In three short days, I enter my mid-30s. It’s a funny age when you know you’re no longer considered “young,” but you also aren’t legit enough to be old. The thing about being squarely in the middle, is that no one buys it. And for some reason these days, everyone wants something to buy; they want to be convinced. Not with facts, but with feeling. Of their own worth, righteousness, intellect, wealth, success, etc. etc. Social media allows to do this in a photo, a pithy comment, or less than 140 characters. We can cater our realities to how we want to be persuaded.
For the most part, it’s great. I enjoy being able to connect with folks I remember from childhood, people I went to school with and worked with in LA, Berlin, Beijing, and SF. I like seeing articles that make me think, or funny memes that make me laugh and go, “hell yeah!” I love seeing all the things that make us all unique and special. I’ve always prided myself in having friends from various walks of life, and hearing their perspectives has continually challenged me to grow and change as I know more about the world. I certainly have you guys to thank for that.
But what I’m seeing now is discouraging. I deleted Facebook off my phone the other day, just to eliminate the noise from my head. Because the outrage, the awareness– none of that is working right now. Our government is bought, and we’re fighting on a platform who doesn’t care about anything but their bottom line. Any effort to engage others through actual communication is met with ridicule, condescension, and hurt feelings on both sides. It all appears to be a smoke screen, to keep us fighting with the people we care about.
But then again, disengaging doesn’t work either. Disengaging allows for the status quo and those in power to win. I’m seeing well-meaning, intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate people on either side of the debate throw their hands up in despair and retreat back to their echo chambers to lick their wounds. I am doing the same.
But here’s what we have in common:
- Everyone feels like the victim
- Everyone feels unheard
- Everyone feels like they know better
- Everyone feels like they’re trying their best
So why do we disagree on so much? Here’s are some reasons, though not at all limited to these:
- Politics is now being sold as a product, you only see what you would otherwise consume
- The powerful benefits from keeping us divided, so they use our tribalistic, nativist tendencies to pin the blame on the poor, the incarcerated, and the minorities (the Other)
- The poor and disenfranchised are feeling guilt for having to rely on the government for “handouts,” and being shamed for being the victims of a vastly unequal society. Instead of admitting this, they are quick to blame others who aren’t part of their tribe by calling them snowflakes, stupid, or entitled;
- Everyone loses.
Recently, I’ve been told by various people and family members that they think I talk too much about politics, that I should focus more on Art instead, that I am potentially causing harm to my friends and family by being “so extreme.” Thing is, I consider myself fairly moderate– and if you were to stand in my shoes for a few days, you’d see that too. I’m sure most people feel that way about themselves. But like I said, everyone wants to be convinced of something, so if you must be convinced that I fall into some kind of spectrum and need to be labelled, I hope to just convince you that I care.
I care about giving opportunities for people who want them, I care about alleviating suffering for animals and humans alike. The line you choose to draw here is deeply personal, I don’t care if you eat meat. I believe the role we have in this world is to be the guardians of what we’ve been given, and if we can, be the voice to the voiceless. I don’t believe in heaven, or even hell, so maybe I believe this is the only place we’ve got.
I’m not saying I’m a Saint, and I’m no devil, either. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have friends and family members that are or were once on welfare, who were victims of violence and abuse, and have been arrested or incarcerated. That doesn’t make me a victim, but it gives me intimate perspective of what it’s like to live in shame and guilt. I’m no stranger to that, either. I also know that I can be a bit reactionary, a tad racist, and a hypocrite sometimes. I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.
What I would be ashamed of, however, would be to give into an acceptance that humans are selfish, greedy, and mean-spirited by nature, and that’s just the way it is. Because, that’s the way it will continue to be, if no one cares to be anything more. I mean that sincerely, between you and me, because I believe we’re all imprisoned if we continue to see ourselves that way.
To even have this perspective, I also know, means that I am coming from a lot of privilege– despite the fact that through income alone, I would be considered the working poor. I shop about once every two years, but I am able to buy what I need. I track everything I buy for my Art on a spreadsheet, and make sure I keep it in the black, so I can keep doing what I love. The thing is, most people I know do this. It’s easy to look at someone and assume that they’re not struggling, but you’d be doing yourself an injustice.
So maybe here’s a radical idea: I’m not ashamed to admit that I am not unique, that I fall squarely in the middle of most things. Sure–I’m an immigrant, I’m Chinese, I’m a woman, I’m an artist, I celebrate all these things that make me unique. But I’m also part of the majority, which makes me somewhat unremarkable, but here’s why it matters: It won’t be our differences, it’ll be our similarities that will matter the most in the next few years. Our diversity is what makes us exceptional, but it’ll be what we have in common that will help us in the end. And if there’s anyone to first find those shared commonalities and struggles to drive change, it’ll the folks in the middle. And I sincerely hope we do.
Your Friend, Cindy
–San Francisco, February 9th, 2017
“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
Hillary’s nomination hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t like her; I didn’t like that she received massive sums of money from big banks, I didn’t agree with some of her foreign policy decisions, and I really didn’t like that her husband signed laws into place that helped incarcerate hundreds of minorities into the criminal justice system.
It wasn’t until Bill Clinton spoke last night, that I truly understood my bias. See, I grew up a conservative household and hated Bill Clinton. When I turned 18, I registered Republican. It wasn’t until college that I truly forged strong female relationships (Thank you Danielle, Michelle, Dormain, and so many others), that I started to see the race divide on both sides at UCLA, and I really started to question some of my convictions. I started to notice my own internalized misogyny when I declared that I “wasn’t like other girls,” like somehow, being a tomboy and only having guy friends made me more worthy.
Fast forward to when I moved to San Francisco in a car full of all my earthly possessions, determined to carve a life for myself with two part-time jobs that barely covered rent. At one of my first jobs, I was told that I should consider wearing pantyhose to cover my legs, and a male intern pretended to hump me at the copy machine. Every day, I was reminded that asian women were the ultimate trophies in the Bay Area. Everyone wanted their Yoko Ono. This was the first time I recall feeling like I was being treated as stereotype. A comfort woman; another Lucy Liu. Even if I rise beyond that, I can even deny it–there was no denying that others see me as “just like, another Asian girl.” It’s a get up you can’t take off, no matter how successful you are. It’s telling a Senator and Secretary of State that she needs to be more inspiring.
Still, I wouldn’t let any of this bother me. It all becomes white noise; a blip in the radar. Even when the homeless guy motioned for me to suck his dick, called me a chink, and “told me to move back to Vietnam!” I laughed; these overt displays of racism or misogyny never bothered me.
What bothers me are the women like me, who maintain that being a woman is a non-issue. What bothers me are people who can’t actually put their finger on why they “hate” Hillary, or why they can’t trust her. Who, instead, point to things like “Benghazi” or “TPP” or some other one-word, trumped up media bullshit designed to paint her as a villian and tear her down. Because, when I actually made the effort to read up on Benghazi, or TPP, I never found one thing to indict her. And who does she think she is, receiving money to fund her well-respected, accomplished non-profit helping millions of people across the world? I, for one, would rather see the money in the Clinton Foundation rather than Goldman Sachs, but that’s just me.
So, back to my own biases. When I heard her husband speak last night, it sent me back to my formative years, when I simply didn’t (or wouldn’t) question what I was told. This was before I was told I didn’t have what it took to be a leader, not talk about race, or be smarter and shut the fuck up. Back when I never read books by female and minority writers. Before I backpacked through other countries and was mistaken for a prostitute, or step foot in a German concentration camp and visited mass burial sites in Nanjing, China. Back when I truly believed in such thing as Good and Evil.
Now, I know that the world isn’t so black and white. Sure, I’m as liberal as they come, but I feel for Bernie supporters, and I even understand where Trump supporters are coming from. I understand what it’s like to feel powerless and uncertain; to desperately seek change and a voice. To compromise. Trust me, I get that.
But listen closely to both sides. There is only one side who is promising change by excluding and blaming specific groups of people. There is one side who is clearly selling an idea that some people deserve more than others, exactly the way Hitler did to Jews, the Japanese did to the Chinese, Turks to the Armenians, and Whites to the Blacks in our not-so-distant history. Hell, we’ve even convinced ourselves of our superiority to animals, but I digress.
When I stood at the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, outside of Berlin, I was surprised that my horror wasn’t at the gas chambers– it was in the meticulous curation and landscaping around the camp. I was horrified by the intentional facade built to show how themselves and others how absolutely normal it all was. The careful intent on the outside, to mask the atrocities happening within, chills me to this day.
As we see business as usual, and things seem normal, think about the underlying subtext of some lives mattering more than others. If there is such thing as evil in this world, this is at the root. I believe that the vast majority of us aren’t racist, sexist, or evil. But the vast majority of us can’t afford not to examine our own biases, to stay quiet, and to succumb to racism, bigotry, and terror. We’ve seen this happen before, and it sure as hell can happen again. We are one Supreme Court justice away from overturning a woman’s right to choose.
Yesterday, I was moved by the nomination of our first female presidential candidate. It filled me with hope and pride that as a country, women not only mattered– they can lead. It also dawned on me how much shit she had to wade through, and compromises she had to make, to make it this far. If Hillary becomes president next year, it will have been nearly one hundred years since the passing of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. This is progress. Slow, hard-won, and painful progress, but still progress. Maybe Hillary isn’t the perfect candidate, but she represents inclusion and progress, and we simply can’t afford the alternative.
As the election looms larger, I implore you to be extremely wary of people who say they can fix things by excluding others. Be vigilant and cautious of the intentional curation, smoke and mirrors, and the masking of complexities disguising itself as normalcy. Most of all, examine your own internalized biases, and think about what the people you love might stand to lose– even if you aren’t affected yourself. All of us are somewhat imperfect, and because of that, we need one another to be better than that.
Sometimes I can be slow to respond to things that are the most important to me… I’m working on it. Bear with me.
When I heard about the tragedy in Orlando, I had just come up for air, after treading through a week of many emotions. In one week, we said hello to newest member of our family (Welcome to the party, Eli!), struggled to make last minute decisions for a party we didn’t feel we had time for, and drove down to LA for an event we didn’t necessarily think we needed to have.
What resulted was an epiphany; and a beautiful, joyous celebration brimming with a sense of shared love for the family. Walking into a room full of people you hardly know, all wishing you love and happiness, is a feeling that is hard to describe. Aside from family (all on the Shih side), there were about a hundred people: long-time business partners, coworkers, old friends of the family, some of whom I’ve never met before. What began as an event I felt obligated to have for my parents, quickly became a testament to the power of Community: folks who loved me and Carlos as an extension of their own son and daughter, aunts and uncles who watched me grow through their many years of friendship with my parents. I watched in amazement at my sheer luck and overwhelming gratitude as they gave and gave their well-wishes and generous gifts as tokens of love for new members of their community. I am, for better or worse, one of theirs.
This is something I was always slow, or perhaps reluctant, to understand: what it means to be a part of a community. A community comes from a shared experience, whether you like it or not. That shared experience can be racial, sexual, socio-economic– you are a part of it. You may not want to identify as part of a particular identity, and may even actively fight it, but the truth is that experience is integral to who you are, and you have a responsibility as a member of that community.
Growing up in where some joke as the “Asian-American Beverly Hills,” I have come to understand and accept my privilege. This doesn’t mean I can’t also identify as a minority, and as an Asian woman. Let me explain: my parents came to America in ’85 with very little, just like everyone else. My dad faced a shit ton of obstacles and name-calling, he was called things I would have punch someone in the mouth for today. It really sucked. At one point, it was unclear if we could afford our house or college. But they worked hard and overcame–but our struggle doesn’t mean we also didn’t enjoy certain privileges, it didn’t mean they didn’t receive help. It isn’t a zero sum game.
Knowing this, at its low points, feels like guilt. Other times, it is empowering. Second generation Asian-Americans understand this feeling intimately, because we *saw* our parents go through it. They came with nothing, and they needed each other to succeed. Immigrants knew we didn’t have cops looking out for us, banks to give us loans, college degrees to rely on. Our parents bartered with each other, supported each other through outright racism, bailed each other out of bad situations, and was able to rise up as a community. No one else was looking out for them, so they had to look out for each other. Their success is just as tied to us as our own.
But somehow, this was lost on our generation. On paper, Asian Americans are among most highly-educated, highest earning group of people in the United States. We are also the least politically engaged and feel the least responsibility for the failures and successes of others. Chalk it up to powerlessness, guilt, or entitlement– but it’s been truly discouraging to see how many otherwise educated, successful children of immigrants feel so utterly powerless, barring that of a thoughtless consumer: eating at fancy restaurants, collecting accolades, buying expensive things, and feeling absolutely no responsibility to their communities outside of their own families.
My proposition: If you are part of a majority in any one aspect of your life (in my case, upper-middle class privilege and heterosexual), try your best to be present and stand for the people you love, who are of minorities in a community. For example, as a heterosexual woman, my homosexual friends have been a huge part of my success as a citizen, as an artist, as a human– so I am going to do my best to be a part of theirs. If you, like many of my friends, enjoy some privilege of going to a stable job and going home to a safe, warm bed every day, know that your ability to do so came at a cost to others who don’t have that opportunity and may have even contributed to your ability to do so.
This isn’t to say you should feel guilty for enjoying what you have, this is to say– if you’re feeling guilt, even in the least– you are more powerful than you think. Use it. Even in the smallest of ways: donate time, money, write letters, reach out to loved ones, smile at people on the street, ask how they are doing. We all need a little extra love right now. We can’t rely on the government, policy, or our legal systems (don’t get me started on that), and our experience right now isn’t so different from that of an immigrant community: All we really have is each other.
And to all my LGBTQIA friends, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or Carlos for anything right now. You are a part of our community, in a shared experience of vulnerability, in love, in humanity, and I will hold space for you all right now. I have been given some extra love to give, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or Carlos for a hug, some words of encouragement, or just to acknowledge that we’re here and standing up with all of you. Love you all, and thank you.
Well, it appears as though I got married. Did you think I wouldn’t have some thoughts on this topic, after all these years?
I’ll tell you this: Days later, it still feels very much like a dream. Not the “fairy tale wedding” kind of dream, but the kind of dream where you watch yourself while you’re asleep and go “Hey, look at that- That’s Cindy, taking steps!” (Thanks Ash, for verbalizing this.) I am still very much tickled by this.
And yeah, that’s exactly how it feels. In looking at the photos, a few of you have noted with surprise that we went with such a traditional approach to our wedding. You know, the white dress, fancy car, the diamond ring, etc. I’m rather surprised with ourselves here, too. I guess these sorts of events tend to draw out the most traditional in people, despite our proclivities. I also think the fact that so many people thought we would end up with vials of blood around our necks and weed favors made us more inclined to prove them otherwise. That’s just who we are, I guess. I mean, C’mon, this is from a couple who originally wanted to get married on April Fool’s Day because we both thought it would be hilarious. Birds of a feather.
Carlos also knew that I hated surprises, so we plotted a quiet engagement and decided to get married with just our two families with a small ceremony and a very nice dinner. We did it in a month, so no more BS can find its way into it and scare us off for good. Turns out, that was a good idea, because weddings tend to suck up as much life blood and time from you as you allow it to. Trust me on this one.
There’s also something about Tradition I’ll have consider at this life juncture. Turns out, Tradition matters to a great deal of people, so it seems to be inevitable that it will ultimately matter to you, if you care deeply about said people. I suppose that’s why traditions stick around for so long, and even the crappy parts tend not to die so easily. It’s the path of least resistance, like hanging a piece of chalk from the wall, having gravity help you draw a straight line as a guide for a mural. It provides you with a guide, so what you create looks better from a distance. It works; and everyone seems happy with the result.
I will say, that the best part of being a free-thinking, privileged woman living in 2016 America, is that I can pick and choose which traditions I want to honor and which ones are straight up bullshit. Veil over my face to be unwrapped like a present? Bullshit. My father giving me away and changing my name? No thanks. (No offense to anyone who went that route, to each their own.) But spending money on things that matter to us like good food, fine wines, and lots and lots of flowers? Check. Spending extravagant amounts of money on the 15 people who cared the most about my wedding? Fa’Sho. (Not counting 4 kids and a dog, who were mainly there as adorable accessories.) It makes it ten thousand percent easier when your partner agrees with you on all these things, not to mention–affirming.
And now, I guess I’m a wife. That term cracks me up, because it makes me want to watch Joy Luck Club again to decide which Asian stereotype I’d want to be, but I’m really glad we actually did this whole wedding thing. Mainly because we had a total blast. Both our families never thought they’d see the day their son and daughter, sister or brother get married, but I swear—- it happened. And not even on April 1st!
Take that, Tradition. 🙂
As someone who hates obligations, I generally wait ’til Chinese New Year to come up with resolutions. Despite it’s failure rate, I love resolutions–mainly because it gives me a chance to get really emo and think back on the difference a year makes.
Timehop told me the other day that 6 years ago, almost to the day, I started painting again after a 10+ year hiatus. I was still working at Google at the time, and taking studio classes at night. Two years after this post, I quit Google and started pursuing Art as a career.
This year might have been my 10th year at Google, so here comes the understatement of the decade: In the past ten years, I’ve gained Perspective. And the only real difference is that up until then, I was working hard at something I didn’t want, and now I’m working hard at something I really do want. I guess a large part of the difficulty in pursuing something I really do want, is having accountability and responsibility over my failures. Here, I have no boss to pin the blame; you can’t blame anyone but yourself for your own shortcomings. That’s no fun.
But then again, there are other things to blame. Income inequality, for instance. Yes, income inequality, that catch-all. That is the reason why peace-loving hippies are driven to murderous rage and my tech friends prefer to stay in the cleaner parts of San Francisco. Wealth inequality the main reason why everyone in San Francisco seems to be so pissed off.
Perhaps my experience isn’t worthwhile (in which case, please feel free to stop reading) but entertain me here: I think my firsthand experience of wealth inequality within SF is fairly unique. I’m one of the crazy ones who consciously decided to take myself down a few notches on the socio-economic status ladder, give up the cool toys, and make up my own game to play. That said, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not recommending it. If you read my blog, you know that this counter-stream, art business is harder than any job I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken more than a few–so be nice to artists, they’re weird for a reason, but I digress.)
The way I see it, I’m part of a first wave of kids whose battle-cry was to “pursue your passion,” which we all know is a load of crap because our society doesn’t really care about your passion unless it involves someone paying you to do it. I know this now, because my friends who, ten years ago, decided to pursue money as an singular, objective goal have been rewarded handsomely: they get to spend winters exploring the Spanish coast, they take babymoons on yachts– and I’m actually really genuinely happy for them, I really am. They’ve worked really hard for it.
On the flip-side, my equally educated and accomplished friends who chose to pursue their passions, well, they have to make a lot of hard decisions and sacrifices. Seeing such a stark difference in how these decisions have panned out over the course of a decade has been extremely telling. Basically, it tells me that nothing has really changed in this world, except perhaps that income inequality is worse than ever. I can get more into this, but I’ll try to cut to the chase.
Since I voluntarily, and willingly made the conscious decision to jump off the deep end of the corporate ladder and wasn’t forced off somehow, I feel like I can be relatively objective here. I also acknowledge the fact that privilege allowed me the choice. While it sucks to not be able to afford to go on a family vacation, it’s also pretty awesome to BE SUPER EXCITED to go back to work after a break. On the spectrum, I have been incredibly fortunate and I have zero regrets, but I’ll tell you this: It really sucks to constantly worry about money, and that crappy feeling becomes an undercurrent that makes its way into every small decision you make. So try not to judge people for making some poor ones.
Now that not everyone I know isn’t working at least tangentially in Tech, I have close friends who were heroin addicts, some have dabbled in prostitution. I have friends who have participated the civil rights movement in Berkeley and lived the Summer of Love. I also still have friends who only hang out north of Market St. and are completely blindsided to the protests happening in the City. They genuinely don’t see why people are so pissed off. These friends are unabashedly unconcerned with the housing crisis insofar as it doesn’t affect the next IPO. And all of them are intelligent, highly respectable people; I am honored to call them friends. This doesn’t make me a better person, but it does gives me a shit ton of perspective.
I’ll list a few things I’ve observed, as this is quickly become TL;DR.
- It feels good to be around people who aren’t worried about money, I get it. Stressed out negativity is a huge bummer, but understanding the struggle (and maybe even finding ways to help) is the price you pay for immense gratitude for what you have.
- Almost everything is designed to make people feel bad about not having money: Relationships, malls, restaurants, Vegas, the media, etc. I consciously try to avoid places and movies that make me feel poor. It’s very difficult, because those places are generally very fun and people you care about enjoy them.
- Holidays are significantly more crappy; Christmas and birthdays suck. I try to get on my high horse about being too busy and not believing in consumerism, but my nieces and nephews don’t understand this. They want cool stuff, and I’m the asshole that can’t afford to give it to them.
- In our society, money validates all. Even Art. No one gives a damn about your art unless it sells for a ton of money, but you’re not supposed to care about that– much less figure out how to sell your work. This creates confusion and develops drinking habits.
- It becomes more apparent that a lot of our narratives work by blaming the poor and powerless. Despite what you hear, “Poor” people are often the least judgmental, most intelligent, hardest working, and incredibly fun to be around. I know this isn’t a revelation, but I’ve learned so much more from stomping around the streets with a bunch of low-lifes and a bottle of whiskey, than I have in college and all yacht parties combined. You really grow from having friends in all circles. Everyone would gain from experiencing rags and from riches.
Again, this list is far from comprehensive and by no means exhaustive. I sincerely have no Ego here: just had to jot down some observations. Frankly, I don’t miss the food, but miss the days at Google where everyone went to great lengths to help each other research and share resources with no expectation of anything in return. I now understand that this freedom was afforded to us only because the parties involved were all making a decent income, so money was no longer an issue. In the fiscally-starved art world, if you don’t find a way to monetize your ideas– you’re literally worthless.
I would love to change this, and I have a feeling I know a lot of you would like to, too. Anyone with ideas, shoot me a message and let’s roam the streets with some 40s and give it a go. If you can’t do it in San Francisco, where can you? We’ll grow from it, I promise.
(As part of my application to Pro Arts, Oakland. Many thanks to my cousin Henry Lien for his literary prowess and ideas.)
This body of work is entitled “Cinderflora.” The work is a series of mixed media sculptures incorporating hand‐painted cinder blocks, bricks, paper flowers, reeds, stems, and other forms of flora. Accompanying the sculptural pieces, is a triptych of a deconstructed traditional landscape– fragmented and broken as a backdrop to the immigrant experience.
This series gives voice to the buried histories of women of color and their contributions to American history. Using traditional philosophies of wabi‐sabi, ikebana, and kintsugi, these pieces show an appreciation for decline, the rhythm of growth and decay, and the use of cracks and imperfections as sources for newfound strength. Using figurative imagery, elements of floral arrangement, and the traditional “women’s craft” of paper flowers, it collides organic, natural forms with industrial building materials to explore the oft‐ overlooked meanings in conventional objects.
The central motif of flora in an urban environment serves as a metaphor for the untold efforts of women of color in history. Instead of equating flowers to women in any of the historically cliché, retrograde ways, the work deconstructs our view of them and highlights their ability to harness patience and resilience to pierce through seemingly impenetrable obstacles. Similarly, industrial materials are used to emphasize the strength of composite materials, but through decomposition and breaking down in uniquely different or unexpected ways, becoming nourishment as a means for growth.
To strike a delicate balance between two assumed binaries; harsh, industrial building materials are paired with natural, delicate ones to question our assumptions around seemingly opposing concepts such as fragile/strong, delicate/harsh, beauty/imperfection, and growth/decay. Each piece tells a different story of nature waiting for man‐made obstacles to crumble, seeking fissures and cracks as a point of entry to find its path into the light.
The title of the series itself attempts to rehabilitate a reviled cliche of a female narrative. The story of Cinderella is perhaps most controversial, because it is a traditional fairytale of finding salvation in a prince’s arms. It elicits sneers from progressives as readily as floral craftwork does, and yet‐ Cinderella’s story can also be read as a tale of hard work, patience, resourcefulness, and taking advantage of opportunities as it presents itself. The alternative reading of Cinderella’s story harmonizes with the alternative reading of paper flowers; which, in turn, suggests an alternate recounting of women’s stories. The title of the series intentionally echoes this rehabilitation to question politically unpopular or outdated motifs, while the work takes back cultural appropriations, examines rooted biases and buried traditional values‐‐reinvigorating them and bringing them to light.
Personally, the Cinderflora series reflects my need to express gratitude for the strength and efforts of women who came before me, whose own stories were buried to give me a voice. In unearthing even the most recent, unspoken histories within my own ancestral past, I am struck by the resilience and fortitude of the women in my family. Each overlooked and broken in uniquely different ways, but in breaking down, demonstrated resourcefulness and vitality despite having lived through unrelenting obstacles in harsh surroundings.
This series represents my need to craft my own narrative through a composite stories of others. It examines who I am as a woman of color as a part of a larger, historically under‐ represented community within American history.
–San Francisco, October 2015
I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been a full-time artist. It hasn’t been that long, but it sure feels like a long time. This is probably a good thing.
Unlike in school or with certain jobs, there are no real milestones here. Occasionally, you gain an accolade here and an award there, and everyone seems to be very impressed– but deep down inside, you sort of wish people cared more about things that actually matter: like when your parents finally admit that they’ve given up on you ever pursuing a corporate career, or when you finally discover the powers of good gesso.
On Monday, October 19th, I will be speaking to college students and some art career hopefuls at San Francisco City College– a school that I still credit with helping me making my leap from the tech to the art industry when I turned 30. City College gave me an opportunity to meet people from my community from all walks of life, with the drive and passion to just learn.
So, on Monday, I’ll be a guest speaker at Nancy Elliott’s Art Career and Transfer Portfolio Prep (ART 185), a class I took 3 years ago (Or maybe it was 4? 2?) I consider this to be a pretty cool milestone for two obvious reasons: One, as an alumnus and huge proponent of affordable art classes. Two, because someone actually considers me worthy enough to espouse advice to a bunch of unsuspecting adults.
I will have a few slides prepared for the presentation– not of my work, but of the community projects I’m involved in. It’s not that I don’t think my art is worth sharing (it is), but I know nothing of these people, and for me– my art career and work for the community are deeply intertwined. If I may be so cavalier to use the word “success” in my career so far, it’s because I cared enough about the people around me to participate in things that matter. Sure, I get burned sometimes and I broke down crying yesterday from pure exhaustion, but if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I would have it any other way.
In any case, there are rare moments that provide one with an opportunity to pause and reflect: so I’m going to jot down my notes on this blog, because I started this blog with the sole purpose of chronicling my “journey to being a ‘real’ artist,” and the last time I checked, I still can’t afford to get an MFA.*
Since I have so many, *way* more successful, more-deserving artist friends here, and on social media, I would like to lob this request out there: Please feel free to add, edit, or comment on these ideas– I will probably add them to my presentation. I appreciate this in advance, as I can’t possibly imagine ever receiving adequate advice from an individual for something as unregulated, individualistic, and schizo as the art world.
Actually, for those who care about this sort of thing, I’ve been reading this great book by Alix Sloan, Launching Your Art Career: A Practical Guide for Artists, (appropriately priced under $15 for those on a budget), which is proving to be helpful. Now, I’m not typically one to follow a guidebook on this sort of thing, but this one is written in a no-nonsense, easily digestible way, and quotes tons of people I respect from the SF scene and beyond: Ken Harman, Jen Rogers, Mark Wolfe, etc. Pick it up, if you haven’t already. It most likely won’t give you resounding, slam-duck advice you probably don’t know already, but it frames things in a different perspective that is both refreshing in its straightforwardness, and affirming to those who might’ve figured out things the hard way.
Book aside, here are some things I would offer up as advice (again, feel free to comment, edit, and share):
- Do Good Work and Keep Learning. If you’re enrolled in a class at City College, you’re already doing it right. Now, force yourself to spend more time creating work (any work) even if it sucks. This part is really hard for various reasons:
- Yes, you’re an artist, but you also need to exist in this world and make a living. We all have 24 hours in a day: Succumb to trying to balance time between making art, and making money for the rest of your life. Maybe, if you get lucky, the two will come together: this is not easy, takes tons of luck, and happens to 0.00000001% of the people who try it. I’m not counting on it, which is why I have about 4 jobs: I have bucketed these jobs into varying priorities based on time flexibility, pay, relation to my art career. No job is really “below” me. If you find that a job is ‘below’ you: check yourself on why you think it is. It doesn’t matter if you do the job or not- the important thing is asking yourself why. This will tell you a lot about yourself that will help with the soul-searching I will get to in point #2.
- There are days I would rather do *anything* else than paint. It would be easy to say, well shit- that makes me a fraud, doesn’t it? But guess what– Everyone feels that way, but the only way to get #1 done is to make stuff. So force yourself to sit in that chair and prop up your dominant hand with your less dominant hand, and get to working. Unlike my job in the tech world, you don’t get paid if you don’t produce. It’s pretty straightforward in that way.
- Get Involved with the Community. This takes some soul-searching, because your “community” can involve any number of people who care about the same thing you do. Double the emphasis on this if you’re one of the few artists left in San Francisco: this one is important- I mean it. If you don’t get involved now, there won’t be anything worth doing for you soon.
- Early in my career, I found local groups within San Francisco like AAWAA, NCWCA, who introduced me to other passionate, ordinary people living creative lives in various ways. Go to their shows, read up on their history, volunteer, start an event and invite them to it, offer to gather signatures for initiatives you care about– this proves you care, and have something to offer. No one likes a poser, so look for causes you actually care about. Here, you’ll meet talented, amazing people who are the most generous with their time and resources, and this will really inspire you– as an artist, and as a person. Knowing people who care is soul-food, for when things get really bleak. Also, I sometimes think the true currency of Art is a gift-force that needs to constantly be put in motion–which in turn helps a community, and ultimately, in a long, roundabout way– you.
- Surround yourself with hard-working, humble people who live their values. You’ll find them by participating in your community, and you’ll keep them by doing #3. Which brings me to:
- Have Something to Offer. This is the soul-searching part: think about what you’re better at than most people. Sometimes, these so-called ‘strengths’ can be defeating and rather inconvenient. For me, I found out it involved bringing people together: except that 1. I couldn’t speak in public, 2. I can’t work in front of people, and 3. I hate talking to people on the phone. It took some time to get over these things and did things that scared the shit out of me: I found teaching jobs, I enrolled in a museum-drawing class, and well– I still text/msg everyone instead of talking to them, so I really haven’t gotten over that third one. Also, people really piss me off sometimes. But, you know, baby steps.
- Part of the difficulty in the art world is the fact that there is no such thing as “work friends” and “regular friends.” You are your work are your friends are your life, so forget about work/life balance. You’ll most likely lose friends and maybe even significant others who don’t get it. It’s not their fault they’re not insane.
- That said, cherish the ones that care and are crazy enough to support you. Shit isn’t easy for you, much less for them, so if they’re still around, its not because you’re awesome– It’s because they’re awesome. They are the good ones; and you need as many of them as possible in this line of work. Go out of your way to make them look good, or find opportunities to help them.
- If these people happen to also be artists, go to their shows (if you can), and be genuinely happy for their successes. If they’re artists, they’re also really good bullshit detectors- so unless you’re genuinely happy for them, they’ll know. Trust me, because you’ll know. Also, don’t be offended if they take advantage you for your strengths- be lucky you have something they find worthy, but know your self-worth. We’re all in this together.
OK– so this is already entirely too many words and if you’ve read this far, thank you. I still need your help in shaping these minds on Monday, so please send me your comments and thoughts. I really appreciate all of you being here, and part of my journey. Wish me luck.
*Right now, I am filled with anxiety over the fact that I just typed out 5 short paragraphs without a photo or bullet points. If you read this far, you are awesome.