Raised by dolphins and educated at the legendary and experimental Wieden+Kennedy advertising school, Azsa West follows her very own path. Now in her role as Executive Creative Director at Anomaly Berlin.
Azsa West is an artist, a filmmaker, a creative director – and above all, she is a well-traveled citizen of the world. After stations in Portland, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, she has now arrived in Berlin. She tells us how her unconventional childhood, her art and her identity as an indigenous and queer person of color influences her work, what she wants to change in the industry, and why she’s eager to give back.
It’s being said that you were raised by dolphins and by a metaphysical graphic designer who believed in auras and aliens. That sounds very interesting . . . Azsa West: (laughs) Raised by dolphins is a bit of an exaggeration. But I grew up about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. We lived in a little Adobe house just a couple of blocks away from the beach, and I spent a lot of time with the sea animals there. My mom was a very spiritual person. She died when I was 13 years old, and I think her illness made her search for meaning and for something to believe in. And she really did believe in auras and aliens. Aside from the dolphins, that’s not a metaphor (laughs). For my 12th birthday I got an aura reading, and when I was in fifth grade, she thought there was an alien invasion happening. In fact, it was an earthquake, but she woke me up and claimed that she saw an alien spacecraft descending upon our house. Having been raised that way was very intense, very formative, and also very good for my imagination. And I never had a fear of aliens (laughs).
Did your childhood influence your career?
I think so. My mom was a graphic designer and an artist, but the one thing she did best was trying to make the most of every day that she had. She was super passionate and if she noticed something that my siblings and I were fascinated by, she nurtured it. She helped shape me into a super curious person with many different interests.
Is this why you later studied at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco?
I had a wild education and learned a little about a lot. However, school was not my strong suit. I just could not focus on a hypothetical thing and as a result hopped around a lot. CCA (then CCAC) was my dream school, and it felt like getting into the Hogwarts of art schools (laughs). But even there, I couldn’t really stick with it and was swept away to Portland for a girl that I was seeing. She was also going to art school, and ironically, I learned a lot from her.
And that was a lucky move, because there you were one of the very few that got into the famous Wieden+Kennedy 12 experimental advertising school.
That was really an interesting adventure. They chose twelve people from twelve unique backgrounds who had never worked in advertising, armed us with the resources of a world class agency like W+K, and observed if we could pull off the magic trick. You were given real accounts and had to figure out how to run them. That was very intimidating. But it was exactly what I needed. As soon as I had real responsibility, something clicked.
What work did you do there?
We did commercials for MTV about sustainability and safe sex, an art project with Benetton’s Colors magazine, a room collaboration with Ace Hotel, editorial work for GOOD magazine and a campaign for Planned Parenthood. Everyone who came out of 12 became very successful because W+K was able to identify people who have a unique view of the world. And that sense of originality is everything. It cannot be taught. But all the other advertising stuff can be. That really resonated with me, and I also apply it to the way I hire people. Sometimes, that’s based purely on the art they’ve made or their essays or poems. Those are the most honest pathways to understanding how their minds work. Culturally moving work comes down to making connections with real people. And it’s the people with a story to tell and an interesting point of view that can do that in the strongest way.