Press Interviews

Cover Story: Make your own luck

A Chinese New Year's tale of following your dreams to find the perfect career

February 18, 2010, by Heidi Masek, Hippo

Although Yong Chen illustrated other children’s books, A Gift is the first the Nashua artist also wrote.

In A Gift, family members in China create a Chinese New Year’s gift to send to their young niece, Amy, in the U.S. It’s the kind of book a family not unlike Chen’s might use to explain customs surrounding the New Year — which this year was Sunday, Feb. 14 — to generations raised in America. For Chen, the book is part of the larger story of the direction of his life, a direction he might not have foreseen while teaching chemistry in China or working in a Chinatown grocery store in Boston unable to speak English.

Now he works at a job that offers him new challenges and encourages his creative growth; his own story about his own culture was published, and he shares the joy of art through teaching. But getting to this point in his life at which he feels really happy in his career took Chen, who will be 47 in April, several tries.

The twists and turns in becoming an artist

A Gift was published in 2009, but Chen credits Megan Tingley with prompting Chen to write his own book 14 years ago. Now the senior vice president and publisher at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Tingley is behind titles like Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer.

Just getting to that point in 1996 at which Chen and Tingley were celebrating his first illustration job for Little, Brown & Company in Boston involved several different paths for Chen, and at each turning point were people like Tingley who gave him a push in a new direction.

Chen started drawing and painting when he was four years old. His father spent what he could to buy art materials for his son. Chen spent a lot of time as a child “hiding from anyone else, and just drawing and drawing and drawing every day,” Chen said. He covered two walls in their home in Taishan, in the Guangdong province of China, with his artwork, rotating new pieces in as he ran out of space.

In the countryside, Chen couldn’t easily get to museums or galleries, but sought advice from local artists, he said.

A smart student at one of the best high schools in Southern China, Chen could go in any academic direction, so he was pushed toward sciences. “You’re not supposed to be an artist,” he was told. He should do something “a little bit more meaningful other than playing with color, or shapes and lines,” Chen recalled.

So Chen studied at Foshan University, then taught high school chemistry.

Boston bound

Chen’s older sister had married a Chinese-American and moved to the U.S.;  her parents followed. Chen was asked to join them, and that’s how, at age 26, Chen, artist and chemistry teacher, became a clerk in a Chinatown supermarket in Boston.

“So this is a time I had to just work, work, work,” Chen said. It was 1989. He made a little money and learned the correct techniques for lifting boxes, he mentioned, laughing: “How to hold on one corner, and the other corner at the lower corner, and you lift it up, it’s really easy,” Chen said.

Eventually, a good friend and coworker told him, “Yong, you should not bury yourself in the supermarket. You should do something better.”

Her suggestion?

Restaurant. 

Chen giggled. “But at that time...it makes sense to me,” he said. He could start by cleaning floors, then chopping meat and washing dishes, learn to make chicken wings and chicken fingers, “and you’ll probably learn how to be a cook, eventually,” she told him.

Cooking in Maine

So Chen gave it a go — his brother-in-law, a cook at a Boston Sheraton hotel, found Chen and his younger brother positions at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, Maine.

“I was homesick terribly,” Chen said. He dreamed almost nightly that he was still going to his old classroom to teach, to his home in China, still meeting with his old friends and colleagues and Amanda, “a sweet girl that I love in China.” He’d wake up feeling lost each morning. “So every day I ask that question, why [am I] here?”

He did return to China during that time, and married Amanda, although it took about two more years to secure a visa for her to join Chen.

Chen and the restaurant owner had a heart-to-heart on a slow night and talked about art.

For some, the restaurant industry is a passion. “But for me, I’m feeling that I’m just wasting my time,” Chen said. He hoped something would come up — otherwise he didn’t see any point in staying in the U.S.

The restaurant owner said, “What you really need to do is learn the language,” and then figure out his next step. He told Chen he could have his old job back anytime he wanted.

ESL at Bunker Hill

So Chen was back on the bus to Boston and, with some help, got himself enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College’s ESL program to work on speaking English — he’d studied written English in China.

It was there that he met Betsy Mariere, who remains a great friend.

Mariere was his student advisor and one of his teachers. The way she tells the story, she told Chen he must enter his artwork into Bunker Hill’s student art show in order to pass her ESL class.

Chen says her tale of the threat was an exaggeration. But he won first prize for drawing, and second place in the watercolor category, which gave him the confidence to start thinking he could do something in art in this country.

Do you like art? You should try graphic design!

At the end of his ESL program, Chen was faced with a decision of whether to follow the kind of path he’d been pushed into before and enroll in a pharmacy school. That was his brother-in-law’s idea, because with a chemistry degree, Chen could skip many required courses.

But Mariere told Chen about Bunker Hill’s graphic design program. “It was the early age of desktop publishing,” Chen said.

“He was born to be an artist,” Mariere said.

It was easier for Chen to imagine himself in an office designing on a computer than spending his days behind a pharmacy counter.

So he decided to try graphic design. “I met some great people there ... and then started to do also painting and illustrations on my own,” Chen said.

Near the end of his two-year graphic design study, a Bunker Hill professor recommended Chen do something “by hand” rather than by computer. Although Chen thought stable income would be more likely in the digital realm, the professor told him, “never give up your natural ability to be able to draw and paint. That will separate you from other designers,” Chen recalled.

She brought him to life-drawing sessions at an art center. Chen said he feels like at every turning point in his life, someone has turned up to help him, “And I’m feeling really lucky about that.”

As it turned out, jobs he applied for with his Associate degree in graphic design weren’t exactly the kind of creative outlet he was looking for. There was the typesetter job — which would have involved typing all day. A company that made sports caps had a position correcting computer designs to make sure a machine sewed logos correctly.

Chen didn’t think those kinds of jobs would make him happy. Meanwhile, comments from the life-drawing group about his art were encouraging, and Chen decided he should try something else.

Next stop, MassArt

Chen applied to the illustration program at MassArt, now Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Enrolling in illustration rather than graphic design could have meant starting from scratch, course-wise.

However, Chen’s portfolio got him third-year status.

When the chair of the MassArt communications department asked him why he wanted to enroll, he said he thought it was a good school.

“And she said, ‘What I really mean is, you don’t need to come here,’” Chen recalled.

“And I said, ‘Well, in that case, can you make it easier? Just give it [the diploma] to me?” Chen remembered, laughing. She couldn’t. But skipping two years saved Chen time and money — during all of his Bunker Hill and MassArt years, he was also working full-time.

Hitting the library

While he was at MassArt, a Canton, Mass., gift company hired Chen to illustrate Maria’s Loose Tooth, in which Maria loses her first tooth and learns why, and her mother brings her a silver box to put it in — a silver box comes with the book as a gift set.

“I knew how to do paintings. I knew how to do illustration. I knew how to do design. But how to tell a story in sequence, that is a problem, so I went to the library and I borrowed all the books about how to use pictures to tell stories,” Chen said.

Chen, was, of course, working full-time, as well as going to school, and had to carve out time for this project, too.

Now, when Chen’s students at Bunker Hill say they are busy studying for classes, he tells them to remember that they only take four classes. He took seven, and worked 40 hours per week and produced a picture book.

Chen imitates himself — stern but with a sense of humor: “You’re not working hard enough. You have to work much harder!”

Chen’s former professor Courtney McGlynn brought Chen in to teach at Bunker Hill.

Not all BHCC students necessarily arrive with the kind of drive Chen had, and often the faculty are trying to “ignite their passion,” McGlynn said. But commonalities among those who succeed are passion, drive, desire, dedication and a capacity for hard work, McGlynn said.

“It’s work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily.... It’s all out there. All the knowledge is in the books. But you’ve got to go to the library and open the books and decide to read one,” McGlynn said.

From Chen’s picture book project, he learned his art can convey a story or meaning. Now he tells his students that even when they are drawing or painting something simple, they should relate it to what they are trying to say and how they relate to the object. “Otherwise, [you’re] just painting the line and the shape and the colors, no different than other people who are doing the same setting,” Chen said.

Chen also taught at MassArt from 1995 through 1998.

Before graduating, he was sent to the Massachusetts statehouse to paint portraits of state legislators. He ended up on local news segments all day, with William Bulger in the background.

Getting noticed

For his MassArt degree project, Chen painted illustrations for a story by Mariere about a traditional African-American wedding. A Little, Brown & Company editor checking out the exhibit of graduating student work noticed Chen’s watercolors and soon Chen was showing his portfolio at Little, Brown. That’s where he met Tingley, then a senior editor.

“I had been waiting for someone like you to take a look at this story,” she told him, according to Chen.

It was Miz Fannie Mae’s Fine New Easter Hat (Little, Brown, 1997). Chen’s degree project had demonstrated that he could illustrate for an African-American story.

Chen was a little nervous, and had four months for the project. He’d also graduated and taken a job as an in-house illustrator in the art department of the Advanced Technology Division of Pennwell Publishing in Nashua, which published more than 17 monthly technology magazines.

The downtown Nashua apartment in which the Chens and their son lived in 1996 was too small to paint in, so he painted in his office cubicle after work. “But nobody knew except the cleaning ladies at night,” Chen laughed.

Chen was meeting with Tingley and her assistant in Chinatown for tea to celebrate finishing the book, when Tingley said, “Yong, I love your work but it’s not always often that we can get a story to match your style,” Chen recalled. She suggested that he write his own story, since he knows Chinese culture, and many people don’t understand it in the U.S.

Finding the right place

Chen continued with illustration projects from children’s magazines like Spider, Cricket and Appleseeds, and some children’s books from HarperCollins, including Swimming with Sharks (1999). For a while, he was seen mainly as an artist who could illustrate for stories with African-American characters. Eventually, publishers realized Chen could also illustrate Caucasian characters. It wasn’t until 2004 that he was offered a job illustrating a book with people from his own culture, but the subject matter — an American couple’s adoption of a Chinese baby girl — was controversial to Chen.

Chen’s day jobs weren’t exactly perfect for him either.

In 1998, Chen left Pennwell to work for an advertising firm in Salem, after meeting the owner through a friend.

“I was certainly getting bored,” Chen said. He wanted to work more directly with the clients, and have more creative space. He wanted to be excited about his work, plus the Salem job doubled his salary — helpful since the Chens had just bought a house.

It was early in the World Wide Web boom.

“I took workshops in Boston to learn the design, multimedia applications and development for the Web, and helped initially developing a new online development section for that advertising company,” Chen wrote in an e-mail.

Yet, routine eventually got to him.

“I [was] feeling a little tired of driving on Route 111... this is the most boring road,” Chen said. It was better than always going to the same cubicle. Still he felt like “I’m just going to a job.”

He thought, “Why don’t I do something on my own to see how it goes?” He formed NashuaOne, LLC, for Web development and online branding. Things were going OK, but the income wasn’t static.

He was also teaching watercolor workshops in Nashua, and it was through one of his students that he was introduced to GoldenWare Travel Technologies.

“And this is the best, everything I was looking for,” Chen said. Ten years later, Chen continues with GoldenWare and said the Nashua company is like a second family to him.

Chen is “the visual guy.” He’s the creative director, designing how the software products work visually, from screen to screen. He also heads the art department, in charge of the design and creation of all online and offline marketing and promotional materials. 

Every project is something new, and he’s encouraged to explore art and creativity.

Graduate work

Chen doesn’t seem to be a person who just settles in, though.

“In 2007, I decided to want to advance my illustration skills,” Chen said. Through a suggestion from one of his former MassArt professors, he found the University of Hartford, Hartford Art School Limited Residency MFA in Illustration.

The “professional artists teaching professional artists” program meets for two weeks in July at the school, then at different times in different locations, such as Los Angeles, New York and Dallas. 

“I went into the program without any expectations [other than knowing] I have to evolve, I have to change myself. But change to where? I had no idea, because I was happy with my job,” Chen said.

The professional artists who lead the program talk about technique, but also how they evolved from one area to another, such as illustrator to portrait artist, gallery artist or mural painter, Chen said.

Each meeting got him excited about a new direction. The whole program made him think through all the possibilities for his next step, “And, at the end, I find my own direction,” Chen said.

At MassArt, Chen overachieved, creating 12 paintings for his degree project when he really only needed a few and a dummy book. But Chen walked into his first MFA class unprepared.

The assignment, which could evolve over the two-and-a-half-year program, was a “dream project.”

“Anything that you dream about that you never have the time or had the encouragement or maybe had the space away from your routine work ... you’ll be able to be away from that ... so you’ll be able to think, focus on the dream project,” Chen said.

That first July day in 2007, everyone else was hanging sketches and drawings for their projects. “And I was shocked!” Chen said.

“I had to think really fast because I was going to present it in a few minutes,” Chen said. He thought about his promise to Tingley years ago to do something about China’s culture. He’d “just never had the space, the time, and courage and the encouragement from other people to be able to really do it,” Chen said.

So Chen’s dream project became writing his own story, not just illustrating someone else’s. He also wanted to work on getting the book about the traditional African-American wedding — the one he worked on with Mariere in 1995 — published.

Chen created dummy books of each, and pitched them at an annual Boyds Mills Press illustrators party that fall. Two weeks later, Boyds Mills told him they would publish A Gift.

“He’s just so impressive. I’m just ... so proud of him and everything that he’s done. He’s just amazing,” Mariere said.

Onward

Of course, Chen still has future plans and projects. Portrait painting is another passion of his. He’s looking for new children’s book story ideas. He also hopes to expand his “Learning Center” Web site, www.yongchen.com, where he’s posted short videos on watercolor techniques since 1994.

Chen said work and life can be seen as different things, but if you mix everything together — work, and fun and play and passion — well, it saves a lot of time.

Whether or not you pinpoint what your passion is is another question, of course. And it can change over your lifetime, and you’ll adapt, Chen said. First, people need encouragement to find their passion. Second, they need support and to find work associated with that passion. Then, they need to figure out how to advance that passion to the next level.

“Everything I’m doing now is everything I dreamed I would be able to do,” Chen said.

Finding your passion

Yong Chen credits Betsy Mariere with helping him move toward a creative career in the U.S. when she was his student advisor and teacher at Bunker Hill Community College.

Mariere’s advice when trying to find your passion is don’t just look at the money that you’re going to make. “Look at whether you’re going to be happy because you’re going to spend so much time in your career,” she said. Mariere now works at North Shore Community College.

She sees struggles when students are trying to follow what their family wants. She asks students to look at course requirements for a field to see if they actually appeal, and to talk to college department chairs about the field.

In China, when he was told he couldn’t join art courses, Chen felt he was rejected from something he enjoyed so much and had been pursuing since he was a child. So in college, feeling like life had been planned against his will, Chen decided to involve himself in the arts again, starting his own art group, and uniting art associations at other colleges in the city.

Want to teach your passion?

Perhaps it naturally follows that someone who has spent so much time as a student also spent much of his life teaching in some capacity. Besides his teaching jobs in the U.S., Chen taught art as well as chemistry in China.

Chen said he’s always had a need to share what he knows, and gets a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment from doing something that can make someone else feel happy or lead them to try a new direction. He talks about those goals when he talks about his Learning Center project at www.yongchen.com.

Sometimes little things one does can be life-changing for someone else — and Chen should know. He’s credited various people, including his Bunker Hill teacher, adviser, and now friend, Betsy Mariere, with helping him try new directions in this country.

Chen’s former Bunker Hill professor Courtney McGlynn wanted to get his former student to teach at Bunker Hill because Chen has the rare ability to contribute to all three of the school’s design-related programs: media communications, graphic design and fine arts. It’s very rare to see someone who’s a designer, familiar with technology, who’s also a fine artist, McGlynn said.

Chen also understands BHCC’s student population, McGlynn said. Massachusetts community colleges don’t require SAT scores so they are also a great place for foreign students to learn the language and culture before going on to a four-year school, McGlynn said.

Bunker Hill is one of 15 community colleges in Massachusetts, and one of two inner-city ones. The Bunker Hill student population is diverse in every sense of the word, from age to country of origin, McGlynn said.

Richard Wesley took a course with Chen last semester and raved about his teacher as someone who can “kick you in the teeth with a smile.” What he meant was, Chen was supportive but kept pushing. “Until I could get a wow out of this guy, I wasn’t happy,” Wesley said.

Wesley, 48, hopes to continue on to MassArt and work in animation. His background is telecommunications work in the U.S. Army. Wesley said he’d been “drawing since he could pick up a pencil,” though. He came to Bunker Hill after a veterans’ college preparatory program.

Want to be an illustrator?

Learning how to tell a story through pictures is one thing Chen did to parlay his art skills into illustrating for children’s books.

Chen also researches and uses models for those watercolor illustrations.

For Chen’s first project on a traditional African-American wedding with Mariere, he attended meetings in the community of people who came from the same area in Africa that Mariere’s husband did, Chen said.

Chen later used Mariere’s husband as a model for a character in Miz Fannie Mae’s Fine New Easter Hat (Little, Brown, 1997).

“It’s a beautiful story,” Chen said. A father and his daughter pick out the most expensive and beautiful Easter hat as a gift. The mother loves it, but insists it’s too expensive and should be returned.

Because it was Chen’s first book for a major publisher, they tested him by asking him to do a sample painting of a scene from the story. He chose the colorful hat shop scene for his test, and was hired.

The father in the story wears the hat on his milk-delivery run, so everyone would know the family has it and couldn’t take it back. At church, an egg decorating the hat hatches. The mother bird has followed the hat from the city, and the Easter hat becomes a home for generations of birds.

“What a beautiful thing. There’s just so many layers of love there,” Chen said, pointing out the love of the father who sacrifices to make his wife smile, and the love of the mother who sacrifices something she wouldn’t keep for herself for a family of birds.

Chen frequently talks about layers of meanings in the picture books he works on.

How to use your own story

The models for A Gift include Chen’s wife, his house, his home village. Chen needed a 6- or 7-year-old for the model for Amy, so the daughter of his wife’s friend became the model. The Chens have a 15-year-old son, a 13-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old baby. Chen dedicated A Gift to his wife and family.

The tale starts with Amy’s mother, who lives in the U.S., missing her sister and brothers at Chinese New Year’s, surrounded by typical foods and symbols of the Chinese New Year. They receive a package from China, and the tale backs up to tell the story of Amy’s Uncle Zhong finding a stone (resembling jade) while plowing a field, and bringing it to her Uncle Ming, who carved a dragon out of the stone. Aunt Mei ties a red string, a good luck symbol, on it, and sends a letter with the necklace for Amy.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about China, but love between families is something universal, Chen said.

Throughout the book, there are details like a letter written in Chinese which tells the story of the necklace — also written in English over the next pages. A poem hanging on a wall behind Mei and Ming reads: “Look at the shining moon; Think about [your] hometown,” Chen interprets.

For Chen, the necklace was something simple and tangible to convey Chinese culture, something from the earth in Amy’s family’s homeland, made with love and sent to a younger generation, far away.

Those themes are also meant to be common enough that others can relate — many people have friends or family living outside the country, Chen said.

The fact that the siblings send the gift to the niece they haven’t met rather than their sister is another layer, Chen said. They are passing a piece of their culture from one generation to the next.

How an idea becomes a book

It wasn’t until 2004 that someone hired Chen to illustrate a story involving Chinese people. But Chen wasn’t “jumping up and down” about the story. Finding Joy (Boyds Mills Press, 2006) is about an American couple who adopts a Chinese baby girl.

“To me that was a very sensitive topic,” Chen said. China’s one-child policy isn’t directly referenced in the story, but is in the author’s notes.

Chen has been an American citizen for 18 years, but China is still one of his countries and his motherland, he said. A lot of people here have negative views about China. “And some people think [the] one-child policy is just pure evil,” that it’s against human rights, that government control on how many children someone has is bad, Chen said. But for Chen, every country has its own reasons for doing things. “We cannot simply judge how other people run their own life,” he said. [This policy is limited to certain demographics.]

Chen thinks the one-child policy is very controversial, but it’s been effective to control population growth.

The sensitive part for Chen in Finding Joy was that it’s suggested that the child was given away because she is a girl. The author’s notes include a line, “In China, there’s no room for girls,” Chen said. “I’m not sure what does that mean from the author’s mind. But technically it’s wrong,” Chen said. Many of his friends in China have only a much-loved daughter. Girls are not seen as second-rate human beings, he said.

Chen accepted the project because he felt his interpretation could be more accurate.

“I did lots of research and even went to China to visit the orphanage,” Chen said. He spent two years on Finding Joy, consulted a caregiver at an orphanage and adoptive parents, and sketched scenes of people meeting at Manchester’s airport, among his other research. He’s always learning new things on these projects, like that babies in carriers must be in a window seat on a plane — after painting that airplane scene incorrectly.

How to protect your work

Boyds Mills Press is under Highlights for Children, Inc. It was at an annual illustrators party for the company that Chen asked the editor and art directors for five minutes to talk business, and showed them dummy books for A Gift and his book with Mariere.

A professor had suggested that Chen show A Gift without text. The art director smiled, but the editor said, “I don’t see any words,” Chen recalled. “Well, this is the problem. Editors [are] always looking for words. They feel uncomfortable with a story without words,” Chen said.

They had Chen e-mail the story, and in two weeks, he got a reply that it would be published.

“And I said, ‘Really?’ And I asked, ‘When [am I] going to see my contract?’”

Chen doesn’t do picture books for a flat fee. “I only accept royalty projects because I want myself to be a part of the process.... And I want to keep my artwork,” Chen said.

He figures his paintings may not be worth much, but they are his.

“Also, I need to have all the copyright on my own work,” Chen said.

Chen’s Nashua lawyer declared the contract for A Gift rather standard. “And I said, ‘Anything I should argue about?’ And he said, ‘This is your first story. What should you argue about? Get it published! And argue in the next book,’” Chen laughed.

 

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