Interview conducted by Olivia Kohn, Pitzer College '18
With various different formats of presenting art, what drew you to create this piece in the form of an artist's book? How do you think the format of an artist's book best explores/examines race and identity?
I am a book artist. The artist book is my medium of expression. I enjoy writing the narrative, typesetting, printing on the letterpress and designing the structure of the book. The artist’s book best explores/examines race and identity because the intriguing structures draws the viewer/reader into an engaging, intimate experience with the artwork.
In Banana Yellow, the Chinese take-out box stereotypes Chinese food in American culture. Since this book is about my growing up Chinese-American, I wanted the pages of this book to resemble a Chinese take-out box. I cut the pages into trapezoid shapes and used the actual wire recycled from Chinese take-out boxes to bind the book.
The format of this artist book explores/examines race and identity through its immediate recognition as a Chinese food container and its content. Banana Yellow reads like a set of flash cards where the reader learns a word written as its Chinese character, its Cantonese pronunciation, and an anecdote about the word.
Kitchen Cricket is a very short story. It was written as a children’s book to introduce texture to the reader. How to display this book was taken into consideration when designing this book structure. The accordion pages are adhered to the covers, yet also pulls out for full display so all the pages could be read.
A Hypothetical Analysis of the Twinkle in Stars (as told by a child to a teacher) uses an origami wishing star as its book structure to emphasize the subject matter of the discussion of stars.
How would you like your audience to interact with your work?
Ideally, I would like to be with the audience when they interact with my work so we could talk about it. I would like the audience to be able to touch my books, but some are too fragile to be handled.
How are the central themes/messages of your work relevant to contemporary issues?
The central themes of my artist books center around culture: Chinese culture, children’s culture, and the culture between a child and a teacher. These are very relevant to contemporary issues regarding immigration and education.
It seems that some of your work has a more playful tone. How do you balance this playful presentation with material that may be heavier, and how do you find yourself tackling the subjects of race and identity in your current work?
With regards to the A Hypothetical Analysis in the Twinkle in Stars (as told by a child to a teacher), I have to admit that at the time I wrote the dialogue between the child and teacher, I was teaching teenagers and not young children. So, I had to imagine the conversation between the child and the teacher. However, having taught children for the past 16 years, I have found some of their comments to be rather insightful and that my imagined conversation could be accurate. My current work has been Chinese New Year Haiku postcards based on the animals of Chinese Zodiac. I just completed 12 years of cards (one for each animal) and have begun a new series. The first series were Haikus that described the animal for the new year coming in and the animal of the previous year leaving. The new series is also a Haiku, but based on the alphabet. For this new Lunar year, every word describing the rooster begins with the letter “R.”
regal red rooster
What is your relationship with wishing stars, and how were you inspired to create an artist book based upon them?
When I was a teacher’s assistant at an elementary school, some students showed me how to make a wishing star. They tore a strip of paper from their notebook paper and easily folded the star. Later, I met a few engineers at an origami gathering. They told me that the wishing star must be folded from a strip of paper with a width that is 1/16th of it’s length. Both a child and adult showed me how to fold the star. Both outcomes of the stars were accurate and precise in their own ways. Since A Hypothetical Analysis of the Twinkle in Stars is a dialogue between astronomers, using the format of folding a wishing star seemed appropriate. I like the way the book and story literally “unfolds.”
How does the moral of Kitchen Cricket shape your own experience with unwanted thought or being?
The moral is rather literal. Little creatures would not be attracted to the clean sole of a shoe. But culturally speaking, in the Chinese/Asian culture, shoes are not worn inside the house. They are left outside the door. People wear house slippers.
Is there any information needed in order to understand your process and motivation for these books?
I had writer’s block for both Banana Yellow and A Hypothetical Analysis of the Twinkle in Stars. On two separate occasions, after thinking about them and having a good night’s sleep, I awoke the next day with the idea for these artist books. Banana Yellow was inspired by the format of Eloise Klein Healy’s, Ordinary Wisdom. Healy randomly chose Chinese typefaces from a type drawer in Nevada City, California. She had the Chinese words translated into English, then wrote a poem about each of the those words. My process was quite the opposite. I chose the words that I wanted to write about and had my mother translated them into Chinese characters. The pages of Banana Yellow are shaped like trapezoids, which are similar to sides of the Chinese take-out boxes. This book is like a set of flashcards where the reader is introduced to a Chinese word, it’s Romanized Cantonese pronunciation, and the English translation. Each word is accompanied by a story about that word. A Hypothetical Analysis of the Twinkle in Stars (as told by a child to a teacher) was specifically created for the Science and the Artist’s Book exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and Washington Project for the Arts. Writer’s block hindered my creativity and I was not going to submit anything to this show. Then the 1994 Northridge earthquake occurred, and the Southern California artists affected by this disaster was given an earthquake extension. The idea for the book came to me, and my book was born.
I was able to find limited information about your practice online; did you practice any other forms of art before moving into book arts? How did you transition into printmaking if so?
Before book arts, I was doing/and continue to do origami. While immersed in book arts, I taught myself to weave paper baskets from thin recycle strips of paper. Spirit Vessel is one of my paper woven baskets that is a book. My interest in printing began in elementary school and followed me to college. In grade school, I was inspired by the Donald J. Sobol series, Encyclopedia Brown. Brown was a neighborhood boy detective who had a printing press in his garage that he used to print flyers advertising his detective agency. I thought that was so cool! I wanted to have a printing press in my garage! (Now I do.) Later, when I was in the 4th grade, I took printmaking classes at the Barnsdall Junior Arts Center in Hollywood, California. I took my first letterpress printing class while I was a student at UC Santa Cruz. I continued to take letterpress printing classes at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles during the late 1980’s. Shortly after the Woman’s Building letterpress studio moved to the Armory Center for the Arts, I became the Director of the Letterpress Studio at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena from the early 1990’s to 2001.
Now that you work in an elementary school, how has your book art practice changed (in your inspiration or creation) and have you incorporated book arts into your curriculum?
Now that I work as an Itinerant Elementary Visual Art Teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), my artwork has suffered because I spend more time developing art lessons for my students rather than creating my own art. However, some of my art has been inspired by the lessons I that teach. One example is the paper woven vase that I created based on the optical illusion of the Rubin Vase from the positive/negative space 5th grade lesson.Another example is the alphabetical Chinese New Year Haiku postcards inspired from alphabet books created by my high school students. I do incorporate book arts into the curriculum. I teach my 3rd-5th grade students how to create a simple folded sketchbook which they use throughout their art lessons. I teach 3rd graders how to make a Pop-Up Cityscape book, while K-2nd also learn to fold an origami sketchbook. Recently, my kindergartens sketched various plants and flowers from their school garden into the sketchbook that they folded. Then they created a concertina Garden Book using their collection of images from their sketchbook. While teaching high school for the previous four years, I received a grant from Tony Bennett’s Exploring the Arts Foundation for my Introduction to Art class to collaborate with the 9th grade English classes to write, illustrate and design a Romeo and Juliet Pop-Up Book.