M.F.A. Illustration Alumna Wins Prestigious Award in Los Angeles
Don’t bring Jessica Tung Chi Lee to a construction site, unless you want to spend a day among excavators and bulldozers. The artist has a fascination with all things mechanical and is known to spend hours photographing and sketching all the little details. Nurtured during childhood visits to sites in Taipei, Taiwan, where her father worked as a civil engineer, her interest exploded as a student at Academy of Art University, where she was exposed to a whole new world of mechanical design.
“I was really impressed with the designs I saw. I wanted to do something like that too,” said the artist, who graduated with an M.F.A. in illustration in 2014.
During her time at the Academy, Lee refined her skills to a level of professionalism that not only landed her a job as a concept artist at San Francisco mobile game studio MunkyFun Inc., but earned her an L. Ron Hubbard Writers and Illustrators of the Future award. Recognizing excellence in science fiction illustration, the prestigious award is granted to 12 recipients each year, chosen from among thousands of submissions.
“It was a really cool experience,” Lee said about the awards ceremony, which took place on April 12, in Los Angeles. “I felt like I was at the Oscars. We got to give a speech and thank people, get dressed up and give lots of interviews.”
In addition to a $500 cash award, winners publish a piece in an anthology that features both science fiction illustrators and writers. Lee’s piece, The Critical Moment, illustrates a scene from Martin L. Shoemaker’s story Unrefined, and appears in Writers of the Future Volume 31 (2015).
With its knobs and cables, screens and glowing red lights, the image showcases Lee’s exceptional talent for portraying light, her knack for drawing mechanical minutia and her proclivity for perspective—a skill perfected during her time at the Academy in Stephen Player’s Perspective for Illustrators class, which Lee calls “the best perspective class ever.”
“I developed a really strong foundation for perspective from that class,” she explained. “After that class I didn’t have to think too much about the rules of perspective in order to create a piece.” In fact, she got so good that Player now uses her final project as an example for how it should be done.
Lee said that classes like Player’s were crucial to developing her portfolio – an impressive cache of armored army tanks, sci-fi cityscapes and roving mechanical drills that could tackle the most treacherous terrain. She said her attraction to the sci-fi and fantasy genres lies in their ability to depict a reality that’s taken further into the future through the artist’s imagination. “Sci-fi is based on reality but it’s something more than reality. You can look forward to it,” she said. “And fantasy is the same, there’s magic in what the world will look like, how things will turn out.”
Reality, Lee says, offers continual inspiration. During one school break she spent weeks sketching construction vehicles. And she’s often studying light. “If I find the lighting is great I do a quick study for it so I know how I can use this lighting in the future, if I want this kind of lighting in my illustration,” she said.
At MunkyFun, Lee and her team are working on a military-style sci-fi game. One of the things she likes best about the job is bringing her drawings to life with 3-D modeling—a skill she’s mastered over the course of the past year and one her employers appreciate. “We are very lucky to have Jessica work for us here at MunkyFun Inc.,” said MunkyFun Art Manager Jana Bergevin. “She has an impressive and diverse portfolio and great work ethic. She continues to impress us with her ability to adapt to different styles and learn new programs quickly.”
Lee attributes her success to her dedication and urges art students to keep working and never give up. “After I got to the Academy, I realized how many great artists there are out there, and sometimes an aspiring artist can get discouraged by that fact, but as long as you keep trying, keep going, don’t give up, you will gradually get there. Everyone has a different pace. As long as you keep going, keep focusing, improving yourself every day, even just a little bit, eventually things will lead to where you want.”