Sophie Shen (W ’22), a creative from Maryland, sits on her bed in her Harnwell apartment. The room bursts with color and character—there’s artwork hung on most walls, a black tapestry with green leaves, and three frames filled with photographs. On her desk sits a small watercolor set and a corkboard full of lettering. Each frame captures small yet vivid moments.
“I’ve been doing art for as long as I can remember. Even as a child going to restaurants, I would get the kids menus with the pack of crayons. I would just doodle and draw in my free time. My passion for art only grew as I got older,” Sophie explains.
Sophie started taking art in grade school but also developed technical skills by taking lessons on the side. She began with drawing and painting, using colored pencils, gouache (an opaque watercolor), and oil paints. But as her strengths grew, so did her curiosity. Wanting to explore new techniques on her own, she learned how to use watercolors through Youtube tutorials, inspiration from Instagram artists, and tips from friends.
“When I was in middle school I went through a big DIY phase where I did thrifting and crafting,” she adds. In addition to paper and ink, Sophie worked with 3D materials. She flipped clothes, worked on beading, and made jewelry.
Sophie even started an Etsy shop, where she continues to sell artwork to this day. She specializes in bright floral prints and custom painted shoes. Over winter break, she diversified her offerings, trying her hand at custom painted jackets.
“One of the coolest projects I did was last year when I lived in Hill. One day I left a pair of shoes out to dry, and the next morning I got a note on a napkin that was from one of the cleaning staff members who said, ‘Hey I saw these shoes, could you do a pair for me?’ He wanted me to paint shoes for his and his wife's wedding,” Sophie says, “He wanted me to do a pair of wedding bands with their names [and] the date, customized with their colors, so that was really cool.”
In addition to providing a purpose, art also gives Sophie a tangible sense of belonging. “I really appreciate my art education, but I think part of the beauty of art is finding a community of people,” she says. “In high school, there was only a small group of kids who did art for four years. These are two of my best friends,” she adds, pointing to a portrait hanging to the left of her bed. “We became really close because we would spend every day together and after school and on weekends.”
At Penn, Sophie studies business analytics and marketing, mostly because she wanted to work with people and with data. Initially, it was difficult for Sophie to find a creative outlet.
“What I struggled with freshman year was feeling pretty constrained within Wharton. I didn't really find people who were studying the same thing as me but also had this side interest,” Sophie says. “A lot of people, when they get to college, they think they don't have time for hobbies anymore because they get caught up in pre–professionalism. I really struggled to find that kind of creative community.” Her struggle is one many creative students at Penn can relate to, given the intense academic environment.
Sophie rediscovered her passion for art the summer after her freshman year, when she was placed at a GRIP internship in Australia. She stayed there for eight weeks and was able to incorporate art into her everyday life through drawing workshops at bars and local studios. A postcard from one studio is pinned to her cork board.
“In Sydney, there's a lot of drawing clubs which are held at local bars and art studios. You just go in and for $10 and two hours you sit with a glass of wine and they have a live, nude model and you just draw,” Sophie says. She points to the top of her closet, where one of the drawings her friends created is tucked away, bold strokes of black popping out from soft blocks of color to form human figures.
“A lot of my past with art has been very perfectionist. I'm very meticulous. Freshman year, it was a lot more stressful whenever I did it. I felt like I had to make it perfect because I didn't do it much,” Sophie says. “Being in Australia and doing art every day and meeting different types of artists—I finally got creative freedom again, and that was just really special to me.”
Behind the chair at Sophie’s desk, there are three landscape watercolors depicting scenes from nature and life in Australia. These pieces feel warm and sunny and inviting, mirroring the “artistic revelation” Sophie underwent during freshman year.
One way that Sophie has found this community at Penn is through her fine arts minor. “Taking art classes was really awesome for me because the[y] are a lot smaller than lectures— there are only 10 to 15 people in them,” she says. “You do a lot of critiques and you really get to know your classmates well.” Sophie has even made several close friends from each class she’s taken. In FNAR–264 (Arts, Design, and Digital Culture), she even met her future roommate.
Yet the art community Sophie has since found on campus looks very different from the community she had in high school. She has used her opportunities at Penn to explore different forms of art, like graphic design. She explains, “It's challenged and pushed me a lot because it's something that was outside of my comfort zone ... what’s exciting about art is that there’s so much more to explore.”
Sophie starts rattling off all of the things she hopes to explore, like embroidery, painting jeans, and painting ukuleles. While showing me examples of her new projects, she says, “there’s always just a constant list of things I want to try.”
On the same note, Sophie has also used arts to explore something deeper than new textiles: her familial roots. For the concentration section of her AP Studio Art portfolio, which focuses on and explores a central theme, she “portrays the juxtaposition of Chinese and American culture, not in the ways that they contrast, but in the way that they complement each other because each piece is very cohesive." In her concentration, she seamlessly blends elements of food, history, and pride together in the twelve pieces: tea flows easily into a Starbucks cup, a Chinese ornament looks right at home on a Christmas tree.
“My parents are both from China and I grew up in the US,” Sophie says, “A lot of my childhood was begging my parents to let me quit Chinese school or saying that I didn't want to eat this for dinner tonight. But I think one thing about art is that it's also connected me to the Asian American art community. A lot of the artists that inspire me are Asian American.”
Last semester, these pieces were hung in PAACH for the “inVISIBLE Art Gallery” during Asian Pacific-Islander American Heritage Week, which was hosted by the Asian Pacific Student Coalition and akDPhi. Now, the 12 pieces are arranged carefully on the right wall of Sophie’s bedroom. They form a cohesive rectangle, one that looks so precise they feel connected. For Sophie, art and life work in tandem. Each moment Sophie mentions corresponds to a piece of artwork in her room.
“A lot of people come up to me, and tell me that they think it's really cool I still do art in college. I think that what happens to a lot of people is that they get to college and they stop doing the things they love because they feel like it's not going to help them in their career,” Sophie says. “Loving something is enough of a reason to do it.”