A bag of markers and a pour-over of coffee somewhere this week in San Francisco.
A woman will listen ever so slightly to the wafts of your conversation and pick up on the prints of your garb.
Two power animals – a turtle and a giraffe – will meet and talk about how taking a chance on a masterful cup of coffee inspired a mastery of coloring pens, to create illustrations as poignant as photography.
She is Helen Chau.
smdlr: How are you?
hc: I’m fantastic.
s: I love this, already! So, you know I’m asking, it’s about 2 p,m, there, what did you have for coffee today?
hc: I haven’t had coffee yet, I was planning to have it after.
s: Do you usually have coffee this late?
hc: Ideally, I would have had coffee. There’s a whole ritual for me. I like to go to a place and spend 30-45 minutes having coffee. I order it and sit for a while and drink it slowly. It doesn’t happen everyday, but at least twice a week.
s: It sounds like your usually enjoying a pour-over then.
hc: Yes, it’s preferred. I’m a straight up coffee with, with a little half and half sometimes.
s: What does it feel like to have so many great coffee spaces around you.
hc: Spoiled. I know it’s not like this everywhere else. But, I didn’t start appreciating coffee until these more fancy places popping up. They are pretty new, didn’t have these like five years ago.
s: Do you remember your first experience with one of these fancy places.
hc: There are so many, its hard to remember.
s: Or, a place where you said to yourself, “I want to linger, here.”
hc: Four Barrel. Before them, I would put so much sugar and cream in my coffee to get rid of the bitterness. I heard from some friends that it was different. I went and took a chance. I took a sip and I was like whoa, this is unlike any other coffee I’ve had before. And, before I knew it, I drank it all.
I kept going to other places and trying the same thing, but the coffee was ugh, and, I said, ‘you know I should stop adding sugar to mask the taste of things’. So I cut out sugar and looked up other places doing the same thing.
s: Where are you now on your journey of spaces?
hc: Recently I discovered Sightglass. It’s my favorite place in the world. It’s the space, its beautiful in there and people are actually talking to each other, there not strapped in front of laptops, its really refreshing seeing other people talking and interacting -that’s inspiring for me.
s: I’m sure, it shows through your art.
hc: Oh for sure! And, listen in on people for sure.
s: As you do, how do you approach lines and colors for your illustrations.
hc: I have a few favorite pens I stick to which dictate my line. I make it a point to use pens, I feel like it’s making a commitment on paper. You kind of need to take a leap of faith and commit your self to what you’re drawing and try not to worry about making things perfect. It’s also about living through the moment.
s: Can you share how the moment begins?
hc: It begins by brainstorming. It’s easy to think in those spaces. I try to focus on thinking and I go with the intention to create. I start with sitting down and the person who intrigues me the most I start drawing them. I just do it. Sometime what a person is wearing pops and I sketch it so that I can remember. After the first person is drawn done. Then I start thinking about space and what im going to put around them. It’s a very organic process.
s: When I look at the scenes you’ve created I feel like I am right there among them. There is such emotional immediacy to what you captures. Its brilliant and I’m so glad I came across the table to meet you that evening as I was writing and you were sketching. Is there ever commentary about the culture of the spaces you visit in your pieces?
hc: I think there is an influence about what I draw. If I get to a place where people are working on their laptops I document that. I guess those spaces are created more for these kinds of people. And, when I’m there, I document what to see.
s: Since you are in a lot of places, what do you think the value of art to a coffee shops’ space is?
hc: I feel like art contributes to the atmosphere of the coffee shop. If there’s cool art I feel like it enhances the space. And even at a coffee shop with art that’s not to my taste it still adds that quirk to a space.
s: I feel the same way. I am so interested to see what you’d illustrate if you went to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
hc: Oh I definitely would like to see what people are like in different places and capture that too. But, I also have a question for you?
s: Sure. I think you should ask me what my power animal is.
I laugh. s: Ok. What is your power animal?
hc: The turtle. It’s the animal I most identify with. And, you?
s: I’ve never thought of it in that context. But, it would absolutely have to be the giraffe. I love giraffes for a lot of reasons, they’re regal, stylish, spotted so artistically, have one of the most interesting forms and I just can’t take my eyes off of them.
hc: See, cool! I’ve always loved turtles. They are the coolest creatures, chilling out in the oceans and they persevere. It’s just something I aspire to, something I aspire to be like…sorry I haven’t had coffee.
She laughs. The turtle and the giraffe exit.
For more of Ms. Chau’s work please visit here.