Creativity, Connection, and Consciousness: Our Survival Strategies

2018 has been a whirlwind, to say the least. There hasn’t been quite as much space between things as I would like, but I’m loving the work I get to do and the messages I get to share.

I recently gave a talk as a part of Disrupt Madison. Disrupt started as an event for HR professionals, but has since expanded to incorporate all different types of professionals who want to change and “disrupt” the workplace. 5 minutes for 15 seconds x 20 slides. It’s a lot to pack in–and to be honest, I like the presentation much better in written form than in presentation form. I could explain why, but since I care the most about getting this message out there, I’m sharing both the video and the transcribed script below.

The short version: Creativity is important and necessary for our survival. Out of 8.7 million different animal species, human beings are the only ones to actively record images of themselves and of others. Art is the prize of human creativity.

Does this message resonate with you? Share why in the comments!


What makes us human? In the age of speed, technology, and automation, it’s becoming increasingly important for us to answer this question. I’d like to present a case to you today, that creativity—and art specifically—is at the core of human existence.

All species are programmed to create. Birds build nests. Bees design hives. Yet out of 8.7 million different animal species on the planethuman beings are the only ones who actively record our own image and the images and information of others. No other species does this. Art is the prize of human creativity, and it is deeply linked with our ability to communicate, research, and reflect.

Yet one of the most enduring stereotypes is that of the starving artist. We have all seen the company campaigns that celebrate creativity and innovation. But our investments don’t match our enthusiasm. We have seen creative learning slashed from school budgets and business’ bottom lines. We have seen increasing pressure for schools to focus on “practical” jobs over the humanities. Do a search for “Artist” on LinkedIn and see how many times the word “Volunteer” pops up. I challenge you to find as many “Volunteer” positions for lawyers and engineers.

The state of Wisconsin ranks 48th in the US for investment in the arts, spending 14 cents per capita, compared to the $6 in Minnesota and $85 per capita in countries like Germany and France. Meanwhile, the arts contributed $763 billion in economic activity in the US. That’s four times more than agriculture and $200 billion more than transportation. Okay, you say, I’m convinced. Art matters. Creativity matters. But how do we incorporate them into what we do?

While there are many ways, I’d like to offer 10 paradigm shifts that make the process easier.

Starting with…

  1. Creativity is about identity. What makes a place memorable? Is it those franchise parking lots?
  2. In a culture that devalues creativity, that energy will be redirected to whatever people believe is necessary to survive. You will see more people abusing loopholes instead of fixing them; more crime instead of social mobility.
  3. Replace “extra-curricular” with co-curricular. Co-curricular means that creative and logical endeavors are partners, not enemies. No part of the brain operates in isolation, just as no company can survive with workers operating in silos.
  4. If you have a $1000 pocket computer that will last 2 years, you can justify spending on the things that will become family heirlooms and the landmarks to last a lifetime.
  5. Form follows function, and function follows form. We have all seen how systems can dictate rather than facilitate human behavior. Put art and design at the forefront of your organization, not just as an afterthought.
  6. Creativity is about stewardship. How we take care of our shared spaces says a lot about our community. Your art (or lack thereof) is an expression of stewardship.
  7. Go beyond using the arts for company advertising. Just because you’re a cheese company doesn’t mean you can only have pictures of cheese on your walls. True creativity comes from leaving your comfort zone.
  8. Eight. Listen to the messengers. Artists are often the people who see things differently. Make it easier for them to give you feedback and solutions. Listen without assumption.
  9. Creative leadership matters, and creative labor matters. Hire creative people at all tiers of your organizations, and then trust them. Creativity requires autonomy. It does not thrive under strict order.
  10. Creativity is about connection, and like all other muscles and skills, it requires exercise. The more we practice creativity, the better we get at it. And when you strengthen one muscle, you strengthen all the ones surrounding it.

So I invite all of you to join me on this challenge. Do you believe that you can set a precedent? If so, how will you transform the environments around you? How will you cultivate your own creativity and that of others?

Remember that the entities that change us for the better will not be the ones who deliver products the fastest or the cheapest. They will not be the ones who monopolize our attention while dividing our priorities.

But they will be the ones who can focus us on what makes us healthy and makes us whole. They will be the ones who leave a record on this earth that anyone of us would be proud to call our own.

Thank you to the organizers of Disrupt Madison, Laura Gmeinder and Coreyne Woodman-Holoubek, for inviting me to be on stage.

Writing “The American Dream”

Happy birthday to my dad, who would have been 67 today.

I’m about the same age now as he was in this photo, in his first year in the US, a new immigrant in the process of discovering the complexity of what the American dream really meant.

I joke with people sometimes that I’m doing the two things my parents didn’t want me to do–become an artist and run my own business. Several years after this photo was taken, my dad and mom opened a family restaurant as a means to an end. The restaurant biz is hard. The lives my parents led before the restaurant were hard. The last thing they would have wanted for me was the insecurity of working with my hands for my next paycheck. They wanted me to go after the types of jobs–and security–that they couldn’t get.

Maybe it was the long days and nights in the restaurant that taught me patience and endurance. Maybe while the adults were working and away, I learned to be with myself, to examine life well, to learn where my heart is even when my mind wanders. Maybe it’s natural for us to care about what others resent, and resent what others care about.

Maybe because I’m the daughter of two people with enough impetus and rebellion and chutzpah to migrate to another country with little knowledge of the language and without any intention of returning to their homeland, I got a little of that tenacity passed down to me. Maybe even though the “American dream” turns out to be a lot less pure and a lot more complicated than how it’s advertised, just the knowledge that it took SO much for my roots to get here before I even got my chance is enough to make me a little braver and more hopeful about what the “American dream” might mean for me.

Life gives us tragedy, life gives us luck. We have to acknowledge the first and wholeheartedly embrace the second. Someone recently told me, “You’re the right blend of tenacity and pragmatism,” and that means a lot. I choose work that requires me to exercise all my faculties: hands, mind, eyes, and heart. In all areas of life, I’m more interested in what’s best than what’s familiar. I find more excitement than insecurity in the building of my business and studio practice–the anticipation of opportunities and possibilities ahead, the purposeful choice of investing time, money, and effort into the skilled trades and human ingenuity I believe in.

Days like today are milestones for me, for reflection. We have the chance to challenge the paradigm of how things are done. The chance to leave behind the “master script” of the places where we came from, not to fall for another script, but to create what hasn’t been created yet. I count and hold dear every hard-earned lesson that has ingrained this in me. This is the real dream that people move here for.

A Letter to My Creative Community

Photo from community paint day at Trinity Lutheran Church. Photo credit Daniel Stout.

To my fellow creators:

In 2016, we experienced one of the most critical elections of our time, an election that regardless of your politics, regardless of whether you woke up the next day in triumph or in travesty, revealed just how divided our nation has become.

Plenty of people have echoed the sentiment that we will get nowhere without being willing to have a conversation with those who disagree with our position. That I wholeheartedly agree with, while also knowing what a cold comfort that is to anyone who feels dropped, betrayed, or scared, or like some conversations have driven divisions much deeper, even with people we love and respect. Even with people we have perceived to be our allies. It is easy to find friends during fair weather. It is much harder during treacherous weather. While many people can agree that something should be done about the world’s problems, very few can agree on what that something is or how to do it.

Painting the Goodman Community Center mural with co-lead artist Emida Roller and Dane Arts Mural Arts.

What I can say is this. Never before has your work been more important. As the artists, the craftspeople, the makers, the tinkerers, the people who learn by doing, we are the missing link between the alleged, hands-off elite and the working class. We are the resurgence of skilled trades. We are the counter movement to the consumption of things that don’t last or aren’t worth taking care of. We are the ones who can change perspectives and strengthen empathy.

We are the ones that through practice, persistence, and passion, prove that every day, creativity is about connection, and that what we repeatedly do becomes who we are. Ours is a pursuit of the mind, the heart, and the hands.

Painting the Trinity Lutheran Church mural. Photo credit Daniel Stout.

There’s a reason that our free speech is so important. There’s a reason that dictatorships go after the arts first, after personal expression first. If you can take or buy people’s means of expression, you can control who they become.

So don’t forget the “why” of what you do, because it’s so important. There isn’t a day when I’m not grateful to work alongside you, in the service and championing of new ideas. We have a lot of work to do. Thank you for everything you’re already doing, for your creativity, brilliance, forthrightness, and kindness. And don’t hesitate to reach out as we continue to work towards our collective wellbeing.

With love,

Jenie Gao

**I wrote and sent this letter on November 14, 2016, to the people who follow my monthly newsletter. It still remains one of my most read emails. It felt relevant to share it again today, with some small revisions. I hope these words are of service to you as you reflect on 2017 and prepare for 2018. Happy New Year.

Photo by Jennifer Bastian. Part of my project, In Unison.

#MeToo, #YesAllWomen, and Men Who Can Do No Wrong

#MeToo and #YesAllWomen tell a common story. A man wronged a woman and got away with it.

I’m grateful, of course, for the courage and camaraderie of women to be open about what they have experienced and often have needed to keep hidden. I am also extremely tired. It’s not like we haven’t known that sexism, sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are all issues embedded and teeming in our communities, issues heavily weighted against women and anyone who is not a man. Of course “Not All Men” are predators. That isn’t the point. The labor is still largely on women to respond to a crisis that they did not create, to make themselves vulnerable in the hopes that society might finally pay attention, that passive listeners might finally become allies, and that those allies are as active as they are sympathetic.

Rarely do the people who make the mess have to clean it up themselves. It doesn’t help that little girls are taught to pick up for others, including their brothers. When they become women, they still find themselves cleaning up for men. It’s a part of how women are educated, to clean up the messes that we did not make.

The world isn’t fair to the fair-minded, and I have a hard time believing that things are going to change anytime soon. The crises aren’t over. In spite of our collective stories, the master narrative has not changed. The structure of the book that holds our stories has not changed. We have (hash) tagged the women but not tagged the men who forced their influence upon someone else’s narrative. “Me, too,” creates a database of women who are survivors and not of men who are perpetrators, and I am resentful of that, even if I appreciate the movement.

In the stories of #MeToo and #YesAllWomen, there is a “damsel in distress,” and an invisible man who is the perpetrator. These men love the “damsel in distress” story and come into the light when they can be knights in shining armor. They disappear when the damsel’s distress is their own doing. They disappear even when the distress is not their doing, but when they fear the confrontation of angry women. The bulk of the work is still on women to call out the problems and seek resolution.

#MeToo and #YesAllWomen are a step forward from a culture that says, “Women need to be more careful” instead of “Men need to be more respectful.” But remember, for every woman who says “Me, too,” there’s a man who ought to say, “I should have known better.” I’m still waiting for the day when in response to #YesAllWomen, I see men posting #SheShouldntNeedToTellMe. I’m waiting for the day when #MeToo stands for perpetrators calling themselves out. I’m waiting for the day when male colleagues call out the Harvey Weinsteins of the world in the moments when it matters, instead of offering their sympathy after the fact, when the women who find one another assemble their army of voices.

I’m waiting for the day when we don’t need a hashtag for any of this violent nonsense. We’re not there yet. In the meantime, it is on each of us to read between the hashtags and statistics, to find the invisible perpetrators that gave us data points worth counting and stories unfortunately worth believing. We need to believe the stories first, and beyond that we need to understand what percolates beneath them if we don’t intend to relive them.

“A Shipwrecked Man cast up on the beach fell asleep after his struggle with the waves. When he woke up, he bitterly reproached the Sea for its treachery in enticing men with its smooth and smiling surface, and then, when they were well embarked, turning in fury upon them and sending both ship and sailors to destruction. The Sea arose in the form of a woman, and replied, ‘Lay not the blame on me, O sailor, but on the Winds. By nature I am as calm and safe as the land itself: but the Winds fall upon me with their gusts and gales, and lash me into a fury that is not natural to me.'” – Aesop’s Fables

“Independence Day”

Today is my third anniversary since I quit my corporate job to throw myself into my art career. It’s been more than a year since my business turned its first profit and since I’ve accepted any consulting work outside of the arts. What does that mean? It means doing all the work it takes to make your silly, crazy, childish dreams actually worth taking seriously. (Just think, somebody decided that making animal shapes out of refined flour was a viable product. And they were right.)

OMG look at this mega animal cracker!!!

It means that I’ve worked over 2000 hours between January and August, so in 2/3 of the year I’ve logged as many hours as a 40-hour-per-week employee would log in a whole year. It means 700 of those hours were on creating art, and 1300 on activities that make the business side possible. It means getting to choose my own hours, which often means late nights and weekends. It means a rejection letter folder I keep for shows and clients I don’t get.

It means doing the work that I believe is beautiful and meaningful. It means dozens of interviews to collect community stories for community-focused projects. It means growing pains that are both terrible and wonderful. It means immersing in the work, for worse and for better. It means trying not to cry after listening to a student talk about the fourth shooting they’ve witnessed and wondering how the hell teaching them to sew and quilt is going to fix this. It means finally breaking down and ugly crying after watching a student use those same sewing materials from class to fix his coat, instead of getting into a fight with the student who tore it, and crying again when you’re searching for a solution to keep funding classes. It means using art everyday as a metaphor and a method for creating better patterns in our relationships and in ourselves. It means seeing clients’ faces glow this evening when I showed them their project’s preliminary designs, and knowing that the designs honor their story.

Adding the finishing touches to a mural for Goodman Community Center, which I worked on with artist Emida Roller and the Goodman students through Dane Arts Mural Arts.
Emida projecting a quote from one of the students, which inspired the image.
The finished mural will be installed in Goodman’s new teen center in 2018. The design is based on conversations and collaborations with the teens on the social issues they want adults not to shelter them from and to be included in as a part of the solution.

It means encouragement and discouragement in equal turns. It means learning your worth. It means learning your limits. It means taking criticism, fielding doubts, and accepting the fact that some people may always judge you or wonder how you make a living doing that (Again, animal crackers are a thing. Making pictures is also a thing.) It means working every day to break the starving artist stereotype. It means learning that when you defend your pricing, you defend it on behalf of everyone in your field. It means having unending gratitude for the people who from the beginning believed you were one of the ones who had the tenacity to make it. Three years in already.

It means that I am both extraordinarily lucky and that I repeatedly choose not to waste that luck. It means going back and forth between thinking “OMG I’m doing it” and “OMG everything I’ve worked for is going to explode in my face.” It means constantly wishing that I were a little bit braver each time my comfort zone gets a little bigger. It means forgetting to eat sometimes. It means taking the work seriously, and myself not so seriously, and vice versa, depending upon what the occasion calls for.

Serious snacks for serious artists.

Learning by Doing: Summer Edition

The best way to describe my life right now is dense. Busy doesn’t quite capture the feeling, but dense. Different projects at different stages. I’m doing the types of things that fulfill me and sometimes over-fill me, things that I wish I had more time and space to think about more deeply and properly process. But the original definition of the word, “studio,” is to “learn by doing,” and so perhaps that is what we need to do, when we do not have space in between or surrounding the actions that make up our lives.

So here’s what I’ve done in the process of learning by doing.

Moments from the exhibit I curated at Promega, working with artists Yeonhee Cheong, Nirmal Raja, Kristen Bartel, and Rina Yoon. It’s been a wonderful experience. The theme of the show is our relationship with the environment, as we shape it and as it shapes us. In case you missed the opening, you can watch Rina and Yeonhee’s thought-provoking presentations online.

The show is up until September 4th for anyone who hasn’t gotten a chance to see it. Yeonhee Cheong and I will be leading a gallery talk on August 21st.

Shout-out to Daniel Swadener, Stephanie Shea, and Promega for inviting me to do this, and for being great to work with!!

Closeup of “Memento Mori Sewol,” by Yeonhee Cheong. For purchase inquiries, email
“earth: between in and yeon,” by Rina Yoon. For purchase inquiries, email
Rina Yoon presenting during the symposium of “Intertwined.”
Nirmal Raja brings artist’s books to share during her gallery talk.
Artist Rhea Ewing interacts with Nirmal Raja‘s piece, “The Tongue of the Hand.” One of my favorite artworks (and two of my favorite people!).

My newest series of artwork in 2017, Not Everything is Seen and The Globe Weavers. You can view images from this series on my website and see the originals on display at Urban Ecology Center until August 30th.

“Nothing is Hidden, but Not Everything is Seen.” Ink on paper, 11 x 14 inches, 18 x 22 inches framed. Original available.
“Movements,” Ink on Paper, 11 x 14 inches, 18 x 22 inches framed, original sold. Limited edition prints available.
“Angels and Harpies: A Civil War Begins,” Ink on paper, 20 x 30 inches, 27 x 39 inches framed. Original available.
“Angels and Harpies: A Civil War Begins,” detail shot.

Sneak peek of the preliminary design for a mural I’m doing in Milwaukee. News to come. :)

Mural design preview.

Mural-in-progress with the students of Goodman Community Center. We worked with the youth to create the design last winter and in July started painting. The image was inspired by a quote that one of the students shared: “The walls we build to keep out the sadness also keep out the joy.”

The mural will go in Goodman’s new teen center upon its completion.

Teaching woodcut workshops with the library. Spreading the love for woodcut and all things print.

As of last week, I’m officially the owner of this beautiful combination press. We’re moving it into the studio tomorrow. (!!!)

Dickerson/C Combination Press. Still needs a name. :)

I did manage to fit in a vacation in July as well (thank goodness) which helped reenergize me for the second leg of the summer. My boyfriend has been on his own business-building adventure and we nearly canceled our trip on account of being so stressed and busy, but I’m glad we didn’t. Best thing about South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana (besides mountains and nature, of course): no data on my phone.

Drawing near our campsite, with a view of the Grand Tetons.
Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone. These colors and textures absolutely need to make it into my future works. All travel is research when you’re a creative. As Amanda Palmer once wrote, all creativity is collecting dots and connecting dots.

I am approaching the 3-year mark since I quit my corporate job and have passed the one-year mark since my business turned a profit. I’m learning a ton about what it means to build a business around the arts and around the causes one cares about, the good and the bad. I need to build in more time to reflect and evaluate each thing that I’ve done. It’s undeniable that I’m growing. But I get overwhelmed. I get exasperated. There are many 12-hour days and very few weekends. I go on a rollercoaster between feeling unstoppable in what I can do and doubtful about whether I’m truly up to the tasks and visions I set before myself. I worry about overbooking myself, and about the detriment that busyness can have on quality and mastery in one’s work. I worry about doing shallow work or achieving shallow results.

The growing pains can be terrible at times.

But they can also be pretty great.


Politics and the Environment: The Good, Bad, Complicated, and Promising

The Good

Fact #1: The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 with a unanimous vote from the Senate and only one nay vote from the House. This is just one example of successful environmental efforts that crossed party lines.

Fact #2: The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was established during Richard Nixon’s (R) presidency.

Fact #3: George H.W. Bush (R) called himself the “environmental president,” and attacked his opponent as an example of someone who would be detrimental to our environmental conservation, and therefore our country. Bush expanded upon the Clean Air Act by “instituting a cap-and-trade system to cut power plant pollution and reduce acid rain.”

Photo of three of the passenger pigeons from my public installation, “In Unison.” From closest to farthest: Gaylord (after Governor Nelson), Gloria (after Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Gloria Steinem), and Carver (after George Washington Carver). All birds made from reclaimed clothing donated by the community.

The Bad

Fact #1: The US is the most wasteful country in the world, producing 695 metric tons of waste per day. China is second and produces 520 metric tons of waste per day.

Fact #2: While China is on track to outproduce and double the amount of waste the US produces by 2030, that would still make them less wasteful than we are per person. Consider this. The US has a population of 320 million people. China has a population of 1.4 billion. And yet we still currently outproduce them in garbage by 1.33 times.

Fact #3: Japan and Germany are also among the top 5 most wasteful nations. Both countries are lauded for their efficient processes and streamlined businesses. Lean six sigma and other streamlining/waste elimination methodologies give praise to Japanese companies like Toyota for helping to establish these practices. But “efficient” is not the same as “waste free.” It also matters what you call waste. A company that manufactures disposable plastic bags and bottles may do so without wasting any plastic in their processes, but they are still producing plastic bags and bottles that go into our landfills. A car company may waste no time in getting cars out on the market and on the roads, but they are still producing fossil fuel burning cars that require metals mined from the earth.

Fact #4: At least 83 animal extinctions have been documented in North America alone since the 1900s. Many more animals have lost about 75% of their populations since as recently as the 1960s.

For anyone who wants to call any of the above information the stuff of alarmists, cut any of these numbers in half and it’s still ridiculous.

The complicated, and sometimes overwhelming

Perhaps one of the most dangerous things is when both conservative and liberal politicians continue to treat the future of the economy and the future of the environment like opponents rather than interdependents, like an agenda to be beat or won instead of a problem to solve and a purpose to share and lead and collaborate on.

We can’t ignore the huge pollution problem surrounding us and ahead of us. So whose responsibility is this? Is it the big companies? Is it individuals? As both an individual and small business owner, I feel the pains and contradictions in multiple ways. As an individual, I feel defeated every time I go to the grocery store and buy fruits and vegetables that come pre-wrapped in plastic or covered in stickers that are non-biodegradable. As a business owner, I struggle with the fact that the cheaper options for materials are the less environmentally friendly ones, or that there may just not even be any truly environmental options out there. I struggle with the fact that until our bigger systems change, the current system endorses the monetary success of business models that are linear instead of cyclical, with no sustainable future for the materials we create with and consume. The current system endorses a culture of high, frequent, and repeated consumption instead of the slow consumption of products that last and are meant to be taken care of.

So again. Whose responsibility is this? Is it businesses? Is it individuals? In spite of the above, it’s still not an either-or.

The Promising

Here are some things you should know about the legacies of people who advocated for the environment.

Figure #1: Gaylord Nelson (D), a former Senator and the 35th Governor of Wisconsin, founded Earth Day in 1970. He was responsible for motivating President Kennedy to participate in discussions about environmental conservation and policy across the nation. He helped to establish the federal legislation that protects the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. And he, like many, understood that environmentalism was not a partisan issue.

Figure #2: The 37th Governor of Wisconsin, Warren Knowles (R), set yet another example of collaborating across party lines. Knowles is also remembered for his pro-conservation and pro-environment policies and legacy, and for his collaborations with his predecessor, Gaylord Nelson.

Figure #3: Aldo Leopold was a Wisconsin environmentalist whose ethics of nature, biodiversity, and wildlife preservation continue to guide the conservation of our state and national parks, trails, and nature centers nationwide. He helped to change previous wildlife management mindsets as one that inevitably has human beings at the top of the food chain, which led to the re-introduction of predators like wolves to Yellowstone National Park to restore balance to the natural ecosystems.

Figure(s) #4: Activists in Wisconsin played a huge role in banning DDT nationwide, from the nature-loving citizens who raised public awareness to Professor Joseph Hickey at UW who connected the death of birds to the earthworms they were eating from the DDT-infested soil.

Fact: $647 billion was invested in drilling oil last year alone, and we need $1 trillion to be invested in clean energy solutions between now and 2030. That’s $1 trillion over 13 years, and we’ve spent over 2/3 that amount on drilling alone in just one year, not counting all the other investments in the oil industry. And as it’s been shown, their assets’ worth won’t last and are not sustainable, so that’s either $1 trillion for renewable resources over the next 13 years, or $1 trillion to keep investing in something with a hard deadline–no pun intended–with no future returns. Alternative energy sources get a lot of smack for being too expensive for the general populace, and while it’s true that $1 trillion is a big and even unfathomable number, we’re already spending that  and then some to maintain our current fossil fuel addiction. So what does that tell us?

In conclusion

It’s important to recognize the environmental efforts that have taken precedence over individual motives. It’s important to recognize that these efforts required collaboration across across party lines and the boundaries of states and nations for our long-term success and wellbeing. It’s important to recognize the role of individuals in pushing legislators and of legislators who listened and collaborated–with the people they represented and with each other.

What impacts us globally always starts locally. The environments we shape will inevitably shape us.

A quote from Governor Nelson’s speech from the first Earth Day in 1970:

“Earth Day is dramatic evidence of a broad new national concern that cuts across generations and ideologies. It may be symbolic of a new communication between young and old about our values and priorities.”

We can fight all day over the terminology–climate change, global warming, pollution, conservation. We can fight each other about our political beliefs.

But through all of that, we must educate ourselves, not solely to be better at arguing with others, but to be capable of informing others and improving ourselves. We must learn from the sobering truth of history while not letting history make us cynical. History gives us roots that connect us to other people. Knowing the flaws of our past gives us compassion and a compass to do better in the future.

Further Reading:

Read the full Earth Day speech from 1970

Learn about when Environmentalism became a partisan issue

The story of my project, In Unison, which addressed social movements, environmental conservation, and the fast fashion industry

Photography credit for In Unison: Jennifer Bastian Photography

Geometry, Community, and Identity: What do you see?

I had the honor of presenting at TEDx Madison at the end of 2016. My talk is officially online, and I’m excited to finally be able to share it. The talk focuses on the integral and vital role of creativity, to our survival and wellbeing.

For those of you who have seen the talk, you may be wondering about the bit on teaching math and fractals to my art students.

I’m teaching art again in 2017, to two groups of high school students, in preparation for two public art projects we’ll be working on together this summer.

The beauty of teaching hands-on work is that when my students and I work, we talk. We talk about art and art history, of course. We also talk about current events, about their neighborhoods, about their jobs, about the challenges they must face, about the opportunities they must live up to.

My students aren’t sheltered. They’re tough as nails and they’ve been through a lot. Theirs are the kind of stories that would shake a lot of people to the core, for the same reason that these teenagers can tell them frankly and matter-of-factly, unfazed. For them, they’re not stories. They’re realities.

The last few weeks of my curriculum have focused on patterns, as they appear in nature and across human history. Look up close at a snowflake, at a spider’s web, at the sacred geometry of a church’s windows, at the history of quilts across cultures.

What do you see?

One of my students recently coined the term, “community fractal.” I loved that.

To my fellow educators, teaching is hard, and the field of education can be more accurately described as a battlefield. And yet through the uncertainty in which you teach, never forget the gift that you are giving.

Whatever your teaching methods, the most powerful thing you do is help our students make connections that transform knowledge into greater understanding and wisdom.

You are granting them the ability to build the patterns and foundations of who they will become.

Ideas don’t grow in isolation.

Facts don’t live in boxes.

You never teach one thing.

And yet what you teach, unites everything.

The official TEDx Talk online.

Two worlds in tandem: moving from the past to the present

February 8, 2017, would have been my dad’s 66th birthday. He has been gone for nearly 8 years.

I have been thinking a lot lately about things that come in twos.

Things set in opposition that are necessary parts of a whole. Left versus right, male versus female, north versus south, conservative versus liberal.

Things that intersect or prove simultaneous truths. The intersection of two roads. A house on a row, adjacent to two other houses, that is simultaneously both their neighbors. The invention of printing, which is both an art form and a technology. Multiple identities, which we associate with people being multiracial, inter-religious, gender-fluid, bisexual. Or the running joke among people who hate identity politics is “I don’t care if you want to be a purple alien unicorn.” But multiple identities could just mean that being a mother and a wife doesn’t mean you cease to be a daughter. Identities don’t exist in silos.

Things that do not intersect, but inform or create each other. The past and the present. Parallels between different times in history. Correlations in data. Your reflection in a mirror. The reversed image of a stamp, pressed on paper.

A couple students from my woodcut workshop at @madisonbubbler. These guys were awesome. :)

A photo posted by Jenie (@jeniegao) on

Earlier this year, I turned 29, the same age my dad was when he immigrated to the United States. My 29th birthday took place a few days after Martin Luther King Day, the same day as Inauguration Day (1/20), and the day before the historic Women’s March.

As my father’s birthday passes once again, just one day after the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education, I can’t help but think about the significance of my role as an educator amidst political turmoil.

I am thinking about his old stories. He was born shortly after Mao Zedong’s rise to power in China. He was the first generation to be raised by state educators instead of by his parents, so the adults could be dedicated to serving the Communist Party and military. He was of the generation that lost its education to the Cultural Revolution, when the schools shut down and the leaders accused the teachers of instilling radical, elitist ideas upon the youth. My dad had always been a terrible student, had failed grades, and been held back multiple times. The teacher who had succeeded in reaching him and led him to becoming a top-performing student had done so by encouraging his love of literature.

The leaders of the country had incited the youth to turn against their teachers. The schools closed. My dad was among his fellow students the day his former teacher and mentor was condemned as an “educator who was corrupting the youth.” He was among them as they gathered around her, to beat her. And he pretended to beat her, too, though did his best to stay in the middle of that crowd, to stand between her and the blows of his peers.

That was just one of the events that took place the year my dad’s education ended. He was in the seventh grade, and only by a fortuitous and unlikely series of events was he able to study English in his late twenties and come to the United States.

I can’t help but think about what it means for me to be a teacher now, all these years later, at the same age as he was when he finally got to be a student again.

And that continues to be the main difference between the past and the present, that one generation of students will become another generation of studies. History will be the student of what it later needs to teach.

It is bittersweet for me, now, to look at my dad’s manuscript about his life in China, and read the paragraph about him receiving his passport, which read, “To All Countries in the World.” It is bittersweet to imagine how it must have felt for him to read those words as China re-opened to the West. To imagine how it must have felt for him to write that, decades later, knowing that for over two decades, he never did make it to Europe, and never got to live outside of Kansas again.

Drawings of eagles and Canada geese, just some of the many migratory birds I have been studying.

My dad would spend half his life in this country. He would spend many of those years dreaming of becoming a writer, trying to recapture the history and the lessons of his youth, the lessons he learned growing up in a country full of contradictions, the lessons he learned from a Cultural Revolution that built up and destroyed the hopes of his generation within the same uplifted blow. He would spend many of those years frustrated by the limits of a man who was robbed of his early school education and basic foundations of mathematics and science, and yet extremely educated in his mindset and well versed in US and global history, dreaming and wondering what the worth of his story might some day be.

And he, along with my mom, would tell me how lucky I was to be born here. How lucky I was not to speak English with an accent. How much easier I would have it than they did. Especially as a girl. Especially as a girl after China’s one child policy, which was implemented in 1979, the same year my dad moved abroad.

When the world tells you you’re lucky, you can’t help but agree. You also can’t help but overcompensate for that luck, to really want to prove that you deserve to be here.

You have to be better to be equal, the saying goes.

I think, sometimes, when you know you have it easier in some ways, you force yourself to have it harder in other ways. Sometimes, when you’re told you have it easy, you disregard the ways in which you still have it hard. Sometimes, when you see the dreams your parents either did not achieve or did not even begin to dream up, you grow up with a sense of urgency to do what they did not get the chance to do. That applies to both the things they wanted and the things they dreaded.

Because my dad always felt that he had lost so much time, I wanted to be good with mine, and ironically, I always feel like I’m behind. Plus he was always telling me not to let the years get away from me. So I have always wanted to do the things that he could not do and not to waste the opportunities that come my way. But I believe that many of us can agree that it’s hard to reconcile the timelines for what we want with the milestones that others expect of us.

What you do for a living when you get to live out your childhood dream.

At the same time, I wrestle with the discomfort of knowing that while my intention is to be someone my dad would be proud of, my reality might be that I am someone who always aggravated his insecurities. If he were still alive today, would he be proud of me? Would he disapprove of my life choices, to choose the harder but (for me) the more rewarding path of becoming an artist and entrepreneur? Would he be insecure and even passive aggressive about the things that he could or would never do, that I can? Would we still be warring with each other’s contradictions, with both of us being stubborn, and with him still angry that his authoritarian views didn’t work on the daughter he pushed to be independent, observant, and strong?

Would I have made the same life choices if he were still alive? What if certain decisions, realities, and hard-but-very-real-life-and-death-questions hadn’t been pushed upon me at an early age? Would he, as a man who wanted his daughter to be strong, secretly resent all the ways in which his baby girl does not, and maybe never did, need him?

It’s also possible that none of these questions are worth asking, and some may even be draining or damaging. I have a good enough memory to draw connections and correlations between what is happening in our current social and political climate and what was happening when my dad was my age. But it would be a disservice to myself and the potential of the future, to compare my timeline too much with his, with my mother’s, or with anyone else’s, especially if we have each sought different fulfillments and life milestones.

Not to mention, things are already different. At 29, he was pursuing a new education. At 29, I am getting to share mine.

Photo from the Madison Central Library’s Bubbler studio, during one of my public printing workshops.

If I could let my dad know anything, it is that I do all the things I do out of love and respect and a desire to make things better, and that I am trying to do the best I can with what life has given me. History, with all its beauty, pain, trauma, and flaws, has given me only gifts. The qualities he thought were the worst about him have become the best about me. I believe it is our job, as people, to treasure what our parents gave us, and to equally treasure the need and the drive we have to fulfill what they did not give us.

When I look at what I have done thus far, I do not believe that I have done better than what others are capable of. If anything, I might have an above average awareness of the long-term game we each need to play. I know that I have roots and that roots require watering to keep their strength. I know that this is especially a challenge for anyone whose roots have needed to travel far for them to be here.

Each of us is still taking care of the seeds that were planted before us. Each of us must plant, share, and identify new seeds in our communities, to have gratitude for the gifts of history and to cultivate those gifts. Each of us must develop the insight to know the difference between growing a tulip and growing a tree, and the patience needed to address that difference fairly.

Each of us must know to study the past–not always to understand it–but to know that if we don’t understand, it’s because things are already different from the times when people thought “their present”/”our past” made sense. But things have changed. And things will continue to change. That, we must believe.

I hope, that if we are to do that, the trees of the future will bear fruit long after any of us here today are gone.

February Updates

  1. Thank you to the Capital Times in Madison for interviewing me about my artistic practice and project at the Central Library. It’s great to have a chance to share a bit of my creative story. The full Q&A is transcribed here.
  2. I have entered Phase Two of my project, In Unison, for the Bubbler art residency at Madison Central Library, and am asking people to come join us for community sewing days, to help cut and sew patterns and bring these fabric birds to life. Sign up with a friend for one of the group sewing days online!
  3. I have started teaching two classes in Milwaukee, as part of two public art projects to be completed by May and June. I’m going to take this moment to say, I really enjoy teaching. :)
  4. I’ve started an activist book club with a group of people in Madison. Our first book will be The Lifelong Activist, by Hillary Rettig, available for free online or purchasable as a hard copy. Send me a message if you’re interested in joining up with us! We’ll be meeting biweekly.

Thoughts following the Women’s March

Our future generations will remember that on January 21st, 2017, 2.9 million people joined the Women’s March for peace and equal rights in an environment where we have been incited to take up the tools of war. This is the largest march in US history and regardless of outside efforts to disrupt the movement, the marches stayed peaceful.

We had 100,000 in Madison alone. It was powerful and unsettling to participate in a march of this size that aligned our local vision with a global one.

This isn’t going to be the last time people march in unison to make themselves heard. People get louder when they feel the threat of being silenced. And so, we have entered an era where it is no longer enough to live peacefully, but where those who want peace, who want fairness with their government and among people, must organize and fight for it.

The question is, who are you, as one out of many, and what will you offer of your strengths and your values? What do you understand about your role as a citizen? What do you still need to learn? With whom do you need to organize? When you fight to make sure that people won’t be silenced, how can you make sure that your own noise doesn’t drown out another’s individual voice? How will you take time to listen? How will you keep alive your vision of peace, at a time when all of us are mobilized by the wars waged against us? We didn’t ask to play games. We didn’t ask for a battle. And yet here we are. Our society is restless, and we have been called upon to rise to an occasion.

Tell me what democracy looks like?

My thoughts as I journaled this morning:

Who I am will always be in opposition to whom you want me to be. Nor will it matter how close to your ideal I may actually be.

The question is, can you still accept me? Are you willing to reconcile how you feel about who I am with your world views? Because only in that willingness can you truly begin to listen and to see.

Also want to pass this along: 10 Actions for the first 100 Days

What does it mean to be In Unison?

It is two days after Martin Luther King Day and two days before the 45th Presidential Inauguration.

We began the week by honoring the memory of a man who emerged from and spoke for the crowd, and who fell, though he spoke of hope. We will end the week by officiating a man chosen by the crowd, and who rises to power, in spite of or maybe because of a toxic campaign that we all fed into, regardless of which side we claim to represent.

What is the responsibility of the everyday person, to rise as an individual, who then represents many?

What is the role of the leader we elect, and the manner in which that leader exercises power and influence over us?

What is the role of the crowd?

The saying goes that united we stand, divided we fall.

And yet unity is not always what it seems. Unity can be used against us.

Lemmings will run off a cliff to their death together. And buffalo. And wildebeest. And the same act of flocking together makes sheep and cattle easy to control and turns birds into marks for hunters and their guns. Wolf packs run together so they can be better killers. United, wolves can kill, and someone from some herd will definitely fall.

Divided, we are guaranteed to fall.

But let’s not kid ourselves. United, we may still fall. For the truth about our unions is that they often inherently require exclusion to make them work, or at least to make them easy for people to understand and latch onto.

Researching different birds’ flight formations.

So the question is, are your words, principles, and beliefs worth the risk of falling? Are the people you stand with worth falling for? Are you truly in control of your actions and reactions, regardless of how well intended your beliefs may be?

Can you be effective? Do you want to be effective? Or are you just running with the crowd?

How can you be sure that when you rally with others, that you will rise with your fellow people? How can you be sure that the cause you stand for should be uplifted at all? Whether you stand with a Pro-Life or Pro-Choice campaign, whether you spread the word of your God, whether you fight for the credibility of science, whether you fight for a free market, whether you fight for the underserved, whether you stand in formation with fellow troops on a battlefield, whether you carry signs alongside fellow protestors, your unity for any cause decidedly makes you somebody else’s opposition. The fact that you have to rally–have to protest–have to march–means that you are standing for one thing and against something else. Even if you stand for peace, you have already been indoctrinated as a soldier. You are playing by the laws of war. The feeling that your presence is needed here is a sign that your battle is not yet won.

So what do you stand for? And is it as simple as you think it is, or feel it ought to be?

Art Residency at the Madison Bubbler

When I first learned that Wisconsinites called water fountains “bubblers” I laughed and thought it was ridiculous.

Now, after more than six years of living in Wisconsin, I’ll be the artist-in-residence in the Bubbler program at Madison’s Central Public Library, and that whimsical, little word will be on my C.V. until the end of time, because the Internet forgets nothing. This is why you shouldn’t make fun of people’s colloquialisms.

In all seriousness, though, I’m super excited for this! I just finished moving into my new studio at the library. For the next two months, this glorious workspace will be mine to imagine and create in.

Installing some of my former projects. You can find woodblock displays and fabric fishes throughout the library these next couple months.

So what will I be making?

I’ll be creating an installation of larger-than-life migratory birds made of reclaimed fabric, that will be taking flight from the ceiling of the children’s library. The title of the project is In Unison, a tribute to how birds fly in flocks so that they might take turns leading and riding one another’s air currents, and also the necessary role that settling and migrating both play in our lives.

The reclaimed clothing is important, too. The textile and fast fashion industry have created  more clothing than our culture can possibly consume, and with that a negative, self-feeding cycle of waste, shopping addiction and misplaced “goodwill” when we donate our old clothes to countries that don’t want them either. Much of this clothing is poorly made and consists of polyester, which can’t be broken down or recycled. So part of the function of this project is to take back some of this clothing into a new “ecosystem,” one that binds diverse, discarded fabrics together into new beings that beckon us not to vilify the flaws of our past design but to instead look up in wonder. And when we dream better, we can then do better.

So how can you help?

I need clothing and fabric!! We have collection bins throughout the library for you to drop off your wares. If you’re not in Madison but want to contribute, I’m happy to take a shipment. In February, I’ll also be asking people to come help with sewing, so if you or someone you know might be interested, come/send them my way.

Want to learn more?

You can read more about my project on the Bubbler’s website and also listen to my interview with WORT 89.9 FM below.

**I’m currently accepting clothing/fabric donations at the library (as well as by mail if anyone lives far away but still wants to contribute).

The benefits of keeping a journal: paper time machines and thoughts from the soul

I keep a hand-written journal, to log the often boring, redundant, silly, serious, terrible, hopeful, vulnerable thoughts that I have. My current journal is handmade and has a sister that I gave to one of my best friends back in 2009. Since she and I have never gotten to see each other much, I decided to make us these “sister” journals to exchange every time we met up. The journals have sections divided by envelopes to hold whatever each of us found that we wanted to share with the other.

The first three sections of this journal are her entries, interleaved with some of my own. But it’s been a long time since we’ve even been in the same country. When I filled up my last journal in 2015, I finally turned to this one to complete the last seven sections as mine.

There are still a few pages left in it for 2017, and typed below is my first entry over breakfast this morning. I felt it was worth sharing.

Important Lessons / Thoughts from the Soul

  • People are their most attractive, most magnetic, most impressive selves when they are doing what they love.
  • The idealistic man is rarely also the ideal man himself.
  • What we hate in others is often what we hate in ourselves.
  • What we fear in others is often what we fear in ourselves.
  • What we hope for in others is often what we hope for in ourselves.
  • Opposites are not the same as differences.
  • Interesting interests do not make an interesting person.
  • It is good to believe in your ideals if you can also learn to use them to guide your pragmatism. Professing your love for an ideal and then flagellating yourself and others with it is destructive to yourself and a destruction of/disservice to that ideal.
  • Judgment can be good. Judgmentalness is never good.
  • Announce your values. Be your brand. Campaign. Market. Protest. Or call whatever it is you do how you need to call it. Just be mindful that you don’t become the caricature in place of your complexities.
  • (And this one’s not mine, but) living well is the best revenge. (Thanks, George Herbert.)
  • People can be so certain about their uncertainties of others, and yet be so ambivalent about the things which could otherwise be guaranteed.
  • This society disadvantages and advantages extroverts and introverts in different ways. Society celebrates the extroverts and binds them up in social nets disguised as social networks. Society ignores the introverts, perceives them as boring or not leader-like, and they then get to quietly produce results in the background (of a world full of increasingly hotter air) while living out a peaceful life. I envy introverts, but man, do I (usually) love being an extrovert.
2010 entry.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Love: A Theory & Meditation on Love

Is the trouble with love anything like the prisoner’s dilemma? There is (ideally) no middleman in the game of love to corrupt us or pit us against each other. There’s only us.

And yet…

Because you know how easily I could leave or change my heart, you withhold the part of you I need to feel confident that you love me.

Because I know how easily you could leave or change your heart, I withhold the part of me you need to fall in love with me.

Love takes a certain amount of compromise, a willingness to stop looking for something else, an agreement to stop questioning what we could have with someone else, to work through our imperfections together. Each of us has the option to walk away, and the “prize” of walking away first is a preservation of ego and the cold comfort of not having to deal with the pain of finding out, “Who loved whom more? Who didn’t want the other one enough?” We could also both walk away and both lose. The individual fear that we could both have more than this keeps us from cooperating. The collective fear is that cooperation, while mutually beneficial, doesn’t get us “high” and is potentially not very romantic.

But it’s worth repeating: being idealistic is not the same as living the ideal. So don’t let your ideals and your pragmatism become a false dichotomy. Don’t let your fears make you doubt or sabotage your emotional bravery.

My Paper Time Machine

A few pages I flipped back to that seemed interesting.

2010. Me: some strange rambling. Her: “Hope. You can’t stop.”
2009. Her: “Lonely! 31 July, I have no idea when I wrote this or why I was so lonely. I puzzle myself.”
Me (in response): “Even angry fish has friends. Don’t be lonely.”
My entries on the two days before the presidential election. If I only knew then…

I have three pages left to fill before starting a new journal for 2017. At the end of the journal I found this entry from my friend. What a nice surprise. Where in the world are you, hon? Regardless, thanks for the note.

A love letter from 2010. It’s taken over six years to “find” it again. It was a nice thing to read at the start of 2017.

“Only a fool trips on what’s behind him”

“Only a fool trips on what’s behind him.”

I had a thrilling, amazing, tumultuous, nerve-wracking, at times unpredictable, unforgettable, educational, creative, and fulfilling 2016. Full of growing pains and gains, a few ugly cries, a lot of swearing, and a lot of laughter.

I celebrated two years outside of the “corporate world” and of working independently, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I’ve gotten to work as a creative in so many different capacities for the causes I care about. About halfway through the year, I wondered if I should quit. I had turned down contracts for projects that might have paid well but that I didn’t believe in, and this made me anxious. I wondered if I could handle the unpredictability of a creative entrepreneurship, and even if I could handle it, if it were worth pursuing. I found myself feeling lonely working as a freelancer. I found myself wondering if I were still on track to hit “life milestones.”

The main thing that made me stick to this path was the terrible gut feeling that if I quit, I’d always wonder if I threw in the towel too soon. Sure enough, through the loneliness, I found other freelancers, independents, and remote workers who felt the same way, and so we became “coworkers.” Sure enough, any time I wasn’t sure what the next contract would be, an opportunity would appear. As of July, I’ve even turned a small profit in my art business. I’ve built momentum and am now gearing up for some new, exciting creative projects in 2017. The hard work is paying off.

It’s been an intense and saturated year, nationally and globally, but perhaps because of that it’s all the more so a chance for each of us to grow personally. To question deeply. To act wholeheartedly. There’s a lot to think about and a lot to do. I hope that goes for many of you, too.

Here’s a recap of my 2016. And here’s to kickin’ ass in 2017, y’all.

7 art shows, including my solo show, “Our Relationship with Power,” at Arts + Literature Laboratory.
4 talks/presentations at ALL, DreamBank, Ignite Madison, and TEDx Madison, among several other cool guest demonstrations/workshops/events I got to contribute towards.
First big mural project: Migration Story, with Artists Working in Education, artist Gabriela Riveros, and the students of Escuela Verde. Goal to do my first mural is complete, now for the next ones in 2017. ;)
Helped Thomas Ferrella harvest and install the willow for this incredible project, ECO EPHEMERAL, on UW-Milwaukee’s campus.
Thomas Ferrella’s project at night. Read a review of his project in the Journal Sentinel.
Another successful Maker Faire / Steamroller block printing event, September 2016.
Another successful Maker Faire / Steamroller block printing event, September 2016.
Our trusty steamroller for September 2016.
Standing with Veronica Lazo, the director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Abuse in Madison, WI, at the 80th Anniversary Planned Parenthood Fundraising Event. I got to be a project manager on the amazing team that made this event happen. October 14, 2016.
Giving my talk at TEDx Madison, October 29, 2016. The theme of the event was Think Deeper, and my talk was called, “The Power and Purpose of Creativity.” The video will be released in early 2017.
With fellow TEDx speakers and organizers. Amazing, impressive, inspirational group of people to get to work alongside.
Finished my new series, Las Pioneras (The Pioneers), after I collected stories on immigration from survivors of domestic abuse at UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence. Read a review of the work in Madison365.
Served on two nonprofit boards and joined the From Here to Her Collective to put on the show, Mothers of Our Nations. The show honored women who have been the leaders of our most critical social movements in the past year, from #NoDaPL to our local/regional movements in Wisconsin.
With my three pieces for the Mothers of Our Nations show. These three will be donated to UNIDOS, for their office and organization that have become the home and support system for so many community members.
“In Security,” ink on paper. The piece calls into question what it means when our security depends on the destruction of others. It’s one of my new drawings in the series, Las Pioneras (The Pioneers).

Further Personal Growth

Persepolis - by Marjane Satrapi
I read 18 books, for a total of 5884 pages. Including this gem, Persepolis. by Marjane Satrapi. Sadly, my reading habit faltered midway through the year, and I fell short of my 10,000 page goal as I immersed in political articles/research and became oversaturated with information. I went from reading 3 books a month down to 2 and 1 towards the end of the year.
I track what I read in a Google spreadsheet, and number of words aside, I decided to add a couple other things about the books I was reading towards the end of the year. I was alarmed to learn that my reading queue at the start of 2016 had a near 50/50 split of male and female authors. By the end of the year, 80% of the books I read were by men. So what the hell happened?!? I realized that I joined a couple book clubs earlier in the year, which were reading books by men, that pushed out my original queue. I’m also always taking book recommendations from friends, and turns out….people usually recommend books by men. I read some “top-reviewed” business and historical books this year, which were, surprise, surprise, by men.
So this is how things work out so far on my book list for 2017. I’m going to have to be a lot more diligent about which books stay and which ones go as the reading list changes over the year. I plan on writing a more comprehensive post on what I’m reading soon (and why).
Camping and canoeing with these goofballs at Apostle Islands. Because summer people, and some are not.
In Door County, WI, just one of many weekend escapades of 2016. I baked a lot of pies and other goodies.
*Finally* had the patience to grow out my hair and chop it off for Locks of Love. 13 inches gone.
Speaking of hair, I participated in Movember for the first time. Here’s how I did.
Celebrated two years of being out of “corporate life” by treating myself to a vacation. I visited Washington, DC, for the first time.
The Gettysburg Address. Still relevant today. Though I don’t think any city in the US has as many quotes all over its walls as Washington, DC.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Maya Lin, in the sunset with Lincoln Memorial in the backdrop. I’ve always loved the backstory of this memorial and am so glad to have finally gotten to see it in person.
Holidays with friends and ZooLights twice, from Washington, DC, to Madison, WI.
This is both a throwback and a projection. Several years ago, I made these crazy, fabric fish with removable organs and gill pockets. From January-February 2017, I’ll be the Artist-in-Residence at the Bubbler in Madison Central Library, making larger-than-life migratory birds. And I need fabric donations, y’all. Read more about the residency here. This is just one of three, exciting projects I’ll be starting in 2017. More news to come. :)

And some things will likely stay the same

Charlemagne and me. We’re growing older together, it seems.

**The cover photo for this post is from fall 2015, but let’s be real. It’s still the best photo of me taken to date, of when I went through the exposed electrical wire to cross the finish line at the Tough Mudder. It’s a good reminder that it’s better to trip on what’s in front of you than what’s behind. ;P

Today, we wear white

When I was a kid, my parents pounded into my head how lucky I am to have been born in the US. My mom, especially, emphasized how lucky as a girl I am to be here.

But this luck was never separate from the acknowledgment that good fortune can go to waste, and living in the US by itself does not make you equal. It does not free you from stereotypes, judgment, or ill will.

So what good, then, is our democracy?

We think that getting to vote means getting what we want, and we feel vigilantly offended when our choices don’t match our beliefs. But democracy is not about getting what we always want. Democracy inherently needs to protect the minority voice from being swallowed by majority rule. That’s what keeps us from becoming a dictatorship. Democracy inherently requires disagreement, and consensus even and especially when we disagree. And it requires us to be okay with not always getting what we want or believe. That’s how we ensure all voices are heard.

I admire people with strong beliefs. I have strong beliefs myself, and our beliefs solidify our identities. And what I admire even more than having a strong will, is being able to challenge and have others challenge your views. It’s being willing to know that you may be wrong. It is not overvaluing your opinion and ego over our collective wellbeing. It is being willing to challenge and let go of your own perfectionism, of your own wish for all other ideas to align with your own.

Studio progress shot from my new series, “Las Navigantes (The Navigators).”

I voted early, as soon as I knew I could. And my choice was easy, because I believe in a democracy that is not perfect, but that is ours to continually critique, challenge, and shape. I believe in a democracy in which women have only been able to vote since 1920, less than  100 years, but where women and men fought to make that happen. I believe in a democracy that passed the Voting Acts Right of 1965, to fight voter discrimination, even though voting had supposedly been open to all races since 1870. I believe in a democracy where interracial marriage has only been legal for 49 years, but where 49 years ago, people said, “We’re wrong. Let’s fix this.” I believe in a democracy that only one year ago made marriage equal regardless of sexual orientation, but where people again said, “We’re wrong,” and collectively made it happen, regardless of whether the fight was personal. I believe in a democracy where men identify as feminists even when many strong women do not. I believe in a democracy that has made so many of us entitled, because it’s culturally ingrained in us that we can fight for the changes we want, because we’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

I believe in a democracy that can say it’s wrong, not because it lacks confidence, but because it continues to believe it can be better.

I’ll swallow my own ego and say my parents were right about a lot of things. That this is not a place where I am always equal, that this is a place where it is often easier to leverage gender and race for tokenism than to genuinely appeal to people because you are strong, smart, and good in your own right. That this is a place that still measures diversity one dimensionally.

And, though I don’t have to swallow my pride on this one, I’m extraordinarily lucky to be here, so that I can be a part of this country’s growing pains and maturing process, which is often rife with conflict, but which has thus far continued to challenge itself to become more fair and collectively powerful.

And today, to honor all that we have fought for and won, I will wear white.


(And a little bit of gold and purple.)

In Pursuit of Purpose

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.

In these last couple months, I’ve been interviewing survivors of domestic abuse for an upcoming project. I’ve also had the chance to work with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin on their 80th anniversary event, a phenomenal show of solidarity that took place last Friday.

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.

Gloria Steinem Q&A at the 80th Anniversary event. She's a visionary.
Gloria Steinem Q&A at the 80th Anniversary event. She’s a visionary.

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.

Standing with a couple of the wonderful women I know in Wisconsin and artist Niki Johnson's sculpture, Hills and Valleys, which is made of deconstructed signs from the defunded Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin.
Standing with a couple of the wonderful women I know in Wisconsin and artist Niki Johnson’s sculpture, Hills and Valleys, which is made of deconstructed signs from the defunded Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin.

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.

With Veronica Lazo, the director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Abuse in Madison, WI. She's a force to be reckoned with.
With Veronica Lazo, the director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Abuse in Madison, WI. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Thank you for coming and volunteering at the 80th anniversary event!

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.

Our Stories Share the Same Roots: A Community Mural Project

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.

The Fool's Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you're a goofy city, and I love it.
The Fool’s Flotilla in Madison. Madison, you’re a goofy city, and I love it.

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.

It’s been a busy summer, work-wise. I’m excited to share one of the projects I’ve completed in the last couple months, my first mural, a collaborative, public project with the students of Escuela Verde, Artists Working in Education, and fellow artist Gabriela Riveros.

Students priming mural panels.
Students priming mural panels.

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.

Students’ brainstorm of the issues affecting our communities.

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.

The Superior Salt Building, at 35th and Pierce Street in Milwaukee.

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?

Tagging on the north side of the building.
Tagging on the north side of the building.

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.

Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.
Drawing by our student, Marisol, in our study of crops grown in Wisconsin.

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.

Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.
Different crops and migratory species of butterflies in Wisconsin.

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.

Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others' drawings already on the page.
Doodle wars. We did improv exercises to start off this workshop, ending with a doodle war, where students had to think quickly on their feet and create one-minute drawings in response to others’ drawings already on the page.
Painting day.
Painting day.

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.

Butterfly by one of our students. All of the buttery and crop imagery for the mural came from the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.
Butterfly by one of our students. All of the butterfly and crop imagery for the mural was drawn by the students. Gabi and I collaged them together, for the final composition.

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.

Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!
Community painting day. A big thank you to the volunteers from Urban Ecology Center and Young Scientists Club and our friends and neighbors who came and helped!

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.

Community painting day.
Community painting day.

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.

Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.
Cutting the ribbon at the opening celebration of our community mural on August 8, 2016.

What God Looks Like

My mother once told me the story of a cartoon she saw in a newspaper some years ago, which explained God.

In the cartoon, God is a faceless, featureless oval on a table. People come to see and give thanks for all that God has done. They see that God has nothing, no way to see or feel or hear or think. So out of gratitude, the first person gives God a mouth, the next a nose, the next ears, and finally, when God has all the qualities that people have, God dies.

Every once in a while, my mind drifts back to that cartoon whose message I learned secondhand, and the ways one can interpret it.

It implies the same things as the sayings, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” or “No good deed goes unpunished.” It bears the ideas of how we, as people, can often try to fulfill needs that don’t exist, offer unsolicited advice, promote solutions that worked for us but may not work for others, or in general do things that evidence how we need so badly to be needed. All of which I think reveals our generosity more so than our selfishness, is more exemplary of our desire to be valuable and useful than of our ignorance. We want to relate and we want to be relatable. We want to find ourselves in others. And so it is that we may also want to design God–or whatever our beliefs may be–in our own image, not purely out of egotism, but out of some sort of self-validation or even vindication.

Of course, other times, my thinking is a little less…philosophical. Like on this warm, summery day, while I was out for a run, I thought about romance, gender wars, and whether God is more manly or womanly. And I concluded that God must be a woman, because Moses found his faith and calling by tending to the wishes of a flaming bush.

It figures that one of the most powerful women in history who got shit done was a fiery, hot bitch. Chill girls and accommodating women seldom get what they want, or make history, for that matter.

To believe and not believe

I grew up in a non-religious family, though many of my extended family members and hometown community (Kansas, for the record, heart of the Midwest) were very religious. And for that reason, I grew up with both the chance and the motivation to choose, a la carte, the things that made sense for me. I grew up with more questions than set-in-stone facts, because anything and everything that a friend, neighbor, or relative might believe in could be challenged by what another friend, neighbor, or relative valued. I grew up without celebrating holidays, which pushed me to ask myself what I would want out of the kind of gatherings that others felt so obligated to be a part of.

We did not celebrate birthdays in my family, or pray, or “break bread” together, and so I think I came to hunger for the rituals and acts of gathering that happen around those things, but not for the fluff or the stuff. As a result, there are few things I cherish more in my adult life than a meal with friends. And few things sadden me so much as any kind of meet-up, where despite everyone being bright and interesting in their own right, the social energy is somehow amiss or misdirected, and the loneliness/guardedness in our advanced and blessed society is so obvious.

Anyhow, as someone who grew up surrounded by a lot of religion despite not having one, I was asked and therefore made to reflect on whether I believe in God. It’s safe to say that I am in many ways a ritualistic person, and that I’ve pursued a lot of unlikely dreams, which requires faith against the skepticism of the “known” world. My answer to believing in God has changed over the years, and for the majority of the time I’ve probably been agnostic. But I have since concluded that yes, I do believe in God. I believe in the way that I believe in money.

What I understand is this: money exists because people agree that it exists, and what we collectively believe in becomes the truth. Money–like so many of our creations–could be the great equalizer. It gives us an objective measure so we don’t have to question what part of our lives is worth four cattle or ten kilos of tomatoes. It’s part of the agreement of living in a collective, a society with rules and infrastructure. Enough of it buys us freedom and teaches us responsibility. Too much or too little both destroys freedom and incites blame. But when we add distance between ourselves and the true value of the things we exchange and consume–while developing an overly-emotional attachment to this thing called money that by itself means nothing–money becomes evil and we become lost.

Like money and all the things we try to organize ourselves around, I think God has the chance to be a great equalizer. I don’t believe God is capable of existing without people or the living. Even if God were an old, white man in the heavens in the most traditional, Western sense, there wouldn’t be much to lord over without us. Regardless of what or who God is, it’s important for us as people to have something to believe in, some purpose to serve and strive for. “I am who I am,” said God to Moses, because God is not a name but a representation of what we care about, a term around which we can organize our understanding of this connection whose feeling we know but cannot easily explain. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

“And did you have a better plan for freeing the Hebrews?” said God.
And so it is that we design God in our image. He is a man for all the men who have for generations carried the social pressures of wealth, war, and status, for the men who have not had the public’s permission to be weak. She is a woman for all the women who have been vessels for somebody else’s dreams, who still bears fruit, though we abuse Mother Nature and make a whore out of her for giving us the resources to fuel our vices. They is/are whomever we need to encourage us, to convince us that our aspirations are worthy of admiration that supersedes godly, and therefore humanly, judgment. God is our image of ideal leadership, a leader that does not exist without people to lead, a leader who looks like us, who is us. God is evidence that humankind does not want to be evil; just as people smile when their children take after them and hope they’ll become better versions of themselves, so, too, do people look to their origins, and hope to have inherited the best of their ancestors.

And so it is that we are responsible for creating God in the image of whom we would like to become. We are responsible for being just if we expect justice. We are responsible for choosing the qualities that we value in our leadership. We are responsible for our individual thinking, that fractals out into the design of our collective imagination. We are responsible for a creative and smart God who takes after us, because we take after Them. And we are responsible, too, for a God who embodies that which we lack, for the people we are not, but coexist with. For the people we are not, but wish to be. For the people we are not, but that our children may become.

An unexpected gift from my last visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison! This bonsai is my loveliest new studiomate. :)

Our Relationship with Power: Why It Matters & What We Can Learn

Did you miss my show at Arts + Literature Laboratory? Here’s a recap of why I chose to focus on power and a video of the story I told at the reception.

Jenie Gao | Our Relationship with Power, video by Midwest Story Lab

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.

Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao’s artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
"Beast of Prey," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Beast of Prey,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
"Beast of Prey" and "The Substance of Your Beauty," on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Beast of Prey” and “The Substance of Your Beauty,” on view at ALL.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Closeup of “The Substance of Your Beauty,” ink and watercolor drawing
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at ALL.
Pamphlets on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Jenie’s artist’s pamphlets on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
Jenie Gao's artwork at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
Gallery shot of Jenie’s show at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"Attention," woodcut by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“Attention,” woodcut by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"The Golden Cage," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“The Golden Cage,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
"The Golden Cage," by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
“The Golden Cage,” by Jenie Gao, on view at Arts + Literatury Laboratory.
View of the show from the smALL press library at Arts + Literatury Laboratory, Madison, WI.
View of the show from ALL’s conference room / smALL press library
"There Is No Such Thing As Me" (left) and "What We Repeatedly Say" (right)
“There Is No Such Thing As Me” (left) and “What We Repeatedly Say” (right)
"There Is No Such Thing As Me," ink drawing by Jenie Gao
“There Is No Such Thing As Me,” ink drawing by Jenie Gao
"What We Repeatedly Say," ink drawing by Jenie Gao
“What We Repeatedly Say,” ink drawing by Jenie Gao
"We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants," ink and watercolor
“We Write Our Autobiographies on the Shoulders of Giants,” ink and watercolor
"Counter Intuition," ink and watercolor"
“Counter Intuition,” ink and watercolor
Opening page of "The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
Opening page of “The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao
"The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao
"The Golden Cage," artist's book by Jenie Gao
“The Golden Cage,” artist’s book by Jenie Gao

Lessons of departure: the heart and mind of a rural town in a tourists’ economy

Lanesboro Arts Center is beautiful. The space is bright, open, welcoming, and full of activity. They regularly host artists and writers to use the space as a getaway to focus on projects, as well as workshops and seminars for the community. When the directors offered to show my work there, they also kindly took the time to make sure I would have a place to stay.

Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts
Jenie Gao at Lanesboro Arts

Having said that, as nice as the reception was, getting to spend time in Lanesboro itself was the real reward. Lanesboro is small, with a population of under 750 people. I stayed with a couple and their two Labrador retrievers in an old Victorian House, who spoiled me rotten, from the food to the stories to the history of their art collection to their library, which could keep me busy for eons.

The couple bought the house to renovate a year ago. They are among several people I met who are newcomers to the town, who all moved there for similar motivations. These are people who either changed jobs or shifted priorities after the economic crash in 2008, when they got laid off, when they realized that their jobs were not so secure, or when city life lost the glamor and glitz that initially drew them there. So they’re moving (back) to towns like Lanesboro, and inevitably invite the locals’ skepticism. It’s just like immigration/migration anywhere…zoom in on the tiniest communities, and it’s the same game as everywhere else, where the only thing that’s different is the scale. The long-term locals are hesitant of the rise of tourism and resulting, changing legislation needed to accommodate it. Lanesboro teems with tens of thousands of tourists in the summer who come for the trails, the river tubing, the respite. While some residents are at odds with this, the reality is that without tourism, small towns like this one are dying. It’s undeniable that those motivated to move to these towns are the ones who can…the ones who have jobs in Rochester or the twin cities, or the ones who can telecommute for their professions.

So these are the questions they face. What does it mean to fund things like education and the arts in rural towns? What responsibility do the new residents have, now that many of them head the committees that will guide the city’s economic growth? What does it mean to justify sustainability with economic needs?

It should come as no surprise that I believe access to the arts and humanities is vital, especially in either secluded or impoverished areas. In a society that measures success by the dollar, short-term thinking will tell us that these kids are better off learning a vocational trade, or focusing on math and science if they are to have any chance of pursuing higher learning. But in the long run, this is exactly what keeps society stratified and makes it harder and harder to achieve a balance in power. This is what makes it hard to have conversations on a local level about the social and political topics that affect us as a nation. Creativity and the humanities become the territory of the privileged class. Even then, in a world that is increasingly commercialized, the worth of creativity depends upon what it is useful for or how sellable it is. We risk losing out on how creativity can challenge us, and on its role in making us capable of being equal partners in a society that we’re all responsible for shaping. We risk losing out on how the arts can not only superficially entertain us, but give depth and richness to our lives.

Someone recently said to me, “I like reading because it helps me empathize with other people.” A mentor of mine recently also said, “I don’t make art because I need to prove anything. I make art because I’m alive.”

At a re-sale shop in Lanesboro

In perhaps a perfect parallel with my trip to Lanesboro for the art show, I just recently got accepted to do a public art project with a charter school in Milwaukee. I may have been the interviewee, but the moment that sold me happened while I was waiting for the interviewers. I struck up a conversation with the science teacher who said, “We take the class down by the river to learn about its role in the ecosystem as well as what it means economically for the city. But above that, we emphasize how the river is not only useful, but enjoyable, and that’s not something we should ever overlook.”

In another appropriate parallel, I was listening to an audiobook during my drive between Madison and Lanesboro. The book is called Excellent Sheep, which thankfully isn’t as campaign-y as the title seemed to be. I appreciated how comprehensive the book is. The author addresses the history of how our academic system evolved to reward success over learning, and how this affects people on every social tier. He addresses the social pressure for children with privilege to maintain status or jump through even tougher hoops. He addresses the pressures on underprivileged children who successfully break through their constraints to then maintain the same things that keep the class system alive. He addresses how often in our conversations about increasing diversity in academia and business, we over-focus on race and under-focus on socioeconomic status. If we truly believe in diversity and equal opportunity, then we need to be as diligent about what we do for poor, rural white areas as what we do to address urban areas, immigration, and affirmative action. That is how we begin to reach inclusiveness, rather than perpetuating a mutual ignorance that allows all of us to be leveraged across party lines.

The trouble I noticed in these rural areas is that even when the new residents who don’t have kids still want to fund public education and understand the necessity of it, there just aren’t enough kids or young people moving in who are starting families. It’s hard to bring challenging material to a small community when as few as four families per class have power over what they want the schools to teach. It’s also hard to bring challenging material to a town that depends on tourism to reinvigorate the economy.

Just walking through the house where I stayed sent a chill through me. It was beautiful and I felt spoiled and pampered by my hosts. I also felt sad at moments as I looked around at the space, understanding its history in the passive details. The house has two front entrances that lead to separate rooms, one for distinguished guests and one for…the not so genuinely welcome. The quality of the wood for the doors and trim changes when you move from the family’s to servants’ quarters. It’s uncomfortable to think of design as a thing that segregates rather than integrates. I find myself wondering what it means to preserve and restore history so that we might always learn from it, and yet at the same time not allow ourselves ever to forget it.

A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro
A sign in a re-sale shop in Lanesboro. So what does it mean to lead a beautiful life?

To my surprise, a couple I met in Madison now live in Lanesboro, to be close to family again and help with their family’s farm. They got burned out working at Epic Systems (a software company for healthcare in Madison) and moved back when the “grass on the other side” no longer seemed greener, thanks to windowless offices and high work pressures.

It could be the groups I end up hanging out with, but I almost feel like a stereotype now. I know more and more people who in spite of a bad job market are leaving their jobs. I know more and more people who quit their jobs when they get burnt out, some to travel, others to start their own businesses or to consult. I wonder what it means when at the same time, many people are unemployed, underemployed, in debt, and often extremely critical of those of us who have “taken a leap” from security and what, in many ways, reeks of privilege. I wonder what it means that the “winners” and “losers” in our society are so dissatisfied, and for the shared reason that our success has such a narrow definition. We live in a culture of veiled bribery with the way education is structured, and even those of us who seem to have gotten out become players in a very similar game. I listened to a consultant recently, who flies every week from Miami to Madison, talk about how happy he is to have the flexibility and freedom that consulting gives him…though he usually ends up in Wisconsin, and the work, at least to me, sounded like a drag. I listened to him and thought, “People have such different definitions of what freedom really is. And your ‘freedom’ doesn’t sound like the kind I’m looking for.”

I reflect on this “hunt” that I seem to be on, this unnamed hunger I can never be free of, this “a la carte” lifestyle and education that increasingly defines me or maybe has always defined me. I think about the artwork I’ll get to create outside soon and the students I’ll get to work with; that makes me happy. I think about the answers that don’t come quickly enough and the questions I can never ask enough of.

The students in my interview asked, “Why do you draw so many trees?” I’ve gotten asked that question a lot over the years, so I think by now I’ve got a decent answer.

“Because they’re always growing, even though we can’t perceive it, and they remind me to be patient about the changes I cannot see. Because they don’t need to move or be fast to make a difference. Because even though they can’t move themselves, they give me books and an education, which can take me anywhere. Because they give us air.”