The Time is Ours: What Public Art Can Be

In summer 2022, I became one of four finalists for a public art commission with Madison Metro Transit. I was the only person of color who was a finalist. I centered my proposal on the perspectives of bus riders–majority BIPOC–who rely on public transit to stay connected in their communities. My final design portrays the passage of time from the perspectives of passengers, who expressed that even on long commutes, they feel independence and ownership of their time spent in transit. My years of relationship building, experience with community engagement, and approach to the proposal resulted in an outpour of community support. There are 77 pages of public comments in response to the Metro finalist proposals that almost unanimously endorse me as the artist the city should hire. Within these public testimonies are some incredible insights into the design of public spaces that city residents advocate for.

Mockup for public art proposal for 8,000 sq ft artwork, interviews with 27 bus riders (70% BIPOC) and also public transit staff

I officially won the commission in fall 2022. You can read the official press announcement at The Isthmus.

For the MFA State of Practice exhibition in September 2022, I brought my public art practice into the academic institution and turned the white box gallery into a learning space. The project made visible the often hidden labor of the arts. It presented possible answers to the questions and misgivings that current students may have about what they do after art school. It helped to close the gap I sometimes feel between the work I create for gallery and museum shows and the work I do out in the community, how each gets valued, and whom the work is perceived to be for.

What Public Art Can Be: on view as part of the MFA State of Practice exhibition September 2022. Photo by Michael Love.
What Public Art Can Be: on view as part of the MFA State of Practice exhibition September 2022. Photo by Michael Love.
What Public Art Can Be: on view as part of the MFA State of Practice exhibition September 2022. Photo by Michael Love.

The art world tends to look down on works like murals, community art, public art, and art forms that are more accessible to the general public, which conflicts with the inclusive values that the arts like to tout. I enjoy working across these different art spaces, but I often find that the audiences I’m most interested in engaging with aren’t exclusively those who visit galleries. Displaying the art of the art proposal was a way for me to bring my passion for grassroots work into an educational space that is presumably preparing students for the world beyond school.

Exhibiting this project was also a chance to connect my public facing practice with my personal motivations to do this work. Why am I concerned about the ethics of artistic practice, or how artists’ work gets used? Why am I fixated on devising methodologies to challenge, disrupt, and change the role that the arts can play in our communities? Why should I be the author of these thoughts and this research?

I further see public art can be an opportunity for community stewardship. Whose needs aren’t being met? Who stands to benefit from this work? How will this work impact the surrounding ecosystem? Who and what will we center in each negotiation?

Mockup for public art proposal for 8,000 sq ft artwork, interviews with 27 bus riders (70% BIPOC) and also public transit staff

Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labour in racism and exploitation

I recently published one of my essays in Occasional Press, Emily Carr University’s research publication. Read the essay online.

Front cover of my essay, Free Art & Racism
Front cover of Occasional Papers

Free Art & Racism: Beyond artists’ pay is one of three essays that breaks down the problem of unpaid artists’ labour and what it tells us about our regard for labour on a structural and cultural level.

An Ethic is a Root

An Ethic is A Root is an exhibition that summarizes my spring semester work and first year of the MFA. It navigates the question of how we arrive at our ethics. What are the potential costs of our ethics? What are the gains of upholding them?

An Ethic is a Root, final exhibition of spring semester work.

An Ethic is A Root explores questions of ethics and equity. I use personal, lived experience as an entry point to engaging with systemic and socio-political issues. From my hand-carved woodblocks, I build tables and installations that become negotiation spaces for cultural authorship.

The central image in this series is a map of my migration route, from where I was born in Kansas City to each of my homes in the Midwest of the United States to my current home in Vancouver, British Columbia. This map becomes an infrastructure for a greater story of removal, diaspora, and rootedness.

On left: My Migration Route, woodblock print (fountain roll) on canvas of my migration, 20″ x 60″. On right: Iris Roots Clean the Water, woodblock print (two-layer) on canvas of iris overlaid on migration route, 20″ x 60″.

My mother still resides in my last childhood home in rural Kansas. It is an older house attached to a few acres of land. This land was once lush and green, full of fruit trees and a vibrant ecosystem. This same land now sits mostly barren. The trees are gone. The ponds are gone. Agricultural runoff and nearby development have made the soil poor. The land around my mother’s house regularly erodes and floods when it rains. Yet the iris flower continues to consistently grow here. Irises are known for growing in places with polluted water, effectively removing toxins and holding soil.

Two elongated tables stand at the center of this installation, framed on one side by an altar to my deceased father and on the other by a table of artist’s books addressed to my mother. Each table is its own structure, yet bears a cut edge that matches the other. One table is made from the two-sided woodblock that produced the prints. The other table bears no image of its own, but provides a surface for the residual wood shavings forming the characters of my name in Chinese. Repetition, reflection, and rumination are prominent in this work.

Prints reflected in mirrors.

Working through this methodology, I reflect on what it means to challenge cultural assimilation, in print, and as an Asian American and woman of colour who has also been made artificially rare in white dominant spaces. In printmaking, the strength of the technology is in its power to reproduce the same message. Yet this is seen as a weakness in the fine arts, a redundancy that makes prints lose value and exclusivity. How often are marginalized people made to feel like broken records, asking for the same, basic rights? How often are we made to feel that we have to compete against the few other BIPOC and femmes in institutions, as if we can’t be valuable if there’s more than one of us? Is what we are saying it truly redundant if we are still waiting for action and reconciliation?

Mirrors reveal woodblock of migration route on bottom of table.

There is power in the multiple and in the creation of new frameworks of comprehension. There is strength in our reflections and in pursuing legibility of lived experience. This work is for anyone who has ever doubted their strength against the odds that they face, yet has held on anyway, and found their conviction in the process.

Altar for my father.

Altar for my father, close-up.
Table of artist’s books, Dear Ma | Ethic.

Dear Ma | Ethic: an artist’s book

Front covers of artist’s book, Dear Ma | Ethic.

“Holding is not easy. Holding requires tension in one’s fingers, joints, body, and emotions. Every strain creates weakness.

“Water does not hold. It is held. Free from withholding, water’s power overcomes rock, fire, and most elements.

“Yet water cannot play its role without vessels and channels. Even this essential ingredient of life needs to be held.

“Water is a necessary life infrastructure. But when polluted with toxins, that which sustains us simultaneously poisons us.

“Colonization is like poison in the water.

“Is it possible to cleanse these currents?

“It is not easy to be a root. Roots hold earth together, resisting erosion. Roots channel sustenance into the body of the plant.

“A root is not as powerful as water. Nor does it need to be. It is a remarkable quality to be breakable, yet choose to hold ground.

“To be weaker than the dominant infrastructure and still hold on, to remove harm while providing nourishment.

“This is an ethic.”

­-poem from the artist’s book, Dear Ma | Ethic

Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Ethic, the side of the book that features a poem on ethics.
Book coming unfolded, Ethic side.
Book coming unfolded, Dear Ma side.
Front and back cover of Dear Ma.

The Starving Artist: A Poem

The Starving Artist tree poem is based on my recent essay series entitled Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labor in perpetuating racism and exploitation.

To create the poem, I searched for all instances of the term, “starving artist,” in my essay, and mapped the subsequent sentences and repeated phrases.

The Starving Artist: a poem by Jenie Gao. Click the image to enlarge.

What will growth look like in the next two years?

It is predicted that two thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050, and even smaller towns and rural areas have begun to mimic the development tactics of metropolises. Terms like “placemaking,” the “creative class,” and the “creative industry” are all the rage right now. Meanwhile, arts-led gentrification disguised as “urban renewal” displaces up to 70% of BIPOC, as well as senior citizens, the working class, and anyone likely to be marginalized. The arts get used as a wedge—“poor starving artists” volunteer their time to revitalize their struggling neighborhoods, and receive just enough attention to make it seem worth it. Our cities invite artists to paint diverse people in murals, while neglecting actual policymaking that could make it possible for diverse people to build their lives in the same city districts. Wages have stagnated. We are in a recession, on the cusp of hyperinflation.

All of this is driving me to expand my research on how the arts are weaponized for gentrification, and why we must disrupt the pattern. Economic development is not bad, but when it prioritizes property instead of people, it eradicates the wellbeing of the very people who make our communities so special. I have used my practice thus far to make labor visible, to challenge existing frameworks of intellectual and physical property. I have consulted organizations to create equitable best practices for the arts industry to follow. And—while I have received both praise and pushback at a level where even the opponents of artists’ equity cannot dismiss this work’s impact, it does not feel like enough. I am not satisfied with doing outsized labor for incremental change, within the microcosm of my own business, or in the leadership positions I’ve held on boards, committees, and nonprofits throughout Wisconsin.

We need more artists who lack support systems to be able to pursue an arts career long-term, to become leaders who redefine the field. We need more equitable policies in public and private sectors. We need to strengthen cultural rootedness and disrupt cultural appropriation and other forms of stolen wealth. We need to build healthy ecosystems for everyone—because it isn’t good enough for someone like me to succeed “in spite of” the system. If the majority of people have to struggle to build their life here, that is a systemic failing, not an individual one. If the field requires exceptionalism to achieve a modest, middle-class lifestyle that’s becoming harder to come by, we should reject that system and build a better one.

There is a bigger question here, beyond our livelihoods and our localities: how is what we do in the present affecting the future? Will artists, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and the working class continue to be displaced by their own labor, or finally thrive in the places they help revitalize? For each of you reading this, how can you start living like the future you want is already here? How can you do it in such a way that expands wellbeing for others, too?