Thank you, Dan Foley, for these great photos of Work in Progress‘ debut event at 2 Blocks of Art last week!
Source: Who Really Is The Artist…
Sending this commission off today, which took me a few months to create. Commissions always take a lot longer than I anticipate; it involves a lot more back and forth to communicate a shared vision. This piece took some time, because I spent a lot of it understand their story and the emotions behind what they wanted to convey.
A long-time friend, (whose name I’ve been asked to withhold, so let’s call her “A”) messaged me via my website and asked me to do a painting for her husband. I hadn’t seen either of them for almost 15 years, and was happy to see that they had gotten married and have a wonderful life together. Social media certainly has its drawbacks, but I’m so grateful for its ability to reconnect me with old friends and it inspires me to see so many people find their own versions of happiness. These friends are no exception: I find myself sharing their ups and downs through Facebook, and it astonishes me that I haven’t seen either of them for almost 15 years, but can still share in all their joys.
I often have trouble finding a tangible purpose for my ability to create, and commissions challenge me to empathize and understand other people. I’m continually surprised and grateful for so many people willing to share such intimate stories of their lives with me, it helps my creative process. Of course, I have also asked A if I could share her story here, so this is printed with her permission.
A’s husband’s story inspired me for various reasons. In the past 10 years, he went the prescribed path into Finance, made enough money to buy his parents a house, then dropped everything to own and run a private Kung Fu school. Battling mental illness in his family and being a primary provider, he decided to join a local police department in Los Angeles as an officer. Being in law enforcement allowed him to live his values as well as provide for his family. Since joining the police force, he has encountered life-threatening situations daily, while being deeply conflicted by those he seeks to fight and those he wants to protect. “A” shared with me her husband’s personal struggle with having to come to terms with news of police brutality, his own family member’s struggles with mental illness, his own personal values, and his devotion to his family and the people he serves. As an introspective, thoughtful person, I couldn’t imagine the daily struggle he goes through to put on his uniform every day while facing such opposition within and outside of himself.
Part of being an artist, I believe, is also being able to step outside of yourself. I’ve had my fair share of negative interactions with the police growing up as a kid in LA: Police officers have applied unnecessary force on my close family members and arrested them on zero charges. I have had my car hit by a police officer, been cited multiple times in a week for going less than 5mph over the speed limit, and have been dismissed by not one, but two trial jury panels for not being “objective enough” to rule against law enforcement. But having these personal beliefs didn’t prevent me from understanding his conflict and empathizing with his choice to stay in police force. Despite all of that, I commend my friend for having the conviction and willingness to put himself in harm’s way every day for all the ugliness that he sees in the world.
So Friends– this is for you. I wrote these phrases in my sketchbook on a couple sketches when I started your piece: “Broken armor has stood the test of time,” and “we are all imperfect vessels.” These phrases helped me develop imagery around your piece.
In addition to 4-5 sketches not-pictured here, I wrestled with the concept in various ways and took a trip to the Asian Art Museum in order to find out more about the folklore around “Guan Yu,” a legendary Chinese warrior. I did color charts to figure out what colors to use for various metal/bronze/leather objects in blueish light, and tried different compositions in order to find the right balance between symbolism and imagery.
What resulted was a fragmented, imperfect depiction of an old warrior chest plate, battle-tested and cracked, revealing only a thin blue line; ready for the next fight. It depicts an object used to protect– something tough and built to last, but hides the scars of the person wearing it. The painting itself represents stillness and solitude, a reflection of the path you’ve taken to protect your family and for strangers who you’ve never met.
Thank you, friends, for sharing your story with me and allowing me to be a part of your lives so many years later. I hope to see both of you soon.
I’m a “nice girl.” I know this about myself. I’ve often told that I may be too nice…perhaps too trusting. “Nice guys finish last” is the old trope that men, in particular, like to point out when they don’t get what they want. I have opinions on this (like I do with most things), but I won’t get into all that. My point is that I am well-aware of all the problems with being a “nice” person.
“…but you’re so nice.”
I’ve struggled with this characteristic of being a nice girl: On one hand, it has given me immeasurable opportunities to connect with people. On the other, it perhaps reflects some of my inherent need to be accepted, to be liked, and to avoid confrontation. I’ve also been screwed over more times than perhaps I choose to count. The latter doesn’t bode well with me, especially considering the inevitability of stepping on a few toes and hurting feelings in the game of Art. That can be a dissertation in itself: whether or not you can establish a career in Art without competition. I’m pretty sure that’s impossible at the current state of things- blame Capitalism, blame poor taste in Art, blame Canada, blame it all—but I try my best so I can keep going.
As you may know, I’ve recently hit few big milestones in my career in the past few months: landing two great positions with a leading art supplier, Savoir Faire, as a demo artist and a marketing contractor– and being selected to join Pacific Felt Factory as one of the first artists in a brand new, creative think-tank/community minded artist space in a highly competitive, hostile space/housing market. These are significant achievements for me, mainly because they contribute to three important elements in building my long-term art career:
- Financial stability
- A like-minded community of great artists
- An affordable space to do it in
Oh yeah, and I’m also still teaching the kids. As I said in a previous post, Art is a game of survival, and I’m here to play the long game. In this game, there are no defined rules, no prescribed milestones. You just have to make your own and celebrate them as you see fit. So friends, let’s party!
It Takes a Village
That said, I am enormously proud of these accomplishments because I know I did my part in getting them, but my pats on the back are limited, because, if I am truly honest with myself, I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it on my own merit as an artist. Sure, some of my early success as an artist must have played a factor. But if I’m honest, every one of these opportunities trace back to my one characteristic that has also given me pause: being a nice person. The truth is that I have so, so many people to thank in every little success I have– whether it’s a live painting gig, a commission, a salon I host, a show I’m in, or even just a meal I enjoy (Thank you, Carlos. ;)) Although it seems a bit silly to feel so much gratitude for something so insignificant to others, I feel it all the same so I’d like to acknowledge them… because when other artists ask me how I get these opportunities, I can help them connect the dots and hopefully convince them that– despite the risks, nice people win.
On Getting the Studio
I originally wrote about 6 paragraphs about this, but realized it was really TL;DR (too long, didn’t read), so here’s the synopsis: If you buy me a drink I’ll divulge all the details and more. Here’s how it happened:
December 2013: Met Sandra Yagi by chance, after I spoke on “Choice” Panel, a show juried by Catharine Clark of Catharine Clark Gallery, hosted by Arc Gallery.
April 2014: I featured Sandy at “Escapism” at Art Song Salon – the salon Jessica Wan and I host quarterly. I visited Sandy at her studio afterwards, and we chatted about studio prices being exorbitant. A few days later, she asked me if I’d be interested in sharing her studio. I said HELL YES.
June 2014 (?): Not sure exactly when, but I moved into Sandy’s studio on 10th and Mission.
December 2014: Sandy tells me Michael Yochum (from Arc Gallery) has been working with some folks to a huge project in the Mission aimed to provide long-term, affordable studios for SF Artists and a creative space for gallery talks, lectures, workshops, and events for the community. They wanted a diverse group of well-established, gallery-represented artists who were in need of studio space. Sandy jumped on it, so did I.
March 2015: Found out that not only did Sandy get a studio, I qualified for my own space at Pacific Felt Factory as well. I suspect Michael Yochum and Priscilla Otani gunned for me to get the space, along with Sandy, who has worked and been friends with Michael and Priscilla for years.
On Getting the Job
This one was much more straightforward: I met Rick Kitagawa and Eve Skylar while taking a course at City College back in 2010, I think, and we’ve stayed in touch. Rick and Eve are amongst my favorite people, and their pure grit, humility, passion, and hustle has inspired my artistic career. So when Rick referred me to Savoir Faire as a potential demo artist, I was honored. After interviewing with Savoir Faire, I realized I also had a mutual friend to the founders of the company, Deb Cook Shapiro, a fabulous painter in my studio building. I had also been helping Deb with some of her tech stuff, which led her to give me a glowing recommendation to Maureen and Pierre at Savoir Faire, who asked me in for a few interviews and promptly offered me a job as their marketing manager.
Surrounding Myself with Good People
If that was too much for you to read: Here’s an even shorter version. I acknowledge that I’m a crazy lucky person, so I will never take full credit for my successes. BUT– if I were to take credit, it would be for being able to surround myself with great people who, despite having had their fair share of difficulties, choose to be kind and supportive. When I think about the crazy trajectory that I have taken in the past three years since leaving Google, I can only be grateful to those who have believed in me and helped me get to this position. The rest is up to me, and it will be a long game, but I know one thing: I’ll do my best to succeed, and help others get there too.
Writing helps me think, and lately I haven’t been able to think a whole lot. Funny, I came into Art as a way to become more deliberate and thoughtful– but I find myself thinking less, and doing more. A lot more, like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. The act of thinking is almost luxurious…now that I’m thinking about it. These days, I have fragmented, incoherent thoughts, so I’ll formulate them into bullet points and/or a list. I might even tack on a catchy link bait title like “She Quit a Dream Job… You Won’t Believe What She Did Next!” Anyway:
- Cindy Shih, Artist. A few years ago, I cringed every time someone referred to me as “an Artist.” Honestly, I still cringe when I hear that now. I think what I should actually call myself is an “Art Worker” or “a worker who does Art,” because that would probably be more representative of what I do, but that would also mean I’ll have more to explain when people ask me what I do. People seem to be fairly satisfied with the term, “Artist,” so I just leave it at that and try not to be too irritating about it.
- I celebrated my 33rd birthday nearly two weeks ago, and the thing that struck me the most was how life continues to surprise me. I find that it’s really difficult to take yourself too seriously, when things change and often don’t always make a whole lot of sense when you think about them logically. In the past five years, I’ve scrutinized, examined and uprooted myself from every aspect of my life and turned it upside down. And somehow, it works pretty well too. Go figure.
- Remember how people say things like, “Don’t work harder… work smarter?” Well, apparently that shit doesn’t work (at all) with Art. Art is humbling, because there are simply no shortcuts. The most successful artists I know work 12-14-hr days in the studio, often to their own detriment. They are relentless bad-asses, and they put me to shame. If I had all the money and hugs to give, I would unquestionably give it to them. Because apparently, paintings don’t paint themselves, and I’m convinced it’s actually impossible to enjoy the entire process of creating any of them. To this point, I find that the better I get, the more work I have to do. I’m not sure why that is, or how that works, but that seems to be the way it goes.
- Does crazy beget crazy, or does being isolated and alone for hours at a time make you crazy? I’m still trying to figure this one out. I’m putting my bet on the latter, although I’m convinced no sane person would choose this line of work to begin with.
- To all my personal relationships: Thank you, and I’m sorry. As of this month, I will have three part-time jobs, in addition to being a full-time artist. (This also makes me bad at Math) Fortunately, these jobs are all hard earned, art-related and teach me things, but that doesn’t leave me a whole lot of time for a social life. This concerns me a bit, because my friends mean so much to me, but until I figure out how to balance teaching, hosting Art | Song, art demos, live painting, social media, shows, and commissions– I might not always be as available as I’d like to be. Call me out if you need to, but I ask for your forgiveness in advance.
That’s all for now. Thanks for listening,
For the most part, I enjoy doing commissions. I get approached from time to time to do them (mostly by friends and family), and I find myself having to be fairly choosy when it comes to which ones I want to take. To me, my decisions come down to three criteria: the story, technical challenge, and cost in terms of time and materials.
When the Shelton Family asked me to do this commission back in August, I was first struck by their story. The piece comes from a memory of when they were engaged at Montara State Beach, a beautiful moment situated right before a scary diagnosis that was foreshadowed by a sudden hospital stay in November.
As Jessica recounted her memory of her walk with Kevin down the beach at sunset, she shared this with me (published here with their consent):
He told me to look out over the ocean. He still had pain in his side from the November ER stay, so in order to get down on one knee I could feel his hands progress down my back, then my thigh, then my knee as he supported himself to get down to the sand.
I said Yes immediately and joined him on the sand and we sat and watched the ocean until it was almost dark. It was nice because no-one knew but us. He hadn’t told his parents, and hadn’t asked mine, so it was just ours.
And it was so quiet. Very insulated. And we thought that the medical stuff was behind us. So it was very much time out of mind, if that makes sense.
Very shortly after their engagement, Kevin was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that had spread, making it Stage 4. He’s now been through 8 rounds of chemo and surgery and, I’m happy to report, the outlook is good. However, they didn’t know that a year ago. Instead of wedding planning, they had the turbulence of a year flying back and forth across the country to receive treatment, finding laughter and joy wherever, and as often, they could. They embarked on a journey supporting each other through what would be both the scariest times, and some of the happiest times (they got married in April 🙂 in their lives.
I sobbed when I heard their story (yeah, I cry a lot – so what), but I realized what Jessica wanted in the painting, was for it to be an eternalized memory of that fleeting, magical moment… a time without worry, and a moment that was only theirs. Jessica described the scene as having an ethereal pinkish glow… which I assured her was probably something she made up– but I struggled to incorporate it successfully into the painting.
I also struggled with depicting their profoundly moving emotions, but I wanted to encapsulate what Jessica had told me when describing that afternoon on the beach:
…Similar to that space between sleep and waking, where you’re totally relaxed and smiling at something whimsical in your dream that you, now that you think of it … you can’t quite remember … before you wake up and remember the scary truth of what’s going on.
… a break from the scariness and uncertainty that we thought at the time we’d just overcome, coupled with celebrating our whole life together, just around the bend.
As the scarecrow said, though: I think it’s going to get darker before it gets lighter.
We didn’t know that, then. And it got a whole helluva lot darker.
Now that we’ve fought through everything this past year, I guess what this painting – or that place – represents to me is a respite. A break from being scared. A place where things might be okay – but, more than that, a place where the problems don’t even exist so you don’t have to focus on just not thinking about it. It’s a world apart.
It’s my red dress from ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ my Jodie Foster moment at the end of ‘Contact. ‘
Thank you, Jessica and Kevin, for letting me be a part of such a special moment in your lives. Thank you, also for referencing “Requiem for a Dream,” which might actually be one of my favorite movies of all time. And Kevin, I sometimes have a hard time expressing in words how happy I am for you both right now, so the best I can do is give my love and care into creating this piece for you. I hope you take care of each other for ever and ever. I’ll be here, too.