For the love of art: Asian Americans go against the tide in unconventional field

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Artwork by Eddy Lee (Photo provided by Eddie Lee)

Artist Diem Chau noticed an untouched box of crayons from her school days sitting on a table. Chau was inspired by coin carvers and folk art sculptors working on walking sticks and everyday objects.

“I like the idea of crayons because they’re cheap, egalitarian. Everybody has a box of crayons. It doesn’t matter where you come from or if you have money or not, it’s always there. It’s very connected to childhood and fun, that kind of cheerfulness. At the same time, it’s sort of like childhood, a certain type of innocence but also a certain sense of fragility,” said Chau.

Chau’s art take on delicate and dream-like forms, which often convey the themes of faded memories and storytelling.

The Chinese zodiac sculpted into crayons by Diem Chau (Photo provided by Diem Chau)

“[My uncle] had this conversation with me as we were driving home in the car, saying that he wished he could give his children some of his experiences from Vietnam,” said Chau.

“There is so much that is going to be lost when his generation goes. That is something I work with a lot — with that sense of loss. There is always something new you’re making, but with that, there is something old that dies. You just can’t translate those kinds of experiences.”

“Rupert,” by Rhodora Jacob, sculpted from clay (Photo provided by Rhodora Jacob)

Before attending art school, Rhodora Jacob was living a comfortable life in San Diego, Calif. She was engaged, taking classes to attend dentistry school, and working as a nanny.

“I told myself that here is a nice comfortable place to do what mommy always wanted me to do. I didn’t know I was unhappy because I was never unhappy around kids,” said Jacob.

“[My fiancé] felt bad about it. He told me that he saw me being an artist, promoting my art, and traveling … and he saw me doing it by myself,” said Jacob.

After her fiancé ended their relationship, Jacob drove to Seattle and stayed with her sister. Two days later, she decided to enroll in art school.

“When he broke it off with me, I realized that it wasn’t the end, that there are other chapters, and I would be changing in every chapter. You can’t hide from what is growing inside of you.”

After quitting his job and returning to art, Eddy Lee was behind on his payments. He took a job selling art prints door to door, determined to take any art-related job that he could find.

Though he studied art in school, he pursued office and corporate jobs after graduation.

“I think it was the recession around 2006 and 2007, [and] I was like, ‘Why am I still chasing those kinds of jobs, right?’ ” said Lee.

“My grandmother had just passed away, and my entire family was there. [My father and I] had this colossal argument and I realized, ‘You know what? This whole time, it wasn’t about doing things for myself, it was doing things for him,’ and I kind of just broke off.”

After 10 years of not doing art, Lee stepped into an art store and picked up painting again.

Becoming an artist, sans manual

In small crayons, Chau saw what others have seen in walking sticks, furniture, candles, and other carved items — the possibility of a body, an animal, or a self-portrait. Her crayons were noticed by the wife of a Wieden+Kennedy advertising team member during an art exhibit in Portland.

Artist Diem Chau painstakingly carves into a crayon, work that she is known for. (Photo by Kevin Berve)

“It’s really funny in the art world how you get something because you can trace it back to five years ago from where you met this one person at this one place. The more you’re around, the more people think about you. That’s why it’s so hard to get started in the beginning. They don’t know who you are, what you do, and what you represent,” said Chau.

The advertising firm commissioned Chau to sculpt crayons in the likeness of World Cup players Fabio Cannavaro, Didier Drogba, Franck Ribery, Robinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney for Nike’s promotion of the 2010 World Cup.

Eddy Lee

During his initial transition into life as an artist, Lee lived on unemployment and looked into any art-related jobs that he could find. During his spare time, he visited art fairs, art walks, and gallery openings to promote his art and stay connected with the industry.

“It’s one of those tough things where there isn’t really a manual. You just have to go out there and do the work. It’s a lot of networking. The problem of new artists is that they know what they want to do, and they do it at home. They don’t go out there and support the scene,” said Lee.

“I come home and paint. It’s a tough gig — painting — but you still do it. You find ways to inject creativity into the other stuff you do in life,” said Lee.

Lee now works for the Art Institute of Seattle’s admissions department, where he meets many students in similar situations, pursuing art despite their parents’ wishes.

While growing up, Jacob’s father was in the military and not around very often. Her mother worked two jobs to support her two daughters. Jacob grew up loving art, but her mother wanted her to pursue dentistry.

Rhodora Jacob

“I was at a breaking point with her. I told her that I didn’t feel a connection to her because I felt that I was only wanted if I got straight A’s or became a doctor or a dentist,” said Jacob.

Their disagreements led to them not speaking to each other during the first few semesters of her schooling. At school, Jacob was frustrated by the transition in curriculum from two-dimensional art to three-dimensional art.

“I felt like the more we work with the computer instead of our hands, the more distance there is from our art,” said Jacob.

During her most difficult moments as an art student, she was still encouraged by the thought of her mother, who began to accept Jacob’s decision after seeing her develop in the field.

“[My mother] has had a lot of struggles in her life, and just watching her change and develop makes me think that I can change. It’s weird to see someone who you saw as one type of person for your whole life transform in a year or two. Although it’s been a struggle with us, she has become this sort of supportive figure in my life,” said Jacob.

Art as translation

Jacob stuck to working with mixed media and creating surreal and brightly colored sketches.

She was sitting at the Baguette Box on Pine Street when the manager noticed her sketches and asked her to do the art in his store. The big commission came at a time when Jacob was focused on graduating.

“It’s hard to say no because I don’t know what other opportunities will come my way,” said Jacob.

Jacob is juggling her school work with requests for her work to be displayed at bars and cafes.

She is scheduled to graduate in March 2011.

In 18 days, on very little sleep, Chau sculpted 66 crayons for 11 kits. Each kit was hand delivered to special members of the press in different countries. Traces of the project still remain. The crayon wax embedded in her floor might require a hair dryer to remove it.

“I sort of just fell off the truck after that. It was crazy and I just thought, ‘I can’t do crayons anymore!’ ” said Chau, who is now preparing for shows in Houston, Texas, Pasco, Wash., and Omaha, Neb.

In the nine to 10 years when Lee wasn’t doing art, an underground art scene was brewing and developing a life of its own in Seattle.

“It was this sort of pop-surreal-lowbrow art scene. People who did comic book or video game art were transitioning to painting and fine art,” said Lee.

Lee began creating art, inspired by a childhood love of comic books and Japanese animation. His art has been exhibited at DELI Seattle and the West Seattle Art Fair. An admirer of Star Blazers, Robotech, Voltron, and G-Force, Lee creates images that range from whimsical cartoon characters to evocative and dark street sirens.

“I’ve been drawn to dark emotive female portraiture. It’s not that I wallow in some disenchanted depressing existence. I just think there is something mesmerizing and fascinating in the gaze,” Lee explains in his blog.

“I try to keep my work lighthearted,” said Lee. “I don’t take myself as an artist that seriously. I’m having fun doing it.” ♦

Tiffany Ran can be reached at

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2 Responses to “For the love of art: Asian Americans go against the tide in unconventional field”

  1. kay says:

    The article was great…. my sister rhodora is very talented… I just want to clear up one thing. She has three sisters and two brothers that love her very much!!


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