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”

Group Exhibition “Elysium” & Lauren Brevner’s Solo Exhibition Opening Reception Recap

Thank you to all that came out to support the opening of our November exhibitions. Congratulations to Atsuko Goto, Audrey Kawasaki, Stella Im Hultberg, Fuco Ueda, Jolene Lai, Lauren Brevner and Lonac on beautiful new bodies of work.

All three exhibits are on view through this Saturday, November 24 at Thinkspace Projects. Visit our website to view the available pieces from Elysium, Menagerie, and Summer in Zaberg. 

Photos courtesy of Birdman.

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.


Group Exhibition “Elysium” Featuring Audrey Kawasaki, Fuco Ueda, Atsuko Goto, Jolene Lai, and Stella Im Hultberg in Main Room, November 10th – November 24th

Group Exhibition – ELYSIUM
featuring new works from
Opening Reception:
THIS Saturday, November 10 from 6-9PM


Audrey Kawasaki is a Japanese-American artist currently living and working in Los Angeles. She attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY where she was influenced by Manga and art nouveau. Her work depicts sensuous young women on wood panel, with a strong emphasis on line quality and facial expression.

The themes in Audrey Kawasaki’s work are contradictions within themselves. Her work is both innocent and erotic. Each subject is attractive yet disturbing. Her sharp graphic imagery is combined with the natural grain of the wood panels she paints on, bringing forth unexpected warmth to enigmatic subject matter.

The figures she paints are seductive and contain an air of melancholy. They exist in their own sensually esoteric realm, yet at the same time present a sense of accessibility that draws the observer to them.


The Tokyo-based Ueda creates surreal paintings of enigmatic girls in strangely beautiful incandescent dreamscapes. With larger than life flowers and creatures ranging from moray eels to butterflies, her paintings are like apparitions pulled from the shadowy depths of the subconscious. Her mischievous adventurers are innocent and devious, at times playful and others sinister, suspended somewhere between the waking world and the beyond. An inscrutable universe of lush neon chrysanthemums and florid skins, Ueda’s world is a hallucinatory daydream.

Ueda’s works convey the lonely meditative feeling of dreams, a world set apart from the existence of others and self-sustained by isolated dread and reverie. At times a darkness pervades with recurring symbols like skeletal hands and the fiery orbs, or hitodama, of Japanese folklore, thought to be the souls of the dead. Another recurring symbol that figures prominently in her works is the chrysanthemum, also a symbol of loss, death, and vulnerability. These surreal apparitions reinforce a sense of displacement and transience. Her lithe figures, often charged with a cryptic eroticism, dissolve into the webs of these conjured worlds; like figments crossing over into ghostly recesses.

The tone of Ueda’s works tends to shift towards a lighter and more whimsical extreme as well. Her girls are often surrounded by small birds, butterflies, underwater creatures, beribboned pets, and dazzling flora, in dreamily abstracted landscapes that seem to glow and hum with weird life. The combination of these light and dark extremes is often unexpected, and psychologically evocative. Beautifully illustrated girls drip with honey and bare skinned knees, while snakes, fish, cobwebs, and bright fungi surround and shroud them. Contrasts abound in her choice of palettes as well, with the mixture of deeply pigmented hues, dark blacks, bright neons and iridescent pastel purples and blues.


Atsuko Goto creates beautifully melancholic images of delicate figures cloaked and merged with natural elements, everything from flowers and butterflies to insects, birds, and fish. Her muted palette is as ghostly as haze, achieved through the unique application of diluted pigments made from semi-precious lapis lazuli, ink, and gum arabic applied to cotton.

Inspired by Japanese Shinto and the belief that nature is animated by divinity and sacred spirits harbored in every living and inanimate thing, Goto creates imagery that conveys this feeling of profuse life force and intangible mystery, offset by a darker suggestion of mourning and lament. Quietly meditative, her works exude a dreamlike calm and resignation despite their abundance of detail and the density of her compositions. Silence and forlorn composure define this existence of the preternatural.

Fragile in their tempered darkness, the works are subtle and near translucent – like the unknown light and strange optics of an otherworldly plane where everything is unsubstantial. A feeling of entrapment and isolation persists, however, in the quietude. Like hauntings from the subconscious, the paintings feel like faded dreams, surreal distortions bordering on the ominous. Unsettling, the muted beauty of these diaphanous idols loom, uncannily caught in a thin veil between worlds.


Jolene Lai is a Los Angeles-based artist and illustrator born and raised in Singapore. After studying painting at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts in Singapore, Jolene studied graphic design at UCLA and spent a year working at a movie-poster design house, The Refinery Creative, before returning to focus on fine art.

She works primarily with oil on canvas or mixed media on watercolor paper. With 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.

Lai seeks to engage her audience in works that are approachable, newly imagined spaces that the viewer is invited to explore on their own terms.


Stella Im Hultberg was born in South Korea, raised in Seoul, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and later in California. She studied Industrial Design and worked as a product designer before serendipitously falling into the art world in late 2005. Stella Im Hultberg’s paintings are conceived in varying combinations of ink, watercolor, and oils on paper, wood, and canvas. Her portraits of women are rendered in easy, flowing lines with soft hues that transcend the typical critiques of feminine beauty, inherent in today’s self-conscious society.

Hultberg originally studied Industrial Design at CSU, which naturally segued into work as a toy designer early on in her career. Work in the design industry serendipitously led to her building on her natural talents as an artist and a career as a self-taught painter soon followed. Having grown up in Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan, she has a diverse blend of cultural influences to pull from.

When not painting or drawing, she likes to eat, ride her bicycle, and play the New York Times crossword puzzle. After a decade in NYC, she now lives (and works) in Portland OR with her daughter and husband.