Two nights ago I sat in a restaurant alone and had an arugula salad with beets and goat cheese, lamb chops with mint chimichuri and chana masala, and an apple cheddar crumble for dessert and two glasses of red wine. This was my dinner to celebrate the life of my grandmother who passed away on Sunday; my private act of ancestral veneration to her.
She was my mother's mother, my Poh Poh. I say my mother’s mother because in Chinese culture, there are so many names to describe each member of one’s family. For example, my father’s mother is called Ah Mah, and his father is my Yeh Yeh. My mother’s father is called Gung Gung, and my aunt who is her sister, is Ah Yee. Their sons and daughters (my cousins who are older than me) are called Bui Goh, and Bui Jeh. The list of kinship goes on and on depending on who’s side of the family I am speaking about, and also their age in reference to mine. But I’m digressing. This entry is about my Poh Poh.
My Poh Poh was an exquisite cook. When I think of her, I can taste her delicious food: Ke Mah squares, Gok Jai croquettes, Churng Fun rice noodle rolls and sweet Dan San egg twists. During her visits to our house she would always bring one, if not all of these goodies. I remember that she laughed a lot, and sometimes tried to speak through her laughter, which would make me laugh even more. In her broken English, and my broken Cantonese we managed to understand each other. She also loved knitting. Every Christmas Poh Poh would knit her grandchildren sweater vests and cardigans and sometimes even small bells with glitter that we would pin onto our Christmas stockings. I never paid too much attention to these gifts as a child, and received them as any good grandchild would with a thank you, “Doh jeh,” and then would secretly hope for toys the next year.
I began knitting a few days ago. My choice to do so coincided with her passing. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision, but each time I held the needles and yarn in my hand, I would think of her. My grandmother is part of a group of strong women in my life who I had (and continue to have) the privilege of knowing: my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, my sister, my cousins, and some of my parents’ closest friends. Their strength is not the kind that is expressed in how much space they take up in this world, how much they’ve achieved, or how loudly they speak, rather it’s one that is connected to a person’s resilience and persistence to continue. These women are oftentimes overlooked not only because of the superficial stereotypes associated with Chinese women of being delicate and soft spoken, but also because their male counterparts were outwardly more authoritative. The lessons they taught me were embedded in daily tasks, ones that seem to have a diminished level of importance nowadays: the craft of cooking, cleaning, sewing and knitting. I spent much of my time with these women, with my Poh Poh, throughout various stages of my life sitting alongside of them learning through household rituals the importance of family, respect, hard work, forgiveness, and humility.
Several months ago I was commissioned by Penguin Books, India to illustrate a well very known story with a long historical meaning: the Kama Sutra written by Vatsyayana, and translated by A.N.D. Haksar. I knew immediately that this was something that I wanted do, although I didn't have a clue about its content other than it being a book about sex. As I began reading, I realized that the story was more than a sex manual, but rather a guide to living a virtuous life; there were sections in the book which were devoted to family life, arranged marriages, and the qualities of a rural gentleman.
The Kama Sutra has been done many times over, and so it was tricky for me to consider how to participate in this historical dialogue through my artwork. I did a lot of research, puling up images (especially from the past) of drawings and paintings of the Kama Sutra. Many of them showed couples, or more, having sex with their genitals exposed. Moreover, there was a kind of statue-like expression in these characters faces and gestures. I decided at that moment that I wanted for the figures that I drew to have more emotion, and to suggest that they were enjoying sex; for me sex can be playful, lustful, and even funny.
As I read through the book, I realized that much of it was rooted in metaphor, using plants, and animals analogously with sexual positions and the various roles that one might take-on while having sex. As a result, I decided that this would be my approach on how to illustrate the book, using these metaphors as a cohesvie tool to help communicate the concept of sex. Haksar's translation was incredibly poetic and I wanted to try my best to keep the spirit of it intact. As much as sex is about body contact, it's also about the mind, and so there was opportunity to try to come up with ways to suggest genitals and sex without showing "too much." It was also challenging to try to address gender roles in my images because I wanted all of the characters regardless of whether they were "top" or "bottom" to be sexually empowered. I allowed the text to inform my decision of who was on top. One such illustration is about the best spots to kiss. The Kama Sutra describes areas on the body such as the hair, cheeks and eyes and thighs that pertain to a woman's body. To me, this suggested that the woman was the recipient of this kiss.
Fortunately I had the privilege to work with an opened-minded and talented art director who in turn had the freedom to allow and trust me to explore illustrating this book. We knew that we wanted 50 images to appear within the Kama Sutra and for them to be presented in a contemporary way. It was important that I kept the images lush, and colouful, and to encourage the veiwer to respond firstly to the superficial qualities of the picture and then notice the narrative, or concept afterwards. Sex for me is about participation, the lead to one's climax, and being in control of one's body - for it to be satisfying means that it needs to appeal to all parties involved, and so with this book I made sure to consider the way in which the viewer might read, or participate with the images. I was very conscious about how the drawings related to each other, and how they related to the edges and gutter of this book. The illustration entitled, "A Woman's Itch" above is a good example of this. I was inspired by an image that Istvan Banyai did for Playboy years ago, which showed a zoomed in composition of a woman thumbing through the pages of a book that lay on her lap. For me, this was the epitome of an erotic drawing, because although the viewer could not see the folds of the vagina, the way in which Istvan drew the pages suggested just that. I wanted my images to have sex with the viewer's mind, and to titillate him or her in a non-lascivious way.
I need to give some shout outs because this project took a lot of energy, and time. As much as I loved the process, and as much as this is one of my favourite projects in my career thus far, it was incredibly daunting also, and so I needed some help. Illustrating the Kama Sutra lasted for about 7 months from start to finish, and I was very fortunate to have received some help. Thanks so much to Johnny D, Isaac G, and David G for helping me meet my sketch deadline. They were The Saints that turned some of my chicken scrawled thumbnails into tighter drawings that the designer could read, and place into a layout, and then submit to his team and to the editor. Also, a huge thanks to Gavin Morris, art director at Penguin Books, India for allowing this to become a true collaboration, creating an creatively expressive design, and for our 6:00am calls to and from India. And finally thank you to Rymn, Carrie, and Stephanie (my agents) for hooking me up with such a spectacular opportunity.
I’m wondering if a person hits his or her Saturn Return in their late thirties? I’m wondering this because I feel a shift is happening in my life similar to one that happened during my late twenties. I’ve been feeling restless and questioning how I’ve been using my time, but more specifically I’ve started to (try to) quantify the decisions that I’ve made in my life. Of the tangible things that I own, and of the experiences that I’m connected to, how much is everything worth? And do I have to hold onto these things…or can I let them go? And if I choose to let them go... will I be happy?
Maybe this isn’t my Saturn Return.
Maybe it’s my mid life crisis.
Unfortunately I don’t know how to drive, and so I won’t be buying a new Corvette any time soon. But I’ve been feeling a bit unmotivated lately. I wonder if much of it had to do with recently purchasing an apartment. For anyone who has done so in New York City, it’s an incredibly daunting process filled with paperwork, and phone calls, and more paperwork. In the end you become distilled into numbers on a page; your financial data. It was an incredibly diminishing experience. So I wonder if I’m burnt out from the whole thing… or maybe my four months spent talking to banks and coop boards and real estate brokers have thrown my rhythm off? Either way, some new questions have arisen: Who am I?
And what do I want?
Last week, I was on my way to teach and stopped by a coffee shop that was nearby. I ordered something ordinary, and when I paid I noticed there were two tip jars marked “more money” and “more time”. I paused for a moment, and then decided to drop some money in the one marked “more time.”
I’m by no means old, but I also don’t think that I’m young either. Time isn’t running out, but time isn’t slowing down. The choices that I make moving forward have more of an impact than they did ten years ago. And so, the choices that I make nowadays are much more difficult because I feel that I have more to lose, and less time to regain my footing should there be some kind of misstep in my decision making process.
But time and time again, these questions keep coming up, Who am I?
And what do I want?
Here is a project that I worked on recently with Kevin Staniec at Black Hill Press. Kevin called me several months ago to ask if I would like to collaborate on a series of book covers for one of their series (of books). Black Hill Press is an independent publishing house dedicated to the novella - a distinctive, mid-length fiction. Part of the reason why I chose to collaborate was because of my own interest in writing; I've not been formally trained in the craft, and really my doing so, was for my own pleasure. Initially, I was intending to only post the final covers, but then decided midway through preparing the files to upload online, that I wanted to show some of the process as well. Much of my blog is devoted to the creative process that I experience in my studio, the psychological, emotional and critical challenges that I face through my art-making. However, this time I thought it would be interesting to share some of the lead-up sketches and preparatory drawings that I created up to, and including the final illustrations. Kevin and I spoke a good amount about each of the stories, and our dialogue helped shift and guide my approach to the covers. Although I did not read the novellas in their entirety, it was still important that each one of the images be endowed with its own "spirit," while still being connected to one another. As an Illustrator, I believe it's paramount to be aware of those qualities about one's work that makes it special and stand out from his/her peers. In my case, I know that colour, a graphic composition, and creating patterns through the repetition of shapes and objects have become my visual communicators. The challenge then, was how tolet go enough and to brainstorm in way that would make the images convey a kind of genuine feeling, rather than seeming as though they were formulaically constructed based on the conversations that Kevin and I had about each cover, as well as the judgements that I had about my own work. When I begin a project, I go into a kind of free fall, (thumbnail) sketching every idea onto the page, while still being very aware of what I am visually trying to communicate - yeah, I'm free-falling but I still keep an eye out for where I'm supposed to land. It's a conceptual purge in a way, and for me, speed is important, so is rhythm, and so I have to use a tool such as a marker to draw at this stage. This method gives a heavy nod to automatic drawing, ala the Surrealists, not necessarily having one's subconscious inform the marks that one makes, but rather allowing oneself to freely draw without judging or editing oneself. Eventually, I have to trust myself enough to know that even though it may seem like a struggle moving towards the final destination, I understand that as I continue to draw, I will eventually arrive to the right place.