I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for meaningful work. People often think that finding meaning is the same as finding happiness. More accurately, it’s about being willing to face the hardship and sadness. To do something meaningful is often doing whatever you can to set others free of what troubles them, to find connection through what we share, and to light a way for one another.
Our featured speaker was Gloria Steinem, who spoke powerfully about the proven links between racism and domestic violence. She spoke about how police officers who are prejudiced and use brutal force in their arrests also have four times the rate of other households for abusing their spouses and families. She spoke about how we cannot expect to have a just government, equal businesses, and fair law enforcement without giving women both fair access to reproductive healthcare and the freedom to direct their life choices. Abuse and violence manifest themselves across platforms. We cannot have democracy without making it possible to have democratic families and democratic couples.
These are just a couple of the things that have kept my hands, mind, and heart busy.
Meanwhile, in this election season, I’ve been paying attention. I’ve kept up with my reading on the issues and candidates. I’ve watched the blow-up around Trump’s “locker room talk” and the following outpour from friends and strangers alike, women coming forward with their stories of harassment, abuse, and assault, calling Trump out on his misogyny. Experiences that all women know too well.
Muriel Rukeyser once said, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” And split open it has.
I’ve been doing a lot of listening, and I’m humbled when I think about just how many stories I carry. My own stories, the stories of friends and loved ones and strangers. And I think, damn, we carry heavy burdens, but also, damn, our hearts are strong. They must be heavy lifters.
I’m humbled also when I realize that since I started this freelance journey, I’ve gotten to work on so many projects and causes alike that are important to me. Some days, my heart feels really heavy, and I wish we didn’t have stories like these to have to stand up for. I wish we didn’t still have to fight for things like fair access for women to reproductive healthcare. I wish domestic violence weren’t a thing. I wish #YesAllWomen weren’t a thing. I wish #RepealThe19th weren’t a thing. But they are.
And here we are. We do our damnedest, and I feel lucky to have so many examples of people fighting for fairness, of people helping.
Thank you, Linda Neff of Planned Parenthood and Katie Mullen and Jordan Pintar of BlackPaint Studios for being great to work with on the 80th Anniversary. It was an event I won’t soon forget. Congratulations, Niki Johnson, on your well deserved Voices Award at the 80th event, and thank you for your amazing work. Thank you, Veronica Lazo, for introducing me to your UNIDOS Family, for contributing to my upcoming project, for all the service you do.
I hope the work I have to share in the coming months is worthy of their inspiration. I hope that I am using my creative talents to do justice to the stories I carry.
Planned Parenthood’s call to action on Friday was not only to stand up, but to Be Visible. Be visible for what you care about. Be visible, speak up, educate, and be educated. Don’t worry about the “controversy.” The most controversial thing is not to communicate, in a world that needs us to be willing to share. The joy we seek depends on our willingness to face our fears of adversity, rejection, and pain.
Most of all, listen not to only to reply, but to understand as you wish to be understood. That alone can change everything.
Cover photo is of one of the buttons designed by BlackPaint Studios for the 80th anniversary event.
It’s been a really good summer, in many ways. Full of laughter and play. Weekend trips. Camping. Outdoor excursions and inside jokes. Crackling fires. Summer pies.
At the same time, it has been an emotionally tumultuous year–for lots of us, I imagine. Maybe election years are always this way, and there’s a lot at stake with this one. There’s a saying, that there are decades where weeks happen, and weeks where decades happen, which seems appropriate for this event-heavy, tragedy-aware year. As an artist, I feel grateful to have a skill and medium through which I can contend with and give a voice to heavy issues–personal, social, political. I’m also admittedly anxious about the responsibility of doing hard topics justice.
To give some background on how this all got started, Escuela Verde is a public charter school in Milwaukee’s neighborhood of Silver City that uses a project-based learning model to emphasize sustainability, student-led learning, and restorative justice. They partnered with the nonprofit, Artists Working in Education, to use public art as a way to activate and enhance a public space and to discuss community concerns.
The students chose to focus on the topic of immigration. This is a salient topic, for the neighborhood, the students, and our political climate. Silver City is home to multiple immigrant populations, and many of the students also come from immigrant families that are affected by our current policies.
It was at this point that A.W.E. put out a call for artists. I got the chance to interview with the organizers, then with the students, and was selected as the lead artist for this project. (Those of you who attended my talk at DreamBank in the spring may remember this small moment of foreshadowing.)
A.W.E. connected me with the very talented illustrator, Gabriela Riveros, and I couldn’t have asked for somebody better to team up with (seriously, check out her site; she’s got major skill and major drive). We started working together in April, the outset of two months of workshops with the students and staff. At this point, we had a topic, and were ready to visit the space available to us.
We didn’t have any imagery in mind yet, but we had a vision of what we needed to accomplish, and some of the problems we needed to address. The building owner, Gil, told us about the tagging problems. This part of the block is isolated and doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic or use. The back of the building is isolated, faces the bike path and railroad, and is easy to get to, so the building gets tagged, and the city requires Gil to clean the graffiti up. Community members shared that people often speed through this part of the neighborhood, which is dangerous, since it’s very close to homes and to a school. So how could we use public art to reactivate a neglected space, to deter tagging, to get people to slow down, to engage an important community conversation?
In our workshops, we researched and discussed the role and effects of immigration, collected classmates’ and neighbors’ immigration stories, and identified patterns in the migration stories we shared. Because many of our students are Latinx and Hispanic, many of our earlier dialogues focused on the Mexican-US border. But the “aha” moments in the classroom came as we collected and shared one another’s stories. Our students of Irish descent talked about their families being denied at Ellis Island and going instead to Canada, to cross the border into Montana. Some of our students got to attend meetings with the neighborhood association. Neighbors loved our idea for the mural, and also said they hoped to see something that was inclusive of all the different groups that live, work, and run businesses in the area.
The short of it: immigration/migration isn’t new, not for human beings, not for any species. It has played an instrumental role in how we’ve developed, advanced, and exchanged/expanded ideas. In our conversations of local vs global, it’s easy to take for granted how the two are interdependent, how technology has advanced along our trading lines, how language has evolved and literacy has spread, how on one dinner plate we may have chicken that was first domesticated in China, potatoes that were first farmed in Peru, and corn in Mexico.
So where does the art come in? It was important for us to emphasize a couple things here. First, that art has always been a mirror for the current times, and a leader/indicator for where society will go next. Second, that the imagery needed to come from the students, facilitated by the instructors. The purpose of Escuela Verde’s project-based learning structure is to empower youth in the decision-making process and to build applicable skills. A project of this size would require lots of organization, clear direction, and strong problem-solving.
Our art workshops included the following: the history of arts and activism, image composition and drawing from observation, typography, games designed to make us think creatively and quickly on our feet, and communicating the ideas and metaphors of a story in images. It was a lot to pack into two months (and we needed the last two weeks for preparing materials and painting), and if there’s anything I could change, it’d be to have more time to explore each of these subjects more in-depth. But in this line of work, we work with what we’ve got, and we do our damnedest with it.
The butterfly became an important symbol for us, in a number of ways. Socially speaking, the monarch butterfly has already come to be a symbol of many social movements, representing migration and solidarity. Their migration patterns are known to play a role in many earthly phenomenons. The time at which a butterfly flaps its wings can determine whether or not a hurricane happens on the other side of the world, which ties us to our other important symbolism, and the purpose of the arts. One problem we are fighting in our communities is that of compartmentalism. Think about companies whose departments are siloed–unaware and therefore indifferent to how they affect one another. The result is low accountability and high blame in our organizations, and a toxic culture where people feel disconnected and purposeless in their work and livelihoods. Our siloed workplaces reflect our segregated neighborhoods. The health of our ecosystems reflects the health of our economies.
And us? We are artists working for and with a cause, who believe that creativity and logic are partners, that our ideals can be used to map our pragmatism and our realities. Our art is not just pretty–it’s smart. Our workshops went beyond aesthetics and embodied an understanding of math, science, and economics. Just as we found patterns in our shared migration stories, we studied fractals and tessellations, to identify the visual patterns in plant roots, butterfly wings, and the circulatory systems of our bodies.
So when you visit our mural in Milwaukee, I ask you to do so with an open hand. Look at your palm and the pattern of your veins. Look at how your fingers branch out from your hand and your limbs from your body. Think about the veins of a plant leaf, on a branch, on a tree. Learn to see this pattern, this shared, repeated pattern, that creates all the diversity we see.
I’ve reflected quite a bit in the aftermath of this project. As the second generation in an immigrant family myself, I feel lucky to have a dual perspective, of history, tradition, and my roots, and of the future and hopes for opportunity that drive all of us to move and embrace change. And whether we are the first in our families to grow up in this country or four generations in Wisconsin, all of us share this desire to trace back to where we come from, to understand where we belong, to feel at home where we are, and to find out where we are going.
Want to know more about our mural? You’re in luck. I’m a borderline insane documenter, and you can visit MigrationStory.US to learn about our full backstories, our workshops, the logistics of the painting/installation days, and the costs/pros/cons of the materials we used.
One of the long-term themes in my artwork is relationships, between people, between nature and the man-made. My drawings capture moments when we connect, collide, and grow with others.
The purpose of this show is to explore how power works. It is to challenge the notion of power as a great force and reveal instead how it builds in small ways, and how our understanding of power will determine whether we will have a healthy relationship with it. It is to show that power must move in cycles, and be fluid and interchangeable in order to have balance. Each artwork illustrates a different relationship between subjects and the sum that their parts create.
Arts + Literature Laboratory is a collaborative space that hosts writing workshops, concerts, and poetry readings. The people who come here believe in speaking for something bigger than themselves, from working for environmental and social causes to leading community classes. When Jolynne Roorda, co-founder of ALL, invited me to show there, I felt it would be right to focus on this understanding of power, as something integral to the collective mindset and creative spirit.
My hope through any of my work is that it gives people a chance to reflect differently on themselves and how the world works, and with that, help each of us rise to the challenges that we all must face. So you can imagine what a gift it was when I learned that the people attending the write-ins were creating poetry in response to the art. ALL hosted a poetry reading with three of Madison’s acclaimed poets, including Oscar Mireles, our city’s poet laureate, alongside Cherene Sherrard and Matthew Guennette, who reflected on the theme of power in choosing what to read. I had the chance to speak with Matthew when he came into the gallery beforehand, to see the art and ask me about the underlying concepts. He said he wanted to read poetry that responded well to the imagery. It was humbling and profound, to feel what it meant to focus collectively on this theme.
On that note, major thanks to Jolynne, as well as everyone else who works hard to run this place (Rita Mae Reese, Simone and Max, I’m looking at you). Head’s up to my artist friends who are looking for a gallery venue. ALL is accepting exhibition proposals. ;)
Thanks also go out to all the wonderful people who came to the reception and those who organized events during the show, and to Midwest Story Lab for recording my talk.
It’s taken me waaaay too long to finally put this information together, but since a lot of people have asked, here’s what one year of “underemployment” looks like since I quit my corporate job, the good, bad, and ugly, followed by what’s happened since.
For those of you who don’t want the details, there’s a section at the end called “Ten Important Lessons” for you.
August 29, 2014-August 29, 2015, roughly in chronological order
had an existential crisis
realized that I’d worked 10 jobs since my teens with very few work days under 10 hours in the past several years (the worst was probably working multiple jobs both day and night shifts), that I’d been a diligent saver despite major, unexpected setbacks early on, and that I needed to be less of an asshole to myself
also realized that I wrote a 65-page succession plan complete with visuals and hyperlinks to supporting documentation to my projects, as well as a tiered training curriculum that could easily be used to eliminate my job by teaching everyone else what I know about Lean methods and setting them up for better career advancement. Seriously. Who does that? I know how to quit in style.
took two months off
went to Iceland, went inside a volcano, hiked on glaciers and volcanic ground, picnicked on a fjord, saw the northern lights, nearly got lost in the mountains, skinny dipped in geothermal pools, began to restore as a human being
took a road trip to Cincinnati to see old college roommates and a new baby in the group, visited my Milwaukee peeps a lot, and reflected on family and community vs my own life choices
enjoyed fall to the fullest, corn mazes, pumpkin carving, pie baking, and fall hikes galore
participated in Maker Faire, got slaughtered on day 1 by way too many children who wanted to learn to print; charged on day 2, dealt with fewer and better children, and made $150
after two months off, consulted in manufacturing and helped a $20 million printing company reduce paper waste alone by $50,000 in the first few weeks and devised a plan with their Senior Process Manager to cut down on $350,000 waste in the upcoming three months; tried all the things I couldn’t with a boss or larger team, including creating my own educational workshops to help people fight their own battles in the workplace; realized I’d make a killer consultant
finally told my mom I quit my job and was relieved she wasn’t angry; began investing in and improving our relationship
ran a 10k with my former coworkers and boss, because that’s the kind of ex-employee I am; tried to beat my old boss, lost by a minute
practiced what I preached; reduced my cost of living, such as switching to a $10/month phone plan, getting rid of my gym membership, and renting my extra space on Airbnb
started this blog
“started” learning Spanish
flew to Buenos Aires and landed on my birthday; experienced having a summer birthday for the first time
lived in Buenos Aires for four weeks, largely as a listener and a mute (would you believe it?)
actually started learning Spanish
absolutely fell in love with Buenos Aires (did you know it’s the world capital of books?), ate a lot of gelato, dulce de leche, and medialunas and started my Spanish book collection
spent three of those weeks in Buenos Aires doing my art residency at Proyecto’Ace; was seriously in the zone; conceptualized, storyboarded, carved, and printed an edition of 18 books, all in woodcut, which you can read about here
serendipitously reunited with a friend from Milwaukee in Buenos Aires
bought a plane ticket and flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world and the beginning of my Patagonia journey
airport lost my baggage; had first encounter trying to explain my problem in Spanish; luckily, most things work out
did my annual polar plunge in Ushuaia immediately after a 36km hike since I missed it in Wisconsin, which drew more attention than I was expecting; got hollered at by various Argentines and tourists
realized I didn’t miss the U.S. and debated never coming home
learned how to ride a motorcycle on a windy day, on a gravel road, on a hill; got really good at picking the motorcycle up
seriously, though, check out The Pack Track’s Facebook page: they are the best Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met, possibly the only Aussie motorcyclists travelling with dogs that I’ve met. I got to see them again in Madison and they’ll be touring the US through Christmas.
arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, and knew immediately that I would love living there; mountains, lakes, chocolate, beer; $10 a night at a hostel with a lake view; done
went hiking with an Israeli woman who had just finished medical school; she asked to see the book I made in Buenos Aires, so I brought the draft copy I had been carrying to dinner at the hostel that night. As soon as I started telling the story, I realized that half the people listening only spoke Spanish, so I had to tell the story in two languages, back and forth, page by page. I nearly gave myself a migraine, but it was a moment that taught me the power of language both to include and exclude, and I must not have done too poorly translating because one of the Argentines in the group later messaged me saying that story was one of the most profound moments of his trip. Anyway, it was at that table of travelers, surrounded by warmth, good people, and good food, that I knew I needed to go home and not cancel or delay my return flight.
arrived in Chile, lost all confidence in my Spanish skills
arrived in Santiago, hated it immediately; felt super glad I didn’t move there three years beforehand to follow love; took the next bus to Valparaíso
loved Valparaíso for its poetic beauty, hated the pollution and consumerist development; agreed to let a local man take me sightseeing on the basis of his Spanish being clearer than any other Chilean I had met (sorry, Chile). He was super sweet and we had a good day, so I only felt slightly bad.
faced my hatred of the dating game and went on a lot of dates, both good and shitty ones; didn’t worry about the end game
met someone I liked a lot, deflected my feelings like a cop-out
started training for the Tough Mudder
began forgetting my Spanish
went camping and enjoyed the Wisconsin summer to the fullest
went to business workshops, some really good, some genuinely worthless
started exploring the startup realm; to those of you who’ve drunken the Kool-Aid, I’m here to say, same shit, different place. It’s all the same highs and lows and problems and opportunities as any other type of work setting. That’s not to discourage anyone, but really, don’t buy the hype wherever you choose to go to make a difference. Just do good things, where you are, with what you have. And find people who are better than you, in different ways.
read a shit ton of books, even for me (one of these days I’ll put together a favorites library)
met one of my former bosses for lunch, told him I would have been a better employee had I known what I know now; made him laugh
became super skeptical of coworking spaces after being invited to try one out. A phrase I’ve thought of often since quitting my job, per George Orwell, “Freedom is slavery.” Are we free, or are we just entering a different cage? Per Bob Dylan, “Everybody has to serve somebody.”
completed the Tough Mudder, which wasn’t that tough except for maybe a couple obstacles, but still a lot of fun. Do it with an awesome group of friends, don’t hesitate on the high jumps or the big moves, and remember to smile because they are taking your picture, or don’t smile if you know how to make fun of yourself.
coming down from my endorphin high from the Tough Mudder, I checked my phone that night and saw an article about a woman who had just been raped on the bike path, a block from my own close call
got super disillusioned, by survivor’s guilt, by people only rising to action after a catastrophe, by the media sensationalizing more than informing; decided if I didn’t want to become a part of the problem, I should speak up about it
also felt encouraged by how good and responsive the Madison community is; seriously, we have some solid people here
applied for a grant to do a public art project for City of Madison; got the grant, now I need to figure out how to build two light sculptures as prototypes for something bigger :|
also got interviewed by Channel 3000, who did a good job addressing community safety and asking what community members can do about it; also, for pointing out, hey, this guy still hasn’t been caught yet, this isn’t over just ’cause we’ve had some fundraisers
since the summertime, went to four weddings and two funerals; thought about love and loss and what I might regret not pursuing; felt happy, felt sad, felt grateful for how many examples of strong relationships I now have in my adult life
trying to figure out how to resolve my desire for a relationship with my disinterest in the dating scene
rewrote my business plan and goals for the next year
It’s hard not to feel pressured to live up to certain expectations. It’s hard not taking your ceiling with you. It’s hard saying no to things you don’t want. It’s hard saying yes to things you do want.
When business is slow, it’s a good thing. Use that time to reflect and improve.
While I’m a great go-getter, I’m a lousy get-it-doner. I make it to 90%, and then my perfectionism kicks in. I worked like mad to get my artist’s book, The Golden Cage, finished in three weeks. But even though it’s a childhood dream of mine to publish, I haven’t done it yet. Why? I’m not happy with the cover. I’m not happy with the text. People I show it to love the story, but I don’t think it’s good enough yet. I need to get over this, or else it’ll never happen.
It’s okay to need other people. It’s okay to ask for help. To love others and let them love you, that’s the bravest you’ll ever be.
It can be a very tit for tat world. Be mindful, not all reciprocity is good or for the right reasons. And sometimes, people reject each other, not because they don’t care, but are scared of what they have to lose, of being the one who cares more. Don’t be scared to be the one who cares more.
The things you care about will hurt you. If you didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt.
You never know what the “by-products” of your actions might be. I quit my job because I knew in my heart, it wasn’t it. Suddenly, I had all this time. So what was a “by-product” I didn’t expect? A better relationship with my mom. I didn’t quit so that I would have time to get to know her, but because I quit, I finally did. If I got nothing else out of this past year, a closer and healthier relationship with my mom would have been enough.
Embrace, acknowledge, and hone your strengths. That’s the only way you can use them for good and prevent them from being used for evil.
Waiting isn’t always a waste. Just like the apple trees need winter to grow apples, learning when and how and on what to wait is important.
Even though I’m a cat person, I have a dog personality. But I love people with cat personalities. Remember to surround yourself with people who are better than you, in different ways.
Three words that people keep calling me, and even more so in this past year than previous ones
brave, which makes me wonder how people define bravery
ballsy, which I hope you find as much humor in as I do
unpredictable, despite being reliable
Three critiques I keep getting
uncompromising for both better and worse
independent to my own demise
too nice, too forgiving
Whether you agree or not, it’s important to pay attention to the feedback people give you.
I wrote the following passage last year and feel it still holds true; it’s a worthy reminder I’ll need to come back to as I pursue my next set of goals.
“Some people have called me brave for being willing to quit without knowing what’s next, and others most definitely think I’m a reckless idiot. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s to trust as much in the counterintuitive as we normally would the obvious or the sensible. To be in control requires a willingness to let go of control. To have stability and security requires that we not need either. To grow, we must always be questioning, always be listening, without needing to find the answers we are searching for.”
This is the season when the trees undress and the people cover up. Once again, the seasons teach us how shared conditions lead living things to change in different ways. They illustrate how things being opposites do not equal one positive and one negative, but both necessary and synchronized adjustments.
I have lost a couple friends since the summer. First, Nicole in July, who was the daughter of one of the mother figures in my adult life, and most recently, a friend who died unexpectedly the morning following the lunar eclipse.
He worked hard on himself, to be compassionate, perceptive, and resolute. He lived his life in the service of others’ needs, maybe, sometimes, too much so. He was a friend, a mentor, a builder, and a healer for many of us who knew him, and he was strong for the people he cared about in the way we all must now be strong for him.
He hung himself from a tree, and there is a lesson to be taken here for those of us who are open to it. The trees are beautiful and give us many things. They give us the oxygen we breathe and protection from the sun. They are also strong in a way that is unrelenting, and that which does not relent will bear the weight of what its power can take from others.
The trees are showing us right now how beautiful it is to let things go. They are also showing us that what remains must endure the cold.
My friend once asserted that in our actions and honoring of people, we should put our community first, then our family, and lastly, ourselves. And as I have grieved and reflected with his partner, one of my longest term friends and mentors, I’ve thought about how my definitions of community and family have developed and blurred into each other over the last decade.
I have a very small nuclear family. I’m an only child, my dad has been dead nearly seven years, I live far from my mom and childhood home, and most of our family is scattered across the nation or back in China and Taiwan. I haven’t even met most of the people I’m related to and haven’t seen or spoken to my paternal grandparents since I was in grade school.
Also, I spent a lot of time by myself as a kid, which has had the long-term effect of making me fiercely independent and uncompromising, for better and sometimes worse.
But my independence has taken a new shape in my adulthood. Because I’ve lived entirely in cities with no familial ties, I’ve had to get good at the things that “independent” people typically suck at, also known as being “dependent” and asking for help. It is well to know that there is no independence without dependence, something we often forget in a country and a culture that praises individualism to our own demise. Thankfully, without the barriers of familiarity, I approach nearly everyone in the same, open way. For me, blood isn’t thicker than water, and I do find teachers, family, and home wherever I go.
This hasn’t always been the case, nor has it been obvious along the way. But I know it to be true in both moments of joyous surprise and unexpected tragedy.
When two friends in Madison asked me to be witness to their marriage, and the groom asked for my approval to marry one of my best friends. (All of us are transplants.)
When my friend, mentor, and mother figure called from Milwaukee after her partner had died, and I was able to call another friend to watch my apartment and cat in Madison at the last minute, so I could pick up and leave town for the next week.
Both joy and pain can highlight just how damn good you have it and how strong of a safety network you actually have.
I wasn’t nearly so available seven years ago when my dad got sick, when I was overworked, overwhelmed, and incapable of reaching out for fear of burdening others. I thought I was tough back then, when in reality, I was rigid. I shattered under the weight, though it took years to admit that the experience was traumatizing. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes terrible things to happen for us to realize we need a paradigm shift, and then even more time to put that realization into actions and practice.
But I also know that I am building a life around my values. I have not given up security. I have changed my definition of it. Where once I was intense and urgent, I have become persistent and patient. Where once I was rigid, I have found true strength in flexibility. Where once I feared failure and loss, I have come to understand that more chances always come, that nothing in this world is new or an isolated experience, and that the missteps of the past are not losses or failures, but lessons in how to do better next time.
I hope, that for these lessons, I am a better daughter, student, partner, and teammate, to my own mother and to the people who have stepped into the parental and mentor roles in my adult life when I have needed them. I hope that what I could not handle alone as a child who thought she was an adult, I am ready to rise and face as an adult who embraces that she will always be a child.
This is the season when the trees undress and the people cover up. Once again, the seasons teach us about repetition and ritual, about the cycle of activity and rest, about how to fall so that we may continue.
I have been back in the States now for two weeks, and my first bit of business has been preparing for a solo show at Ploch Art Gallery at Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.