By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle artist Monyee Chau, Seattle Public Library (SPL)’s Artist in Residence, makes and distributes zines, and creates prints, paintings, illustrations, and installations—having studied all of these disciplines at Cornish and elsewhere. But the artist’s family business provides another angle of inspiration.
“My most pivotal memories as a small child,” says the artist, who uses they/them pronouns, “were sitting on the countertops (of their paternal grandparents restaurant called Chau’s Family Seafood Restaurant) and taking in everything it means to be a ‘restaurant baby.’ I first heard this term from local writer Jane Wong, illustrating this experience of being the child who spends their time in the family restaurant, surrounded by all the things that being a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. entails. You see how your family is treated, politicized, and socialized as a business but also as people. You learn how food becomes a holder for stories, legacies, and a place for relationships to grow.”
“This becomes a constant reminder that artwork should serve the same purpose food does—it’s a relationship builder, an expression, and it’s for everyone. It roots me in the understanding that food is not just food, nor art being just art—it, like everything around us, has a purpose for its existence. And for me that means expressing joy, building community, and telling stories.”
Chau studied at Cornish between 2014 and 2018, crediting Sharon Arnold for teaching the meaning of curating work, decolonization of gallery space, and what it means to make “truly meaningful” artwork. They also credit Bob Campbell, with inspiring them to go back to family and restaurant life, for inspiration.
“Alongside these two special people, I would have to say that all of the lab technicians at Cornish truly made the education worth it—Bradley Taylor, Casey Curran, Tori Franklin, all who taught me how to problem solve and persevere when you come up against obstacles in making work.”
The artist was appointed Artist in Residence, through Jenny Ku, the SPL’s Public Engagement Program Manager. But as Chau reflected, the SPL held fond memories before that.
“I used to work at Benihana when I was studying at Cornish. I would work double shift days, which meant that I had a few hours in which I could go and study. The Central Library was only two blocks away and I found it to be the perfect place for me to take a break from the smells of hibachi grills, or the snoozing chefs in the booths.
“I always found myself called to the desks that sit in the Spiral on Levels Seven and Eight, that look out the windows, so that I could have some peace and time to work on school work before returning for my dinner shifts.”
Chau’s projects at the Library include creating two zines, one about Southern Guangdong Chinese laborers during the 1800s and their journey across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S.; plus one about library patrons and workers.
“The first zine about Chinese laborers will be more storytelling-based, whereas the library patrons one will be a loose and fun illustration of people I got to meet and spend time with.
“I love zines because of their politicized nature, being accessible and for everybody. I got to learn about [the SPL] zine library, and zines that excited me with such rich cultural and political history. I used this time to get familiar with risograph printing, since [the risograph process produces] some of my favorite types of zines.”
Asked about future projects aside from the Library, Chau mentioned “working with Lele Barnett for a show called ReFrame at the Tacoma Art Museum, where I’ll be working on a roughly 600-foot-square mural about Chinese laborers in the American West. That show will be opening on May 18, 2024.”