Join design editor Ariane Moore for Hunker Down as she gets to know the creators and designers she's followed for ages.
Some of the most captivating works of art seem to be created by individuals who have a unique background and an interesting story to tell. Talented artist Sofia Shu is no exception. Her creative tale begins in a small town in Siberia, where she was born and raised. This isolated hamlet (where winter lasts nine months out of the year) also happens to be where Shu discovered her love of art. That same love eventually drove her to Moscow to study architecture, and then off to New York.
Like many before her, Shu quickly fell in love with the city that never sleeps. "I was soaking in all the culture. I loved going to the Chelsea galleries and listening to live jazz at some local bars. I honed my eye with the fashion and design industries that [the] city [had] to offer," recalls Shu. It was also here that Shu met "a guy from San Francisco," also known as the man of her dreams, but unlike the romantic fairy tales of our youth, this is not where Shu's story ends. Soon after, she moved to San Francisco — along with her now-husband Nathaniel and their cat Cookie — where she has since built a thriving small business and a cozy, light-filled home.
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Enthralled by her mesmerizing, graphic artwork, I couldn't help but want to know more about the artisté who created them. So I caught up with Shu and asked her to hunker down with me to chat about balancing life as a creative and a small business owner.
Hunker: I am obsessed with your artwork! What do you want people to take away or feel when they look at your creations?
Sofia Shu: With my paintings, I want to transform the viewer's mood and bring them to the present moment. I want them to feel calm and refreshed — just like after a good meditation.
Hunker: Where do you go for inspiration?
SS: Honestly, I go within. I meditate, have some tea, maybe dance a bit to get into my flow. I think that most of the experiences we have stay on the subconscious level. They digest into some unique combinations and patterns and then come out as art.
Hunker: How would you describe your artistic process?
SS: In esoteric terms, I feel like a painting guides me to create. It tells me how it wants to look and I need to be very intuitive to listen. I sketch a lot and only a few sketches become paintings. My favorite palette is black and white, there is something very primal about it — maybe the pattern recognition that we developed as species a long time ago. I always look for a balanced composition because it makes me feel at peace.
Hunker: When did you start your business? And how has it evolved/grown since the beginning?
SS: In 2017, I quit my day job as an interior designer at a local studio. I didn't have a specific plan about my next steps, but I knew I wanted to be more creative and to be able to choose the projects I take on. I took a long trip to Thailand and attended a meditation retreat there. The change of scene helped me to get some clarity about my true calling. I remember meditating in this beautiful jungle retreat and having a vision of my art, yet to be created. I teared up. My heart felt at peace.
When I came back to San Francisco, I started painting a lot. I produced so much work that I was able to show it at a few group shows. I received a very warm and encouraging response from the audience. Seems like people have been craving to see that kind of artwork. My audience grew naturally. People were reposting my work and talking about it on Instagram. I started getting large commissions and being invited to paint murals. Right now, I'm a full-time artist, making my income fully from my artwork. It's a dream come true! I still have to pinch myself.
Hunker: As a small business owner, what tips or advice do you have for other creatives who would like to go out on their own?
SS: I think creating a body of work that feels authentic is very important for a good start. That way you'll be empowered to talk about your work. People will feel that confident energy and will want to support you on your journey.
Hunker: Tell me about your studio.
SS: I'm very lucky to have this spacious and bright studio in the midst of the busy streets of San Francisco. It has tall ceilings and minimalist architecture — white walls [and] exposed wooden columns. This building used to be a horse barn and was turned into a loft space about 15 years ago. The main door leads into a beautiful courtyard with lots of plants. I keep the door open during the day.
Hunker: What feature do you love most about your studio?
SS: Storage is very important to me. I like things to be organized. Otherwise, I can't think (laughs). It's very easy to create chaos in the studio, so having lots of drawers and shelves helps to keep the tables and the floor clean. I use a combination of some custom-made storage solutions plus some cabinets from IKEA.
Hunker: Are there any home decor essentials that help motivate or inspire you to be creative? If so, what are they?
SS: Absolutely! I have to create "the mood" before I start painting. I try to use most senses. For smell, I use some natural incense made here in the Bay Area. For sound, I play some low-tempo electronic music and Raga — traditional Hindu melodies played in improvisation styles. For taste, I drink some tea or cacao. For vision, I need to have a clear, zen-like space.
Hunker: Are your home and studio similar in style? How are they the same or different?
SS: Yes, they are. Actually, my home and studio [are] just one large open loft space. I go from my dining table straight to the studio space to finish some work after dinner. I usually go for minimalist lines and natural materials. I add interesting shapes and textures with decor and textiles. As for the color, I love bringing it in with some flowers placed in fun vases throughout the house.
Hunker: With everything going on in the world, what do you do and/or where do you go to relax and decompress?
SS: I go to the park or to the beach for a walk. I love doing it early in the morning. The energy is so calm at that time of the day.
Hunker: What are some of your favorite shops/brands when looking for furniture and decor?
SS: I love Croft House for its natural materials, attention to detail, and minimalist aesthetic. Menu and Ferm Living are on that list, too. For some fun decor pieces, I shop at Slowdown Studio. I also love finding vintage, midcentury modern treasures online.
Hunker: What other artists are you really into right now?
SS: I'm intrigued by Hilma af Klint, her story, and her artwork. Apparently, she was channeling her paintings and they were made to transform the viewer's spirit. I feel very in tune with that.
Hunker: What book is on your nightstand and/or coffee table right now? What show are you binge-watching right now?
SS: I'm reading Georgia O'Keeffe and Her Houses. It's about the two desert houses/art studios in New Mexico that she had for 50 years. The book follows all the transformations that the houses went through to represent Georgia's character and accommodate her needs. It's very inspiring! I hope to build a studio one day — not in a desert though. It will be in the woods or on a mountain. I don't watch much TV. I love playing some puzzle video games like The Witness. I think it's more engaging and visually stimulating than watching a TV show.