Interview with Jolene Lai for ‘Secret Garden’ | Exhibition October 7 -October 28, 2023

Thinkspace is excited to present Jolene Lai for ‘Secret Garden,‘ a collection of oil paintings and drawings that seek to ignite curiosity about the hidden stories we all carry within ourselves. What kind of magical landscape gets unfolded when you gaze out through the window of your soul?

“The unbearable tossing and turning from insomnia in the dead of the night led me to gradually sit up. I got out of bed and walked to the window in the room. The still night was immediately interrupted by flying insects spiraling towards the light from the street lamps outside of my window. From across the street, a flicker of light from another house drew my attention. I could see the silhouette of a woman… I watched her deliberately take long drags on her cigarette, as if she was sucking in the marrow of life. My mind was transfixed by this enigmatic figure that was becoming more familiar with each inhalation, hers and mine. The smoke drifted up into the night air and I traced it with my eyes and imagined that they were carrying along all of her secrets with it. Secrets that I longed to know… I gazed until her silhouette was a blur… I tried to retrace her shape and for a brief moment seized a quick glimpse of her face in my mind again, before that fragment of her faded away. I knew that I would never forget her, the stranger in the night.”

Our interview with Lai reveals who her creative influences are, her dream collaboration, and what was in her musical rotation during the development of this collection.

What themes were you exploring in this body of work? Did you have a piece that was particularly challenging?

During the thought process of creating this ‘Secret Garden’ collection, the 1992 film ‘That Night’ starring Juliette Lewis, kept surfacing in my mind. There is a particular scene of a ten year old girl staring out of her window at night and into a teenage girl’s (Juliette Lewis) window from across where she lived. The child witnesses and attempts to imitate the teenager’s every alluring move of slow dancing to the music that’s playing on the record player, brushing her shoulder length blonde hair and spraying perfume on her neck in front of a spinning fan.

That moment from the film captivated me when I was a kid myself watching it and proceeded to linger in my mind. I wanted to capture the sense of a fleeting moment like that – a place in time wherever one might be, alone in their mind where they are connected with their inner selves.

‘Secret Garden’, which is also the highlight of the collection, was probably the most challenging piece of them all because of the intricate botanical details in the background. I really wanted to emphasize the landscape but at the same time still make sure that the ghostly character of the painting was commanding the utmost arrest.

What does a day in the studio look like for you? How do you structure your days?

I always try to find something interesting to watch or listen to before I start painting. I only listen to music if I am working at night, so daytime programs often consist of stories that might fuel my imagination. Lately it’s been crime and urban legends of Hong Kong from the early 70s to 80s.

I have to say my working days are pretty routine and I try to approach the day like any 9 to 5 job, clocking in and out to measure how much time I have allocated to each artwork.

Do you have any rituals that help you tap into a creative flow?

I am a creature of habit but I don’t think I have a specific ritual when it comes to searching for inspiration. I often reference some random film I’ve seen, or a lit up window at night while I am out walking could spark my curiosity.

What is your most favorite and least favorite part of the creative process?

I do not particularly enjoy the sketching process since I am so meticulous about details even when it is just outlines for oils. But I do love when all is completed because it means I get to throw the first layers of color on a blank surface.

Who are some of your creative influences? Why do they inspire you?

I must have mentioned this before but Wong Kar Wai’s films are still for me timeless and empowering, not just in cinematography but also the writing. His works age like fine wine.

If you could have any skill or topic downloaded into your brain, what would you want to be able to do / be an expert at?

Contortion skills. I have this ache on my left shoulder blade that possibly developed over years from my bad posture while painting. It would be really nice to be able to reach that dull pain with my right hand and give it a good massage.

What do you hope viewers take away or experience while viewing your work?

I try to not have any expectations. I think that hinders possibilities of the work and halts the magic that the viewers themselves create.

How do you like to enjoy your time outside of the studio? Do you celebrate the completion of a body of work?

I try to enjoy the greenery around me when I am out and about. I used to think about work even on my way to get coffee in the mornings, but have recently been putting a curb on that behaviour.

I actually do not have the habit of celebrating when a collection has been completed. Brainstorming about the next idea comes naturally for me.

If you could collaborate with any artists in any sort of medium (i.e. movies, music, painting) who would you collaborate with, and what would you be making?

I think a collaboration with a chef would be interesting. It would be a 12 course meal, each dish paired with a complementing artwork. I’m so familiar with painting in vivid colors that I think it would be a challenge to limit the series to nothing but just shades of white. Similarly I think it would be challenging for a chef to come up with a 12 course meal consisting of a limited color palette.

Who would be on the guest list if you could throw a dinner party for five people, dead or alive? What would be on the menu? What would be the icebreaker question?

Five people is too big a group for me, I think I would just invite Van Gogh and serve us apple pie with vanilla ice cream. And then ask, “was it really suicide?”

What was in your musical rotation during the development of this body of work?

At the start of this collection, Taiwanese artiste Wu Bai’s 夏夜晚风 (Summer Night Breeze), and towards the end, music from London singer Puma Blue.

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