A studio visit with Kathy Liao

Kathy Liao’s paintings stem from a broad range of personal and social experiences. Each of them could inspire a healthy body of work, but combined they create a more complex fabric of an individual experience. She paints her personal memories; from early childhood in Taiwan, to living as immigrants in California and growing more American, her father’s death, Transpacific relationship with her Grandmother and, of course, her present reality.

Though the painting process, Liao recollects memories, in fine detail, to create large-scale paintings of these experiences, which hold clues to the social context of the times, (her family standing in front of their first house in California with a recently purchased car and yet-to-be-born sister, which began the chain migration of her family’s path to U.S. citizenship) to her personal vantage point (Liao looking over the shoulder of her father, post-surgery, into their backyard pool)

Dual identity is something that Liao allows to show through in her paintings, and the contrast of elements creates a more interesting and honest story. A few of these are: Taiwan / USA ; FaceTime / Real life interactions ; Memory / A photo ; Leisure / Hard work. We discussed these topics and their appearance in her paintings in person in her East Crossroads studio, and over email. 

Interview and photographs by Jennifer Wetzel

Q: Tell me about the process of recalling experiences in such detail, enough to create a large scale painting of that scene from memory?

It varies with each piece of work.  Many of my paintings and drawings are amalgamations of memories, iPhone snapshots, sketches, and old photos.  The starting point is usually a memory, an idea, or an image that is stuck in my head that I can’t let go of. It is through the process of making that I begin to dissect WHY the memory left such an impression on me (Same could be argued that the memory is further etched into my brain through the process of making).  

The paintings and drawings below best illustrate my working process. The first piece was done in life, on a February day back in 2013.  The weather was cool, but a few minutes under the California sun could make you feel warm and toasty. In a moment’s decision, I made a quick collage drawing of my father as he sat by the pool, feeling the sun on his back.  Since my father’s passing, the image of him that day stuck with me. It is possible that the only reason I remembered that day so vividly was because I documented the moment through my drawing. Years later when I revisited the memory, the details faded, but I latched on to the visceral memory of the bright blinding California light.   

With each iteration, I feel like I’m still missing something, that I haven’t quite captured the tenor of the moment.  In the most recent painting, frustration took over in the form of obliteration and erasure as I tried desperately to recall that day, that moment.  Memories do change with time – they expand and contract, certain aspects get amplified and others muffled. Most of the time, I feel the futility of trying to translate the significance of the moment.

Q: Do you feel that the paintings become accurate representations of that memory? Do you feel the weight of the paintings start to take the place of the memory?

No. Since it’s a place I cannot revisit in person, I’m just making things up about the details now, a tree here, a water hose there. Are the paintings accurate representation of MY memories… maybe?. With each painting, I’m trying to tease out something that is significant about the memory, the WHY I want to remember.  Admittedly, the more I parse out and separate the elements of the memory, the more abstract it becomes.

I cannot disassociate memories of my father with the pool.  The pool gave him hope, it gave him back his mobility, his strength, it gave him something to look forward to; the pool was where his family was, his home, the symbol of the American Dream. And, in the belly of the pool, was where he departed from this world.  Yes, I remember that pool well. The scale of the pool was significant to me because the largeness of it was what nurtured and swallowed my father. I remember walking around the circumference of the pool, following him as he swam laps. I remember standing by the edge of it and considered its depth, from the shallow end to the deep abyss.  I remember the leaves and the tangle of hoses. The painting process relieved me of all those details from my brain. Do I feel the weight of the painting start to take place of the memory? Possibly, but not in a negative way. I acknowledge that when I think of the pool, I think of my painting now. In this case, I transferred the weight of the memory to the painting, and I’m okay with that.

Q: You have frequent FaceTime conversations with your Taiwanese grandmother. How has technology changed your relationship, for better or worse? By painting the screen shots of these conversations, does the painting create a physical memento of your online experience? How has your Grandmother’s dementia influenced your approach to documenting her?

With family in two countries, finding ways to communicate across long distances has always been a fact of life. Back in the days, it was with those long distance collect calls and expensive phone bills. Growing up, my parents were voices on the other side of the telephone.  In recent years, as my grandmother grew old and her memory faded away, phone conversations resemble shouting into an opaque sound proof box. The video chatting technology changed the way I connect with my grandmother. As she fumbles with the technology and tries to figure out who I am, FaceTime allows me to give her visual cues, to make expressive gestures, to show her photos, objects, and my surroundings to jog her memory.  I am so grateful to able to see her face and her expressions, to catch her gaze, and be present to witness her aging process. I love seeing how close we are on the digital screen, our faces flattened next to each others in our respective rectangles, yet it also reminds me of how physically far away she is.  I appreciate how convenient this technology is, but I also recognize that my digital interaction with her is not as strong or significant to her as physically being there for her.

I am curious how the technology is changing the way we experience distance and time around us. Most people go through a year and only remember a significant moments, with the rest of the year feeling like a blur. The app, “1 second every day” allows you to capture 1 second a day and turn it into a 7 minute long video at the end of the year –  it’s interesting how little moments (1 second) trigger memories, emotions, and stories from specific moments and specific days throughout the year. Similarly I screenshot my grandmother every time we speak, witnessing and documenting how she ages. When painting a screenshot, I think about the loss of data and the pixelation that happens when you lose connection; the idea of Generation Loss (the loss of quality between subsequent copies or transcodes of data) reminds me of memory loss and difficulty in recalling details. On a FaceTime screen, we each occupy a window to two people’s lives that are so far apart; two places, two time zones, existing simultaneously on a flat surface – it’s science fiction!

Every family deals with the dementia in a different way. Back at home, my mom used to put up signs by everything to remind my grandma to turn off the TV, don’t open doors to stranger, and occasionally, a sign that says, “It’s okay if you can’t remember”.  I love these signs, these visual cues and memento that my grandma sees everywhere she turns. It feels like a game where she encounters clues and hidden treasures, that remind her that she is loved.

When I’m with my grandmother, I start noticing what SHE pays attention to and what she focuses on. She loves reading palms to tell fortune.  She would study my hand very careful and tell me, I will have a long life because of this one crease on my hand. She does this every time she sees me. Sometime I think when she doesn’t remember something about a person, she would read their palms instead.  In my recent paintings of her, I try to notice the thing she notice or what she pays attention to… the shape of the watermelons, the floral patterns on her favorite shirt, or maybe just… palms.

Q: Your parents both have a strong connection to their homeland, Taiwan. Though born there, you consider yourself a visitor now. Other than your family connection, has Taiwan had much influence on your painting style?

Working with Chine Colle, working with collage in my work. The coffetti of collage materials and cut up posters on the ground are sometimes more beautiful than my painting.  It also reminded me of the prevalence of paper in my childhood, from paper lanterns during the holidays, paper kites, and auspicious red paper couplets that decorated every home and on every street. The handicraft of cutting and pasting. The two Self Portraits. Inspired by the color, the collage, the patterns, the fragmentation, falling apart and coming back together.

Q: Do you feel a responsibility to tell the immigrant story from your family’s personal experience? What are your thoughts on the current immigration situation and do you have advice for foreign-born artists living in the USA? Or contrarily, advice for American nationals on the importance of global creativity and communication?

My father used to visit the US every three months and I remembered him constantly packing and unpacking. His dream was eventually to move to the US and live here with us. The packing and unpacking was a ritual for him. Throughout the years, he kept bringing things from Taiwan to the US, to make the American house feel more comfortable, more familiar.  Every object he brought was a piece of memory, filling up the foreign home with familiar memories. This idea of place-making, nest-building, and finding a place where you belong, is so universal.

I feel so strongly when I listen to the current political debates when it comes to immigration. I am an immigrant myself, and my parents brought me here when I was a child.  My status sounded like just another political talking point. In the midst of this polarization in our country, I often feel like I don’t know how to tell my story without putting myself in the “Others” camp.  I want to make these paintings about my family because they ARE my reality. Instead of differences, I hope my work taps into the deeper driver of human relationships, of familial love, of the American Dream, and finding a place where you belong.  It is through stories and shared experiences, that we find empathy and humanity.

Thank you, Kathy, for letting me invade your work space at Studios Inc, showing me your process and for sharing your insightful answers. – Jennifer Wetzel, Kawsmouth.com editor

To see more of Kathy Liao’s work, please visit http://www.kathyliao.com/.