People started to follow me for my art and that was an interesting shift. My illustrations combine both visuals as well as words, so words are still really important to my creative expression—just maybe not in the traditional essay writing format I had previously focused on.
Tell us about your And Not Or project. What inspired the idea?
My friend Colleen and I are accountability partners, which means we check in with each other on stuff and send each other opportunities and things like that. When #The100DaysProject came rolling around in April this year, Colleen said "I'm gonna do this. You should too.” I had recently gone to a storytelling event at The Nantucket Project, where Kelly Corrigan talked about this idea of “and, not or.” Her story really resonated with me, and as I was thinking about a theme for the project, that was at the top of my idea list.
I like how the #100DaysOfAndNotOr framework lends itself to exploring more serious concepts, but you can also have some fun with it and be a little more goofy. I'm on day 72, and my goal is to finish it by the end of this year. I definitely did not finish it in the 100 days, obviously. That was the guideline for the project, but I decided to finish it on my own time.
What has been the response to this project, both personally and publicly on social media?
Personally, I feel like my style has really evolved. My first drawings were in watercolor, and it's gonna sound really millennial of me to say this, but it didn't look cohesive in my Instagram grid because it didn't photograph very well. Now I draw them by hand but color them digitally. Learning to expand my tools of illustration has been really, really awesome. I have a body of work now too, which I didn't have before. And, touching on different subjects has opened up ideas for future projects. There are a couple themes that have come up over and over again, so there's something more for me to dig in to and understand there.
"Helping people feel seen is really powerful. I'm grateful to play even a small part in that."
The public response has honestly been overwhelmingly positive, which I don't take for granted because it is the internet. I've gotten a lot of kind words about how this speaks to people, and just helping people feel seen is really powerful. I'm grateful to play even a small part in that.
For some of the raunchier ones I drew, I was initially nervous of what people would say. But at the same time, I feel like it's all different facets of life that we experience as humans, and as women especially. For example, one of the early ones I did said I love sex and I love to masturbate and I thought, is this too much? My friends said to just do it, and I was like, okay. Jesus take the wheel.
That’s a good point—do you find yourself thinking about your audience when making these?
Up until the point of posting it's all based on my own experience, and a little myopic in that sense. Sometimes before I pull the trigger on sharing, I do a gut check with a couple friends and my sister. Throughout the course of the project I got more confident with what I was feeling, and I also got feedback in comments saying "I love the way your brain works,” or "How do you come up with these?" Some were inspired by articles I read or phrases I picked up from different essays, which are quoted and cited in the caption. But a lot of them I made up. There’s a validation that comes from being confident and trusting what I feel and what I think.
How has this project informed your own relationship to mental health and self care?
One theme that's come up for me is what it means to be an ambitious woman or to want money, especially in the creative space. I have a full-time job again now, and doing this project while I transitioned in and out of freelancing helped me work through my own feelings about money. It's funny—the limiting factor when I had my old job was time for creative work. Then I had nothing but time, but the limiting factor was suddenly money. Which is an obvious thing to say in retrospect, but I underestimated how much I'd be able to power through that. I learned that having a sense of security is okay for me to want. I can focus on my art full-time again in a couple years once I've saved enough and planned a little more.
"I learned that having a sense of security is okay for me to want."
This project also helped me think through the balance between my relationships and feelings of being alone. My boyfriend and I got a dog a week after I quit my last job, and there were a couple months of us just learning how to communicate again with a dog in the picture. #The100DaysProject kept me grounded and helped me express things I couldn't quite say in words. One of the very early drawings from this time I wrote I'm in a relationship and I feel alone. My boyfriend saw that, and we were able to have a conversation from there. I didn’t feel necessarily comfortable bringing the topic up another way, like saying, "Hey, you make me feel alone." That's not a great conversation opener.
The idea that we can be both is what makes this project especially inspiring.
Yeah, we are all complicated. We all have different facets and you can contradict yourself and that's totally fine.
Have you set an intention for the New Year yet?
One that sticks out to me right now is patience, which I'm not very good at. I'm the kind of person that likes to do a lot of things. I get bored if I have to do one thing—but I also want it all at once. I need to remind myself that meaningful things take time and hard work takes time.
"I need to remind myself that meaningful things take time."
Patience in terms of my creative practice as well, which is top of mind given that I’m juggling a full-time job again. Patience also in my relationships with people, which is something I've been thinking about this year. I had challenging moments in many relationships this year, and we're all still very close, but it was just kind of new territory.
And patience day-to-day, too. I walk really fast. I get annoyed if people are in my way. I let myself get wound up. So, just reminding myself to not stress about every small thing.
Any advice for people starting their own #100DaysProject or something similar?
Definitely. I had a running list of ideas to choose from each day. Sometimes I'd look at that list and think eh, none of these are really inspiring, or I don't really feel like drawing any of these. But having a list to choose from helps you execute on a daily basis.
Also, the point is not necessarily to have the most polished, high quality things. It's important to just do it, and remind yourself why you're doing this project in the first place. For me, it was to build that body of work. You're still gonna feel the need for perfection, but focusing on your goal will make your life easier.
"Having someone there to say 'Yeah, it's a struggle,' is really helpful."
The last thing I’d suggest would be finding other people, friends, or a creative community to do it with together. My friends and I check in on each other and chat about it, even if that means groaning "I still have to do my day 21 drawing” at 10pm some nights. Having someone there to say "Yeah, it's a struggle," is really helpful. That’s my advice.
Katie Zhu is an artist, illustrator and product manager based in Oakland. Her illustrations explore concepts of identity, belonging and empowerment through a strong stylized aesthetic. Trained as a journalist and engineer, Zhu’s work often leverages both words and visuals to empower, unite and inspire women of color.
This interview originally appeared in Anxy's bi-monthly newsletter, Episode, which you can subscribe to here.