By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A tapestry of a skinless face, sparrows on a bullet-riddled target sheet, a burning sun and planet closing in on a bird, and contemplative self-portraits give you a peek into some things that run through the minds of youngsters we term as Gen Z. Bringing together videos, interactive 3D pieces, paper cutouts, threaded works, digital pieces, and traditional artwork under the theme “The Modern Youth Identity” were two Eastside high schoolers Alice Mao and Taylor Wang in their first exhibition at the Seattle Artists League.
Mao, 17, and Wang, 15, are both artists with Chinese roots and vividly-colored dreams most of us had as teenagers. Their dream is a more inclusive space for young artists, where students can showcase their art, a comment on the lack of artists they can relate to today.
Mao and Wang know how expensive it is to showcase art.
“Application fees, shipping fees, and printing fees are really high and as young students, it becomes difficult to come up with the money to be able to present your work,” Mao said.
When she kept running into fellow artist Wang in art class, they connected and their ideas took the shape of Student Art Spaces (SAS). The girls created a website, social media platforms, and crowdfunded their first exhibition over Labor Day weekend held at Seattle Artist League, an art school that Mao attends. The exhibition was put together after a nationwide call for entries. It received over 180 submissions of which about 50 were selected.
Ruthie V., who runs Seattle Artist League with co-founder Lendy Hensley, mentored Mao and Wang, but admits she also learned from them.
“They came to me with a list of very good questions and asked for my advice. The best thing is that they actually took it and used it,” Ruthie V. said. She gave the girls practical advice on how to set up the gallery and use wire to display the paintings.
“I was impressed with the colors, composition, and use of text in the artwork. It’s very different from the mediums that my generation of artists use. I also learned more from them, in the way they used social media to put together the exhibition,” she said.
Ruthie V.’s reaction bears testament to another goal Mao and Wang set out to accomplish through “Modern Youth Identity”—communication.
“There’s this big generational gap. We’re all on Instagram and the older generation are out there in real galleries. There isn’t as much communication as there should be. This is our way of trying to bring these facets together,” Wang said. To drive this home, almost every art piece had the artist’s Instagram handle. Mao added, “We had someone in her 60s come in yesterday. She was excited about how we as artists express our political ideas and saw the topics we care about.”
“We wanted the art to reflect the experience of being a young person in today’s age and targeted our generation to try and make them see how it feels to be a young person with an outlet to represent their identity,” Wang said. “At our age, between 15 and 21, you’re in a state of life where you’re uncertain of where you’re going. You’re a kid, but also an adult,” Wang said standing before her self-portrait that seemed to mull the same uncertainties.
A few steps away, a bespectacled young Asian girl in pink cuts into a bleeding cake. The painting, “Love,” is by Angela Bi and delves into the meaning of love, especially in Asian families that often comes with high expectations. Given that most Asian parents prefer their children choose careers in medicine, law, or engineering, Mao and Wang seem to be coloring outside the lines.
“We’ve had many conversations like this,” they said.
“In the beginning, our parents said we have no clue what we’re doing with this gallery thing, but maybe we will support it. Now that they have seen it all put together, they think it’s amazing,” Wang said. Mao’s parents are supportive, too. She feels her father’s decision to quit Microsoft and risk his own startup fuels her to pursue a career in the arts.
“I’m thankful because I know a lot of my artist friends’ parents are not that supportive,” she said.
Wang plans to pursue a double major in art and business.
“I think business is very important because if we didn’t know anything about it, we wouldn’t be able to organize something this big and successful. This is something we plan to focus on in our next project.”
Many first-time artists had a chance to showcase their work in an exhibition, and Mao and Wang feel validated.
“We’re hearing things like, ‘I hope to see you at your next exhibition or at your own solo art show. It boosts our confidence,” Mao said. “Our GPA may not be the best compared to other Asian kids in our community, where there is pressure from a very young age to have that 4.0. But how many of them would have been able to pull this off? This real-life experience is very important and it’s also important to do what you love,” Wang said.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.