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Valerie Wu: A Graphic Designer from Guam Expresses How Art Can Heal

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but most of us don’t know how or why that works. When we want to describe something, words are all we have and sometimes they just aren’t enough. Valerie Wu doesn’t have that problem. As a graphic artist, unspoken nonverbal communication is her bread and butter. 

“There’s so much said that isn’t being said.  Words can go so far, and if you just add a color, the whole vibe changes. It sets an atmosphere that words can’t really describe.” Valerie has spent her professional life understanding the mechanics of making color and shape work for her and, by extension, for us. Now, she can ‘read’ color—hues and tones, and how vibrant or dull. “It was just another form of communication I was able to explore.” Even a pencil mark can be more expressive than a straight, defined line. “It has so much more free-flowing to it.”

Valerie is very aware that creation is a process, however, and her work happens within it. “I need to know what I’m working towards—a framework for me to work from. For example, if I’m designing something for Northgate, some of the words that come to mind are ‘minimalistic’, ‘edgy’, and even ‘architectural’. I would look up buildings and even furniture. I find my inspiration from random stuff because every company has their own unique flavor.”

The magic of Valerie’s work is translating that ‘flavor’ and style into concrete representation. “If I’m working with someone like Voices,” a Northgate client, “I would choose something sassy and bold. I would even go so far as to use fashion that uses purple and orange. I incorporate the lines and the different shapes. Lines say so much. Different strokes represent different personalities.” Valerie needs to understand where she is aiming if she intends to hit the mark. “With Voices, it was more about the company and the direction they wanted to represent. Because Voices is a company for everybody, they wanted to market that they are a company that is fun.” In a word, her specialty is to “create something out of nothing.”

There is a richness to Valerie’s work that originates in her own life experiences, experiences that grew freedom and confidence in her. “I grew up on Guam and kind of moved around. Guam was very Islander, but very small and very family oriented.” After Guam, she spent a short time in Taiwan, then a number of years in Los Angeles. “LA is a very diverse and creative place. You were free to be whoever you wanted to be.” She’s spent the last year and a half in Hawaii. “That was like Asia…just a chill place.” It was in these places that she first learned her art, but then, in 2014, everything came to a screeching halt. 

“I came to Christ in 2014 and I actually stopped doing art. I think I found so much of my identity in being an artist, and the Lord wanted to really root and ground me as a daughter of God. I actually didn’t create anything for four years. I was just creating a lot of stuff, but without Spirit. I surrendered everything. I never thought I was going to pick it up again.” Instead, she used those years to change herself, to put her life into new perspective. “Hawaii was a time of transition.” There, she eventually realized it was time to begin again, that her work had been “redeemed”. Now, her art has changed because she has changed, as if she has a co-creator. She once tended, she says, to the gothic, but now both her work and life has taken on new light. “I can tell by my art, by the way that I dress, and by the things I like now.”

In Hawaii, near the end of this process, Valerie encountered Northgate. It was time to go back to work. She knew immediately that Northgate was different in the same way she was different. “It’s a marketing company, sure, but it was a place people could come and go for a bigger mission. They do a full-on ministry in the arts on a professional level. Everyone functions within their gifts. There is so much trust there.” Even though she still sometimes succumbs to perfectionism, “It turns out that it’s not about me.”

What is it about then? “Art is healing”, she says. “Art changes things. In fact, there was this neighborhood where gangs would gather to have, like, shoot-offs. The mayor decided to ask all the graffiti artists to come together to paint this mural about creation. The gang members would meet there to fight, but they looked at the painting, were touched by it, and respected that space. Art is so much more powerful than we think it is.”

Working with Northgate, she has found, is an environment that promotes that kind of healing. “I’ve had some terrible losses.” At Northgate, she says, “I feel really seen and valued, encouraged and embraced. We work together, but I don’t really feel like it’s work at all. Who you’re with makes a huge difference. It has been really refreshing.” And the environment changes the work. Although her job normally is done at the end of a project, Valerie has been included in the creative process at Northgate from start to finish, an opportunity she finds both rare and rewarding. In one instance, that deep-dive, inclusive approach resulted in a client that the Northgate team came to understand so well that when her logo was revealed, she wept.

Valerie plans on staying. “I’m an all-or-nothing type of person. Everything I do, I give it my all. I’m really beginning to understand and realize how valuable life is. I’ve just learned so much, I can’t help but give it my all.” Along the way, she’s taken to heart an inspiration to “Dream big. This is just the beginning.” The picture Valerie has been painting isn’t even close to finished yet.

About the author

JoAnne Potter, a freelance writer for nearly 40 years, bakes bread and makes wine in Southwestern Wisconsin.

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