HYESU LEE HAD SPENT YEARS SAVING MONEY for a wedding to a husband she hadn’t even met. In 2006, she decided that nest egg would be better spent funding her move from South Korea to London, where she studied at the Camberwell College of the Arts. Early on, she aspired to be like her heroes Maira Kalman and Natalie Lété, working in watercolors and portraying scenes from real life—admittedly “artsy fartsy,” as she calls it. But after graduating, the work didn’t come. So she moved again—this time, to New York to attend the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts.
While wandering through New York Central Art Supply, she purchased a huge 6x8 piece of paper, assuming she’d eventually find a use for it; weeks later, she decided to fill it with doodles from corner to corner. Friends and fellow students loved it, and seemed amazed at how easily it came to her. So she did it a little more. And a little more. And pretty quickly, she’d discovered a style that was less Kalman or Lété and more Keith Haring or Saul Steinberg.
“You can see from my work that I draw really badly,” Lee admits with a laugh. “I’m not good at well-rendered, realistic illustrations—I tried so hard in my undergraduate days, but it’s just not my thing. When I finally realized I’d never be as good as my classmates, I said ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do things that I’m good at.’ I started focusing more on characters and fun compositions, creating narratives in my head for the characters on the page. And that’s really helped me, because I’m not competing with people who draw well—I’m doing something completely different.”
In spite of that shift, Lee’s professors worried that her work wasn’t commercial enough, and early evidence suggested that they were right: A year and a half after graduating, Lee hadn’t won a single commission. When she finally received a small editorial assignment from the New Yorker, she thought her luck had changed, but several more months went by and still, nothing. She reached out to agents and soon landed one, while continuing to promote her own work, which led to infrequent editorial assignments. At one point she was forced to take on odd jobs, even serving dumplings in a local supermarket. Then finally, an agency working with the New England Hospital needed technical medical concepts turned into simple illustrations. The budget? $10,000. And that put an end to all of the part-time jobs.
Lee isn’t the only illustrator to get off to a slow start professionally, and looking back, those early struggles make her appreciate her success even more. In the last few years, she’s created packaging for Chobani and La Boite biscuits, and completed editorial work for the Washington Post and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. But her unique style comes through most powerfully in the sprawling murals she’s done for Toyota, Anheuser-Busch, Cafe Bustelo, and RTA Transit in Cleveland.
“When people see me painting murals, they’ll take pictures of themselves in front of the art, and tell me what they love about it,” she says. “I realize my illustrations may not seem very ‘sophisticated’ because I draw a lot of goofy characters, but people seem to like my style, because it’s warm and humorous and doesn’t have to be explained.”
One of Lee’s favorite projects came about shortly after she adopted a Westie-terrier mix from a local animal shelter. (“Dutch is such an asshole to people,” she says, “but I love him to death.”) She returned a few weeks later to volunteer her talents, creating a playful mural in the shelter lobby.
“My husband and I are both illustrators, and sometimes I think we aren’t really helping people, like doctors or nurses—we’re just creating things that we love for ourselves and hoping that people like it,” says Lee. “Painting that mural for BARC is one of those things I’ll remember forever because I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.”
The people of New York are some of her favorite subjects.
“I love drawing on the subway, capturing the tiny, mundane moments in everyday life. The other day the train was jam-packed, and there was only one bar to hold onto, and I could see so many hands of different colors, and it just made me so happy, that level of diversity. That’s the sort of thing that gets me going every day.”
That’s not to say city life is perfect. But Lee turns to her art during the difficult times, too.
“I might come across as the most laid-back person, but inside I’m so worried that I get up every morning, and the first thing I remember is ‘I need a new job today!’ So even though I know that social media is kind of fucked up, I like posting work to Instagram because if I feel stressed or embarrassed about something, I can let it out, and other people can relate to it. It’s almost like therapy—it makes me realize I’m not perfect, but it’s OK, because I’m not the only one.”
View more of Lee’s work here.