How did you get into making art?
I had always dabbled in the arts and crafts as a child but didn’t really learn how to properly oil paint until junior year of college. My obsession for the arts really began when I was 16 — I was going to school in the UK at the time and when I got the chance to go into London on the weekends, I would spend countless hours alone at art museums. I was particularly fond of the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate, where I remember being exposed to David Hockney, Sir Peter Blake, Stuart Pearson Wright, Tudor and royal portraits. I would always look very closely at paintings, wondering how one could replicate the craft or color. Perhaps that natural curiosity led me to wanting to know more.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a series of Asian American Zoom portraits in response to the rise in hate crimes against Asians since the pandemic began. There have been over 3800+ hate crimes since March 2020, and I have been following these reports on a weekly basis. I wanted to survey how other Asian Americans in the country were responding to the crisis, and so have been painting individuals over Zoom. During this time, I paint but also listen to each sitter’s on the ground views and personal stories. The perks of shifting to Zoom versus painting sitters in person is that location does not become a limitation. I’ve been able to paint individuals from Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland etc. all via the computer.
I am currently working on a series of Asian American Zoom portraits in response to the rise in hate crimes against Asians since the pandemic began.
What inspired you to get started on this body of work?
When I was first started learning how to paint portraits, I would find strangers on the Internet from Asian diasporic community social media groups to paint. My initial intentions for painting specifically Asians had more to do with wanting to figure out skin color so that I could eventually paint a decent portrait of my younger sister. As I was new to portraiture, I felt it was important for me to learn how to paint figures from real people versus photographs. By the time I had have ten different sitters come through in the studio though, I noticed a common thread amongst everyone that the same topics would arise in conversation. These were yearnings to belong, issues with assimilation, navigating the harmful and long-time stereotypes that have been casted on Asian Americans. As I kept meeting more sitters, I realized I was confronting a giant red flag. These social and psychological issues were not just mine, but reflective on a much larger societal scale.
Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?
I think of painting as more like a journal or diary of your interests, obsessions, your daily life, the things that move you (even the small things that others might find insignificant). I think the best paintings actually happen when you don’t know why you’re making the painting. So then the act of painting is more like a puzzle piece or another clue towards your search for an answer (the truth). I suppose this is my “broader approach” to my practice.
What’s a typical day like in your studio?
I wake up, eat brunch, shower, get to the studio, answer emails. Then from 12-10 PM I work in the studio, taking breaks for tea and dinner. I try to be painting most of the time, but I also find myself doing a lot of looking or researching at times. I now set an alarm to clean my brushes at 10 PM, otherwise I’ll end up leaving the studio too late, and that really messes with my sleep hours.
Who are your favorite artists?
This changes every year!! There are always your classic masters: Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Rembrandt, Velazquez, etc., and then my favorite American painters like Philip Guston, Alice Neel, Florine Stettheimer, Milton Avery. I think I’m going through a phase of John Bratby (the kitchen sink painters), Sam Messer, and Lucien Freud right now. There’s also something super magical about living a life with artist friends who are making work in present time. Some painters from school I adore: Stipan Tadic, Henry Anker, Mark Yang, James Mercer, Yifan Jiang, Erica Mao, Pence Wilson, Patrick Bayly, Jose Zuniga etc. And my recent teachers: Susanna Coffey, Gregory Amenoff, Tomas Vu, Richard Hull, Phyllis Bramson, Shara Hughes, Wendy Edwards (they always linger in the back of my mind).
Where do you go to discover new artists?
Everywhere and anywhere. Artists apparently hates art fairs, but I love them!! I love the energy of those things (though of course they’re practically cancelled now.) I love the smaller galleries and fairs too, like Spring/Break Art Fair, MFA shows, smaller local galleries – I feel like you can really get a sense of artists who are working on the ground (those not yet fully affected by heavy market pressures). And of course, there’s the importance of always discovering musicians, writers, and poets too! Through Spotify, new books and podcasts (talkart, sound & vision, I LIKE YOUR WORK).
Susan Chen is an artist based in Hartford who recently won The Hopper Prize. To learn more about the artist: