The National Cherry Blossom Festival officially begins on Friday, March 20, running through Sunday, April 12. This year, Jing Jing Tsong was tapped to design the celebration’s official poster which is incorporated in the festival’s marketing efforts as well as being shown on merchandise, everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs.
“They have their pick of any artist in the country,” Jing Jing said during a phone interview from her home on the Big Island, Hawaii. “It wasn’t something I was expecting at all. So I was really honored to find out the news.”
Jing Jing’s poster is an explosion of colors, intermingling the pink Cherry Blossoms with the Washington and Jefferson Memorials against a bright yellow background. “We’re surrounded by color [in Hawaii],” she said. “I can’t even believe the palatte of color that surrounds me when I’m taking a walk. So that probably seeps into my work without my even knowing it.”
Festival officials review work from a handful of artists before crowning one the “Official Artist.” Jing Jing said she first submitted a portfolio, then when she was selected, did three different sketches. “Because we live in a culture here in Hawaii that’s very diverse with a lot of influences from Japan, I wanted to play on the multicultural aspect without it being too heavy handed,” she said. “But I like the idea of friendship and I love the idea of spring being a time of new beginnings. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, I remember it also as this sensory, not explosion, but this gradual awakening where colors start to get brighter and it’s just such a relief after a long winter, that first warm breeze. So I really played off that idea of the warm breeze being like the wake up call.”
Jing Jing and her husband, the artist Michael Austin, will arrive in Washington when the blossoms are in full bloom. The National Park Service is predicting that the flowers will hit their peak from April 11 to April 14. Jing Jing said she is still receiving information about her role in the festivities, but does know that she will be signing posters. “I love that it’s such a big celebration of season and change and awakening, with all the music and cultural events associated with this festival,” she said. “I think it’s pretty amazing.” (For a full listing of festival events, go to the website.)
Jing Jing’s family is from Taiwan and she relates to the heritage behind the National Cherry Blossom Festival which commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, D.C., to honor the lasting friendship between Japan and the United States. “Growing up, our mom used to sing us Japanese folk songs and she actually has a Japanese name so it feels connected in a way that the culture, the subtleties of the culture are really familiar to me,” she said.
Jing Jing grew up in College Park, Pennsylvania, where her father was a physics professor at Pennsylvania State University. She met her husband, Michael, at Penn State where they both studied graphic design and then, later in their careers, moved into illustration. “Our illustration work has a heavy design influence,” she explained. After college graduation, she and Michael moved to Palo Alto. “There was and there still is a really rich design community there,” she said. After two years in Silicon Valley, they moved to Boulder, Colorado. “At the time, we were both rock climbers so we moved for a change of environment and mostly to break out of the high tech design scene,” she said. The couple took full advantage of the Rocky Mountain state’s outdoors, not only rock climbing, but mountain biking, and snowboarding. For 12 years, their work focused on doing work for companies in the outdoor industry.
In 2001 they sold their design studio and took a one-year sabbatical in Hawaii. Although both she and Michael were doing design work, they were always playing with illustration, weaving that into their design work. They made the decision to really focus on illustration and found an agent in Chicago who could represent their work to advertising agencies and others all over the country. They now have an agent in Boston. “For the first maybe 15 years, when we had our design studio, Michael and I worked together,” she said. “But as illustrators, the only time we work together is when we’re brainstorming, when one of us needs feedback. Other than that, we work pretty separately.” They both operate out of studios in their Hawaiian home.
These days, Jing Jing is concentrating on illustrating children’s books. Last year she illustrated A Bucket of Blessings by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal which made it onto the New York Times Bestsellers List for children’s books. “The kid book process is actually very detailed and the creative process is much longer than commercial work,” she explained. Jing Jing has illustrated four children’s board books for BeachHouse Publishing. She has another children’s book coming out in August and is working on two others.
Saying that she works in an artistic “bubble,” in her home office, Jing Jing was surprised at how excited her family and friends were upon learning about her being chosen to create this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival poster. Once the press releases went out, the local media picked up the story. “Since I work on projects that don’t have a lot of high visibility, people were surprised that this is what I do from my house,” she said.
The locals, however, will soon learn more about Jing Jing. She’s also designed the official poster for the 2015 Kona Coffee Cultural Festival which will take place in Hawaii from November 6 through November 15. Jing Jing said she was contacted by the marketing director of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival after he saw news about her National Cherry Blossom poster in the local news. “It was really exciting because I haven’t been involved with any local projects since our clients are in New York and Chicago,” she said.
The coffee blossoms, which Jing Jing said are now blooming on the island, are related to the jasmine family. “We call it Kona snow because it’s really white and really fragrant,” she said. The coffee festival is similar to the Cherry Blossom one, featuring many events that play up the central ingredient. Attendees include coffee industry officials from all over the world. There are coffee tastings, called cuppings, and contests with awards. Restaurants feature coffee-flavored foods, just as D.C.’s restaurants celebrate the cherry.
“Coffee is culturally very important here because there is a lot of history with Japanese farmers,” said Jing Jing. As with the Cherry Blossom Festival, many Japanese tourists attend the Kona Festival.
Besides her artwork, Jing Jing plays the cello and once played with a musical group that traveled throughout California. She’s now focusing on staying local, playing with groups in Hawaii. “I love music and I feel music and art are related in many different ways,” she said. Besides her music, Jing Jing said that she draws much inspiration from the children’s books she works on. “I’ve always loved children’s books because they make art part of everyday life in a way that’s not precious or exclusive,” she said. “In storytelling, children’s books edit out anything extra and get to the essence and that’s always inspired me. I hope I can get to that point where I can edit out anything extraneous and get to the essence of an idea or emotion in my artwork.”