Linocut Prints and a Tenderhearted Prince: Sofia Shu and her Siberian-San Francisco Love Story

Sofia Shu in her studio in San Francisco. Photo credit to Kristin Lin Photography

We climb and descend the hills of Potrero Hill in San Francisco - in high heels of course! - as we search for Sofia Shu's secluded studio. We're mesmerised by Sofia's meditative, spiritual, detailed abstract paintings and wall hangings. Sofia serves us a delicious vegan latte and talks about growing up walking through snow tunnels in Siberia, learning English by tending bar in NYC, ending up in the Bay Area, and meeting her sweetheart prince. We love her love story and you will, too.

Sofia Shu Studio online
Sofia on Instagram

Wanna see pictures of Sofia Shu's hometown, Nefteyugansk? Here you can find them! 

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Transcription of Sofia's interview



JB: Jozefien Buydens

SS: Sofia Shu

SV: Svea Vikander


SS: I grew up in Siberia. In a very small town. It's kind of like if you look at Russia and just like poke right in the middle, that's where my town was. It's called Nefteyugansk. And the first word of that name is "Neft" which means 'oil'. They found um—like that oil that they get from the ground, not that oil that they press from olives, you know! [laughter]. So yeah they found oil, I guess 50 years ago ,and they built this small town really quickly.

So to get to those oil spots, you would have to take a helicopter. My mom was the dispatcher, the person who would be like, "You go on this helicopter, you do this, ok now time to take off,” she would be like controlling them; for 20 years she was working. It was really fun for me, I would go to her office and she had this machine that pretty much talks to people in helicopters and it would just sound like “der-der-der-der-der", and she would understand! What they're saying! And she would press the button and be like, "Yes, yeah, do this and do that." And I'm like, “Mom, how do you understand? I can't hear anything!” It's like when you work I guess every day, you, really…I don't know how she did it.

JB: She gets to know the language

SV: Yeah that's so cool, like you learned English she learned helicopter! And did you have other family around? Did you have a dad?

SS: I had a stepfather not for very long I guess, until I was like 12. Yeah, I just kind of remember only that, like, just having my mom and my younger sister. She's six years younger than me. She has a kid and she just takes care of him, she's in Moscow. I visited, it was so surreal because you leave here and then you fly for so long and then it becomes—the sun sets, the sun rises again and you're still flying, it's like 20... 24 hours, maybe 30, something like that, if you have layovers. It can get very long. And then when you get there, you’re like, "Did America ever exist?" I dunno, to me in my head it was kind of, going through Atlantic Ocean is kind of like this border, it's like, [to Jozefien] you had this feeling before?

JB: Yeah I have exactly the same.

SS: And maybe it's because you Facetime your family all the time and you're only on the screen and you go and you can actually like, hug them, it just feels so weird. You open the door and my mom would come towards me like, “Should I start crying? Is it real? What's happening?”

JB: How was growing up in Siberia? I imagine it's really cold there, in winter, so... How... How? How do? I can't, I just can't imagine [laughter] how cold it must be, in Siberia.

SS: Well, see, I grew up there from…I would say six months old, so I didn't know anything else. It was nine months of snow. So pretty much, I have my birthday in September, I would already go through bushes of snow to get my friends to my birthday party, invite them. In May it would be like a really cool time because everything finally starts melting. And you know this is the end of the school and the summer is coming. So yeah, it was a lot of snow, sometimes when you're walking to school you can't really take a step to the right, to the left, because you'll fall in the really deep snow bushes. But because there is a—how do you call it—like, a trail, people step on it so much it's like harder. But if you step to the right you can just fall through and I don't know. It can be really deep!


SS: The snow is crystalised. When you look at the snow flakes it's very, it's a very geometric structure of water, right? And all of my art—maybe I got it from studying architecture for so long, or maybe I got it from being in this like frozen world for so long?—all of my art looks like snowflakes. It's like structures, coming like mandalas, from the centre.

I loved the evenings because the sun would go down really early and the sky was really clear. I could see all the stars, yeah, I would just like hang out with friends. I would be a kid but I can hang out with my friends when it's dark outside. Yeah. There wasn't really much to do outside, you know? Like in California, I think people are so lucky to have this weather and just so many activities they can do. To me, it was, you would spend a lot of time indoors. So I went to art school at the same time when I went to regular school. Every day after regular school I would go and paint.

And I don't know if you guys know, in Russia it's like, art is not very, you can't really make a profession out of it. You can't just be a full time artist and make enough money. Or you can't even tell your parents, “I'm gonna be an artist,” they'll be like, “No you're gonna be a doctor.” I thought architecture would be the best, most creative profession I can choose. I got accepted and I studied architecture for six years. Yeah, it was really fun because there was a lot of sculpture classes and watercolour and drawing and drafting. And I just slowly, from architecture I moved to interiors.

Started my business, had it for five years with my friend. It was really fun, just the two of us. I really don't like working for someone. I don't like having a boss. If I work for myself, say a 12 hour day, I don't feel like I wasted my time! And we were very creative, like, "Where do we wanna take this business? Should we start a blog about interior design?" You know it was like, no one would stop us from pretty much anything.

And then, it was kind of a crisis in Russia. Not that many people were getting design projects done because the economic situation wasn't really well. And I thought it was my opportunity to just travel and I wanted to learn English, everyone is talking about America, so I'm just gonna spend some time, go to school. I went to English school in New York. Pretty much with just one friend. I didn't know anyone. I didn't speak the language. To me it's like a different planet because I had to learn everything from the beginning. I was 26, I think, when I moved to America. It's like, different food! The way the streets are named! It's like everything was so different but also so exciting for me.

Because I love new stuff. I love learning. I think when things are kind of the same it gets, your brain gets kind of dull. Or something like that. So yeah, New York was really fun. I met so many amazing people. Just amazing.


SS: In New York, I think it's a very romantic story...

SV: Tell us!

SS: It was, I think the day after Christmas. I wasn't supposed to work that day so I was covering for someone because I didn't have a big family for Christmas Eve. He lived in San Francisco at the time and he has family in Florida. But he also has a brother in New York... So they pretty much all traveled to New York to spend maybe a day with that brother. It was raining. They were gonna go to a different bar and but because it was raining so much they just stopped by my bar. Which is a great, uh... I don't know, it's like... I'm so happy that happened, you know! If he would just keep walking to another bar I never would have met him.

The day after Christmas everyone is at home with their families. It's raining outside, so it's pretty much just like, him with his friends, and me. And we were, just chatting. And from that day, that's it. That’s, our love story began! We, he kept coming back to New York to see me. And we decided to be together. And I didn't want to really move to California because I love New York so much. But he told me I should visit and he'll show me, um, "Let's take you to the best spots and make you fall in love with California." And I did fall in love with California and with him. And now I'm here.

SV: So what's your relationship like? Is he supportive of your art practice?

SS: Yeah, he's very sweet. He's probably the sweetest man I have ever met. And I'm so lucky to have him. He's probably, if he's listening he's gonna be like, “Yes!” [laughter] But no, actually, he's like one of those people who really think about what you need. You know? Like he kind of helps to...get things done.


SS: Since I finished my architectural school I was just focused on my interior design career. Art was more like a hobby. No one in Russia was talking about art as a profession. And when I moved to New York, that's where I saw for the first time that you can actually be an artist. Because I was hanging out around Chelsea galleries a lot. I would go to art openings and just be in the artist community. And I see a lot of people actually create different kinds of art. It doesn't have to be just painting. And they just, the striving as artists. And people buy their work and, yeah. They really appreciate it.

After a few months I was like, Wow. There's so many artists and they actually spend every day in their studios painting, having so much fun probably (I hope they are!) and i just bought so many art supplies and I brought it all home and started just playing with it. I did so many different works. Because I wasn't sure what exactly, what do I want to paint? What medium do I want to use? So that was a fun time. Like really free, like just trying different things.

I really love this neat work. To me it's really easy to do something very precise. The lines are really straight, and I'm really into geometric shapes and forms. How they all work together. So when you study architecture you study, it's called "rhythm", when you look at the building your eyes just feel good about it. It's because of all those proportions, and architects know how to put it all together. So it looks very harmonious. And I guess that just affects my art. Like I can't leave a painting if I look at it and there's something missing, and a little bit on the corner, I would put a little dot there or something so it's balanced. I guess geometry and balance is definitely what I got from architecture.


I carve out some blocks with a blade. And then I just roll paint on it and make prints. I think this is so, so much better than just buying a print that was done by printer. I think when someone buys art it's so cool when an artist actually touched it, and did something to that. Some other things I do, I make tapestries. I started doing it because my friends were saying that my art looks a lot like textile design. I make each tapestry myself. I don't really make a drawing on it. So I pretty much start from the centre and I go out. And that gives it a symmetry so I don't use any rulers or anything like that. It's just my eyes and my hands.

I want to create art that will make you stop in front of it for like, let's say, three minutes, just stare at it. Like, observe all the colours and see where it will take you. All I'm making is just something that kind of sucks you in. Don't do anything, don't think of anything, just look at the painting.

I started my interior design business last year in August. And just recently those projects started finishing up. Everything is installed, really final touch-ups, yesterday I did a photoshoot with my friend, of something that just I created, you know? I didn't really work with any other designers or any other force, or another company. It was just my project. And it was my first collaboration with this photographer, my friend Mindi Kopal. She wants to change her career a little bit. And be more creative like, kind of like day-to-day have more creative process, like photographing someone's interiors, someone's work, staging. So we had a lot of fun. Our first collaboration, on March 8th, Women's Day. It was so significant, I think. I think it's everywhere that, that women are a little bit repressed. Just empowering each other, it helps, just talking about art and stuff. It makes me excited. So same with a lot of amazing women, yeah.


SV: What do you like most about your studio space?

SS: Like I told you, I moved in like a month ago. And I really love how much space I have now. And there's a lot of light, natural light. I love the location too, because it's in the middle of the Mission district and financial district and design district and Dog Patch. It's kind of in the middle, so I'm hoping to host a lot of events in this space and build a really interesting community that will kind of support me, but also I'll support them. This space can be turned into pretty much anything. Like a gallery, or even a music venue. I want my husband to have some shows here too, play music for people. And I want to start this women's group. Whether you're creative or not. I want to have bi-weekly events where we just get together and we paint, or we do some beading work... And I think there's a really deep need in everyone's life, for some creativity. This is the time where we're gonna do it.

SV: And if you could change one thing about the studio, what would it be?

SS: This is—I live in Potrero Hill and I think Potrero Hill is still kind of sketchy. So I think I would change something about the neighbourhood. But I think it's coming because there'a s lot of development around this neighbourhood and a lot of new buildings and I think a lot of young people moving in. And they all go to the Mission or the financial district to have fun. So hopefully there will be some development.

SV: And how do you say your last name?

SS: My last name? Shu? [rhymes with ‘who’]

SV: Shu, and is that a traditional Russian name?

SS: No, I chose that name for myself. It's not a name that my mother or someone else gave me. It's from Egyptian language, I guess? It's a goddess, "Shu", she was the goddess of harmony and balance. And yeah,  kind of bringing two elements together. And making them work. So I think that was…that’s me and that's what I want to be. And I also really like how it sounds. Like “shu”… it almost sounds like a wind or maybe like a crashing wave like…shu…