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Made in the Caribbean: An Interview with Designer Shiny Abbott

Shiny Abbott hails from the Dominican Republic and calls Korea her second home. Her mixed media design has gained a loyal following on social media, gathering fans from around the world. Her work has already made an impact in her own country through numerous collaborations and a self-run business. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Shiny to discuss the future of her art, life in Korea, and what inspires her.

I get to the cafe early to mentally and physically prepare myself for my long-awaited visitor. As I sip on my burnt coffee, it strikes me that Shiny Abbott and I haven’t met for nearly two years. We first met in 2019 during an ‘influencer’ event (although what I was doing there, I have yet to understand). Between coronavirus, Shiny traveling back to her homeland, her MA graduation, and my chaotic Ph.D. application… well, let’s just say time was limited. Although it had been longer than I remembered, our meeting was nothing less than exciting. Shiny’s sense of humor and bountiful enthusiasm bubble over into everything she puts on social media, so I felt as if we had remained close despite the time gap.

On the day of our meeting, I see Shiny break free from the sharp winter winds of Seoul as she enters the cafe, her signature fluffy jacket in tow. I can’t wait for her to place an order – hugs came first. Call me greedy. After an awkward side glance from the cashier, we decide it would probably be best to get a coffee.

When we eventually move the topic to her business, after an hour of simply catching up, I see the light shift in her eyes. The passion that Shiny exudes when talking about her art and, if I may be so bold to say, her need to create, is obvious to anyone meeting Shiny for the first time.

We start at the beginning. What first inspired her to create? Shiny’s story starts further back than I expected: to when she was only three years old.

“I remember my dad kept my first drawing,” she says with a nostalgic smile. “I was three-and-a-half years old and I did it with Paint on the computer.”

Ah, paint. The start of all 90s babies artistic genius or downfall. Mine was the latter.

“He still has it in his office in a frame,” she continues. “He could see I drew too well for my age. I also learned how to read when I was four years old, and could understand cursive at five years old. I look back at it now and I’m amazed.”

And she has every right to be. As a teacher of five-year-olds, the closest thing to Picasso that I’ve seen is a slightly lopsided portrait of Santa Claus. I take a moment to appreciate Shiny’s confidence – it’s a difficult trait to see in young people, particularly since the pandemic struck.

It becomes clear to me that Shiny’s parents played a huge role in her artistic career. “My mom encouraged me to read and write from a young age; I think my art started that way. I was influenced to use pens from early on.”

I then ask her if, due to her parents’ support, she studied design at university.

“I was actually going to study Civil Engineering.” She pauses for my surprised reaction. “My dad kind of kept it a secret that there were design degrees at the university where they taught. So, from high school, I told everyone that I was going to study Civil Engineering.”

Not a bad choice, per se, but I wondered where that side of her had gone.

“When I looked at the syllabus, I noticed there were design classes. I was like ‘What?! There’s design?!’. It was a degree called Industrial Design, so it focuses on products. I learned the seven material types.”

“What did your dad say?” I ask hesitantly.

“My dad said it was meant to be since I found out. And yeah, if I studied civil engineering, I wouldn’t regret it but…” She sucks in a sharp breath. “I don’t think I’d be the person I am now. I love the way I do things. I love the way my brain processes my creativity. The way I see the world and how it influences me to create…” Shiny says what we’re both sheepishly thinking: “It would be so boring to be an engineer.”

As we continue to chat, my mind keeps returning to Shiny’s degree: Industrial Design. It’s something I know very little about, and although I knew Shiny had dabbled in making products, I wondered if it played a part in her current work. I decide to ask if there was anything she learned that affects how she makes art today.

She thinks for a long moment, seeming to question whether or not her answer should be as honest as it was. “Yes and no. YouTube was very popular when I was in middle school. During high school, I used to make backgrounds of All Time Low, Panic at the Disco, and the Jonas Brothers for my friends.”

She didn’t need to be timid with me – I was a mid-90s baby. The JoBros were my jam. “Which one?” I ask with a raise of my brows.

She knows what I mean.

“I liked Joe,” she confesses.

“Good,” I sigh. “I liked Nick. Now we won’t have to fight.”

Back to the subject.

“My friends and I spent hours making videos. I was thirteen when I started using Sony Vegas. Now it’s so advanced; I can’t use it anymore. In high school, I also started to use Adobe Illustrator and PhotoShop but by the time I entered my design degree, I wasn’t using them. It was when I took my first course in graphic design that I thought, ‘Okay! I can do this again!’” She raises a positively clenched fist. “At the time, prop sticks for photoshoots were really popular on Pinterest, so I started making them for my friends and family.” I could see where this was headed. “Then everyone started ordering from me, and that’s how I started my company, ‘Jesuisbrillant’.”

Shiny Abbott, the pattern princess of Korea, started off with prop sticks? I was surprised, to say the least.

“I only had two dollars for printing when I started, but I could sell them at a much higher price. But eventually, I wanted to make the transition away from only personalized items. After coming to Korea, I still do some personalized work here and there, but it was a good chance for me to say ‘Sorry, I can’t. I’m going to Korea.'”

And it was here in Korea, she stayed.

And that was when, I would soon discover, her design truly began to come into its own.

When I think of Shiny Abbott’s art, there’s one word that stands out: patterns. I ask her what it is about patterns that’s so attractive.

“I have a colleague from university who made a viral Instagram page. She showed people how to make patterns – not on the computer, but on paper. I just kept doing it because I loved it.”

Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

I take a moment to gush about how I love the shape of her hearts in particular. Shiny has a method where she often colors just outside of the lines, or adds small dashes and circles to frame the shapes, creating a sense of youthful nostalgia. It might appear simple at first glance, but the elegance of her drawings is something not many could capture on paper.

“I draw them on paper first and then put them into the computer. That’s why my hearts are so irregular. So, when I talk about my work, I prefer to call it mixed media. If I just did it all on the computer, it would be too easy. I want something about it to feel different: some irregularities.”

My mind starts to trail to the beautifully painted bedroom walls of Shiny’s Instagram, among other personal items she’s decorated in her unique style.

“My bedroom in the Dominican Republic has over seven coats of paint,” she laughs. “If you look at it from the side, it would probably stick out; it’s so thick. People think I have a big studio or something, but I actually just do it in my room.”

I have to stifle my jealousy somewhat, having lived in rented homes since I was seventeen.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she interjects. “I still want my own studio.”

Alright. So we’ve gotten to the roots of her pattern process. But what about the colors? It’s another staple of Shiny’s work: her bright color palette of neon green, purple, blue, and pink.

“I’m obsessed with pink,” she grins from ear to ear. “It’s my life. It’s my muse. And the greenish, neon color is a reminder of where I started. My last logo (for Jesuisbrillant) was black with a neon green star.”

And the purple?

“Purple is the perfect combination with pink, and it’s also important in color theory.”

I soon learn that color theory is very important in everything Shiny does, including her Instagram page. She laboriously tries to explain to my ignorant mind about color matching, cool and warm tones, and how they should be presented in an image or design. Although I’m still lost by the end of it, I start to see what she means when I take a look at her Instagram page. Although some of her colors are powerful, the entire feeling is ‘cool’.

“Following that theory, I wanted to choose colors that offset my main colors. For example, I never use black: I always use navy blue.”

I think of my own website, which seldom uses a truly pure black. I’ve noticed how the darkness of it contrasts with softer, earth tones I tend to use in my design.

I now want to know more about Shiny’s experience in Korea. How has it affected her work?

“Korea is the place that made me keep going with my designs.” Her tone is serious now, and I can see gratitude come through her words. “My country is really small. It’s very ‘monkey see, monkey do’. So, if minimalism is trendy, then everyone will have white walls. If I was making my art back home, people probably wouldn’t like it. I feel like [in Korea] there’s so much work being done in design that inspires me to keep going, no matter what the trend is. I’ve seen so many things in this country that are unusual in other places.”

I’m thankful to Korea because, without Shiny’s artwork, my life would be a lot less bright. Every morning, I start with a coffee cup that Shiny designed for me. Her art literally gets me through the day.

“I just want to make things that are timeless,” she sighs.

I remind her that patterns – hearts, stars, swirls – are timeless. She’s on the right track.

“Sometimes I want to change my design because I worry nobody will like it, but then I stop myself and say, ‘You did it. Nobody else is doing it.’ If I see something like my work online, I know that person copied it.” She offers advice that I need to hear. “Stay true to yourself. No matter what people say, just be consistent – even if it’s ugly. People will recognize your brand and it will become trendy.”

Now, this I know to be true, especially in Korea. We bring up the horrendous Croc wedding shoes, or how some people used to criticize Yayoi Kusama’s artwork for being too ‘loud’. But consistency is key, as it makes a brand recognizable, and Shiny understands that perfectly.

“We just have to convince trendsetters that it’s cool,” she smirks.

I agree with this, but then I wonder what happens when the artist is a trendsetter, like Shiny herself.

“Do what you love,” she adds. “Do it with meaning; don’t do it to sell. Many people draw and then complain that they only have 200 followers, but that’s not what it should be about.”

I go into the age-old question: how do you get your name out there?

“If you want collaborations, you have to contact them. People think my collaborations are because people contacted me, but that’s not true. I prepared a lot for it. I prepare a presentation about myself and what I do, and then I bring it to them.” I mention how this can be scary for most people, especially with the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ taking over the world. “People look for an artist when they’re already famous – not the other way around.”

And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Shiny has participated in five collaborations since the start of 2021. On top of that, she’s still putting out her own products from time to time. To get an idea of how popular her products can be, the Shiny Abbott Mask Limite Collection sold out in less than a month. One thing she emphasizes is that her first few collaborations were done for free, or very little payment. I come to understand that, of course, it’s never for free. Shiny gets to put her name out there in a mutually beneficial relationship. There’s an expression in Spanish that she teaches me: No todo dinero se gana, which loosely translates to ‘you don’t always need to earn money’. It reminds me of the best-selling book, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, which I hope was a best-seller for its accuracy.

We switch to a more light-hearted topic: how often does she draw? She emphasizes that her branding is doodling, so she’s drawing practically all the time. Eating, watching a movie… she has to be doodling. I come to see how it can be therapeutic, which is how I feel about cleaning. I just wish my therapeutic hobby was slightly more creative than dusting crumbs from my kitchen table.

“Right now, I don’t want people to focus on my personal life or my social media. I just want them to care about my work.” She mentions how we know designers for their work first, then themselves. “There are already people copying me and I want to stop that. I’m taking some time to step back.”

I feel that it’s a bit of a shame, but I understand – social media is both a blessing and a danger. So much information on the internet is given without credit, or if it is, it tends to be at the bottom of a post when it should be the first thing people see.

Additionally, Shiny had been a Master’s student over the past year. I understand firsthand how hard it can be to create a brand on top of a full-time job or study. Posting on social media, only to have someone steal your ideas before you’ve had the chance to delve into your own work, is one definition of tragedy. Shiny wants to make her design a full-time job, so these things must be considered.

“How long will you be in Korea?” I ask.

“I see myself in Korea for one year. Tops.”

My jaw drops. That’s not enough wine nights.

“After one year of experience here, I want to go back to my country with a fresh mind. That’s how you do it; if you’re all working in the same place, the same environment… well, things are always going to be the same. You have to get off the bus in order to see something different.”

I mentally jot that quote down. She’s spouted so many words of wisdom over one cup of coffee, I’m thankful I’m recording the audio.

All of that being said, it doesn’t mean Shiny won’t return to Korea in the future. After all, this country has inspired her.

“Who knows?” She shrugs. “So far, I have no plans. I just make the decision not to regret. It’s what I always tell people: If you’re not happy, you’re never going to do anything right.”

I start to question my years of unhappy teaching. Maybe I didn’t give my students the education they always deserved, because I felt trapped by my own insecurities.

“The kind of company I want to make and the environment in which I want to grow my business will be better in my home country. Here, I’m just a fresh graduate foreigner. I can come back to Korea after I’m already established. If I start here from zero, they ask for so many things.” She even refers to the amount of paperwork. “They also ask you for a lot of money.”

I feel that deep in my soul.

Shiny has a point in both of her perspectives – Korea is a great place to experience new and upcoming design, but it can be limited in its consumerism. Many people dress similarly, collect the same items, and swoon over the same stationery goods. I can imagine for a designer outside of the norm, it would be hard to break into the market.

As we reach the end of our conversation, Shiny releases one more boost of dopamine: “I want to be a successful designer that everyone knows about. No – I will. I will be one.”

Although I don’t say it aloud, I think to myself: It’s okay. You already are.

You can follow Shiny Abbott through her social media accounts Jesuisbrillant and shinyabbott. To see her popular Instagram filter collection, click here. To learn more about Shiny Abbott’s upcoming work, check out her webpage.

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