As is the preferred method of contact in 2020, I meet Shyama Golden over Zoom one morning in May. I couldn’t tell you the exact date, because time is but a figment of one’s imagination in a state of lockdown, but we’re both feeling the deluge of complex emotions that have become commonplace during these strange times: listless, worried and yet wildly creative. “Time can be very confusing,” she tells me.
A few months before the pandemic hit North America, Golden and her husband, director Paul Trillo, had relocated to Los Angeles from New York. The move was just the latest in more than a decade spent dotting the country with career transformations—from her start in the branding department at Seiko Instruments in Austin, Texas, to the self-actualized illustrator and artist she is today. Golden refers to her style as “magical realism,” combining surreal, vibrant patterns with her assured portraiture that often features women of color front and center.
Growing up in Clear Lake, Texas, a suburb of Houston, Golden was always drawing. “I was a daydreamer, so I would just do these drawings and express myself that way,” she says. In middle school, she explored the burgeoning digital realm, and taught herself how to write HTML code and draw portraits of the Spice Girls using MS Paint. Her parents, who immigrated from Sri Lanka before Golden was born, would often take her back on trips to visit family. “My uncle ran a very small family-owned print shop, where they produced newspapers and books,” she says. “On visits, I would see him designing typefaces, and I guess it was always there in the back of my head.” She studied graphic design at Texas Tech University, and after graduation, flexed a wide variety of strengths, from packaging design to logos and GIFs at Seiko, Texas Monthly magazine and elsewhere.
A decade letter is when things got interesting, according to Golden, who was increasingly feeling the pull toward illustration. She went freelance and asked herself, “What is my contribution to the world?” She kept visualizing portraits of women of color, done from her unique perspective. “I was just so tired of the images of women that are done by horny guys,” she says. “Everyone should have their perspective out there. I wanted to see something different, and I knew I would do things differently.”
So, she started drawing. “I drew a portrait of my friend Maria on her birthday with an owl on her shoulder,” says Golden. She shared the portrait on Instagram and word spread. “I was combining my graphic design taste with patterns and colors,” she says. “Also, the fact that they are looking straight at you creates a very active gaze.”
Golden was contacted by Dian Holton, a deputy art director at AARP Media, who commissioned a series of celebrity portraits for The Girlfriend, a newsletter for Gen X women. “I wanted someone of color and of her caliber to illustrate women who are equally as great in their respective disciplines,” says Holton. The illustrations were big hits with those she portrayed and were reposted on Instagram by the likes of actress Lupita Nyong’o and stylist June Ambrose. “I hired her to just do these because she would really put in the care and capture the essence of each of them in a fresh way that was respectful to their culture,” Holton says. “When she rendered the Issa Rae [portrait], I literally lost my shit.”
For Golden, the series helped her crystallize her vision, and was the catalyst for similar gigs designing art for the film Little, the HBO show Insecure and The Washington Post’s commemoration of the Women’s March. On continuing to paint women of color, Golden says, “I don’t ever like to limit myself or say that I only draw this or that. It’s more like, it felt necessary, and it still feels necessary.”
Though Golden also works in oil and acrylic, several of her naturalistic pieces are done on the iPad. “I have always had this phobia of wasting materials. I have all these nice Muji sketchbooks that still have never had a single page drawn in them,” she says. Digital sketching allowed Golden freedom to explore her own thought process, and, later, complete her masterpieces. “It can be a bad idea—it costs nothing to sketch more and more bad ideas, which you have to get out to get to the better ones,” she says. These days, Golden swears by Procreate, a digital illustration app developed by a small team of artists and coders in Tasmania. “It’s like no other app I’ve ever used,” she says of its ability to mimic canvas texture, realistic paint blending and more.
“I’ve always admired her willingness to switch mediums as well as platforms,” says designer Caleb Bennett about Golden. “She’s like an athlete, always training and practicing her craft. She’s always had the talent and skills, but she constantly finds ways to push herself.” Bennett, a former schoolmate, gave Golden some of her first illustration jobs. “I believe her work has become stronger conceptually over the years, and she embraces the digital space to help further its impact.”
In 2018, Golden illustrated the cover of Fatimah Asghar’s book of diasporic identity poems, If They Come for Us, combining pattern with surrealistic elements. “Fatimah is a queer Muslim woman, and what she’s writing is really radical,” says Golden. “I felt like, oh my god, I’m not worthy to do this!” So, she looked to history—specifically, to Frida Kahlo, whose blend of darkness and light would most profoundly communicate the writer’s verses. On the cover, three South Asian women sit cross-legged, framed by flowers whose roots transform into blood vessels.
Nature is never far from Golden’s work, and many of her patterns begin with iPhone photos she takes while exploring the outdoors. “Even sad things can be good inspiration,” she says. As I scroll through recent patterns on her website, I’m immediately drawn to one in punchy, tropical colors, portraying discarded smartphones, plastic bottles, cutlery and beach balls that are strewn about on tiny landmasses. Indeed, Garbage Islands is a study of areas of the Pacific Ocean completely engulfed in discarded plastic from around the world. “I think what’s kind of manipulative about that work is that I want people to look at it and think, ‘Oh, it’s pretty!’” she says. “And then you start thinking about it, and it makes you self-aware.”
Before leaving New York, Golden mounted an exhibit of her work in Brooklyn that explored themes of isolation and online identity. “When you’re completely alone, isolation is almost a lack of identity,” she says. “I was thinking about how people join [online] hate groups because they’re looking for identity and community, and people join good things for the same reasons.”
The exhibit, which turned out to be quite prescient, featured a wallpapered pattern of nude women in repose on the leaves and branches of a stylized mango tree. Slouching, eating, lying down with their laptops—these women reflected the versions of ourselves we often keep private. By contrast, the paintings hanging on this patterned wall represented our most public, pulled-together selves. At the center hung an interpretation of a rare family photo of Golden’s mother, aunt and a woman they believed to be the reincarnated spirit of their aunt, taken in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. The artwork, painted by Golden in vivid acrylic colors, was animated by glowing patterns that swirled around the women’s clothes via a stencil-like technique and the use of a projector. “It was such a cool moment in the show because it was so experimental and, at the same time, personal,” she says. “To me, it was showing expression—how people express themselves with how they choose to dress.”
Lately, Golden has been embracing the slowness of 2020 by art-ifying her new home on the West Coast. When we chatted, she had just completed a painting for the bedroom using leftover samples of house paint. The painting, inspired by a photo she took on vacation in Jamaica, features two lush, vine-covered trees that look uncannily human. “It’s interesting how you see yourself in nature,” she says. “I saw the trees and just thought, that looks just like us.” ca