Behind the lens: Meeting one of Sacramento’s favorite Instagrammers

Xing Liu
(Photo courtesy of Xing Liu)

If you’ve ever been to a Sacramento event – Gather Nights, Concerts in the Park, or even just an evening at Temple Coffee – chances are you’ve seen local photographer and Sac State alumnus Xing Liu plying his creative genius.

The 32-year-old engineer-turned-photographer is one of Sacramento’s busiest and most popular personalities behind the camera. Highsnobiety lists him among the top six photographers you need to follow. This weekend, Sacramento State welcomes him as our Weekend Guest Instagrammer, and he’s ready to show off the best and brightest spots on campus through the lens of his Fujifilm X-T1.

Originally from Taishan, China, Liu moved  to the United States in 2002 to pursue higher education. He graduated from Sacramento State in 2011 with a master’s degree in software engineering and is now a senior software engineer at SymSoft Solutions.

But after work, Liu lives his true passion as @caliallstaring on Instagram, with more than 23.6K followers and countless collaborations with artists across the region.

Liu’s photographs reflect a deep love for the Sacramento community, giving viewers infinite reasons, big or small, to brag about their city. Whether it’s a flower field, local business, or just some really great ice cream, Liu makes them glow:

In 2012, he found his first inspirational subject: flowers. Since then, his passion has evolved from petals to people, as he evokes beauty and strives to capture the mood and expression of human subjects in various settings.

Many have asked – as evidenced in his ever-flowing comments section on Instagram – how does he do it? In addition to providing photo tips in many of his captions, Liu always offers up encouragement and advice to photographers:

“Try different angles, and follow where the light is,” says Liu. “For portraits, make sure the background is clean enough for the subject to stand out.”

And while Liu’s subjects surely do stand out, so does he.

Be sure to follow @SacState and @caliallstaring on Instagram this Fourth of July weekend for the very special takeover.

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Streetwise: Skateboarders turn lifelong passion into design success

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How did two skateboarders, working out of a bedroom, end up running advertising campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands?

By being really good at guessing celebrity emails, apparently.

While that isn’t the whole story, it’s the way Sac State alumnus John Davidson (’11, Business Administration) and friend Barton Damer, founder and creative director of the motion graphic and design company Already Been Chewed (ABC), landed one of their biggest clients on the way to international renown creating marketing content for the likes of Vans, Nike, and the Dallas Mavericks.

“My view is that if you can be on time every time and have pretty good work, you can be very successful,” says Davidson, ABC’s business manager. “But if you can be on time every time and have amazing work, the sky’s the limit.”

Since his first ride at age 11, Davidson knew he loved skateboarding. He wasn’t so sure about anything else, and he bounced around jobs – at a telemarketing company in Orlando, a cell phone kiosk in San Francisco, a tax firm in Washington, D.C. – before returning to California to study business and marketing at Sac State.

John_Graduation
John Davidson, business manager for Texas-based design company Already Been Chewed, graduated from Sac State in 2011 with a degree in Business Administration. (Photo courtesy of John Davidson)

“I was really in the right place, mentally, to go back to school,” he says. “I love encouraging young people to pursue a degree in business, especially from Sac State, because what it enables you to do is learn how to make money doing what you love.”

It was during his time in D.C. that Davidson met Damer, a fellow skateboarder and freelance artist. After Davidson graduated in 2011, Damer invited him to join his burgeoning freelance company as business manager.

Davidson moved to North Texas in 2012, and after a “very steep learning curve,” he says, things started to take off.

ABC designs still images and videos for every visual medium – print, broadcasts, live events, web, in-store displays. Initially, Damer handled all the design work, while Davidson employed his business sense to handle clients and market the company.

Two weeks after starting, Davidson landed his first major contract: an internal project for Nike Skateboarding and Nike Surfing. For two self-described “skate rats,” it was right in their wheelhouse.

“It was great because we know this stuff, and we’re part of the culture,” Davidson says. “If you’re not, you can make mistakes that the audience can easily pick apart and say, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t really know what you’re talking about, you’re faking this, and now I don’t want to buy your product.’ ”

That shared love of skateboarding – and serious persistence – ultimately nabbed ABC one of its biggest clients, skateboarder and television star Rob Dyrdek (Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy FactoryRidiculousness). Davidson and Damer always wanted to compose motion graphics for Street League Skateboarding (SLS), a televised international skateboarding tournament founded by Dyrdek.

To get Dyrdek’s attention, the duo took a shot in the dark: They guessed his personal email address, sending out their pitch to about a dozen possible addresses.

One of them got there.

As a result, ABC took over the entire TV package for SLS, which it still produces today for Fox Sports, and it continues to work closely with Dyrdek, producing content for various episodes of his shows on MTV as well as other projects.

Today, Already Been Chewed – a play on the common skating phrase “already been done,” referring to never wanting to repeat the same trick in the same spot – has grown into a staff of seven, moved into actual offices in downtown Allen, Texas, and tripled its revenue in the past four years.

It’s hard to fathom how such a small team has managed such an expansive portfolio, which includes work for: Vans, for which it produced the mega-brand’s 50th anniversary campaign; the Dallas Mavericks, for whom ABC produced an in-stadium home game intro video; and celebrities including Dyrdek, Desean Jackson, and Lil’ Wayne.

Davidson’s role as business manager has been crucial to the company’s growth. He attributes his tenacity and business sense to his time at Sac State, which, in addition to years and years of skateboarding, shaped him into the professional he is today.

“The falling, the getting back up, the trial and error: That absolutely has a lot to do with business as a whole,” Davidson says. “Continuing to persevere through difficult times and through challenges is related to skateboarding; the learning curve I had to go through was not easy.

“So your choices are either to work hard and continue to learn, or quit. And quitting was not an option.”

Check out the gallery at top for examples of the company’s design work, and click below for a highlight reel their recent motion graphic work.

Children’s book author’s journey mirrors her award-winning story

It wasn’t until JaNay Brown-Wood reread her award-winning authorial debut that she realized her journey as a writer paralleled her protagonist’s quest to touch the moon.

JaNay Brown-Wood and her award-winning book, "Imani's Moon"
Imani’s Moon, the first book by children’s author JaNay Brown-Wood, is the award-winning story of a Maasai girl trying to touch the moon. (Courtesy of JaNay Brown-Wood)

Talk about a story that jumps off the page.

Brown-Wood (2011, M.A. Child Development) is the author of Imani’s Moon, a children’s book about a young girl in a Maasai village in Africa on a lunar adventure in the face of jeering peers and taunting animals.

It is a folkloric tale with themes of perseverance and determination that have resonated with children around the country —and it almost didn’t happen.

As she searched for a publisher, Brown-Wood received stacks of rejection letters, some of which didn’t even include her name, before she entered Imani’s Moon into the National Association of Elementary School Principals’ Children’s Book of the Year competition. The story, Brown-Wood’s first, won the grand prize: a publication contract.

“You have to get your ‘no’s’, and all those ‘no’s’ allow you to refine your work, refine your craft, and then finally get that final product that you feel is ready to go,” she says. “All the ‘no’s’ are just part of the journey.”

And what a journey it has been. Brown-Wood has been a creative writer from a young age, but it was always her dream to become a published author. She grew up in Fresno and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA. But it wasn’t until she moved to Sacramento to pursue a master’s in childhood development at Sacramento State that she decided to bring her lifelong dream to life and “to go full-steam,” she says.

Published by Charlesbridge Publishing, Imani’s Moon was one of the most celebrated children’s books of 2014-15. It was named one of the Top 2014 Mighty Girl Books for Young Readers, a Northern California Association of Children’s Librarians Distinguished Book for 2014, and a Reading Is Fundamental 2015 Multicultural Book. Live Oak Media turned Brown-Wood’s story into an audiobook, which was subsequently named Best Audiobook for Children  in 2015.

Brown-Wood, who is also a professor at American River College, says that having a deep knowledge of early childhood development from her studies at Sacramento State allows her to capture and create more authentic characters, dialogue, and issues that are true to her readers’ demographic.

“With Imani, bullying is a big issue,” she says. “And with Imani, teachers can use that to start the conversation about it.”

Another conversation the author is facilitating is the relative lack of diversity in children’s literature. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, only 24 percent of books received by the CCBC in 2015 were by or about people of color. This issue is especially important to Brown-Wood, who is trying to move the needle by telling stories about characters who are more representative of the nation’s diverse makeup.

“Children need to see themselves reflected in books no matter what their race or ethnicity, no matter what their ability level,” Brown-Wood says. “We’re moving toward a better representation, but it’s far from it in my opinion at this point.”

Brown-Wood will have the opportunity to continue to further whatever discussion she chooses: Her next book, Grandma’s Tiny House, is due out summer or fall 2017 from the same publisher.

“It has just been highs and highs and highs that make me realize how blessed I am to be able to do this thing I’ve wanted to do for so long,” Brown-Wood says, “and to receive some accolades and so much success from it, it’s just indescribable.”