To empower others, Hyesu Lee shares her stories through funny, personable and moving comics
The New York-based illustrator uses the comics medium as a means to connect with others, as well as work through the ups and downs of everyday life.
- Ruby Boddington
- 6 May 2021
Connecting with others – empowering them or simply making them smile – is what drives Seoul-born, New York-based illustrator Hyesu Lee (it’s pronounced like HeySu, so everyone calls her Hey!). Growing up shy, drawing became her preferred means of communication and expression and, over time, Hyesu realised it allowed her to observe and learn about others, and so she developed a practice rooted in sharing the small, everyday experiences that connect us all throughs short comics.
“I always gravitate towards small moments in daily life that make you go ‘aha!’ or ‘hmm’ or ‘aww’,” Hyesu explains. In fact, “being able to create and share those appreciative moments using loose and humorous comics” is exactly what draws her to illustration over other creative mediums. Having moved to London in her mid-20s to study illustration at the University of the Arts London, she then headed to New York where she earned an MFA from the School of Visual Arts staying in the city and working as an illustrator, artist, muralist and educator for the past 12 years.
Hyesu initially pursued a commercial career to tackle financial and visa difficulties. But of late – particularly since the pandemic began, providing a moment of reflection and pause – Hyesu’s comics practice has morphed into “a personal oasis” and a way to meditate on where she comes from. She’s “creating work that is about love and connection and hope”, embracing the medium as a way to “share my stories in order to empower others”.
Key to the success of Hyesu’s work is the personable tone of voice and relatable narratives that have become her signature. “Anything warm and cheerful is contagious,” she explains. “Sharing my struggles and vulnerability using these light-hearted comics has not only helped me to come out of my own ups and downs to become a stronger and better person, but also the response was quite eye-opening from people around me and it created a sense of connection.” Dedicating more time to her burgeoning comics has been as cathartic for Hyesu as it has been for her audience.
To get inspiration for these comics, Hyesu keeps one eye firmly fixed on what’s happening around her at all time; “everyday life, small conversations I have with strangers, my commute to work, seeing people, talking with a bodega shop owner, chatting with my friends, things online.” She jots down words and ideas, forming initial sketches from these fragmented and disparate observations. The results are comics that feel familiar, all the more painful or funny for the fact that you know exactly how that situation feels.
There’s another side to Hyesu’s practice though, in that sometimes her comics deliver crucial education in the form of personal stories. Like a piece titled Stop Asian Hate, for example, in which Hyesu adeptly communicates the fear and anxiety that many in the Asian community feel, especially in the wake of escalating hate crimes since the pandemic started. The comic is simple in its aesthetic but its impact is bold and impossible to ignore. Elsewhere in her portfolio, Hyesu tackles misogyny, xenophobia, body positivity, urban anxiety, self-love and more. It’s this expression of vulnerability in a totally honest and open way that makes Hyesu’s work so easy to connect with.
Looking to the future, we’re glad to hear that Hyesu has no plans to stop creating this kind of work anytime soon. “I’d love to continue on my journey as an illustrator and keep creating content all about sharing and becoming a vehicle to lift each other up,” she says. “Hopefully, I will have an opportunity to have my comics published one day along with exhibitions at a gallery, which means I’ll finally give birth to this project that was put away for all those years.” She also hopes to do more community engagement as and when this becomes safe to do so and continue practising self-love in and outside of her creative practice. To conclude, Hyesu leaves us with the wise words of RuPaul Charles: “If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Hyesu Lee: Everybody is Beautiful (Copyright © Hyesu Lee, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.