Artist-in-Residence Felicia Liang: Finding Inspiration Wherever She Is
Chances are if you grew up in a Chinese household, you’re familiar with pei pa gao, a honey loquat cough syrup. Whether you found it delightful or gag-inducing, the taste probably brings back, madeleine-like, a flood of memories about childhood, family, culture, and identity.
The illustrations and stories in Felicia Liang’s delightful and moving book, #100DAYSIANS: A 100 Day Project about Growing Up Asian American, are equally rife with meaning, from weird lunches to superstitions to discrimination and activism. We had the chance to speak to our latest artist-in-residence about identity, what she finds inspiring, and her art as activism.
What inspired you to start the #100DAYSIANS project?
What inspired initially me was an illustration class at SVA [School of Visual Arts]. My first couple of ideas were related to food, but those quickly stemmed into something broader — my Asian American identity, an idea that had been brewing in my mind.
That in combination with lack of Asian American representation in the media and talking to my friends about it — that’s how #100DAYSIANS came to mind. And I decided to combine it with the 100 Day Project because I wanted to get in the habit of drawing every day.
Also, I personally never had a sense of pride in the Asian sense of my identity, so I wanted to use art as a way to start exploring, understanding, and appreciating that side of my heritage. Appreciation I never had before.
Where did you grew up? How do you think that influenced your sense of identity?
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in the East Bay. Race was never something anyone talked about. I just didn’t think much about it.
The East Bay! I think of the Bay Area as having a very large Asian American population.
In some pockets for sure. In parts of the South Bay, like San Jose, you’ll definitely have a much larger Asian American population.
With my book, I started to come more to terms with my racial identity. Some friends said, “Oh you’re only now catching up.” [Laughs] Because of the environment I grew up in, I never thought much of it.
And you went to Berkeley for college?
That’s right. That was about 40% Asian. It was a little bit of a culture shock for me. It was great seeing that diversity and going to school where differences are celebrated. I definitely came out of my shell in college, but I still didn’t think much about myself in terms of my racial identity. There were a lot of Asian American groups, but I still felt like an outcast having grown up as one of the few token Asians in a white neighborhood. I kept thinking those Asian groups wouldn’t accept me although of course that wasn’t true.
Did things change for you after you moved to New York?
After I came to New York, I was working a lot, and I think as a result, I started losing a sense of myself. I turned to art, and this art project forced me to come to terms with my identity and heritage, which helped me develop a stronger sense of of self.
How do you balance pursuing your art and holding a day job? Is there any crossover between the two?
I’m currently a product manager for an advertising firm, and I find that and being an artist do have some similarities. Both roles require a lot of iteration, whether you’re building features for an app or doing sketches.
In terms of balancing my day job and my art, it is an challenge. Ideally I’d love my “side” project to not just be a side project. I’m willing to put in the time and dedication into my art, but there is some uncertainty. What will it amount to? I can put in the time and effort, but will people like it?
Have you always been interesting in drawing and art?
Yes, ever since I was kid. My parents saved all my doodles. [Laughs.] And I took classes through middle school and high school. But I always thought of it as a hobby. I never thought it could be something more than just fun.
It was in 2015 that I started drawing more regularly. I did it initially to take my mind off work and to exercise that part of my mind I haven’t used in so long. I found it to be very therapeutic so I made it into a habit to keep me sane during crazy work hours.
I also love viewing and absorbing works from other artists, often by going to museums. I went to London in 2009 and Italy in 2014. I had a tough time both those years, and going to museums there was an escape for me. They were healing places for me.
How do your parents feel about your art?
In regards to #100daysians, my interest in Asian and Asian American culture is of interest to them. I can ask my mom questions. It’s interesting to get her standpoint.
Honestly I don’t know how my parents would feel about my doing art full-time. My mom just views it as a hobby. I’ve told her I want it to be more than that, but I don’t think she understands. My dad might have a better understanding. He had always thought about being a musician. He'll sometimes send me links about other Asian American artists, which I think is his way of supporting me.
Immigrant parents come to here to start a new life. Being an artist or creative isn’t something they thought about. It wasn’t an option. But we’re both growing together, learning together that art could be a viable career and that it could be something more.
What do you see yourself doing ideally?
I'd like to be doing different illustration projects, whether for books and magazines, around food, for chefs in New York, about travel and for travel guides. I love having stories to tell and illustrating them.
In this political climate, I also see my art as a means of activism. I’ve started exploring that, and would love for my art to make a positive social impact as well.
I love your chapter on superstitions. Did you ever believe them? Do you follow any of those rituals?
My parents weren’t really superstitious so I never was either. They believed in certain things though. I remember coming back from a school trip to find my entire bedroom rearranged. My bed faced the door, which basically equals death. My mom said, “It’s just going to be better for you.” She tried to explain what feng shui was, but I didn't think much of it.
But I think as we age, we maybe become more superstitious and start believing in certain things.
What or who inspires you? What’s your attitude toward inspiration? Do you wait for it or seek it out?
I think I look for inspiration wherever I am, and see how I can represent it on paper, whether it's through friends, museums, food, or travel. Sometimes a friend will say something funny and I’ll just illustrate it. Sometimes you have that aha moment, but I don’t want to just wait for that moment, so I like to try to create my own.
I also get inspiration through conversation with other artists and seeing their work as well. Instagram is a great source of inspiration. But at the same time, sometimes you can’t help but start comparing yourself and thinking, I’m never going to be good enough. So I try not to get too tapped into that world.
Do you have any particular routine?
I have hot water or matcha with me when I’m drawing or doodling something. I usually have music on or stream some show as background noise. Lately, I’ve been listening to my college study music for some reason, so The Decemberists, The Killers, and Interpol to name a few.
I also like to quickly write out the story I want to tell before I start illustrating, which helps set the stage for my drawing.
What advice would you have for Asian Americans interested in pursuing art?
I think if it’s something you enjoy doing, just go for it, even if it’s just starting out with something small. It’s not fun to think back on your life and wonder, “What if?”
I think it’s helpful to meet other people who have done it, and to know that you don’t necessarily need a BFA or MFA, and with social media now, there are so many ways to create your own work and following. It’s also helpful to find a community of like-minded people, since pursuing something creative on your own can sometimes be isolating. I’ve connected with other Asian American artists with similar backgrounds and we have many shared experiences and struggles as we pursue art.
As Asian Americans, our parents don’t really encourage us to pursue something creative. A lot of us fight against doing art. We fight against our parents. They might wonder how you’ll financially support yourself and think it’s a risky career. It’s still an ongoing thing with my parents. There are so many great opportunities out there and it's just a matter of understanding the right ways to go about it while still being able to support yourself.
I grew up with an intense focus on education. From that I picked up a really good work ethic that has carried through with how I approach building my portfolio. I work on my art as much as I can every day, every week. I think if I didn’t have that rigor with my education, I wouldn’t be as disciplined with it.
What’s been inspiring you lately in terms of media, art, literature, culture, etc.?
A TV show I’ve been telling people to watch is Orphan Black. I’m obsessed with it. I love shows with strong female characters. The same actress plays 11 different characters, all clones of each other, but each with distinct personalities, and it’s just a well-written thriller.
In terms of books, I just finished reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The narrator is a Vietnamese double agent, who comes to the U.S. both for school and as a refugee after the fall of Saigon.
It deals a lot with his identity issues, having grown up in Vietnam, but adopting many Western habits as a Communist spy and refugee in Los Angeles. Last year I read The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, another unique book I’d recommend.
A friend recommended The War of Art to me. It’s about being in a creative battle, how you push through, and what people can do to overcome their own resistance.
#100DAYSIANS is on display in our mezzanine gallery from August 12 through September 24. To see more of Felicia's work, follow her on Instagram.
(Interview conducted by Angela Tung)