Sena Kwon, an award-winning illustrator and graphic designer based in New York, has worked with a wide range of companies, organizations, and nonprofits throughout her career, including the Baltimore City Health Department, the Harvard University Psychology Department, and the Korean Film Archive.
Kwon’s work emphasizes feminism and diversity, often through the use of international myths and religious parables.
As she discussed during our recent interview, Kwon has used many of her projects to promote healthy communication and equality, all while also delivering work that showcases impressive levels of technical skill and creativity.
Though Kwon has continued to work throughout the Pandemic, she’s also looking forward to the return to in-person exhibitions and events, especially since she’s so passionate about sharing the stories of underrepresented groups and underrepresented aspects of the human experience.
Read on to learn more about Kwon’s influences, future projects, and sources of inspiration.
Thank you for speaking with us. You work in both illustration and graphic design. Which of these came first for you?
Kwon: Thanks for having me. I can’t say one came first and the other one followed or vice versa. I studied in the Visual Communication Design department at Kyunghee University in South Korea, so I should say design came first.
But way before college, I grew up reading tons of picture books for children, and I always wondered who drew those amazing images. I’ve been fascinated by book-making and illustration since then. After graduation, I decided to study abroad in the U.S. and study further in illustration.
I am quite fortunate to be versatile enough to work in both graphic design and illustration. I consider illustration to be in between art and design, playing multiple roles in analog and digital dimensions. I enjoy broadening my field by challenging myself with new kinds of projects I have not tried yet.
It seems that depictions of women are central to your work. Has this been a conscious choice throughout your career?
Kwon: It has been natural for me to draw a lot of women’s bodies and their bonding since I sympathize with their stories a lot. I grew up in a family with full respect for women and our rights, but also in an extremely conservative society when it comes to discussing love, sex, and relationships.
Because of this, I became an adult who didn’t have the courage to bring those conversations to the table. Throughout my career, I’ve looked into my mind to see what interests me the most and yet what I feel is lacking in conversation.
I didn’t have a chance to be open to these topics growing up, but I would like to open those topics to people who enjoy my work. Women should not be forced to play stereotypical roles to serve others. All genders deserve equal rights and freedom from society. We have made some amazing progress on this matter, but still not enough. People in some advanced communities would say that we are already at that point of freedom, but not the world I belong to.
I try to use my illustration as a voice to encourage women and people with diverse gender identities. We deserve to share our stories without shame or stigma.
Can you talk about how you’ve incorporated visual elements from multiple cultures in your work?
Kwon: Before I started my career as an illustrator, I grew up moving between different countries and cultures such as Japan, Canada, and Australia. The more I tried to adjust to the unfamiliarity, the more I sensed differences between myself and my environment.
Appreciating art was a bridge that connected me to new communities and helped me to overcome cultural barriers. Mythology has many interesting aspects that represent the values of each culture: storytelling, aesthetics, environment, and many more.
I enjoy combining those elements to make new mythologies and visualize my own values to share with people. Creating city myths is in one of the curriculums that I’m teaching as well. It’s so fun and inspiring to hear those city myths from young students and see the city and lifestyles through their perspectives.
Can you tell us more about your work with educational organizations and non-profits?
Kwon: As much as I enjoy communicating in visual language as an illustrator, I also value the social changes that design and illustration bring into the community. It led me to be part of amazing projects with educational and public health institutions.
I’ve worked with the Baltimore City Health Department to renew STI brochures to provide updated knowledge to the Baltimore communities and am now working as a visual consultant at a nonprofit organization called ‘Results for America’ which provides data-driven analysis and evaluations to decision-makers at diverse levels.
I have been working on creating 20-minute online board games for the Psychology department at Harvard University with talented engineers in replacement of in-person lab experiments since the lab and their research have faced severe delays during the global pandemic.
I recently joined the undergraduate Communications Design department at Pratt Institute as a visiting assistant professor to teach visual literacy and digital techniques to young talents.
Would you say that you have many contemporary visual influences? Do you prefer to find inspiration from much older work?
Kwon: I do. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the great artists I admire and respect. Hieronymus Bosch, Niki de Saint Phalle, Roberto Innocenti, Lorenzo Mattotti, and many other artists remain influences in my work.
I remember going through Lorenzo Mattotti’s book for the first time, in shock at the quality of the work. I also remember looking visiting Roberto Innocenti’s picture book exhibition over and over again in Seoul.
Have you enjoyed the return to in-person gallery shows and exhibitions?
Kwon: During the Pandemic, I joined a couple of online exhibitions such as a ‘Coaster Show’ curated by Nucleus Portland, ‘Red envelope show in NYC’ by Grumpy Bert, and a virtual space exhibition ‘Goodbye Corona19’ by the Paju Typography Institute in South Korea.
Last year, in 2021, I participated in a promotional group show, ‘WIlderness II,” co-curated by the Antler Gallery and Teagan White, along with her solo show as the gallery’s first showcase in NYC.
Going back to shows, with great support from friends and colleagues, made me feel like I was starting a new career. I see artists who had to pause their professional activities due to the pandemic are slowly getting back to their rhythm, and I’m happy to join in this journey after a long wait.
Is it challenging to create commissioned work for major clients?
Kwon: I get nervous working with clients whether they are big or small. During my career, there have been projects that were canceled before completion, and this has led to self-doubt at times.
Now, I take those mistakes as learning experiences, but there’s still a small butterfly in my chest before I start each project. I tell my students that it’s natural to experience those failures, and there is no need to lower their self-esteem.
I wish I could have heard this from successful illustrators when I was starting out. It’s unfortunate that people would rather spotlight success the majority of the time.
Do you have any upcoming events or pieces you’d like to mention?
Kwon: This year will be full of exciting projects! I will continue working as an illustrator/visual consultant at the companies and organizations I mentioned earlier, and I’ll be teaching at Pratt Institute in the Fall semester.
I am about to start a big project for creating booklets regarding a community of color. I am excited to hear that major art book fairs and comics events will return after the long pandemic. My new zine and prints will be done soon, and l look forward to debuting it along with my old zine called ‘Flip Flop Tick Tock,’ which received the Gold medal in the Special Format category at the MoCCA Arts Festival. Illustrators and comic artists need more events and opportunities to interact with communities and share their work with the world.
All images courtesy of Sena Kwon.