Just Observe.

If you’re paying attention, you may have noticed the onslaught of notifications regarding SF Open Studios from me. Well, now it’s over- at least for me, but there is one more week left of #SFOS next weekend. *Plug: If you want to see some art, let me know. I’ll take you around, personally. The talent in this City is just too good to waste by not seeing it for yourself.

That said, if you read my last post here, you will know that I had conflicting emotions about opening up my private space to the public, selling my work, etc, etc. Well, I’m happy to report that that specific issue is now over, and since artists make it their business to collect observations, here are mine:

  • Part of the job of an artist is never to be satisfied, perhaps with anything- ever. This goes with your own work, other’s work, other’s perception of your work, the nature of the business, the list goes on. I’m fairly certain that the crippling, heartbreaking sadness of never quite being happy is somehow an integral of your creative growth. Knowing this can make you feel like severely depressed, an awful ingrate, or just annoying to be around, because you know you might never be actually happy- even if you’re wildly famous and enormously wealthy. As for me, I choose to compartmentalize and ignore it 99.1% of the time because I’m good at doing that.
  • People get it. One of the coolest, mind-blowing, and most humbling moments are when people become emotional in front of your work. This happened three separate times with three strangers, in response to three different paintings. I was stunned. One woman teared up when telling me what she saw in “Regrets Only.” Another man told me about his guilt when he saw “Lilac Wine.” When I finally asked them to explain what they saw in the painting, they fucking NAILED it. I’m not kidding, those emotions were real, and we shared it. Except that mine was outside of my body, and theirs was, well–within. From this, I gathered one of two things: 1. Maybe my art is too heavy-handed, or 2–STOP over-analyzing it already, your work actually matters to somebody. Also, don’t ever underestimate how much people understand.
  • Dualities exist, and that’s the beauty of it. Being an “artist” is both simultaneously liberating as well as stifling, and the art world is frustratingly small, yet crazy intimidatingly vast. Maybe that’s why we keep coming back to it. Because in that moment where you see a piece that is so amazing and genius that you tell yourself that you might as well pack up your shit and go home because you’ll never get to that point–you realize that you’re also doing the same thing they are; that maybe you’re at the same point on a different continuum or on a different point, but holy shit–you’re all in it together. And the next time you see their work, you’ll feel infinitesimally small again, but your ego might grow ten sizes larger: because you are getting that close to something brilliant.

I’m not there yet, and I may never be completely satisfied if I ever were– but collecting these observations makes me feel like it’s getting me closer. Thanks to all that came to support me and my work last weekend, I had a blast.

Open Studios 2014

From Left: Bob, Sandy, Me, Katrina, and Jude 

The Seed of Elitism.

So much to say these days, I don’t even know what will come out as I write this. All I know is that these are the times I need to sit down and write, because I have no idea what I’m thinking until it comes out on the page.

Updates on Me, in case you care: the “underCurrents” show ended, I got into another one called “Shifting the Body,” opening in Pacifica, in July (hooray!).  Spring semester classes just ended, I’m got some fun live painting and teaching gigs, I’m continuing to consult with artists and work in social media, and I’m selling work and commissions. With all this, I sat alone last week and thought to myself, “This is fucking amazing. I’m doing the art that I care about, I’ve grown to the point emotionally, that I can finally not be embarrassed to call myself an Artist. I’m an Artist. (Holy shit!)”

Then I thought: this is exactly what I wanted, and I’m about a hundred times happier now that I ever was, sitting in meetings and responding to emails for the purported, Best Company to Work For. But, um, what now?

Sidebar: I’ve never been one to congratulate myself. But here, in the Art universe, you have to learn to pat yourself on the back– because that’s all you’re gonna get. No one is going to hand you a check for showing up every day, or give you a bonus because you put in 20 more hours of work a week. That’s expected. And for better or worse, you’re gonna have to be your own cheerleader and your own critic.

That said, I knew I had to figure out a way to pat myself on the back for coming this far, and simultaneously kick myself in the ass to keep going. I recognize that having only spent a year doing this full-time, getting into seven juried shows, seeing my work evolve and get better, and making some money doing it isn’t anything to shrug at. All that is good and dandy, but what now? I need to keep doing this, and the reality is, I’ll need money to do it.

So, I’m standing at the crossroads– on one hand, I see the need for the funds to do more art, but the defensive, egotistic side of me refuses to see money as a reward for all the accomplishments I’ve made. Putting a monetary value on my personal growth as an artist just doesn’t seem right. It cheapens all the gain I thought I achieved. But that– that, right there is the seed of Elitism. I see it, I acknowledge it, but I can’t keep myself from preventing it from happening.


I hear it all the time, Art is inherently elitist and exclusionary. Yes, but the irony of it all is that Art is also the only thing that unites us all as humans. (Sidebar: read that article by Leon Wieseltier, it’s provocative and important.) We need art because our society is quickly starting to confuse money with wealth, and information/data with knowledge.

We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.

But I digress.

In a lot of ways, I see that Elitism comes from the artist’s need for self-preservation. Observing the artist trajectory, I see this happening a lot (sorry for the shitty flowchart):

I’m good at painting/drawing/sculpture/writing/etc, and I want to do this more, but I don’t know if I can be called an artist. —-> Fuck what people think anymore, I’m an Artist. —->  Oh, crap, this is vulnerable and not always fun. Plus dumb people don’t like/understand my work…

This is where the fork splits for the first time in an artist’s career. We all want credibility above all else, and when we don’t get the reward we want, it goes in two directions:

1. Everyone is stupid. I’m an artist, I do what I want. Or,

2. OK, I’m missing something. How do I get through to people? (Does that mean I’m compromising the integrity of my work? What else do you have but integrity?)

At this point, Elitism is born. It’s not that artists don’t want to put in the work– artists are far from shy when it comes to doing the work, but here’s where self-preservation starts to limit you, and limits who you share your work with. And isn’t sharing your art the whole point? Furthermore, if it’s not, why would you expect anyone would pay you to do it?

I suppose at this point I should say that I don’t believe democratization equals monetary reward, because that’s more of a secondary result… but the thing I have to remember, is Money is our society’s way of rewarding for value, and value is determined by others. Sure, I can quote Patti Smith and say that with enough integrity and good work, “your name becomes Currency,” but what about making a living so that you can even get to that point (if you ever get there)? 

Believe me, if I had it my way, I would never have to think/talk/worry about money, and I spend most of my life avoiding it like the plague, but don’t we all secretly wish people would throw handfuls of money at us for just doing anything we want? Patti Smith might be there now, but she could have just as easily faded to complete obscurity– or worse, Quit. Nothing wrong with that, but when artists quit, they become jaded, and they retreat to being the victim.

At this moment, I’m aware of my own talent–enough to keep trying, and naive enough to believe that I can do more. But the more I progress, the more detached I become, and the more I want to retreat into the little, isolated, “elitist” bubble I feel comfortable with, so I don’t have to explain myself in anyone else’s terms, or worry about money. This is much easier to do. But Guess What? Not having to worry about money is inherently elitist, even if you don’t HAVE any of it! But this is precisely when I have to remind myself of something I wrote a bit over a year ago:

“Congratulating yourself for talent is like congratulating yourself for being tall, or having eyes on your head. What I do with it, and if I have lasting power is what time will tell.”

I need to make this last.

Almost the New Year!

I know it’s already 2013, but I never quite feel like it’s the New Year until the Lunar one. I’m going to blame it on being Chinese, but secretly I know it’s because I always need a month or so to really let the New Year sink in. So it goes.

Anyway, as I already presented to my Facebook friends, I found my illustration pieces up at City College. I basically just walked up to class the first week, and there they were! Seeing your own artwork is a bit like hearing your own voice on a recording, or seeing yourself on video. It’s WEIRD. There’s a sense of pride of course, but it’s abstracted, and you mainly feel a little naked because what seems SO familiar to you is just sitting out there, plainly. It’s a strange feeling, really. Anyway, here they are, stacked up against so many other pieces I really admired from the advanced class:


(Which pieces are mine? Top left, “Alice in Wonderland,” Right toward the bottom: “Hybrid Creature,” and Bottom Right: Moriana, Imaginary World.” You can see them all in my http://cindyshih.posterous.com/ blog. It’s weird to think that a few years ago, I would have never taken an illustration class because I thought I was a terrible illustrator. I also felt that way about watercolor, which is now one of my favorite mediums. In any case, I’m proud of myself for joining the advanced ranks in the class show as a beginner student. Also, I had 3 pieces out of 17 pieces in the show! Go me! Ha. These are the little wins you can have as an artist, that you have to remember for the 99% of the time when you think you’re terrible and unworthy of being called an artist.

Another new development while I ramp up to lunar year, 2013 was my decision to go on a plant-based diet. Now, this one came as a complete surprise to even me. I’ve always shunned the idea of vegetarianism. They always seemed so angry, so cultish, so snobby– at least the ones who did it for their own personal reasons. Vegans were even worse. They were all of the above, plus they hated fun.

But then, as I was sitting in class one day, it just hit me. I knew pigs were every bit as intelligent, affectionate, and adorable as my dog, and in another world we’d be in absolute outrage over the slaughter over pigs as we are of the neglect and abuse of puppies. As cliche as it sounds, I absolutely consider Barley as my friend and a member of my family. Knowing how animals are handled and treated in current food production system, could I really justify my support?


Here’s a picture that my cousin Henry Lien posted, that might have put me over the edge. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand our place in the food chain, the need and desire to eat animals as part of a healthy ecosystem, but I also understand that our current food production infrastructure is really– to put in mild terms, gloriously fucked up. Think of all the environmental, health, and moral conflicts we have, just so we can get some grease in the pan. Meat is great and all, but maybe not worth it. I decided to give this vegetarian thing a try.

Here’s the first thing I discovered: I feel amazing. Right away. I’m not kidding, I felt like my body was begging for me to make this decision. I have more energy, feel a lot more alert. I didn’t even drink coffee yesterday, and then I went on a huge hike. That *never* happens. It’s almost been a week, and it really isn’t that hard. I mainly just have to have some trail mix around, some fresh fruits and veggies to make myself a quick snack. Which is awesome anyway. I get these fresh oranges from my CSA box every week (it’s orange season), and they’re fucking fantastic. I’m lucky that SF offers some great produce options, and Carlos and I always love brainstorming what to make for dinner– so that hasn’t changed. When I go out, I just order the thing that doesn’t have meat in it. Maybe it’s being in SF, but those options are generally pretty damn good.

On weekends, when I’m out with friends, I’ll eat seafood or birds. But this weekend, I didn’t even have the desire to. I was feeling so great that I didn’t want to ruin it. And I really do feel pretty damn good, and my clothes are already fitting better too. Frankly, I’m shocked that I’d even consider doing this, but my body seems to be saying, “DUH, why haven’t you done this sooner?” If you ever had an inclination to try it, I offer you this: give it a shot for a week. I’ll share some recipes with you. We can start a support group. Also, why the hell not?