Martin Hsu is friendly with an effervescent positive energy. It’s easy to just write something like that, but when you first meet him and see his eyes get genuinely wide, you’ll know it’s all true. Originally from Taiwan, Hsu lived in Southern California and went to school in Orange County. He’s nearly a 100% LA native, but his recent move to San Francisco provides a new energy into his art work. A slight hike from the Mission District, he lives in the Castro area in a Victorian home.
An impromptu visit yielded a charming house, great artwork everywhere (no, not all by him), and many “cool things”. He made me some tea and showed me his studio area where I got to see his works in progress for Undercurrents, which is beginning at Giant Robot 2 in just under two weeks.
GR: How did you get started in art?
MH: As far as I can recall, I started in art on drawing on the back of torn out calendar pages at my grandparents’ house in Taiwan in elementary school. They took care of my cousins and I when our parents were at work. Those are still the most treasured times of my life.
After graduating from CSUF with a degree in animation, I worked professionally as a character designer for a number of years before diving into the world of putting paint on wood. It’s an incredible feeling turning personal ideas into original pieces people enjoy, and I couldn’t do it without the support from my amazing friends and family.
GR: What’s your day time life like? Can you mix that with your art work?
MH: This year I’ve decided to take a break from my professional work and focus on personal art for a bit. For the first time in my life, I’m on my own working for myself and I feel extremely blessed being able to do so. My days nowadays are consisted of lots of walking around in San Francisco. When I’m not sketching or painting, I enjoy lying down on the grass at Dolores Park in between coffee shops watching and listening to people around me. It’s something quite special and I hope to do it for a while.
Some pieces from his upcoming exhibition Undercurrents
GR: What was your day job?
MH: My first job out of college was as a character artist at the LA based apparel company Mighty Fine. It was a fantastic place filled with talented artists and ambitious go-getters who had an appreciation for art and design. After that I started working as a character designer in animation for studios like Nickelodeon and Disney on shows like Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Kick Buttowski, and Fish Hooks. It was an incredible experience working with professionals alike on such exciting projects and nothing is more rewarding seeing kids genuinely enjoy these shows.
GR: Is leaving a day job something that was tough to do?
MH: After more than 10 years of receiving a steady paycheck every month, I was uncomfortable with the idea of instability, but also ecstatic about the possibilities. It was tough leaving good friends I’ve made, but not the work itself. I was in a place in my life where all signs were pointing to change. Even though the struggle of believing in myself could prove quite challenging sometimes, I have never felt so liberated and inspired as I feel now. The idea of life is too short to not work for myself grows stronger as each day passes by. I know in my heart these are exciting times and I plan to take full advantage of it.
From Hsu’s studio chair, he gets a nice view of the world below.
GR: Chinese parents can be tough, I’m wondering if they understand an art career?
MH: I’m blessed to have parents who have been nothing but supportive and encouraging of my career. They’ve done all they could for me on all levels. I’m tremendously grateful for such positive figures in my life. It’s no surprise they are one of the main driving forces that pushes me forward.
GR: You live in the bay area, can you talk about how the environment touches your art?
MH: After living in LA for the past 20 years, my transition to San Francisco has been nothing but inspiring. I’ve always been influenced by nature so being surrounded by so much lushness and water is quite the treat. Whenever I feel a little stuck at the drawing table, I end up taking a walk up some random hill which eventually leads to an exposed area that overlooks the beautiful city. It’s a magical place.
GR: I notice you have an ocean type feel but not always, why did it go there?
MH: Well, I’m a pisces so astrologically I’m most at ease in water.
As much of nature is a metaphor on life, the ocean speaks to me the most. Life is filled with unexpected turns and directions just like currents. Sometimes what seems obvious on the surface doesn’t stand true to what is below. Uncertainties are dark and scary, but I think we need to remind ourselves that there’s much beauty in the dark and life is brighter than we think.
GR: Tell me about the material you’re using and what does it offer different than the acrylic or gouache?
MH: I started getting into cel vinyl paints after a painting party with my buddy Andrew Brandou. I felt in love with its vibrancy, opaqueness, and practicality. It’s extremely versatile and could be used with an array of techniques. My new favorite way to paint is treating the wood panel as watercolor paper with cel vinyl paints like my pieces for Undercurrents. Personally, I’m very happy with they way they turned out and hope people will feel the same way
GR: What animations and or games are you into? Talk about those! Do they creep into your work?
MH: As my friends would know, I’m a huge fan of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. There’s no doubt some of the ideas creep into my work as I share the same philosophy. In my mind, his films are the perfect representations of important current events and issues some might not have the encourage to bring up for discussion. Somehow him and his team are able to raise awareness in the most fantastical and entertaining way through moving castles, floating islands, and giant white wolves. His effortless lines in his storyboards tell the most captivating stories and are compiled through nothing but trial and error and incredible pencil mileage.
I also have tremendous respect for Miyazaki-sensei as a person. He is someone who never compromises for his visions, openly admits to his faults, and quietly steps away from the spot light. I can only hope to be so lucky to have accomplished a small percentage of his achievements one day.