The visual arts sector continues to grow at a rapid rate integrating applications of artistic and technological talent into the entertainment, fashion, and marketing industries across the world. Students are clamoring for more educational opportunities to get a head start on careers that often begin well before cap and gown ceremonies at the hand of doodlers across the nation.
With such a profound need for art skills in growing career sectors, it’s often puzzling how art programs are one of the most affected by budget cuts in education. Even with the $263 billion Education Stabilization Fund (ESF) earmarking certain funds for art programs, the upcoming years face future uncertainties for art initiatives.
Many teachers and advocates recognize the value the arts have in expression, connection, healing and future career endeavors. For instance, advocates on the City Council in New York and Roundtable’s, It Starts with the Arts are pushing for a 2022-23 increase from $79.62 per student to $100. They recognize the direct value of the arts in individual learning and the connection it brings to community and the expression of culture.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with award-winning artist and podcaster Rich Tu to shed some light on how art not only propelled a career but also allowed for a means to express cultural understanding and connection.
As a first-generation Filipino-American and award-winning designer, Rich Tu resides in Brooklyn, NY, where he is Group Creative Director at Jones Knowles Ritchie in NYC. He has worked creatively for numerous well-known companies and brands, including MTV Entertainment Group at ViacomCBS, Nike, Alfa Romeo, Bombay, Adidas, Converse, American Express, The New York Times, NPR, and remarkably, many others.
As the host of his Webby Award Honoree podcast, First Generation Burden, Tu is using the platform to bring greater awareness of the intersection of immigrants with the creative community and industry.
Rod Berger: You created the First Generation Burden podcast, and I imagine that each word you selected for the title had meaning for you. I want to dive into being an immigrant in this country. How has it impacted your sense of design and the lens with which you work? Could you talk about the podcast and its meaning for you?
Rich Tu: Absolutely. First Generation Podcast is something that entered my life as a sort of catharsis and an endeavor to tell stories. I wanted to create a platform to open discussions on the intersection of immigrants in the creative community.
In 2016, during the election cycle, I think we all knew what was said about the immigrant community at that time. There was a negative connotation to the term immigrant, a term which I love and a point of pride for myself and my family. My parents immigrated here from the Philippines.
At the time, the word ‘immigrant’ had become twisted and politicized in a way that turns your stomach and makes you feel ‘othered’ and enhances a feeling of being a perpetual foreigner, specifically in my instance, the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community. But it affected so many on a broader spectrum with immigrants overall.
The title of the podcast was meant to reference being a first-generation immigrant and also the burden of what that term meant at the time. Also, the word ‘burden’ equates to a responsibility that is especially pronounced within the immigrant community. There’s a burden that we feel involving our parents, our culture, and all those back home because of the generational leap one takes to leave and go to a new place.
There’s a comedian I quite love, Ronny Chieng. He talks about it a lot actually in his stand-up routines. He mentions that you can change your family’s life within one or two generations by being an immigrant. I recognize that it’s a loaded title, First-Gen Burden the podcast, but overall, the content tends to be very light-hearted and fun. We talk mostly about creativity.
There are other connection points, but there is definitely a social activist and personal storytelling component. But again, it’s playful in set up and I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all heavy (ha).
Finding a Voice
Berger: If art imitates life, and I substitute voice for art, does the voice in a podcast from an immigrant allow for a connection to life? Sadly, if we don’t create opportunities, then immigrants can struggle to move outside of society’s shadows, so to speak. Are you giving voice in a way that allows people to come out and embrace their own truth and experience? How do you see it as an artist?
Tu: I think you summed it up beautifully. It’s about giving voice to a story, speaking with pride, credibility, and validity but not out of acceptability or necessity. You are putting it out into the world and allowing others to absorb and understand it as a shared experience.
It’s a podcast with identity first, and we like to speak about identity; we’re very open to talking about it. And it’s been a range of different types of conversations.
We talk to a lot of leaders in the podcast. I remember a conversation with my friend Veda Partalo, a VP at Spotify. She tells a beautiful, sad and triumphant tale of being in a transitional refugee camp for a year and a half in the ‘90s coming from Bosnia Herzegovina. I also spoke to a first-gen Iranian, Melody Ehsani, Creative Director for women’s business at Foot Locker. She talked about her faith and her creative process. She is an amazing designer with her own brand. We are trying to demonstrate “immigrant excellence” with a sense of pride.
Early Start in Art
Berger: Let’s talk about your art background. What was 10-year-old Rich like? Were you confident, bold, brash, shy and did your style already express itself at a young age? What were you like as a student and what effect did it have on your art?
Tu: 10-year-old Rich was probably a comic book nerd hanging out in the suburbs of New Jersey. I was pretty artistic, drawing all the time. The first drawing I remember is Leonardo, the Ninja Turtle. I did a life drawing, a character study of that toy and I was around eight or nine, thinking it wasn’t so bad.
In school, my art was positively reinforced by my classmates in my cohort growing up. I was the kid in the elementary class, essentially doing all the other students’ art projects for them. In high school, my art further developed.
I wanted to become an editorial illustrator actually and was studying toward that. After graduating from Rutgers University, I studied illustration in earnest and that’s where I realized the road to creating a career. Overall, in my early days, I consumed tons of content, culture and film that informed the space I occupy now.
Education and Mentorship
Berger: What about your background, family, or culture supported your artistic expression? Did you stumble into it, or did you have mentors? Using the metaphor of a lead frontman vs. a studio musician, you strike me as the lead, someone who found their own paintbrush and canvas. The next generation is all about individual branding and opportunity, so could you talk about taking that lead approach?
Tu: I love that metaphor, the session musician and the lead. My dad was an architect, and one of his key ways of bonding with me was to show me a continuous line drawing as a study technique. So, that was one of the things that kind of set me on my creative path and validated it for me.
My mother was a physician who enhanced that STEM or STEAM approach with artistry associated. My parents were my early mentors, but my mentor aperture evolved and expanded. We have a surprisingly creative extended family.
My brother-in-law is Jayson Atienza, and we are similar in age. He’s a brilliant advertising creative and an amazing artist. He recently collaborated with the Knicks and Madison Square Garden. He encouraged me to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Further down the line is my brother-in-law Ron Oliver, who is married to my brother Eric. Ron is a director for Hallmark movies, Disney, Nickelodeon, and many other studios. I enjoy talking to Ron about directing cinema and career longevity. These are the people that I’m so blessed to say are my family.
Within education, one of my favorite mentors who recently passed away was Marshall Arisman. He was the chairman of the School of Visual Arts MFA Illustration as Visual Essay. He did the original cover for Brett Easton Ellis’s book American Psycho and a famous cover for TIME magazine of Darth Vader.
I was fortunate to have so many mentors from my family all the way through my education. It always gave me the sense that I can be the lead, like the metaphor you reference.
I’m the type of lead that likes to play all the instruments or at least be knowledgeable of all the instruments, kind of like Prince. He was an amazing vocalist, crushed the guitar, and was an incredible drummer. Prince would create all his tracks and, if he wanted, could sit on someone else’s track as a guest. So that’s the kind of approach I like to take.
I learned a great deal in the commercial industry and in global branding at MTV, Nike, and others. I find it helps to have knowledge of a pipeline and multiple creative streams to lead in this space.
As art continues to intersect with cultural awareness and career, traditional job models are giving way to more integrated creative pathways that join expression to community.
Tu’s First Generation Burden podcast takes a serious look at immigrants in America wanting to make an indelible difference while battling cultural ‘isms.’ The burden Tu speaks of might be associated with community support systems needing to up the proverbial ante on cultural inclusiveness to support new and expanded experiences of community.
While Tu can paint the picture he envisions, he just might need assistance handing out paint brushes to his fellow community members.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.