Mimi Chao is an LA-based artist with a very fascinating journey of pursuing a career in a creative field. She is the creator and business owner of Mimochai, her art shop where she sells her projects through prints and physical merchandise. After Mimi achieved her goal of working with her dream firm Latham & Watkins, she realized that this career was not aligning with her true self. After taking a leap of faith and leaving her nine-to-five job, Mimi discovered that she could become a freelance illustrator. In 2015, she left the salaried world and began working for herself. Seven years later, Mimochai is successful, and is a dream come true for Mimi. Mimi is currently a soon-to-be certified meditation teacher and utilizes mindfulness practices in her creative pursuits.
Photos Taken By: Andrew Castro Photography
7500 Magazine: What types of art do you create and how would you describe your artistic style?
Mimi Chao: My artistic style has evolved since I started, but it's always been, maybe even on a subconscious level a reflection of my personal journey. When I started, my dream was to make picture books, and I did make those. And one of the ones that I did was called Let's Go Explore. The book was on its surface about these two little kids exploring the world and understanding what it means, but it is also a reflection of my own journey of kind of starting out not understanding what it really means to live a meaningful life and having to learn how to be lost to find my way back to myself. While my current work is still digital, I've also learned traditional painting as well. Doing so, can help me find my own way to express my identity and views on life and hopefully share concepts that I found helpful in my journey through art. 7500 Magazine: What are the visible influences of your ethnic identity in your artistic style?
Mimi Chao: My ethnic identity is something I wasn't really cognizant or intentionally thinking of when I first started my artistic journey. At the time I didn't think that much about my cultural influences. Looking back and now even more clearly, growing up I loved Sailor Moon. I loved Hayao Miyazaki, all the Totoro and Princess Mononoke, and that inevitably seeped into what I like. I think there's a clear merging of East and West influences in what I do. Now it's a lot more intentional. I've developed a deep interest in looking at traditional Chinese and Japanese ink, brush painting, and woodblock prints. The East Asian approach to art is very spiritual and it is a lot about expressing the spirit of the artist rather than rendering a super realistic look and is about the artist becoming one with the brush and internalizing the spirit of what they are observing and expressing it through their artwork, and I just love the beauty of that. I don't want to recreate the traditional practice in some ways. I would see the restraining part of that practice as that you have to copy your teachers for years before you're allowed to move on to your style. Pulling the parts that resonate with you from different practices and bringing them together is part of what I find beautiful about creative practice. And now, in my work, it might not be obvious right away. But if you look at it, there's a lot of negative space. There's a lot of gesture and flow that I feel really pulls from that traditional practice, and I also combine it with the more graphic illustration style that is more popular in the West.
7500 Magazine: On your website, when talking about your childhood, you stated creativity was seen as something you grew out of, not something you turned into a career. Could you elaborate on this?
MC: That's what was ingrained in me from others mostly, parental figures and society. When I was growing up, especially, in the Asian American Community, creativity was not seen as a viable career path. It wasn't seen as something worthwhile to pursue seriously. At most, you know, a hobby on the side if that and I was always creative growing up. I distinctly remember hearing ‘You’ll grow out of it’ from my Dad and him being like, “Don't think of it as a career option because you'll grow out of it, and you'll lose interest in it eventually”. There's a part of me that believed that in a way because I didn’t have any role models in creative fields as a kid. I thought everyone who looks like me, follows this other path. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't something I was growing out of. If anything, I felt that it was getting louder and louder, and I really missed that side of me. I think it's a great point to emphasize that it's not just like everyone needs to draw, or everyone needs to be a visual artist to be creative. I just think it's such an innate human skill that we should all be honing and encouraging in kids and young adults. For example, scientists, I would want them to be super creative and come up with new inventions, or anyone in any field can find ways to improve their craft, and that takes creativity. Creativity is to me a muscle that we all have, but you need to work it out and believe that you can grow it. If you think you just don't even have it, then there's no way to continue to grow that muscle. I believe, the more people who are in touch with their creativity and express it in the world, the better off everyone will be.
"I didn’t have any role models in creative fields as a kid. I thought everyone who looks like me, follows this other path. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't something I was growing out of. If anything, I felt that it was getting louder and louder, and I really missed that side of me."
7500 Magazine: What kind of Asian and gender-based stereotypes did you feel were an obstacle reaching success in life? MC: I think that's an interesting question. I grew up in the 626 in Alhambra, an Asian-dominant neighborhood in Los Angeles. In one sense, I never felt like a minority or the only Asian person, nor was I ostracized for my race. At the same time, I realized I was in a bubble, I could tell I was in a unique situation. I understood that there were perceptions about my culture, ethnicity, and gender and it coming together creates the “passive Asian girl”. I never experienced a direct “you can't do this because you're this way”, but there are these unspoken currents or feelings. Especially growing up without that creative role model, I feel like the cultural side played a big part in that. There was a time when I felt frustrated with my parents, but now looking back, I feel they did their best and they are a product of their generation and meant well. I don't blame them. Now it's on our generation to move past that and continue to evolve. I worked at Latham and Watkins, they pushed so hard for diversity. There were more Asians there than at many other firms that I interviewed at and that was one of the main reasons why I worked there. Even despite their best efforts, you see these different ethnic and gender norms play out. There were so many Asian women at the lower junior associate rank, and they worked so hard. It’s so common that Asian females are like these cherished associates because there are such “obedient workers”, but you don't see them rise to the top because they tend to not speak up for themselves. They don't put themselves out there for the raise or the promotion. That's another thing that I feel passionate about, to encourage Asian females specifically, but also Asians in general to hone that communication ability to be able to feel like they can stand up for themselves or know how to speak about their work in a way where they don't feel like they're bragging, or complaining. Being in the creative world there is a lot less of a sense that it does not matter what your gender or ethnicity is, which is beautiful at the same time, my motivation is geared more toward representation. I do feel that I was so inspired to see other people who were like me working in the creative field that to pay it forward by being present, and showing and sharing what I do, is something that I feel that it's important to just be there like you said, other people can think like, “oh, I can do that too'', this normalized it and making it seem like you don't have to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer. There are many other ways to thrive now.
7500 Magazine: I was wondering how you use mindfulness practices in your creative process as well?
MC: Yes, that is my big passion now, along with creativity. I would say I grew up where mindfulness wasn't a conversation growing up. I think that’s very common in my generation and I would say when I left the law firm, I was just focused on the creative path. Now I realize it is very integral to the mindfulness path, the self-reflection, and going within, but I didn't think that's what I was doing at the time. I was just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I would say I was very not mindful in the sense that I was always living in the future. I was always thinking about what was next. I think that's a very common thing that gets ingrained in you by the way that our education is set up and the way that our lives are generally set up. I recognized that in myself as I was getting into the creative field. I didn't even see it as an issue. I published a picture book. I remember when I started, that was my dream. Then I worked with Disney and I would have thought that was my dream, but I felt every time I reached these goals, I was waiting for what comes next. How do I achieve even more success? Or like this small project with this company was great, but how about a bigger project? Although I was doing what I love, and this was my dream, I still felt this sense of dissatisfaction or constant striving and not enough inside. That made me think, what am I missing? The creative path started naturally dovetailing with this mindfulness meditation path because I found that the meditation path helps me the most in terms of teaching me ways to ground myself and shifting my perspective in a much healthier way. Learning to be in the present moment and to approach life with a lot more ease there were just so many things I had to unlearn along the way that I don't think just being creative and doing what you love will lead you to that path. There are so many creatives that are still unhappy. I feel like meditation, and mindfulness practice is beneficial to anyone in any field, and I just find for me personally so much overlap between mindfulness and creativity. It's all about becoming aware, learning to see and observe, and being able to see the beauty in the world. That's an obvious tie between art and creativity and the lessons of being able to approach things with ease and going with the flow is such a healthier way to approach any journey in life. You can enjoy both the present moment and still move forward. It doesn't mean you become content with where you are, and then you just don't move. To try to put it in today's terms, I feel like you can get ahead by slowing down because it's not that you just become complacent, it's that you strengthen yourself from within and then can move forward with a lot more clarity and intention rather than just constantly scurrying towards the next goal. Practicing meditation kind of helps you become mindful of everything, including yourself. The whole concept of you're not in control of what necessarily happens to you, but you can be completely in control of how you react to things is important regardless of what you want to do.
" I feel like meditation, and mindfulness practice is beneficial to anyone in any field, and I just find for me personally so much overlap between mindfulness and creativity. It's all about becoming aware, learning to see and observe, and being able to see the beauty in the world."
7500 Magazine: What is your advice for artists and how to market their work?
MC: I will start by saying that I hate marketing! Hate is a strong word, but marketing is not something that comes naturally to me. A lot of creatives can relate, or a lot of Asian girls can relate to that feeling of putting yourself out there. Talking about yourself comes with this ick factor that is hard to shake and I try to spend time meditating on what part of that is genuine, and what part of that is this cultural gender bias that has been put on me. I try to free myself of those constructs and honor the fact that I am an Asian woman, and that's beautiful! Coming to embrace the challenges and the benefits is part of my experience, and so marketing has always been something that I struggle with. I would say in the beginning I was so lucky to be on Instagram at a time when it was early, there wasn't the algorithm, and there were not many artists on Instagram, so I felt very free. That said, I also recognized nowadays, there's just so much noise and it's very hard to market yourself or get that kind of attention. Artists are mostly asking this question because they want to know how to gain followers. I would say I know it's hard, I'm not saying that this is easy, but there's this great book called Man Search for Meaningby Viktor Frankel and he's a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist. He is asked at some point in the book, how you reach success, and he says that to reach success, it's best to not aim for success, you know, just focus on your conscience and you're calling. Do it to the best of your ability and then success and happiness will follow. If you focus on why you are creating art, hopefully, it's for some true genuine calling or purpose inside. Get good at your skill. Don't beat yourself up along the way that you're not good enough, because everyone goes through that learning process as a beginner, but I find so many people want to be famous and good right away without putting in the time. It doesn't need to be this torturous experience but rather, wow, what a beautiful opportunity to be a student and to get good at what I do and to offer something beautiful to the world. Also, there's that saying, be so good that they can't ignore you. I think that's true, even no matter how noisy the world is if you're good at what you do it's going to work out, and success will follow. Ideally enjoying the process and doing it for yourself to ultimately help others, then it's the best of both worlds. Eventually, you'll reach success, have that patience, and then enjoy the process along the way don't feel beat up when the early sketches that you post on Instagram don't gain you 100,000 followers, that's fine! Market yourself in the sense of trying to share your authentic self as much as you can. Don't try to be something you're not for the sake of the algorithm or what you think is going to be popular. Especially as we move into this AI world where it's easy to produce beautiful art in some ways and further and further into this metaverse, people are going to resonate with humanity, honest stories, and real people. So many artists are very introverted, and I am too, but I do think as we move forward, learning how to communicate and share a genuine story is going to be a big part of how to market or share yourself as an artist. For me, changing the word marketing and market to sharing and share has helped me a lot! Think about it from a viewpoint of, how can I share something that is genuine to me but is also going to help somebody else. So that would be my advice on how to approach art in marketing.
"Get good at your skill. Don't beat yourself up along the way that you're not good enough, because everyone goes through that learning process as a beginner, but I find so many people want to be famous and good right away without putting in the time. It doesn't need to be this torturous experience but rather, wow, what a beautiful opportunity to be a student and to get good at what I do and to offer something beautiful to the world."