May Xiao (E’21) is as busy as a Penn student can be: on top of chipping away at her Systems Engineering major, she writes for Penn Tech Review, works on MUSE Consulting’s PromoWeb team, serves as a graphic designer for The Consul, and is a sister of Sigma Psi Zeta. She also loves to dance, and spends much of her time in newly discovered downtown cafés. But when she’s not attending to her commitments or grinding away at CIS homework, she’s creating art.
When May was younger, she lived in Shanghai for several years; the Shanghai cityscapes, she says, stick with her to this day and continue to influence her art. As a kid, she took art classes—she recalls learning basic skills, such as drawing shapes, and even working with watercolor and acrylic, but she feels as if she didn’t retain much of what she learned during that time. In fact, her technique and medium deviate pretty significantly from what she learned in class. To create her art, May once used a drawing tablet and a paint tool software called FireAlpaca (which she called “a meme ripoff version of photoshop”). She now uses an iPad Pro.
May doesn't hesitate when asked about the most meaningful piece she has created: “I can think of one art piece, which I worked on while waiting all day at the airport. It’s of a guy sitting inside a ramen shop, a cityscape behind him. This was the first time I felt like I’d really translated the image and feeling in my mind into a tangible piece. Whenever I look at the piece, I remember exactly the feeling I was trying to convey: long walks with friends, Chinatown late at night, the vibe of the neon lights, the warmth of food and of being with people that make me happy.”
May values her role models, and notes that she is often influenced by how other artists create their work. More recently, she has found herself inspired by Instagram account @klokloshoo’s narratives and carefree style, and May has even begun to experiment with short comics herself. She is also a big fan of Michelle Kwon’s art style and animations.
May is also heavily inspired by video games, as well as the old–school movies and animated Japanese films that she watched when growing up. Even her time set aside to recharge—listening to chill R&B songs, playing video games, and watching movies—serves as creative refuel. Recently, she played The Red Strings Club, a cyberpunk adventure game with a visual style that matches her own aesthetic, and watched The Garden of Words. As she says, both have served as sources of inspiration for her art.
May's work recently started to gain recognition when Lovelea, an emerging clothing brand founded by Wharton student Lea Chen, approached her for a few shirt designs. Since it was a collaboration, May took a good amount of suggestions from Lea: “I normally wouldn’t have thought of some of the designs, such as the tea design and the pocket design, but I’m really glad I got to collaborate with Lea, since her ideas allowed me to experiment with something new in my own designs. It was really enjoyable and rewarding.”
Most artists are more driven by their imagination rather than their emotions, but May definitely creates more with her heart than her mind. Each of her pieces relates to a memory or feeling, and although she doesn't consider herself an emotional person on a day–to–day basis, she admits that creating art is a way for her to lay bare her spirit.