Interview with Lauren Hana Chai for ‘The Little Death’

Thinkspace is pleased to present Lauren Hana Chai’s ‘The Little Death,’ an exhibition inspired by the play between sex and death, the desire to live forever but also the inevitable return of our bodies to nature.

Lauren uses unconventional mediums with mixed media as well as working with her first love, oils. The mixed media brings together different elements that are a reflection of her identity. She paints issues such as taboo, the Korean cultural trait han, history, the clash of traditional and modern, east and west, and the struggle for balance in between.

In anticipation of ‘The Little Death,’ our interview with Lauren Hana Chai discusses her grandparents, eureka moments, and the balance of masculine/feminine energy.

SH: For those not familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

LHC: I’m born in Honolulu, Hawaii raised by my Korean grandparents. I’ve always been drawing since I was a kid and eventually moved to San Francisco to study fine art painting at the Academy of Art University. Having been raised very traditionally Korean at home, from an early age I always felt at odds with my American life outside and furthermore distanced from the local Hawaii community as well. These multiple worlds I lived in between has been a driving factor to question who I was and where I belonged in this world.

I also started questioning my history and heritage greatly while exploring what had happened to my mom who went missing when I was 11. In my senior year at art school, I painted my Last Known Locations series which were 6 paintings of 6 cities of her actual last known locations. My paintings have always been muted and dark up until this point. Finally dealing with this darkness and processing my loss through art catapulted me to create the bright, colorful art I paint today.  I no longer questioned which group I belonged to and accepted all facets of myself.

SH: In the artist statement for “Little Death” you mention your grandparents nearing death and thus thinking about the entirety of their lives. Can you share with us one of your favorite or cherished memories with your grandparents?

LHC: When I first came out and told my family that I was bisexual, it was very ugly, to say the least. It’s very rare to have an accepting traditional Korean family towards any homosexuality. During this rough time, my grandma was the only one who eventually came around, and unconditionally accepted me for who I am. After months of my family not wanting to even lay eyes on me, my grandma asked if I still liked girls. After I replied yes, she said: “It’s okay, I still love you.” Those words meant the world to me and I would have stayed in a very dark place without her. I will always have a special place in my heart for her and am forever blessed to have her in my life. I can tell you many funny or endearing stories of my cute grandma but this is her at her core: 100% pure love.

I’ve really only started making more cherished memories with my grandpa within the last several years. He worked hard for our family and then would play and drink hard every night so I hardly saw him growing up. Since then he got cancer and survived for nearly a decade now, respectfully dropping alcohol sober cold turkey the moment he found out. He has softened up a lot and shares a lot of his memories and stories with me. My most cherished memory is when he shared a poem he wrote about his mom when she passed that was published in the local newspaper. It was the first time I saw my tough grandpa cry. There’s a lot that I don’t agree with him on but through it all we are all the same deep down.

SH: What was the most challenging piece in the exhibition and why?

LHC: I came pretty close to crying with “The Little Death 4”. I spent a lot of time painting it one way before I decided to completely change it close to the deadline. One painting informed the next in this series so, by the time I got around to painting this one, I had the realization of where I should be going to properly execute my concept. Originally I had painted the face to be sliced open like a cadaver but it felt too medical. I then abandoned my reference photo and painted with the more enlightening/transcendent part of death rather than the exposed/dissected look. It was a completely new process that scared me and I went through self-doubt but now I am glad I stuck with it and it feels as if I got one step through the right door…or maybe that I just got the door to finally open. Unfamiliarity is always the challenging part of painting.

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

LHC: Even though I just talked about how unfamiliarity is always the challenging part of painting, it is not my least favorite. What’s worse about the creative process is the always lingering realization that everything you create is not a masterpiece and perhaps you yourself will never even be considered as someone who can create a masterpiece…and having to be okay with that. My ego, self-doubts, and harsh critique that I give myself can sometimes be tortuous. At the same time, they are necessary to help me (hopefully) be at an upward trajectory with my art versus flatlining or the opposite. And then it’s because of this that the little nuggets of what I personally consider to be “eureka” moments during the painting process are my favorites. Sometimes just by sheer luck is when “eurekas” like what happened with “The Little Death 4” will appear, and I feel that something just happened (somehow) and I’m kinda happy with it — and maybe I can now take this and do better. Those are my favorite times, enjoying the process itself and being present versus the final destination.

SH: Who are some of your creative influences?

LHC: I admire an array of different artists but in terms of gaining inspiration, I don’t look too much into others for. Granted, I did study classical styles of painting so there will always be influences in my techniques from my student years but looking into myself and strengthening the bond of art to my soul was a big influence on my creativity. “Outsider art” is one of my many favorite genres of art since the artists were mostly psych patients or people who were not educated in art resulting in raw, unfiltered, not meant to be marketed or even displayed, art. Old Korean folk art is also a big interest of mine. East Asian classical art all trickled down from China, the energized calligraphic strokes, the soft pigmented paintings on silk of nature and etc., that we all know as Asian art to be. Japan took this and made it even more delicate, the Japanese touch. Korea went in the completely opposite direction with their folk art: bold, electric colors, crude drawings and one might even say “ugly” compared to the rest of Asia. When I first started looking into my heritage and went down a rabbit hole of studying Korean folk art, I felt a sense of belonging. These are my people, this is the art of my soul. My creative influences will probably be forever shifting, but this is where I’m currently at.

SH: How would you describe feminine power and its influence on the world? What do you imagine the world would look like if there was a balance of feminine and masculine energy? 

LHC: The early wave feminists fought for women’s suffrage, for women’s equality and to not be treated like little girls. They became independent warriors and brought money home when men were off at war. Their amazing feminine power gave us the freedom we have today, so I do believe that the world we’re living in now has a good balance of feminine and masculine energy. I don’t think that means that there won’t be conflict or misunderstandings ever between men and women but to me, this is an ideal time. I look to my grandmother and the life she lived in having been whisked away from her family at the age of 17 to never see them again and be arranged into a lifelong marriage with my grandpa who didn’t even have love for her. But it was her duty to start this new family with a man she just met.

As a woman, she was to be a housewife and bear him 3 children, not receive an education and not be taken seriously. She was to be seen as a breeding, cooking, cleaning machine, and nothing more. My grandma alone embodies the utmost feminine power, the resilience throughout her entire life of oppression, the dedication to her loved ones, and not only keeping her sanity but marching upright through it all. My grandfather has his own strong masculine energy as well, he carried our family forward, brought us out of poverty, endured many years of hardship but they did not live in a time where these opposite energies were harnessed together. My grandpa is still very much sexist and he has caused my grandma an unspeakable amount of pain throughout the years.

As a woman today, I feel that feminine power is to know and embrace oneself as a female, but also be aware of what that feminine energy and power translates to the men in your life. Owning and unapologetically expressing freedom, but also setting much-needed boundaries. Having the compassion to listen to each other. Understanding what our ancestors went through to appreciate the freedom we have today.

SH: What is the most rewarding moment thus far in your art career? How about your life?

LHC: Honestly I’m pretty green in my art career, could I even call it a career yet? Has it started? Showing with Thinkspace is probably the most exciting and rewarding moment for me, really! Being able to share the platform with many amazing artists on the roster is pretty cool! Participating in Pow! Wow! was also a major trip and a high that lasted for months after that gets revitalized every time I drive by all the murals that were created from the recent festival here in my hometown. My very first painting done after graduating art school was also a rewarding moment, the freedom, wildness and 100% fun I had while laying down my brush marks!

SH: If this body of work inspired a Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream flavor, what would be the name and the ingredients of this sweet treat?

LHC: Juicy Flow: Korean peaches, sacred fungus, DMT, and saliva.

SH: We are in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s an unprecedented time, and it’s a weird time – What is your approach to life during this time? Are you sticking to routines, or making it up as we go? What does quarantine life look like for you?

LHC: In the beginning, I did have a routine: exercise in the morning, read, have some breakfast, paint all day and watch a show at night. Admittedly it helped to have this Thinkspace deadline. Since it’s done, I vegged out for a while and now my routine’s all whack. Deadlines are good for artists, we need them!

SH: Favorite thing you’ve watched, listened to, and ate in the last 30 days? Or since days don’t matter anymore, since the “shelter-in-place” orders came down.

LHC: Binge watched “Dark”, a German TV series involving mystery, crime, and believable sci-fi time travel. Listened to Author and Punisher’s “Nihil Strength” and “Terrorbird” on repeat and ate a whole lot of Thai food cause it’s just across the street.

Online Schedule of Virtual Events:

Saturday, June 27 at 12:00 noon pacific time we will post the professionally shot video tour of our new exhibitions to our Instagram TV

Saturday, June 27 from 1-2 PM pacific time we will go live on our Instagram to tour our new exhibitions

Sunday, June 28 at 2 pm pacific time we will post a full set of installation photos from both exhibitions to our Facebook and blog

Monday, June 29 at 4 pm pacific time we will share a link to the self-guided virtual tour of our new exhibitions on all of our social networks