”’Kyu’ is the sound a baby seal makes. You can listen to it on Youtube by searching for ‘baby seal crying.’”
It’s not all article research that involves watching videos of cute little marine mammals, but when writing about Hikari Shiba, a self-professed ”baby seal illustrator” from Japan, it kind of becomes necessary.
‘Kyu’ is the name of Hikari’s main character – a playful and cute little baby seal. Kyu pops up in many different places – from teaching children their ABCs to hanging out with celebrities such as David Bowie or Salvador Dali. Even though he is a baby, Kyu has been around for almost two decades.
”When I was small, I fell in love with a baby seal soft toy at an aquarium in Tokyo. Since then, I’ve been drawing ‘Kyu’ for more than 19 years.” Hikari does not think Kyu will ever grow up – “but he’s a special baby so he can do anything he wants to do.”
Since drawing had been Hikari’s great passion for so long, she was naturally interested in going to art school. But after finding no attractive alternatives, she instead elected to try a degree in English literature.
“I was enjoying learning English at my high school at that time. But to be honest, I was more interested in learning English and [learning about] Western culture than English literature itself. So why did I choose English literature? Because I thought that through learning English Literature, I would be able to understand Western culture and history.”
Even though Hikari was not in art school, her passion for illustration could not be suppressed. She wrote a dissertation on Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, a popular illustrated children’s book, when she was a final year student.
“While I was researching into her [Beatrix Potter’s] life and work, I realised that I had a desire to be a children’s book illustrator, like her. But I was trying to ignore my desire because I thought it would be too late to start pursuing my goal to be an illustrator and I started job hunting in different areas like the other students around me.”
However, Hikari’s health condition stopped her job hunting at that time. After recovering and being encouraged by her parents, she finally decided to follow her dream and took up an illustration degree at the University of Arts in London.
Hikari likes the flexibility and possibilities inherent in illustration. “Illustration can be found on walls, in newspapers, on food menus, on biscuit tins, on clothes – almost everywhere in our daily lives. And most of them convey someone else’s message (e.g. a company, an organisation, a politician…), not only that of the illustrator him/herself.
“I think illustrators add more value to the original message through their own unique filter. For me, illustration is the best platform to achieve what I want to do – work with people to create value for people.”
Hikari draws inspiration from chatting with family and friends to visiting museums and antique shops. When imagining the personalities and backgrounds of the artists she sees, she gets inspired to draw new work or polish old ideas. Her favourite mediums are water colour and colour pencil.
But let’s not forget Kyu here! Hikari’s treasured character finally stepped into the spotlight at the end of her illustration degree – during which she had never shown to anyone from fear of being copied or criticised.
”I gradually found my illustration course to be torturously hard. I didn’t enjoy what I drew during the course at all because I drew something else, not Kyu. I didn’t realise or maybe I kind of ignored the fact that Kyu is what I feel most joyful and happiest drawing. I think I was trying to be good at drawing something else.
One day, however, my tutor found my Kyu doodles on a small piece of paper which I accidentally put in my sketchbook. He said: ’This is the best drawing you’ve done in this class! I can see great potential in this character.’ That was an eye-opening moment. I had never imagined Kyu would receive such an encouraging comment. From that point, I gradually started showing Kyu to my friends and other illustrators.”
”I’ve gotten very positive reactions from the audience. I’m always encouraged by hearing people say that he’s compassionate, intelligent and funny. I’m happy when I hear people say ‘Kyu is cute’ too, but when I see or hear people show their interest in the message that Kyu tries to impart (e.g. environmental issues, historical background, etc), I regard my illustration as successful.
”Besides environmental problems, Kyu wants to work for children’s education, health and safety. He is also concerned about overhunting of his fellow seals and animals, and he’s planning to visit nursing institutions to heal people’s hearts.”
As you might have gathered by now, Hikari has a deep attachment to water and the ocean. Her motifs are often marine-based, with fishes being another preferred subject – ”their shape, scales and body movement are so enticing. Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces.. I can just sit on the beach or watch fish swimming in a tank for hours.”
When asked what else she could have pictured herself studying, the answer is clear: ”It would be oceanography. I find working at an aquarium or on a ship as fascinating as working as an illustrator.”
After finishing her ABC book of the ocean, Hikari is planning to continue the concept in other themes such as the forest, the kitchen or school. Her ”Kyu and celebrity” illustrations have prompted her friends to ask her for their own portraits with Kyu, which is another project she’s now working on. Lastly, she is enjoying doing window drawings regularly at a fishmonger’s in North London.
”My long-term plan is to establish a Kyu brand by producing a series of children’s books and comics and collaborating with various companies and organisations. I want to open Kyu galleries in Tokyo and London where people can meet Kyu at anytime.”
”I find my happiness and joy can make other people happy and joyful. I feel a bit sorry for Kyu for ignoring his potential for such a long time…but now, I can say proudly: Kyu is my best own unique illustration. I hope Kyu will offer many children and parents the opportunity to share fun and precious times together, like I did with my parents when I was little.”