ZIRAN MUSE: Chelsea Wong
I spent a few weeks in San Francisco while my husband was at a residency. During this time I got to hang, photograph, and interview Artist Chelsea Wong in her studio in the Mission. Instantly I was struck by Chelsea's magnanimous and vibrant personality, she literally exudes happiness and joy. You feel good being around her. Her work is a mirror of this energy: it's figurative, bright, clean, and each painting is a little snapshot of her life. It's a burst of power and you walk away smiling. I was also struck by Chelsea's intelligence and reflections, check out the interview below to learn more about our latest Muse!
Some background! Where you’re from, how’d you start your art practice?
I’m from Seattle, Washington. My mom is a graphic designer and my dad is a professor. For years he taught at Evergreen State College–a mix of Philosophy, Marxism, and Political Science. I feel like I’m an equal mix of both of them, having the continual desire to learn and a hungry creative drive. I made art from a young age: I went to an after school art program when I was in elementary school where we did things like ceramics and marbleizing paper. Lana Sundberg, who ran the program, is still an inspiration to me. I was also exposed to and taught the value of art from a very young age. On vacations we would go to museums, and I am fortunate for that. But I didn’t really get into art until I was in high school and that’s when I started thinking, “ok maybe I can go to art school.” Then I went to Parsons for a summer program and the rest is history!
What is your “why?” in both art and life?
It’s so cheesy but I really do feel like art is like air for me. It’s what fills me up and gives me a sense of satisfaction. Even when I’m outside of the studio for a little bit I get restless, something feels wrong and I don’t feel complete. Then I go back to the studio and start painting and I’m like, “Oh my god, I just needed to paint!” I think there’s some innate sense of wanting to share my vision with the world that feels very intuitive to me, it’s my calling in life.
Being Asian-American myself, I’m always curious about other Asian-American experiences. How has growing up Asian influenced you? Were your parents supportive of you choosing an art path?
I grew up in a very non-traditional Asian household. There was no pressure to be a doctor or lawyer, but there was pressure to succeed. My parents encouraged me to pursue the career that I wanted but they told me I had to support myself. To this day I think that’s a great deal. I grew up in a mixed-race and merged family, my sisters are Black and Japanese… so growing up Asian was a different experience for me. My dad is from Hong Kong, but because he had no one to speak Cantonese to, I was never taught the language. My mom is a third generation Japanese-American and she wasn’t taught how to speak Japanese either. My whole family on my Mom’s side were interned during the war, and we lost a lot of cultural traditions because of that. After the war, Japanese-Americans were harassed and ashamed, and the erasure and denial of our culture is a real and tragic loss. I knew I grew up differently and I embrace it!
Growing up, I didn’t think there were enough role models to look up to. So part of my work is about bringing those role models into my paintings and having people who look like me, my sisters or my niece, see themselves in my work.
We have like Lucy Liu and that was it…
Yup, and she never played roles that were especially multifaceted. I read about Asian women in the news and it’s horrible, stuff one would never want to imagine. Still to this day I am asking and wondering, where are Asian American women in the media? How are we being represented with positive imagery? We are so much more complex and multi-dimensional than the “stereotypical Asian woman” who is portrayed either as the nerd, the sex symbol, or the sidekick. We rarely get the stand out role. So my work is about bringing other characters onto the canvas that people can see.
Even recently I experienced prejudice about these pants. (She points to her studio paint-splattered pants). I was at a bar and this guy was like, “Oh your pants ha ha ha, you must have bought them that way.” I was like, “No, I’m a painter.” He was like, “Oh really? You’re not a painter.” I’m like there’s literally paint on my shoes! Would this guy walk up to another man and say this? Would he say this to someone who isn’t an Asian woman? I’m not sure. But because I don’t fit into the “traditional role” of what you think a painter looks like, or what Asian American women should be, then I must be lying? There’s no way an Asian woman can be an artist…? We never even got to the part where he asked what kind of art I do, because he just came over to try to prove me wrong—about who I am. But there are so few Asian women artists who have received major institutional recognition in the art world, that it would be hard for people to imagine.
When it comes to representation regarding all aspects of media, we’re still so far behind. When will we see the portrayal of more multifaceted Asian women? It’s happening, but slowly. And it’s not just Asian women, it’s all marginalized groups of people that lack not only fair representation but get portrayed in these stereotypical ways, and it just kills me.
I think maybe our generation will change it because we're different and we’re choosing our own path and maybe our parents are more supportive than previous Asian generations. Or they weren’t even here yet… So maybe our generation and our kids will be able to choose their own way.
What’s a typical day in the studio like for you?
I usually wake up and make as much food as I can in the morning. I try to get my breakfast, lunch, and dinner together because once I come to the studio I like to be here for as long as possible without leaving, because every time I leave it pulls me out of my headspace. If I have deadlines, I’ll paint for 12 hours a day, from like 10am to 10pm or 12pm to 12am. But if I don’t have deadlines then I’ll meander around the studio. For the recent show I did, I worked 6 or 7 days a week, 12 hour days. It’s insane but I try to get myself into a groove where I can be productive and concentrate. And then that’s when I feel my best. I like to be fully immersed in the work and then the energy flows out of me onto the canvas. After a show I try to keep that momentum but sometimes I find it hard and then I accept downtime. It’s almost like forced mania. Big energy, big energy, and then afterwards, I rest.
Your art is full of color, social settings, and joy. What inspires you?
Right now there are so many things happening in the world, humanity has gone through a lot! The pandemic, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, there’s people migrating and fleeing and refugees escaping hardships all over the world. A lot of political upheaval. We’ve experienced a lot and this work is about showing the flip side of that coin, that there can be joy in humanity. We can still have pleasure, we can still live our lives to the fullest, and try to be the best that we can be. Showing joy as a form of resilience. I went to an artist talk a couple of weeks ago and someone said, “People don’t think that happy art is deep art.” And I think that’s true. But I think there’s a deepness in showing perseverance, that we are entitled to live the best lives that we can. And painting people of all different backgrounds enjoying life gives me a sense of joy. If people can see themselves in my work and walk away feeling a little bit happier, I feel I’ve succeeded.
Right now I’m inspired by nature, by San Francisco and my Asian identity. I have this book that I love looking at, The Forbidden City. It’s about stories and photos from a nightclub that used to exist in San Francisco. It’s one portrayal of Asian women in a snippet of time. Some of the photos, and I think even the premise of the nightclub itself, look somewhat “stereotypical'', but all the performers look so happy. I love the costumes and the stories. This is a book of very empowered Asian women.
I’m also reading this book right now, The Barbary Coast, it’s about the gold rush era and the history of San Francisco during that time. There’s a derogatory term that’s used for Chinese people - Celestials, and although the origin and epistemology is somewhat murky, it’s the idea that Chinese people were so strange to European settlers at the time they thought they were from another planet. They were so foreign that they couldn’t even be of this Earth so they called them Celestials. I personally find the word to contain a lot of beauty. So I’ve been trying to think about ways I can reclaim that term Celestial in my art.
As an artist how do you deal with rejection and challenges? How do you push through that?
I don’t apply for that many things anymore. I feel like there were times when people were like, “apply for this, apply for that.” And then I didn’t get the projects and I feel like I wasted time and energy. I feel grateful that I’m pretty busy right now with projects that I know I have and am getting paid for. So I try to focus on that. Maybe at some point I’ll apply for more things but right now I only have the bandwidth to focus on work where I know my time and energy will be compensated.
Obviously your career right now is doing really well, and you’re on the ascent. Do you let that marinate and think about how you’re getting the things you’re working for, like “I’m seeing the future, and this is what I want.” Or are you just working, trying to make your deadlines. How do you view this success?
I think that it’s difficult to plan things with certainty. As an artist you have no way of saying, “Ok next year I’m going to do this many shows, or sell this many paintings.” There is so much uncertainty, even as an artist experiencing success. However I do have very specific goals and I try to reach those goals and marinate on the little ideas that tickle my brain. Things like wanting to show with a particular gallery, or personal markers of success that have meaning to me. And it’s weird how when you focus your energy on those things, they do come true, they happen.
So now that I’ve reached some of my goals, I’m trying to think what my next ones are. There are so many directions one can go in the art world. It’s just about finding your own path and dreaming big.
Your current show right now is titled, Gravitational Pull. What’s the background?
Gravitational Pull is an invisible force that pulls objects in the universe towards one another. When I was making the paintings I’m thinking about these scenes in my life that made me want to continue living life to its fullest. So whether that’s being around friends, thoughts or ideas, quiet moments, loud ones, they are all a part of my gravitational pull. Some of the paintings are fact and some of them are fiction. I always say that about my work because I think as an artist it’s ok to explore both territories. The show is scenes, poems, love letters, the things in my life that are my own gravitational pull. Things that bring me together and give me a sense of fulfillment and fullness, the stuff that’s in my life that I feel attracted to. And that might be something different for everybody. Your gravitational pull might be completely different than mine, and that’s ok!
One painting is from a recent excursion to go musselling. The day was beautiful, the harvest was plentiful, great friends and company–it was such a spontaneous and splendid moment, I had to make a painting. A lot of my work comes from a place of living life to the fullest, what makes me feel complete.
And then there’s a painting in the show of roast ducks hanging in the window and that’s a memory that my Dad and I have together. When I was little he used to take me to the dentist and then afterwards we’d get a roast duck. When I was young I couldn’t wait to go to the dentist! I grew up in Seattle… where I ate these roast ducks, and it’s not as colorful of a place as San Francisco. But for the painting I chose colorful tiles inspired by San Francisco’s Chinatown. So the piece is a patchwork of memories I layer together. It’s a multi-generational tale, weaving together cities and stories. It’s part of my gravitational pull - a memory I’ve made that gives me a sense of happiness.
Your collectors, how do you feel with your memories/experiences living in other people’s homes? Do they know the meanings?
I’m not sure if they know what each painting means, but I’m definitely happy and ok with my memories and paintings living in new homes. In the past I strayed away from telling people the personal meaning behind paintings, just because people form their own connections and I try to honor that. I only share if people are curious. Art should move people in a personal way and it can feel disappointing to be told what something is about, even if it’s from the creator. But I’m always happy to share if people ask.
Ziran means “natural, spontaneous, and free.” To push away outside influence and embrace your authenticity. The actual characters 自然 mean nature. Does this mean anything to you?
It absolutely resonates within me. I feel like one can only experience fulfillment by being authentic to themselves. Happiness has to start from within. And the way that I feel fulfilled is by being natural, spontaneous, and free. I like to live life to the fullest in whatever capacity it means to me at that time. Meeting you is so cool because we are kindred spirits. I feel like my art and your art, Ziran, embody similar themes. My paintings and your clothing are about being yourself, comfortable in your own skin. The world would be a better world if everybody felt healed, full and complete. But we can’t give that to each other unless we have it here first. When I wear your clothes, I feel so good. It’s a special feeling to wear silk. If we can transform bad energy into good energy and make people feel good, then we’ve done our jobs.
See Chelsea’s current show Gravitational Pull at Jessica Silverman gallery, San Francisco, now until April 23. Photos of work courtesy of artist.
Words and Photography: Kelly Wang Shanahan (@theziran)
Artist: Chelsea Ryoko Wong (@chelsearwong)
Shot in San Francisco, April 2022.