Children’s book and editorial illustrator Julia Kuo considered Asian discrimination before the pandemic and the Atlanta shooting that left eight people dead, including six Asian American women.
“In my mind, I felt like this has always been happening, whether or not people are aware of it,” she said.
With more attention against Asian-hate, Kuo and two other greater Cleveland visual artists share their thoughts about discrimination and their visions for support.
Julia Kuo grew up in Southern California. Surrounded by immigrants of all types, she never really questioned her Taiwanese heritage as a child.
“I feel very grateful that I had that type of upbringing where I never felt ashamed of who I was. And now as an adult, even though I am in the Midwest, I feel very ready to defend who I am and talk about it, and maybe share that culture with others,” she said.
Her parents moved back to Taiwan 11 years ago, so she spends about a month living there every year when she is not in Cleveland. It took her a long time to decide to switch from business to illustration.
“I went from marketing to advertising to graphic design to illustration,” she said. “Kind of like in this slow denial of, ‘You know, I really just do want to draw.’”
She said she has felt supported by her family through the ups and downs of her art career.
“I think art gives us a face, you know? It gives us personality and dimension,” she said. “It’s certainly not all lotus flowers and dragons anymore, right? We’ve moved past that point, and so I think that the more we display out there, like when we put our thoughts onto paper or murals and let other people see them, we become more dimensional.”
Julia Kuo illustrated the children’s book “The Sound of Silence,” which was written by Katrina Goldsaito and edited by Bethany Strout, in 2016. [Julia Kuo]
Currently, Kuo splits her time between children’s books and editorial work for newspapers and magazines. She explains that illustration is commercial, so a lot of her pieces are dictated by other people. At the same time, she emphasizes that identity is always in her work, whether in subtle or overt ways.
“We bring every part of our experience and values into our work, and so I think it’s inevitable that you can’t separate the two. And even if I were not explicitly trying to bring it in, I think it would be there in some way or another.”
Kuo has received a lot of attention in the past few months for Asian-related stories. For instance, her illustrations are in “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now,” which is out November 2021.
“And that’s wonderful! I want that option, and I think that Asian Americans at this point should have the option,” she said.
“But I think what I really want is good stories… What I want is to be able to work to my capacity and potential without feeling like I’m boxed into one subject because I’m Asian. That can mean working on Asian stories, and that can also mean not working on Asian stories. I think that for white artists, that struggle isn’t there.”
To allies looking to support Asian American visual artists in the Cleveland area, Kuo said there are things to consider.
“I think there’s been a lot of talk of giving up power, right? Like, what does that mean to share power? And I think that’s going to be different for everyone,” Kuo said.
Chi Wong is a recent graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. [Chi Wong]
Chi Wong’s family owns a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland. As a “takeaway kid,” she learned to take customer’s orders at the age of six. Her family hoped that she would eventually go to school to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer.
“Being an artist is unknown and also unstable,” she said. “Usually with immigrant parents, they don’t understand the arts and creative world… Most of the time it’s viewed as not a great paying job, and you’ll be seen more as a starving artist.”
“When I told them I wanted to go to art school at CIA, they were very,” she, said, breaking into a wide smile before adding: “Furious.”
At the Cleveland Institute of Art, Wong insisted on studying harder than she ever had before.
“I had a little bit more pressure on my end,” she said.
Wong’s watercolor pieces revolve around questions like, “What if traffic lights are the new ice cream machine?” and “What if we went grocery shopping in claw machines?” In her work, she aims to create fantasy worlds and characters that are playful and absurd.
Wong’s heritage influences her paintings in subtle ways. “Gassy Tea” depicts a gasoline station where cars run on Vitasoy’s lemon tea, a popular drink in China and Hong Kong.
Chi Wong’s piece “Gassy Tea” depicts tea as gasoline. [Chi Wong]
“I drank it since I was a kid,” Wong said. “So things like this, little pop culture references like lemon tea, are influenced in this painting.”
When asked about the Atlanta shooting, Wong reflects Kuo’s sentiment that the discrimination has been going on long before then.
“There was already a sense of fear right when we went into lockdown,” she said.
Wong said her family’s Chinese restaurant receives harassing phone calls. Some tormenters asked her about eating cats and dogs. Others told her family to leave.
“They’re like, we should go back to our homeland. When in reality, we have been here for over 25 years,” she said.
These customers do not seem to register that without Chinese American families, they would not be able to enjoy their Chinese takeout. Wong shakes her head when discussing this.
“Please have some respect. You’re buying our food.”
As a recent graduate, Wong believes that financial support is one of the best ways allies can show up for Asian American visual artists.
“My parents have supported me [financially], even though we disagreed a lot,” Wong said.
“Definitely if the artist has some sort of small business, like a sticker shop, or pottery, or even selling arts and prints, it’s always great to support the artist through their actual website,” she said. “Not through Etsy, because Etsy does take a percentage of commissions. But if that artist actually sells items under their official shop, I would always suggest that you support them through their official shop.”
“It is always great to commission them,” she said, adding another option for financial support.
Photo of Aimee Lee teaching a workshop at the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland. [Aimee Lee]
Aimee Lee was raised in New York as a second-generation Korean American. She is a leading researcher of hanji, which is the term for Korean paper. While Lee works in Cleveland, she teaches and lectures internationally. Currently, she is furthering her research as a Fulbright senior scholar in Korea, where she heard news of the Atlanta shooting.
“It was almost like we knew it was going to happen, and it was just a matter of when and where and how,” she said, adding that she was glad to be out of the U.S. at that point. “This would just tip me over the edge.”
Like many other second-generation children, Lee said she did not always want to feel close to her heritage. As an adolescent trying to fit in, she rejected her Korean culture. It was not until she took a Chinese art history class at Oberlin College that she turned back towards looking at her heritage as an asset.
“We were able to actually go to the museum on campus to look at new acquisitions of old scrolls of Chinese landscape paintings,” she said. “And the curator at the time… he said, ‘Oh, this one is done on Korean paper, because Chinese painters actually preferred Korean paper.’”
“Man, it was like that one lightbulb moment in my life where I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Why am I studying Chinese art history?’” Lee said. “‘I don’t know anything about Korean art or Korean history. What am I doing?’ Especially if you think about… the idea that Chinese painters even recognized Korean paper as superior.”
That was when Lee realized she had to “grab the tail of this language” before it could be lost.
Like Julia Kuo, Lee has noticed an increase in requests for art or participation throughout this year. She said that seeking out Asian American art can be well-intentioned but sometimes misses the mark — specifically when comparing Asian art to Asian American art.
“I have to email someone who is in Ohio, and their group wants to have an Asian art show in the fall because of the Atlanta shootings,” Lee said. “Asian art is different from Asian American art, which is essentially American art, so what would be different for curating an Asian American show than curating a show of just random white people that you don’t question ever?”
Aimee Lee’s piece “Green head duck” is made out of natural dyes on corded and twined hanji. [Aimee Lee]
Cultural appropriation is another complicated issue in the visual arts community. For some Asian American artists, it is difficult to find the line between a white artist appropriating other Asian cultures or simply using them for inspiration.
“In the paper-making world, there are people who have gotten really far, basically becoming experts in cultures that are not their own. And not to say you can’t do that, everyone can do that. But I think there are better and worse ways to do that.”
When it comes to hanji, Lee said that she does not mind sharing her expertise with others. “Of course, the bulk of my students are not Korean or not of Korean descent, but I definitely have had some [Korean students]. And we stay in touch, and I can tell it means more to them in certain ways, or they understand kind of the significance in a way that people without that culture wouldn’t get.”
So how can Cleveland do better?
“I mean, give us money!” Lee said, laughing.
After some further thought, Lee said consistent attention is important.
“Whatever ideastream is doing, it’s well-intentioned… where are you going to be in one year? Three years? Are you still going to be calling me for interviews? It’s a trend.”
In regards to art galleries and institutions in Ohio, she said inclusion should occur all the time.
“The feeling I get is… ‘Oh, we’ll do this one show, and then we check the box, and now we go back to business as usual,’” she said.
“So maybe it means making space,” Lee said. “Taking a step back and giving us space.”