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Meet Chai Appling of ChaiBee in North County

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chai Appling.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I grew up in southern California and have spent most of my life in San Diego. My childhood was filled with days of watching anything animated, going to comic-con annually with my family, and ridiculously fun, imaginative sessions, drawing as much as I could to get my overflowing ideas out.

As a kid, I knew I wanted to be an artist. How I would get there, or what I would be doing specifically was unknown- but I knew that I wanted to try. When you tell your parents you want to be an artist, it doesn’t go well. They push you towards what’s “practical” and “normal” in an effort to encourage you to work in a field that pays well and is dependable.

However, my high strung determination proved that art was the appropriate field of work for me, and I would find myself building the foundation for a (hopefully) successful career.

Not having enough money to go to a state school, I started out in the San Diego Community College District, taking classes at both Miramar and Mesa with some of the best, enthusiastic professors in SD. In that time, I lived at home, worked, and saved up my money in anticipation to transfer to California State University Fullerton and try to get into the animation program.

Between school and art, I found success in attending conventions and making cosplay. While it started as a hobby, I made connections with so many amazing people that later lead to me rising quickly in the con circuit. I went from attending to selling my artwork, to winning cosplay competitions, becoming a featured artist and guest, all the way up to speaking at panels and being a cosplay judge! While that pathway isn’t entirely difficult, and I’m nowhere near celebrity status, it is very rewarding to be a participant in a community you’re passionate towards and having the opportunity to connect with those individuals and teach what you know is very special to me.

After transferring to Fullerton, I continued my studies in the arts and joined the Pencil Mileage Club, an organization that specializes in bringing the arts community together to socialize, network, and invite professionals to the school to speak about their experiences. PMC and the advising faculty taught me great lessons about networking and leadership, and my time in the club has been absolutely delightful.

The social aspect of school was fun, but in terms of work, I’ve held myself to a rigorous work ethic. Don’t be alarmed. I promise I ate well and got enough sleep. A few of my professors said that they would give A letter grades to students that showcased that their work was professional level. Based on that statement alone, I really wanted to be the best I could be, so I maintained a 4.0 in my studies through the five and a half years I’ve been in school.

In my journey thus far, my art had improved immensely, I had gaggle of great friends, I was living with my closest pals in a run-down apartment, but was happier than ever. However, I was not ready for the amount of growth I would have in 2019, The year where my efforts came to fruition.

I started off the year as a guest in the January San Diego convention Cos-Losseum, where I had the opportunity to host a panel on starting cosplay alongside established cosplay mentors. Around March, I was elected an officer for PMC, using my artistic and communication skills for the club. In April, I became a cosplay guest and judge for my school’s convention, Titan Con. In May, I was confirmed as a featured artist and cosplay guest for my favorite hometown con, Anime Conji! That would be my most successful con to date. In late June, I had the pleasure and honor of being a cosplay guest and judge for Ronin Expo in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. In July, I attended Anime Expo and established friendships with professionals I admired since I was young. Late July, I attended Comic Con with my father for the first time in 6 years, remembering my roots and feeling nostalgic towards my younger self. In August, I attended Anime California where I won an award in performance with extra points towards my costume, which was my most elaborate cosplay to date. I prepared to get ready for the school year, applying for internships at major studios like Dreamworks, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network.

The semester began, and so far, all seemed well. I was completely happy with my summer and was ready to let the school year pull me into its waves of challenges and hard work to come. I had found happiness and success on the path I was on and didn’t want to give myself grief if I didn’t score that internship. Most of my applications to the major studios were rejected, all except Cartoon Network. CN reached out to me and asked for a recorded video interview. Getting to this point is not uncommon, but it is not to be dismissed. I gave it my best shot and submitted it.

As the first week of classes finished, I got a call from Burbank. On the other end of the line, a representative from CN Studio’s HR department told me that the Talent Development team was interested in interviewing me. I was shocked but handled it like a champ! (I was definitely nervous.) The call came in and I picked up the phone, and heard the voices of two professional women, greeting me cheerily. I felt very friendly and comfortable with them, even though my stomach was twisting and turning with anxiety and anticipation. We said our goodbyes, and they notified me that I would be hearing from them soon.

I sighed with relief, but at the time, “soon” became “now.”

The HR representative called me quickly after my interview and said they really liked me, and we hit it off. She then began giving me details about the studio, asking about my availability, and the process and paperwork that was to follow. It wasn’t until the very end of the call when she announced that I would be an intern for Cartoon Network’s Talent Development in fall of 2019.

We ended the call, I thanked her and told her to give my regards to the TD team at CNS, and then resorted to sitting at my computer in shock for hours as my roommates screamed excitedly and ran around me.

Ever since I was a kid, I knew that deep down, the older version of myself would find her own brand of success and that she would be cheering me on. My younger self worked hard to make my older self proud, and my current self continues to work hard in honor of my youth.

Of course at this point, the burning question you probably have is, how was Cartoon Network?

An absolute, mind-bending blast.

In the span of three months, I had the honor of working next to the coolest people in the industry. I got to meet countless artists, meet alumni from my school, sit in a room with the major creators of CN’s biggest shows, have my artwork in the studios’ intern gallery, and went to the most radical F’ing Halloween party I’ve ever been to in my entire life! (No seriously, it was insane.)

I woke up at 5 am two days a week, driving towards Los Angeles as the sun’s morning light spilled into my car on my nearly two-hour journey, parking in the studio’s lot at 7:45 am. I slept in my car until 9:30 am, and then skipped into the studio to start my day. Every day I worked there, I put in everything I had. Not to impress necessarily, I just really, really enjoyed it. I was in my element and my supervisors saw it. They gave me work that I would excel in but didn’t shy away from challenging me either. They were flexible. So long as I finished my work, I got to set up interviews and all kinds of awesome people at the studio. They really did all they could to include me and make sure I had every opportunity possible, and I took all of them. My days ended at 6 pm, where I would drive home and arrive back at my apartment at 7:45 pm. No time for homework, and barely time for dinner, I would reflect on the day and tell my roommates about the experience, and look forward to days to come.

After CN, I’ve maintained contact with my supervisors and other folk I met at the studio. The following semester I felt like a new person. I was proud to be silly, weird, fun, colorful, artistic. I was finally the person my younger self so eagerly wanted to be. I finally realized that my farfetched dream of being a small-town nobody to an artist working in a major studio was entirely possible. With that being said, I’m just barely getting started!

Life is not without it’s challenges though. I am extremely lucky to have had all that I experienced in 2019, all without knowing the extent of the grief 2020 would bring. I personally am okay, but I am not complacent towards the injustices occurring in our society today. I have used my art, privileges, and money I can spare to support Black Lives Matter and the countless other foundations that push for the necessary changes the country needs. 2020 has been a taxing year, but my (perhaps naive) optimism still strongly believes that things will get better, and we have to keep trying.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Throughout my life, I’ve continuously encountered folk that thought my artwork was a lost cause, a phase that I would grow out of. The competitive part of myself wanted to prove all of them wrong, but something else always pushed me forward. The eagerness to live a life enjoying my work. I love art with my whole self and find that parts of me even I didn’t know about come forth in my work. My overall career goal is to share my stories and art in an effort to make the invisible folk feel noticed. I want them to feel as though whatever they aspire to do is worth it, and they should put their whole heart in it. I understood that if I could accomplish this dream, surely others could as well.

And I suppose, in a sense, I’ve been successful at that.

Starting as a nobody from a small town and having dreams of working in the big animation studios in Burbank and Hollywood seems like a far fetched dream, but I had to at least try.

Upon graduating High School, my parents revealed that we could not afford to go to state school, so I opted for community college. During my time I learned from some of the best professors in San Diego and really enjoyed my time at Miramar and Mesa. (Don’t knock CC kids! It’s worth it.) I saved a lot of money in that time as I worked and attended conventions like Anime Conji to sell my artwork and promote my cosplay. Still not having enough to attempt to get into Calarts, The Academy of Arts University, LCAD, ect, I opted for a very special state school that offers a top-notch animation program- California State University Fullerton.

At this point, I mentally started to “settle.” Meaning, I knew since I wasn’t going to one of the big art schools, that I probably wouldn’t be getting the best education, connections, or job opportunities. I was going to have to put in the work, but shouldn’t be heartbroken if I didn’t make it as far as I had hoped.

My time at Fullerton was turbulent due to the school’s impacted arts program and varying quality in teaching. I have spent three years at Fullerton, totaling up to be five and a half years in school, not to forget my upcoming final semester. (Woohoo!) However, in my time there, I learned why people loved the animation program at this school… it wasn’t the school itself, it was the community.

I’ve had a handful of job opportunities and freelance work that I would have preferred not to do or fell flat. I think it’s important to mention this because for every major success I have in my arts career, I’ve had a handful of many rejections or things that just didn’t follow through. That’s how it is though, you have to be willing to keep trying and even trying things you may not like to get an understanding of yourself and how your artworks. Once you find your groove, you’ll gravitate towards better opportunities you now have the skillset for. It’s a matter of time and hard work, as with anything. Of course, even when you become more skilled, you should push to improve even more, at least I do.

Tell us about your work – what should we know?
I am an artist that aspires to work in animation, specifically storyboarding or character design. At this time, I’ve been doing a lot of freelance work for illustrations and characters, and have really enjoyed it. I’m hoping with my final semester in school, I’ll decide between character art or boarding, and pursue that as I apply to jobs.

Cosplay, congoing, and all that was a hobby but quickly integrated into my art persona. Many of my current supporters and professional connections have come from attending cons, speaking to people in person. I find that a lot of my “fans” are people I have met and enjoyed conversation with me, leading to their support. (Which I am forever grateful for!)

When I’m not doing conventions, I take to the internet and offer commissions online. I also sell merchandise of my art here: chaibee.storenvy.com

I think that my supporters like that my artwork is very personal, and that the connection to me and my work is a personal experience in itself. I go out of my way to see my supporters as people, not just customers that like my art. Especially younger artists that support me. I have been in their shoes, and the attention I got from my favorite artists, even briefly, inspired me so much growing up. I promised myself I would do the same, and make an effort to make every experience a person has with me is special.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Behind a successful person is a plethora of individuals that have had meaningful impact. I strongly believe that while I did a lot of work for myself, I am not to forget the people that aided me on my journey.

My parents allowed me to live at home while I was in community college. It took some time for them to understand my goals in the arts, but once they saw that had a potential career ahead, they supported me financially the best they could. I pay for my tuition with help from financial aid, but they help me with living expenses. (Thankfully, I live in a really cheap apartment! It’s not fancy or standard by any means but I’m happy). My dad really takes pride in giving me tools to succeed, so I am very privileged to say that he has given me devices like tablets and ipads to work digitally (probably the most important method of drawing for the industry), as well as access to his print shop, Poway Sign Company.

My dad has always been entrepreneurial and makes an effort to transform his hobbies into financial endeavors (Everything encompassing his business “TrooperBay”), so I got that from him. My mom likes the educational aspect of my art and engaging with all ages, so she supports me in hopes that I inspire others. Both my parents are creative in their own ways, that directly influenced how I operate creatively.

The few friends I have from my primary school days have really supported me up close and afar. Friends like Sarah, Molly, and my current boyfriend Shayan have all volunteered to help me at conventions, give critique on my work and obviously support me as I grow.

I was an assistant for San Diego speed painter Amy Burkman for one summer, and I have not forgotten the kindness and courage she bestowed upon me. She does a lot of amazing work for charity, and that has inspired me to do the same with my art.

Amy: @amyburkmanofficial

Additional friends and supporters from San Diego I should mention are Austin, Paul, and Rowan, and they all attended the same school as me, CSUF! Please see their art on Instagram:

Austin: @aus.toon (Cartoon, comedy, film)
Paul: @heempy_ (3D artist)
Rowan: @rodeedoe (2D digital, painting)

The community of CSUF is what made that animation program worth it. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by the most encouraging, eye-opening artists I have ever met. These incredible individuals weren’t just my classmates- they became my dearest friends. Faculty too! The core of this community was a very special organization.

The Pencil Mileage Club. (https://pmcbomb.com/)

PMC has been around for almost 25 years, creating a thriving culture for artists that couldn’t afford to go to the big art schools. PMC prides itself on bringing people together, showing current students that being successful in art isn’t attributed to the biggest schools or how many pre-existing connections you have in the industry. It’s about making the effort to network on a personal and professional level, making friends and finding your niche, and showcasing your personal drive. Everyone’s definition of success is different, and privileges definitely attribute to some avenues of opportunity, but Fullerton’s community specializes in helping you work with what you have and finding happiness in the arts that suits each individual best.

Through PMC I really came out of my shell. I had the honor and opportunity to be a leader of PMC, working alongside fantastic individuals such as Rowan and Jackie. This dynamic duo was elected as president and vice president respectively for the 2019-2020 school year and knocked it out of the park. Their charisma and interpersonal communicative skills make PMC excel even in the hardest times. I owe a lot to them. In fact, I am grateful to all my fellow officers and faculty.

My professors Chuck, Wendy, Barbara, Austin, Cliff and Joe have all challenged me to be a greater artist and person. They are all full of kindness and generosity that I want to carry forth in my career, so I too can be a mentor one day.

Chuck: @chuck_grieb
Wendy: @wendy_grieb
Barbara: @barbaramalley
Austin: @haynesart
Cliff: @cliffcrampillustration
Joe: @joeforkan

I cannot forget Jessie, Jackie, and Sally from my internship at Cartoon Network Studios! These three women are beyond cool and taught me a lot about the industry. They really helped me understand how CNS operates and always gave me a chance to shine. That internship meant everything to me, and I really look up to them.

Jessie: @Jessiejuwono (Writer, 2D artist, CN Talent Development)
Jackie: @Jackiehuangstudios (Paper artist, CN Talent Development)
Sally: @scjacka (cosplay, CN Talent Development)

And lastly, all my friends and fans from all over the globe. I have made many international connections and I cannot thank you all enough for supporting me.

Pricing:

  • Commission work ranges between $30 for sketches, or $100+ for full illustrations
  • Most items in my shop are less than $10, and I often donate partial profits to charity!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Chai in front of tokidoki BG (personal photo): Photo by Zoey Nguyen @zafferdg
Chai as Miku Append (photo of myself in costume on wooden stairs): Photo by Henry Chau
Chai at booth: publisher, Geek News Network, photographer: @Shaka.pics

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