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Art Chinese-American artist Kristen Liu-Wong on her mythological art

Sep. 26, 2019
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This piece is being published under Adolescent's collaboration with Sorjo Magazine, a publication centered on representing marginalized identities.

Kristen Liu-Wong is a 27-year-old Chinese-American artist currently based in Los Angeles, California. When you come across her illustrations, you’ll find yourself sucked into a story. Each vibrant piece features a myriad of topics—be it sex, magic, war, feminism, self-exploration, or mythological creatures. Sorjo chatted with Kristen on how she gets inspiration and being a Chinese-American artist.

Sorjo Magazine: When did you become interested in art?

Kristen Liu-Wong: My mom is an elementary art school teacher, so I guess my interest started at a young age. We would always go to free museum days and the library, and we were given art supplies and books whenever we complained about being bored. I was always the overachiever in my classes—I spent way too much time on my class dioramas and book report covers. I began to consider art more seriously in my junior year of high school, since I was starting to think about college. It was then that I realized that art was something in which I felt relatively confident, which art school would definitely challenge, haha. I applied to three schools: Pratt Institute was my long shot, California College of the Arts was my second choice, and then I had a back-up that was a state school. I actually got accepted to Pratt, and I decided to enroll in the Illustration program since some of my favorite living artists were illustrators.

Sorjo: Your art navigates sex positivity, radical femininity, sci-fi, and gore. What inspired that style?

Kristen: I never really “chose” the style I work in—it came through a lot of experimentation, copying the style of artists I admired, and learning about new things. When I first went to art school, I was making work that I hoped would prove to others I was good at art and I struggled quite a bit because I wasn’t wowing professors (which really upset me since I’m a perfectionist). I wasn’t even making work that I especially liked. Then I saw the documentary Beautiful Losers, and that really helped to open up my idea of what a modern-day working artist could be. I realized I needed to stop trying to prove myself and just start making work that I had fun doing. I’d like to think I’m still evolving and learning—I think work always develops as the person making it develops.

Sorjo: Each of your pieces displays a story, whether it’s a woman slashing a snake with a sword or someone simply pleasuring herself. How do you come up with these fantastical stories? 

Kristen: I majored in illustration and I’ve always loved to read, so I think I’m just naturally drawn to stories and I tend to express myself that way. When I’m making a new piece I sit and let myself think and look for awhile. Usually, some sort of image or emotion will jump out to me, and I’ll start to craft my piece around that—I decide what the figures and the general theme will be and then as the drawing develops, so does the narrative that it’s telling.

Sorjo: I’ve noticed that some of your work references Greek mythology. Why is that?

Kristen: As a kid, one of my favorite books that we owned was an illustrated children’s book of Greek mythology. I became greatly interested in ancient Greek and Roman culture; as I got older I read Homer, Sophocles, Ovid, Euripides, Virgil—I love all the drama! How can you not find stories with gods, goddesses, and mythological creatures interesting? But I also like that despite the fantasy and how far removed those stories are from my own time, they’re deeply human and relatable. There’s murder, war, love, magic, incest, cannibalism—it would be almost impossible to not be inspired by them after learning about them!

Sorjo: As Asian Americans, we’re expected to be pious and quiet. Your artwork really breaks century-old stereotypes about how Asian woman should behave. What do you want other Asian Americans to feel when seeing your work?

Kristen: Well, I still have serious doubts about whether what I spend all my time doing even matters, so I don’t know that it’s important that I make my art—I just hope it is. It would be great if other Asian Americans could see me doing what I’m doing and realize it’s totally possible to make a living off of art. Even if you don’t get to James Jean heights you can still make a decent living and work on cool projects and meet new and interesting people. And at least you won’t hate going to work every day. I hope other that other Asian girls will see that while traditionally we’re expected to be sweet and innocent all the time, we don’t have to be.

Sorjo: What artists, musicians, and writers have influenced your work?

Kristen: Artists—Man Ray, Grandma Moses, Tamara DeLempicka, Margaret Kilgallen, Barry Mcgee, Hokusai, Clare Rojas, Yayoi Kusama, Olafur Eliasson, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, James Jean, Jonas Wood, Kerry James Marshall, and Alex Pardee.

Musicians—Enya, Neutral Milk Hotel, Leonard Cohen, Spencer Krug, Pixies, Joanna Newsom, Yo-Yo Ma, Aimee Man, Bjork, Kate Bush.

Writers—Emile Zola, Mikhail Bulgakov, D. H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Honore De Balzac, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Sorjo: What advice do you have for artists that are struggling to find their own unique style?

Kristen: Keep your mind and your eyes open to everything—the world is an endlessly inspiring and interesting place if you let it. And while I do think that it’s obviously helpful to copy the work of artists you admire and that you can learn a lot by experimenting with their methods, you don’t want to fall into the trap of making work that is derivative. Make sure that what you’re making has your voice in it; there’s no point making work that someone else has already done and done better.