Studio Session with Phoenix Painter and Muralist Shela Yu

Chris MalloyMay 26, 2021
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By the time painter and illustrator Shela Yu was 11, she was drawing fairies and mermaids on her bedroom walls. Today, most of the 32-year-old Chinese American artist’s work lives in sketchbooks, PDF files and as murals emblazoned on building façades.

Her painting has a kinetic yet calming energy. “I like watching clouds move across the sky,” she says. “I like the way incense smoke scatters across the room. There’s a natural movement that I like to include in my pieces.”

The wispy woman she brushed on the Melrose restaurant Belly Kitchen & Bar, whose third eye is crying, has hair flowing across two walls. In Yu’s murals, hair tends to swirl, water to drip, plants to tremble in the wind.

Recently, Yu, who has taken art classes throughout her life, traded her Garfield apartment studio for one at Pemberton PHX near Roosevelt Row. Sometimes, she works out in the fast-moving world. Yu takes a balletic approach to murals. “You have to put your whole body into the way that you paint when you’re doing large scale,” she says. “I have a love for dancing, so it becomes this full-body experience as opposed to just my elbows and my wrists.”

Mesa native Yu is set to start a mural inside Mekong Plaza that will be about “unifying AAPI voices.” It stems from a feeling that, in the past, she hasn’t fully belonged. “My work intends to create representations,” she says. “Often, I’ll take images of Asian people, so it’s more about having that representation within the landscape I live in.”

In the wake of rising violence against Asian Americans, Yu’s work has started shifting. “I’m fine-tuning what my message is right now,” she says. “I want these women to be strong, bold, feminine figures that aren’t willing to be trampled anymore. I want these women to say a lot.”

iPad and Procreate
Yu’s range includes digital art. Many of these pieces are blueprints for larger-format work. “I have all the other apps, but I always come back to Procreate, because the brushes are just wonderful.”

Benjamin Moore Paint
Yu gravitates toward “deep yellows,” “deep teal,” and “dusty lavender.” A curated color palette lends her work emotion, whether via a keyhole opening from a pool of azure into starry space, the purple of desert mountains or the muted gold of leaves.

Bluetooth Speaker & 1970s Music
When painting alone or with another artist, Yu likes to pump tunes. “I like to listen to upbeat funk or disco.”

Peter Pauper Press Journal & Uni-Ball Signo Pen
Yu keeps a thick-paged journal. With a .28-mm ballpoint pen, she likes to do “free-sketching, where I’m feeling shapes and images and people and
letting it come out that way.”