Sent Off Another Commission Today

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. 


Warrior 18″ x 24″ Oil on Canvas

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. 

Their Story

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.

Much Love,


One Last Painting of 2014

As I start the year and I deliver my last commission of 2014, I am humbled by gratitude. Art is sometimes undefinable; every artist I meet struggles to define it, and his or her place in it. I am no exception, only, I know that for me, art is inspired by the people around me, and I have surrounded myself with some pretty inspirational people.

This new commission came from a good friend of many years, who celebrated the birth of his first son this year, and came to me with an idea with a gift for his wife. As a requisite to new Dad-dom, Phil took up photography, and took a beautiful, quiet, and sensitive photo of Laura and their son, Asher, by the window of their home.  A simple photo with little detail, I loved the intimacy of the photo, and was touched by the the adoration and love from both the viewer and the subject.

Phil Lehman Photography

Photo by Phil Lehman

Phil shared this photo with me, asked me if I would be interested in painting something as a gift to his wife this year. I said yes. Normally, this type of photo wouldn’t give enough information for a reference, but I was happy to take on the challenge.

As I mentioned before, my decision process for commissions boils down to a few things, one of them being a narrative. So much of how I feel about art comes from the story, and this one was no exception. Laura happens to be a bad ass lead singer of the band, “LoveFool” and has an incredibly beautiful singing voice. Phil sent me off to brainstorm with this quote of his: “Hurry home to me darling, I miss your voice,” a sentiment I wanted to incorporate into the piece.

What resulted was a subtle nod to intervals and cadences to her music in a monochromatic neutral palette to reinforce the quiet mood, a visual interpretation of an intimate lullaby shared by all the members of their small, loving family. And Phil, you win husband of the year, for commissioning such a great piece. It was definitely made with love (and a healthy dose of frustration).

For Laura

“Hurry home to me darling, I miss your voice,” (2014) Oil on Canvas 16″ x 20″ From the Private Collection of Asher Lehman

**Special thanks to John Wentz, for giving me informal critiques throughout the process. Can’t wait to get one of your pieces in my collection!

And to all my friends investing in my art career: Thank you SO, so very much. Please know that your investment in me isn’t taken lightly, I really can’t even tell you how much I appreciate it. Also know that the money I earn from art goes right back into the art pie, because it’s one that could use some growing!

Montara State Beach

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.



18" x 36"  Oil on Canvas  Commissioned by the Shelton Family

18″ x 36″
Oil on Canvas
Commissioned by the Shelton Family

What is Beyond “Awareness?”


“Tear to Mend” (2012) Watercolor Pencil on Paper (c) Cindy Shih

I am Asian (surprise!), which means: I don’t create waves, I don’t stand out, I don’t have emotions. But I went to bed angry last night, and I woke up today feeling profoundly sad. I don’t think I was alone, because if you’re even remotely a thinking person in the world today, you realize what a sad world we live in. But Anger? What good does that do?

I’ve learned to appreciate Anger, because I find it more motivating than Sadness. Depression runs deep in my family, I’ve always known that, so through the years, I’ve found ways to bring myself out of the never-ending spirals of despair and powerlessness. That’s just how my brain is wired, that’s all. But Anger? It’s there. But how the fuck do you use such a raw emotion constructively?

I’ll get to that. But perhaps the saddest thing of all though, is our Cynicism. Scratch that- MY cynicism. Blame it on social media, on fear, on circumstances, whatever it may be– but it’s easier to climb onto my Facebook soapbox and pass judgment on every small gesture, every feeble attempt to build a community, than to put myself out there and do something about it. Ha, that artist brings arts and crafts to the inner city children every weekend? Naive. That dude that writes a poem for everyone on the street? Desperate. “That’s the shit I did in high school,” “how typical,” “that’s so Asian.” Even the self-aware, liberal progressive types are branded as”#Stuffwhitepeoplelike” and makes a mockery of people trying, in their own small way, to bridge the gap between communities and use their own unique strengths to make things just a little bit better.

As an artist, I’m constantly consumed by self-doubt and live in fear of what Amanda Palmer would call, the “fraud police.” Truth is, everyone does. We don’t need each other to tell us how powerless we are, we have the media, our government, and ourselves to do that for us. In short: we’re already vulnerable. Yesterday’s decision made us more vulnerable; it stripped away any illusions that we are protected, we’re naked– and we’re angry. 

What now? We’re encouraged to protest when we’re angry. Protests unite; Protests work to create awareness. But we’re past awareness now. We know shit is fucked up. We’re angry because this isn’t the world we want to live in. We’re angry because we’re vulnerable, we’re angry because we’re powerless.

So what’s past awareness? Social media is a powerful tool, but it can only do so much until the next anger-inducing thing comes along. (There are so many!) It’s also a lazy substitution for meaningful, human connection. What we need now is a collective understanding of our powerlessness, a focus on what we can do to help in our little way: make art, sing a song, volunteer at a soup kitchen, write a letter: free from judgment from others, and fear of being called out as a fraud.

I’m writing this as my personal offering, it’s my attempt to connect: so if you feel the same way, make something, find a way to make a meaningful connection, and help others do the same. If we’re afraid of each others’ judgment, we won’t connect. Now is a time to connect and rebuild, we’ve done enough destroying.

Do something small, something stupid, anything–I won’t pass judgment, and in my own small way, I will help. We have a long fight ahead of us, folks. Nothing we do or say will fix the problem overnight. Little, stupid, small, seemingly inconsequential things to help build the community may be the only chance we’ve got to make a difference. Let’s help make our communities better.

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 

Just Keep Going

Sometimes people ask me, how long does it take for you to do a piece? They always seem surprised when I tell them, on average it takes about 20 hours. But typically one piece takes anywhere between 6 and 35 hours. I’m not exaggerating when I say that. It’s also what makes it so transformative/existential/lonely/awesome/frustrating. You’ll probably go through ten iterations of change, badassery, and self-doubt by the end of it, but you finish with something you’re proud of. And that’s all there is to it.

Exhibit A: 


I found a picture I took of the draft version of this piece I posted recently, and wanted to share what 10+ hours will get you if you keep going. I can’t tell you how many times I probably erased, smudged, marked this piece before I got it to something satisfactory. And who knows? Maybe I could have put in another 10 more hours.  Who knows what it would look like then? I guess we’ll never really know. That’s kind how life works, too I think.

Anyway, I hope that’s a source of inspiration to you, in an era of instant gratification: Put time into the things you love. Sadly, when it comes to selling my pieces, I severely underestimate how much time I put into the process, how much I love it, and my need to have it go to a good home overrides my need to make a living. That’s life too.

I’ll leave you with these two quotes:

The longer you spend working on something – loving it into being, almost – the more you get attached. It’s silly, but you do hope they go to good homes. (Anne Desmet)

Artists want their work to have a good home because it makes their creative process worthwhile. Most artists put a lot of themselves into each piece they create. Your purchase reflects a subtle link between you and that artist. (Beverly Leesman)

Going Down the Rabbit Hole

Now that the sun’s out, I’m going to attempt to analyze this further: 

I exist in a constant struggle between trying to, on one hand, understand how labels work, and not wanting to be labelled myself. But, communication/relevancy/connection with people require labels. In our society, we have: words and images to describe what we mean. These are both, by definition, limited. Even now, as I use words to describe what I mean, you’re at most- getting about 60% of what I mean. Not because I’m profound, but because of what these words fail to convey. 

We go around in life, trying to make sense of ourselves and how others perceive us through these labels because that’s the only way we communicate and make sense of the world. Some people fall into Angst here, because these limitations are frustrating. As an artist, I find that awareness and understanding of this dichotomy is interesting because that’s how I can ultimately and hopefully– transcend/break these limitations. On the other hand, trying to understand perception and how labels limit this is already going down the rabbit hole… beyond what others want, or care to think about. You’re already becoming less relevant to most people and to society.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s because “most people” are shallow, or don’t care because they don’t understand. I think it’s because, for them, the ways things work (rife with limitations) works just fine. I like to think about these things because I think they matter, and awareness elevates people to think past its limitations and break the cycle.

I’m also apparently a masochist. <– Label.