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.

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

Interview with Jolene Lai for “Elysium”

Los Angeles-based artist and illustrator Jolene Lai’s stunning new pieces for the group exhibition Elysium continues to showcase her rich use of oil and velvety color palate. The intricate details within her composition is weaved a world of whimsy and melancholy.  Our interview with Jolene Lai discusses her post-show rituals, creative process, and desire to have a mini-Lai.

Join us for the opening of Elysium Saturday, November 10th from 6 pm to 9 pm

SH: What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? What ideas or themes were you exploring?

JL: Mostly slivers of childhood and what it is like looking back at them from the perspective of someone all grown up. I’m portraying a certain sense of nostalgia through the juxtaposition of these two perspectives.

Key Keeper

SH: How do you approach developing a new body of work and capture ideas for pieces; do you have a sketchbook on hand or is it just a note to yourself in your phone?

JL: Sketchbook scribbles on phone, post-it notes, mental notes – I have done them all. Lately, I have been thinking about using a little voice recorder to document my thoughts like Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks.

SH: What excites you about your work / creative process?

JL: I like the challenge of telling new stories and subject matters with images I have yet to attempt to paint.

SH: What frustrates you about your work / creative process? 

JL: I need noise in the background when I work — it weirdly helps me stay focus on what I am painting. I end up spending a significant amount of time in the morning before I start work looking for a show that I can follow without looking at the screen but that is still entertaining enough. I have tried music and audible books, but find that actual dialogues between people much more soothing to listen to when I paint.

Lost and Found

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: ‘Key Keeper’. There were several elements within this piece that was challenging. There was a fair bit of fine work put into painting the ornamental frame. I wanted the bell jar to have some reflection but not too much that it might take away the presence of the key, so I paid close attention to that. I also experimented with various compositions and perspectives to see how I might best display the little girl in the bell jar and still have her environment complement her size well.

It’s a tiny 12 by 12-inch painting, but it involved an extensive amount of exploration and pre-planning before achieving all those intricate details and elements I have never attempted in previous works.

SH: Who is an artist; musician, director, any art form – who would be a dream collaboration for you and what would you create?

JL: The lovely band Cigarettes After Sex. I love their music! Would be kind of cool and refreshing to come up with an art installation specially created for their music and used as a backdrop for an on-stage performance by the band.

The Key

SH: Has there been someone or some event that has made a significant impact on you that lead you to where you are now? An artistic catalyst of sorts?

JL: In a weird way, Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ which I read while I was in art school. It left a strange macabre feeling in me about painting portraits. While I do paint human figures, there’s something about painting faces that I still feel uneasy about. In my earlier years as an artist, I tried to overcome this eccentricity by painting mannequin-like figures. One might also observe elusive characters within some of my later and even recent paintings that are portrayed with hidden faces.

SH: What’s in your toolbox? AKA what paints, brushes, tools would we find in your studio? What do you wish was in your studio?

JL: I don’t own anything fancy, to be honest. So one would expect to find basic synthetic hair brushes and a variety of painting products from brands that range from Golden, Liquitex, Winsor & Newton to Utrecht. I wish there was an extra me in the studio. That way, I could just dictate what it is that should be done with my little pinky while comfortably sipping an Arnold Palmer in bed.


SH: After a show what do you do? Do you take a long break, vacation, a particular ritual? Tell us.

JL: It might be a week of doing nothing after I have put together a large collection of artworks. But it is generally a lot of walking and exploring in my neighborhood after a solo show.

I used to get yummy Japanese ramen after an exhibition (be it solo or group). But since the waistline has gotten ‘comfy’ over the years, that has become a tougher ritual to keep. I tried to change the ritual to healthy jogging, but to date, that has only successfully occurred once.

SH: In one or two words, tell us something that you really like or resonates with you about the work of each artist in Elysium. 

JL: I think one of the really cool things about ‘Elysium’ is that it is an exhibition that puts forth bold and beautiful facets of women created from the perspectives of female artists. Each artist is stylistically distinct and very sound technique-wise and unique in the kind of narrative they choose to tell.


Voyage LA Interview with Jolene Lai

Thinkspace Family artist Jolene Lai was recently interviewed by Voyage LA. The online magazine’s piece on Lai is insightful, and for those unfamiliar with Lai’s work it will make you want to discover more. Join us for her solo exhibition in the main room opening at Thinkspace Gallery, February 4th, 2017.

“Call it weird, but I had a moment of ‘epiphany’. I realized I missed the feel of a paintbrush, the smell of oils and turps, and the excitement of creating short stories through them. But trying to take a detour at 30 seemed more challenging, even in my own perspective. I had to work on building enough courage and confidence to convince not just myself, but the people around me that a career as an artist is really what I am meant for.” – Jolene Lai for Voyage LA