Interview with Jolene Lai for “A Beautiful Haunting”

Thinkspace is pleased to present A Beautiful Haunting featuring new works by Los Angeles-based artist Jolene Lai. Her oil-based, mixed media works involve bold use of color, shape and intricate detail. She creates images with a seductive aesthetic and subject matter that weaves in emotions of whimsy, melancholy, irony, and absurdity.

In anticipation of A Beautiful Haunting, our interview with Jolene Lai discusses the creative process, hamster races, and the role of artists in society.

SH: For those that are not familiar with you and your work, can you give us a brief look at your artistic background and zodiac sign? 

JL: I thought it was kind of cool finding out for the first time, that my horoscope is one that is half man half horse. As a kid, I really enjoyed the various characters from Greek mythology and the centaur was always one of my favorite. The only little setback of being a Sagittarian and growing up in Singapore was that school vacation always begins mid-November till New Year’s. Which meant I spent the majority of the year celebrating most of my classmates’ birthdays and when it came to mine, I was always solo. 
As a child, I had thought about wanting to be a scientist, zookeeper or an illustrator whenever someone asked: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. I probably spent more time doodling in my textbooks than paying attention to the knowledge they were imparting, and when at 12, a classmate offered to buy a drawing I made, that gave me some validation and confidence that I was actually pretty good with my color pencils.
I’ve since moved on to oil colors, but once in awhile revisit and play with color pencils. The pursuit of my creative career came and is still met with a lot of uncertainties and challenges, but it always gives me much joy when I am able to share little stories through my artwork with folks out there.
I lived in Singapore for most parts of my life until I moved to the United States and have been residing in Los Angeles for about thirteen years now. 
(And no, I didn’t end up selling that drawing to my classmate.)

SH: Is there a particular piece in this exhibition you feel really challenged you? If so, why and what makes you proud of this piece.

JL: Has to be the painting titled ‘SD’. I had been watching several Bob Ross episodes on Netflix and was in awe of the way he approached his works with flexibility and spontaneity. I was truly inspired and thought I would give it a try and attempt painting with less control. It turned out harder than I had anticipated. 

Every brush stroke you see in the background of ‘SD’ was individually painted, and while it felt like I had total freedom over where and how to layer them, it was extremely tedious work and very un-Bob-Ross like. I took a lot of breaks from this particular piece and worked on other paintings just to ‘refresh’ my mind. I was actually uncertain if I would be able to accomplish the result I had envisioned in my mind, but upon completion, was taken aback by all the overlaying of webbed intricacies I had created with this new technique.

SH: Where do you source inspiration? Do you jot inspiration down in a notebook or on your phone?

JL: I have to say I rely on my phone a fair bit for note jotting and image capturing. I particularly lean towards photo-documenting my surroundings in the evenings because I like the contrast of light and darkness and the enigma that accompanies the way shadows form and seemingly appear to consume chunks out of various structures and objects. 

Sometimes, vivid dreams or nightmares (that always present themselves in chromatic colors) that jostle me from my sleep spurs me to record quick notes on my phone, and occasionally, I tell them through my brushes and canvases.    

SH: Who are some of your favorite artists in the scene, or in a different medium altogether?

JL: Femke Hiemstra, Peter Ferguson – So much whimsy and narrative in every piece they have created. I love artworks that transport me to a plane of reverie.

SH: A Netflix movie is being made about your life, who would be cast to play you and what kind of movie would it be? Try to describe it with similar movies.

JL: The 90s version of Lisa Simpson that I grew up watching. She was my favorite character from the Simpsons. I was drawn to her tendencies of expressing her melancholy through the saxophone and that she hang out with cool cats like “Bleeding Gums” Murphy. ‘The Simpsons Sing the Blues’ album was one of the first few cassette tapes I owned, and the piece ‘God Bless the Child’ performed by Lisa and featuring Murphy quickly became the song I would repeatedly play. 

The exposure to pop music culture was readily abundant in my country when I was growing up, and I would only later learn that the song I had loved as a child was originally by Billie Holiday and that I had always had more appreciation for jazz and soul.

I think what made this Simpson stood out for me is how this middle child misfit from a rather dysfunctional family didn’t portray the regular girl that conforms to the common societal norms of how a girl should be. I loved the complex mix of eloquence, creativity, audacity and idealistic personalities that made her, a character I feel I can relate to even today.

I liken the idea of an animated short of my life, hand-drawn in the style of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’, and a storyline that is accompanied with suspense and psychological horror that ‘Twilight Zone’ so often offers.

SH: What is the best technical advice you’ve received in regards to painting / being an artist? What is the best philosophical advice you’ve received?

JL: I remember in art school where we did figure painting exercises, and at the end of it had to complete an oil painting within limited sessions with the model. I was a newbie at oils and figure painting, and while I had no issues sketching out the form, I had no clue as to where or how to begin filling in the blanks with oil colors. I must have looked lost because my lecturer came by and said ‘just do it and try not to ponder so much’. 

I ended up taking his advice and stopped worrying about making sure the colors on my palette had to match the actual skin tones of the model. I allowed myself to have fun and to take the opportunity to experiment with colors. The final outcome was a figurative painting that was dynamic in color. I think that event somewhat shaped my tendencies with color selections which is still prevalent in my work today.

I think about what my mentor said that day from time to time, and it especially echoes in my mind whenever I find myself trapped in a situation where I have too much self doubts that they start hindering progress. Take a step even when you are uncertain if it is a right or wrong move. It is better than remaining stationary and never ever finding out what could have been.

SH: Are you a podcast, tv/ movie streaming service, or music in the background type of painter? What were you listening to during the development of this show that you would recommend to others?

JL: I have dabbled in all. PBS when I am craving some Frontline documentaries and This American Life for interesting shorts. Music strangely when I am feeling overwhelmed or depressed. But for the most parts, have to say I use YouTube on a daily basis. I had a phase where I was watching/listening to various TED talks while I was painting. I was going through some rough times and some of the episodes helped me achieved some solace and clarity.

SH: What is the coolest or most exciting thing to happen to you thus far in life and is it because of or connected to your work?

JL: I think I am still waiting for it. But at the top of my head recall that time when I was living in West Hollywood and watched for the first time ‘Scent of a Woman’ starring Al Pacino. I was so intrigued by the main character’s intensity (Frank Slade played by Pacino) and equally amused by his constant “Hoo-ahs!” throughout the film. 

On the same day after watching the movie, I had gone to a nearby Petco (I enjoy strolling aimlessly in pet stores, looking at products and little animals I don’t need. I am quirky like that) and was browsing down the aisles when the sales assistant announced over the PA that the hamster ball derby was about to begin. So I made my way to the back of the store where the race was being held. There were several giggling kids holding their individual hamsters in their colored plastic balls, and all riled up for the competition. All the adults had formed a circle around the racing station, so I followed suit and stood next to a guy who looked suavely rugged with his uncombed mane, and black leather jacket. 

In that little back corner of Petco, the air was strangely tingling with tense excitement which definitely wasn’t coming from the children’s anticipations. It took me a brief moment to understand it was the surrounding adults who were channeling it (you could see it on their faces, and their shoulders), and then realized that the gentleman I was standing next to was Al Pacino. I was within such close proximity that I could have nudged him on his shoulders with my finger and exclaimed ‘Hoo-ah’! to his face. 

I was extremely relieved I didn’t act on my impulses and left the store well composed when the race ended.

SH: What do you think the role of artists is in society? How does other artwork inform how you move through life?

JL: Through the works they are making, provide some form of catharsis for the majority out there. I am not sure if any one artwork really dictates the journey of my life, but one of the early artist I was exposed to while in high school was Vincent van Gogh. I was captivated by the tragedies in his life, and maybe in an unhealthy manner, enjoyed the turbulent emotions of lonesomeness his paintings of electrifying colors exuded. The juxtaposition between his rich colors and the feelings of somber was particularly attractive, and I would see that alluring contrast eminent in Edward Hopper’s works, the next inspiring artist for me. 

Maybe their personalities quietly influenced me throughout the years without me even noticing. I can see how I similarly enjoy applying a composition of vivid colors and wistfulness when painting a story.

SH: What would a perfect day outside of the studio look like for you?

JL: Gloomy skies, light rain with a few distant thunder roars. I hate the sun.

SH: Fun Hypothetical: A world-renowned chef wants to make a dish inspired by your artwork and favorite food. What would be the dishes ingredients and what is it similar too?

JL: There is this pastry my dad often got for me that is called Kueh Lapis or popularly known as ‘nine layered steamed cake’. It is a traditional dessert made largely of rice flour, tapioca flour, and cornstarch, and comes in layers of colors like red, green and white. Each colored layer is ‘peel-able’, which is how a lot of children eat this fun and delicious sweet snack (I still enjoy eating it this way no matter how old I get). 

It would be interesting to see how a dessert professional can recreate this all-time favorite childhood pastry of mine with main ingredients like Fruit Loops, condense milk, canned lychee, and coconut cream.

Join us for the opening reception of “A Beautiful Haunting”
Saturday, September 14, 2019 from 6:00pm – 9:00pm

Jolene Lai’s “A Beautiful Haunting” Opens September 14th.

A Beautiful Haunting
Opening Reception: Saturday, September 14 from 6-9PM

“I especially enjoy exploring the neighborhood I live in during late hours. There is something enigmatic about seeing houses lit up, illuminated against the stark darkness that envelops them at this hour. It was on one of those sleepless nights that I was out exploring and capturing the beauty of the array of homes that came alive and lured me with their inviting lights, that I stumbled upon an unexplored street that was just around the corner. I remembered the air just beginning to build up a cloud of misty fog that was thick with the intense pungence of jasmine.

The seemingly long and unending street had no name. It was all at once foreign with rows of strange looking houses on either side, yet familiar because several of them I was certain existed on some other streets I had walked down before. There was even a bonsai tree I came across that was distinct in shape, and for which I was sure belonged to apartment 769 on Oak Street. The further I walked, the more surreal it became. It was as if someone had picked up the houses I have come to know and appreciate over time, and planted them between others that were alien to me.

The fog dissipated by the time I got to the end of the lonesome street. I proceeded to turn around the corner and left the street with no name, never once turning my head back. I was filled with a deep sense of comfort and relief as each and every shrub, tree and house I passed were once more familiar and in place again. I continued my night observations, but never did cross paths with that peculiar street again.

A Beautiful Haunting, is a new collection of artwork that is inspired by this extraordinary encounter from many years ago. I want to construct a plane where what is relatable and comforting to us, comes to merge with emotions of unfamiliarity and unsettlement. The collection largely draws influences from popular film culture and children fiction books that I have grown up watching, reading and have come to love. Naming a few that I have referenced are films such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the original TV series The Twilight Zone and novels like Adventures of the Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton. I particularly wanted to focus on extracting interesting key characters and elements from each story that many have come to recognize as household names, and challenge myself to reiterate them by misplacing them in urban landscapes and comfortable nooks that I have handpicked from actual documentations of my explorations of the neighborhoods I have visited.

The collection will consist of a body of sixteen oil paintings and intimate drawings, as well as a large scale paper installation, and is an invitation to everyone from all walks of life that appreciates the little discoveries of something peculiar in the normal ordinary everyday.” – Jolene Lai

Am I dreaming, walking in my sleep
I just can’t drop this feeling underneath my feet
These London streets are moving, rising up and meeting me
You know I see our faces eyes.
I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating
 Daily life feels  like a constant dream
I keep on tripping out, eyy, why am I such a freak?
I don’t know why that painting’s staring back at me
I swear, I think its eyes just moved.
I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating 
Baby, I’m scared to drink the water, baby, I think you drank the water
A hallucination is a perception, in the absence of external stimulus That has qualities of real perception, hallucinations are vivid, substantial And are perceived to be located in external objective space.
I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating

  – Elohim “Hallucinating”