By Catherine Spangler
Northwest Asian Weekly
Diem Chau does not make art to last. Her embroidered chinaware is delicate and gauzy. Eventually the threads will disintegrate and the colors will fade. This is not by any defect of the materials, but rather in accordance with the artist’s intention to represent the ephemeral nature of memories.
Chau’s Chinese Vietnamese family came to the U.S. from Vietnam as refugees in 1986 when she was 7 years old. Her memories are precious proof of her family’s existence through hardship and changing landscapes. Old photographs of her late father in his youth have been the inspiration for many of her paintings in the past.
In Chau’s most recent pieces, it is the people in her family album whom she does not recognize that feature most prominently. Looking through hundreds of well-worn photographs with her grandmother, Chau remembers listening to the stories behind each unfamiliar face. She had the realization of how much would be lost if those stories were never shared.
To create her artwork, Chau stretches translucent silk with delicate stitching across dainty porcelain dishes. The initial visual effect is striking, and somewhat disorienting. She hopes that this placement of commonplace utensils into a new context will inspire other people to bring fresh ideas to an old perspective.
The embroidery consists of scant details and outlined figures, allowing viewers to fill in the blank spaces with their own conjured associations. Images appear to float on an invisible surface, not quite touching each other. Chau likens her pieces to a physical space that is empty, uncluttered and meditative.
While Chau’s artwork is minimalist in design, it is complex in meaning. Many of the works reflect her complicated sense of identity. “My family has always been immigrants. My grandfather emigrated from China to Vietnam — my father from Vietnam to the U.S. It has been three generations and three countries we’ve called home,” Chau, who now lives in Ballard, said.
Ties to the cultures of her parents’ homelands slowly became more distant as Chau grew older. Celebrating the Chinese New Year is no longer a tradition she believes in along with her extended family but more of a gesture to the past.
Inevitably, Chau believes that things are lost from one generation to the next, especially for those who come to America with hopes for new lives. Far from wanting to preserve her history, Chau sees her role as more of a storyteller. Gracefully, and with a hint of wistfulness, her art comments on evolving cultural heritage and identity. Figures of women are hazy and ghostlike, while others stand next to a seemingly mirror image of themselves. Her pieces often play on traditional symbols in Asian culture, such as long braids of hair.
“The key to knowing who you are,” Chau said, “is to hold on to what is most important.” The people in Chau’s embroidery hold bright red threads connected by one last strand to their history. “That strand is hope,” she explained.
It gives Chau solace to know that through her memories and myths, there is an innate part of her that will always identify with her heritage. Her artwork may explore the themes of loss, passing and inevitable evolution, yet, at the root of it all is the desire to build connections between people and the unique cultures they come from. For her, each piece of embroidered chinaware is “a souvenir of an idea that will hopefully spark conversation.” ■
Look for Chau’s artwork and upcoming shows on her Web site, www.diemchau.com.
Catherine Spangler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.