Monday, June 7, 2021

Decked Out

It’s here! DECAHEDRON is now live!

June 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of Artists on the Lam. Celebrate with us!

It was a decade ago yesterday that I published my first post on what would later be voted “Best Arts Blog” in the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago issue (read more about that in the previous post). As part of the celebration, I’ve curated an international exhibition (read more about this in the artist announcement post).

More about the curatorial process for this show that I didn’t mention in those posts: I’m likening it to an episodic TV series where you wander the land embarking on different adventures and meeting different characters, and then in the end you go back and revisit all your old friends and ask them to be part of your heist. Past, present, and future are all intertwined.

The result? 74 artists, with over 350 works of art.

View the exhibition at the following links: the main page and the artists page (click on each artist to enjoy their art and their words). Most of the pieces are available for purchase (and I was literally in the middle of formatting this post when a painting was already sold).

Celebrating 10 years of:

interaction; collaboration; making art as accessible as possible; proving that art is for everyone; championing local artists while channeling global perspectives; shenanigans; worldwide adventures; saying things everyone thinks but doesn’t say out loud; making messes; winging it; figuring it out; the same pair of sneakers; irreverence; puns; so many puns; open calls; giving emerging artists their first ever shows; refusing to use artspeak; not taking ourselves too seriously; troublemaking; optimism / earnestness / hope; leaving pretension at the door; getting people to actually look at the art; getting people to have fun with art and with each other; getting people to see the world anew; building relationships between artists and viewers; building relationships; building community; bringing people joy; a breath of fresh air; being able to touch the art; people coming into a gallery and not feeling intimidated; teaching; assuring people that they do, in fact, “get” art; showing that there’s nothing to “get”; invoking childlike wonder; connection, and not the schmoozing kind; making sure everyone feels welcome; rejecting cliques; breaking the rules; breaking barriers; bridging the spaces between us; standing out; not paying attention to trends; making our own; substance over style; quality over popularity; quantity; cramming an entire biennial’s worth of artists into one room; cramming as many viewers as possible into one room; helping visitors “hone their art appreciation skills”; giving visitors the “opportunity to explore their own interests and gain a better understanding of the kind of art they enjoy and why”; being worth the wait; being down-to-earth; showing there’s an abundance of culture in the Midwest; every medium you can think of; every art form you can think of; artists spanning the widest range of backgrounds, ages, and experience levels; talent; the best people you’ve never heard of yet; exploring and showcasing the underground; “shaking things up” / “rocking the art world” / “making waves”; changing the game; truly new experiences; being truly independent; perhaps being too DIY [but]; knowing no one is an island; using word of mouth; being unconventional; play; passion; constant growth; and art.

Again, thank you.

Here’s to the next 10 years!

(Pictured: A few photos from the opening reception of 2012’s acclaimed I CAN DO THAT, voted “Best Art Exhibit” in the 20th anniversary edition of NewCity’s Best of Chicago issue)

Leave a birthday message!

What’s your favorite Artists on the Lam memory? Perhaps you had a moment of transcendence at one of our interactive shows, or shared a spontaneous experience with a fellow visitor, or simply had fun. Perhaps a particular blog post moved you. Perhaps you’ve been inspired in some way. Your story could be featured on the site as part of the virtual celebration!

You can also send a photo, a doodle, or any other supplemental material. Email artists.on.the.lam {at} gmail {dot} com.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

What Is Time

Today is the 10th anniversary of Artists on the Lam!

It was on Monday, June 6, 2011, that I published my first blog post here.  

(Looking at that post, which is incredibly embarrassing, it’s funny how I’m much further removed from my 2011 self now than my 2011 self was to my teen self I kept referring to in it. (What a sentence.) I was so young but was writing like I was so jaded and world-weary. (Which isn’t surprising considering I already felt old and that time was passing too quickly when I was only 7.) But that was part of the charm of those early posts, of course.)

Thank you, everyone, for being a part of this extraordinary journey.

To celebrate, DECAHEDRON is virtually opening tomorrow! Save the date. (One day from now. But still.)

Until then: Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I’ve been going on a few art outings (artings?)*, and you can treat your eyes with my photos on Instagram (or your other social media of choice: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr).

*(My first one (in over 14 months) was last week, and it was a Special Preview of Frida Kahlo: Timeless at Cleve Carney Museum of Art inside McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage. Featuring 26 original works on loan from Museo Dolores Olmedo, alongside a multimedia timeline and replicas of objects from Frida’s life, plus other special programming, it’s the largest Frida Kahlo exhibition in the Chicago area in more than 40 years, and it’s now open to the public. (Among my photos I naturally included one of her revolutionary politics; it was an integral part of her identity.) Afterwards my family and I visited the Morton Arboretum (only a few minutes away from the CCMA), where a new exhibition of sculptures by Daniel Popper called Human+Nature just opened and will run for at least a year. And yesterday we went to Immersive Van Gogh Chicago. Vincent is a reminder: Support us artists when we’re still alive.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Red Letter

As of yesterday I’m fully vaccinated! First thing I did? Went to my P.O. box for the first time since March 2020! (And afterwards I went to buy socks with more support. Really wildin’ out here.) And what a pleasant surprise to see so many Dreams of a City postcards! Which means: even though I left these postcards throughout Chicago before the pandemic (I stopped once it was time to lock down), all of these dreams were mailed during the pandemic.

Fitting that my first activity was gathering hope. After I scan these, I’ll be sharing them daily to @dreamsofacity. Follow along!

(For those of you who aren’t familiar with my labor of love: From 2008-2009 in Manhattan, and then from 2012-early 2020 in Chicago, I made thousands of pre-stamped self-addressed postcards, each with the prompt, “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas,” and each—this is the most important part—with a different code on the bottom. I left these postcards in public places all over the city, using the codes to record where I left each one. So, when a card returned to me, I was able to match its code with its location and was able to tell where each one was found, and have been gradually creating a map of the city from all your dreams. It’s a 13-year-old love letter and a message of hope.

View all 100 mapped Manhattan dreams 2008-2009 on Flickr, all 600+ mapped Chicago dreams 2012-2020 on Instagram, and more information on this page.)

Another momentous occasion: On this day 10 years ago, I thought of the concept for the first art show I independently curated, Exquisite Corpse!

I assigned artists who didn’t know each other beforehand into pairs/groups and had them collaborate on creating new artwork for the exhibition. The late great Paul Klein came to preview it, and he gave me my first real review. It was glorious.

Next up / 10 years later / virtually opening this June: DECAHEDRON!

P.S. In case you missed the previous post, PetaPixel interviewed me about my new online gallery for my iPhone 5s photography. Check it out!

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Pixel Perfect

I got interviewed by PetaPixel about my iPhone 5s photography!

Thank you to writer Anete Lusina and editor-in-chief Jaron Schneider for this great feature!

Monday, May 17, 2021


I got my 2nd dose of the Moderna vaccine!

I was prepared for the side effects, which is why I made not one but two art announcements beforehand. Take a look if you missed ‘em.

Speaking of of vaccines: As of one week ago, my parents are now fully vaccinated. On Friday, for the first time since April 2020, my mom went inside the grocery store instead of getting curbside pickup! (Like I’ve said, we’ve been strict—me most of all.)

And: Thank you for including me and SLAYSIAN (still on view since March 2020!) in this wonderful collection of recommendations for Chicago’s AAPI businesses and makers, One Design Company!

Via One Design:
“Local AAPI businesses, makers, cultural centers, and more deserve celebration and support, always—but right now, that’s especially true. In collaboration with our Asian American colleagues, you’ll find a studio-curated collection of 67 Chicago-area businesses, organizations, and makers across 8 different categories. Join us in supporting them now and well into the future.”

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, everyone.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Lens Craft

It’s not the tool; it’s the artist. From 2014–2021, I captured photos around the world using only my iPhone 5s. (And before I finally joined you all in the 21st Century and got the aforementioned phone, I had been using a point-and-shoot.) You don’t need fancy equipment—not even a tripod—to take beautiful photos.

Look up. Chicago 2015.

I’m also nothing if not stubborn, planned obsolescence be damned. It took until last week—right after Apple rolled out iOS 14.5 for newer phones and my 5s crashed whenever I tried to open my Instagram—for me to finally retire my beloved 5s. RIP, Jenny’s first smartphone, March 17, 2014 – April 28, 2021.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Now, for the first time, these photos can be viewed in one place. (I’d been sharing them on channels such as Instagram, but not everyone is on social media, and on those platforms I also share old non-phone photos as throwbacks, as well as non-photographic artwork, so viewers would have to scroll through years of images.) I’ve launched a new online gallery exclusively for my iPhone 5s photos, from El Fin del Mundo at the southernmost tip of South America to the towering sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert along the ancient Silk Road in Western China, from crackling glaciers and floating markets to quiet moments of everyday beauty in my hometown.

View the new photo gallery here.

(And, if one individual’s phone photos aren’t your cup of tea, head over to the previous post for the announcement about DECAHEDRON, which features over 70(!) local and international artists working across all mediums.)

Monday, May 3, 2021

Full Deck

As you know, this June is the 10th anniversary of Artists on the Lam, and as part of the celebration, I’m curating an international exhibition called DECAHEDRON. Today, I’m thrilled to announce the show’s participating artists! Hailing from all over Chicago, the country, and the world, they include:

Adrienne L. Glover, Adrienne Powers, Agnieszka Ligendza, Alba Margarita, Alex Kostiw, Alix Anne Shaw, Allen Vandever, Angie Redmond, Brianna Lynn Hernández Baurichter, Bruce Riley, Caroline Walser, Carrie McGath, Céline Browning, Chad Kouri, Charlene Moy, CHema Skandal!, Chris Silva, Christine Nicklos, Claire Ashley, Clarisse Perrette, Corinne Halbert, Cristy Corso, Czr Prz, Dan Castranova, Danielle Pontarelli, Diane Ponder, Emily Calvo, English Prevo, Glenn Wexler, Hazel R. Magnolia, Heidi Jensen, InsomniaBird, James Gu, James Jankowiak, James Mosher, Juliann Wang, Julius Dizon-Cruz Bautista, Justin Suico, Karen I. Hirsch, Kathy Halper, KC Winter, Keelan McMorrow, Kristin Cass, Kurt Kreissl, Laura Catherwood, Lee Eun Young, Lisa Goesling, Mac Blackout, Mairin Hartt, Mark Pol, Mary Porterfield, Mazon, Megan M. Rivera, Melissa Wang, MelonJames, My Linh Mac, Nancy Bechtol, Nathan Stanton, Nik Burkhart, Olivia Shih, Patricia Biesen, Patrick Earl Hammie, Peyton Rack, Priscilla Huang, Ramiro Silva-Cortés, Rialin José, Richard Gessert, Robert Apolinar, Robin Monique Rios, Sam Riesmeyer, Stafford Hiroshi Smith, Tiffany Gholar, Toby zur Loye, Yuqing Zhu, and you.

What an amazing group, right? And, yes, massive; knowing from the start that this would be virtual, I wanted to involve more artists than I would for any physical show, as a way to truly take advantage of having an online platform (when getting interviewed about SLAYSIAN last year, one point that kept coming up was the silver lining of being able to exhibit bonus pieces as digital exclusives), and to truly fit a milestone anniversary.

Go big at home.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The First King: A Children’s Book by My Linh Mac

This is a guest blog post written by My Linh Mac. To pitch Artists on the Lam, contact us here.

People from all over the world, especially Asian communities, are still suffering as Covid blows its first-year candle. As an artist and a member of the Chicago art community, I believe there is no better time than now to share inspiring Asian artist stories. I want to be a part of the celebration for cultural inclusion and share a slice of life of Chicago’s Southeast Asian artists, much like Raya and the Last Dragon, the most recent Disney Princess film.

My Linh Mac (Millie), a Vietnamese artist based in Chicago, recently released her children’s illustration book about the origins of her country called The First King. My Linh is a SLAYSIAN artist with an exceptional multidisciplinary experience as a painter, graphic designer, art educator, and emerging artistic entrepreneur. She’s a true colorist when it comes to her dynamic and vibrant abstract paintings, and she’s made a name for herself through her remarkable ability to create art in one medium that seems to have been produced in another. Mac’s paintings range from mystical to abstract to figurative to industrial, but her multimedia and graphic design work is strictly commercial with high-end visual effects. With her “full package” skillset and innovative mind, My Linh’s presence extends beyond Chicago cultures, as she has exhibited her work in over 8 countries and served on the jury of several global/international artistic awards. The Creative Communication Award (C2A) in Los Angeles, the Brightness Illustration Award in Iran, the Lorenzo Il Magnifico Award, and the Leonardo Da Vinci Award in Italy are just a few examples.

The First King is based on the story of “Con Rong Chau Tien,” one of Vietnam’s most well-known fairy tales and folktales about the country’s magical origins. My Linh wants to express and pass on her heritage pride to other multi-racial children as an educator and artist who embraces cultural diversity. The book’s unlimited e-copies and hard copies are currently available on Amazon Kindle and currently a part of the Urban Legends: From Playground Lore To Cultural Norms exhibition at Columbia College of Chicago’s Library.

What inspired you to start this project?

Many causes, the most important of which is that I haven't been home in Vietnam in 6 years to pursue education and art making in the States, and the pandemic has exacerbated my homesickness. We never know what will happen next, and because art brings out the best in me, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to reconnect with my roots while also pushing myself into new territories in children's book publishing.

The other reason is because of the current racial discrimination toward the Asian communities. Asian artists deserve to be in the spotlight, not as victims but as inspirations for the community. Even though I haven’t lived in Asia since 2009, I still embrace my root cultural value of “it’s not about what you do because of circumstances of hardship, but more about what you do despite the circumstances of hardship.” We, as Asians in general and Vietnamese in particular, are proud of our hard work and compassion for one another, and these great qualities, rather than outdated stereotypes, should be the common perception of Asians. I’ve always felt fortunate to be born with a gift of creativity because there are so many things (like those values above) that can be expressed simply by the use of words.

Instead of specializing in one field, you basically specialize in everything. Do you consider one medium to be your true calling?

I still return to basics with drawing and painting, which is where it all began for me. Only when I’m messing around with the colorful paste with palette knives and totally at ease with making mistakes and fully feel like myself. Recently, painting has been more of a self-discovery/communicative tool for me than an expressive medium for interacting with others. It’s the opposite with other creative mediums that I work with. For example, when it comes to design, it’s not so much about what I want as it is about what the client wants, so knowing his or her style preferences allows me to learn more about their personalities and backgrounds.

How do you find balance among all your roles?

It hasn’t been easy by any means. From the “tip of the iceberg,” it seems that I am a multi-tasking specialist or a crazy planner, but from the “under the water portion of the iceberg,” it isn’t that complicated. Goal alignment is the key, and I’m a sucker for the phrase “hit two birds with one stone.” When I’m working on a company’s branding, for example, I take the time to learn about the company’s history, as well as behind-the-scenes information such as obstacles to conquer, goals/mission, and core value, among other things. This allows me to gain not only business experience but also a better understanding of my design assignment in order to bring out the best of it. I have learned the hard way not to try to do all at once and exhaust myself. “Less is more” isn’t just a style concept; it also applies in real life.

How has your Vietnamese background influenced your art?

I’m not biologically bi-racial or tri-racial, but since I moved to Singapore at the age of 13, then to South-Australia in my late teens, and finally to the United States in my early twenties, it’s difficult to pinpoint the cultural factors that have influenced my works throughout the years. One thing is certain: The First King isn’t the first initiative dedicated to honoring my Vietnamese heritage.

In addition to The First King, is there anything else we can look forward to from you?

Children book number 2 is coming soon. I’m also considering starting a company/business that focuses on cultural bridging, education, art, and entertainment. I can’t say anything more than that, but I’m hoping that all of the hard work I’ve put in so far will be rewarded in the near future.

Read more about My Linh here, and view more about The First King here.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Shots, everybody

On Monday Illinois finally expanded vaccination eligibility to everyone 16 and older, so I got my 1st dose of the vaccine! Dolly Parton one / Moderna, at Walgreens.

I was so anxious and nervous on the way there (mostly because I haven’t set foot inside a store in over a year (thank you, curbside pickup) (as you know, I’ve been super strict with staying home since March 2020)), but once there I felt like I was in good hands. And what a gorgeous day it was to have a dose of hope.

More to be grateful for: Thank you, Art Design Chicago!

(March 30 marked exactly 1 year since SLAYSIAN—art show I curated of Chicago and the Midwest’s Asian artists—has been online. It’s still up and will remain up for as long as exists. If you missed it in 2020, take a look now. (And for interviews and articles about the show, visit this page.))

Speaking of shows, thank you to everyone who applied to Artists on the Lam’s virtual 10th anniversary international art exhibition, DECAHEDRON! Keep your eyes peeled for the artist list announcement!

Speaking of hope, my labor of love, Dreams of a City (can you believe it’s been 13 years since I started it as Manhattan Map // Postcard Project and 9 years since I launched the Chicago edition?), has inspired a writer in Finger Lakes, New York, to start his own version, and here’s his post about me, my mission, and more.

And I’ll leave you with some nostalgia as random as it is potent: Who else used to watch a show called Yan Can Cook back in the day? When I was little, this was my thought process during reruns. (And I’m loving all the love in the comments!)

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Free Agent

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak at the Leonardo LASER Talk “Resilience: From Cells to the Human Experience” via Zoom, and the video is up! If you were unable to attend, you can watch the full talk here. Thank you to organizer Pamela Winfrey and the ASU Leonardo LASER folks and to fellow speakers Carlo Maley and Chris Johnson for a wonderful panel discussion!

The full video is an hour long, so if you don’t have time for that at the moment, here’s a 1-minute clip in which Pam made an insightful observation that one of the unique ways in which I build community is through agency (and my response).

And in case you missed the previous post, I have an open call for artists for my next [virtual!] group show!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Call for Artists: DECAHEDRON

This year, Artists on the Lam (named “Best Arts Blog” in the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago issue) is celebrating its 10th anniversary! As part of the celebration, founder Jenny Lam (creator of such shows as 2016’s acclaimed LEXICON and 2012’s acclaimed I CAN DO THAT, which was named “Best Art Exhibit” in the 20th anniversary edition of NewCity’s Best of Chicago issue) is curating an international exhibition called DECAHEDRON. Many incredible artists will be participating (we invited artists from our past shows, as well as other artists we admire—get excited for the artist list announcement this spring!), but it wouldn’t really be an Artists on the Lam group show without an open call too:

All artists working in all mediums are welcome to submit art!

Because of the pandemic, the exhibition will be online. (To get an idea of how it might look like, in March 2020, the digital version of SLAYSIAN was launched, and it garnered quite a bit of press.)

To apply, complete the steps here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


This year, I’m celebrating the 10th anniversary of Artists on the Lam! (It was on June 6, 2011, that I published my first blog post here!) Get excited for all sorts of fun stuff (online, of course). Including… DECAHEDRON. Stay tuned!

This week: I’m proud to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at the Leonardo LASER Talk “Resilience: From Cells to the Human Experience” this Friday (February 26), 6-7pm CST, on Zoom. A program that combines art and science—my kind of event. Attend if you’re free!

Another announcement: The launch of my Shop! Purchase original handmade drawings and paintings by yours truly. (In the past I handled art sales via email, which I can still do. Choose whichever method is more convenient for you!) I also have a Redbubble shop where you can purchase prints (and tons of other products like stickers, mugs, and more) of my original photography (all taken on my iPhone 5s, which has been hanging on for dear life).

Fun stuff in the form of short clips: In addition to other social media channels, I’m on TikTok now too; say hello if you’re over there! And here’s a voicemail message I left Sixty Inches from Center that they turned into an entire animated video; it’s amazing and I love it.

And if you’d like to hear a magical little story: Here’s a short thread about a coyote at my door.

Friday, November 27, 2020

A Tale of Two Grandmothers // On Memory

This day is one of death and life, but so are all days.

A candid I took of my paternal grandma in the
Hong Kong Railway Museum, March 2018.
Exhibited at the Chicago Public Library, May 2019.

This morning my paternal grandma passed away at the age of 86, surrounded by family in Hong Kong. We knew this was coming. She was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in the beginning of August, and it was inoperable and chemo wasn’t possible, so it was a death sentence. We didn’t tell her; think back to the film The Farewell. And lately she was on her literal death bed; the past few nights when we should’ve been sleeping, my dad would have his video chat on all night so that he could, in a way, be with her when it happened. I’d fall asleep (and oftentimes wake up in the middle of the night) to hospice noises and the sound of her labored breathing. I didn’t want to see her like that, wasting away. I wanted to remember her as she was. And who she was made me shocked when the diagnosis came, despite her age. She was so active and independent and self-sufficient. If you’ve been following my travels over the years you might remember that, every time I visit HK for Art Basel, she and I would literally hike around mountains together. She lived by herself, and she was always walking all over the city on her own, and she was always so sharp.

Pancreatic cancer is brutal. I won’t go into the details of her rapid deterioration but I empathize with anyone who’s had loved ones suffer through it. My parents and I paid attention to Alex Trebek’s journey more closely than the average person might because of my paternal grandma, and when he died a couple weeks ago, it filled me with dread.

Today is also a celebration of a life. It’s my maternal grandma’s 96th birthday according to the Western/solar calendar. She’s an immigrant and lives in the Chicago metropolitan area.

One of the photos my uncle texted us of my maternal grandma looking so
pleased after winning mahjong on various days in July and August 2020.

We always celebrated her Chinese/lunar one, which usually falls around December, but this year we decided to observe her Western one early; according to superstition, if my paternal grandma died, we wouldn’t be able to go to my maternal grandma for 49 days. (The irony is my maternal grandma isn’t superstitious, but some other relatives are, and we respect their wishes.) I guess I should backtrack a little before I continue, though.

I’ve been staying home since March. Home being my parents’ house. My parents are 63, so I knew back then, as I cancelled the physical show for SLAYSIAN when Illinois’ total cases exponentially jumped to 66, that if I didn’t come to them as soon as possible (I remember I had one last errand to run before hunkering down), I wouldn’t be able to see them for who knows how long.

We’ve been living like we’re under lockdown this entire time, nonsensical “reopening” be damned. We still get curbside pickup for groceries and sanitize them before bringing them in. We got takeout once, for my parents’ anniversary. We don’t even take walks around the neighborhood; I see too many people without masks outside. When it was warm out, my dad and I would simply walk around the perimeter of the house (how funny we must’ve looked to anyone who might’ve seen us).

Like I said before, I’ve been a germaphobe since I was 10 (it began when we were given a notice that strep throat was going around, and I suddenly flashed back to the trauma of catching it from different classmates over and over when I was 6), so on the one hand it’s like most of my life has prepared me for this, but on the other hand this is pretty much my worst nightmare. We’ve been strict, with me being the strictest and the enforcer. The only times I’ve ventured beyond our yard were when I had to go to my childhood orthodontist for a retainer concern (“Welcome to the outside!” the staff joked to me) and when we drop off freshly homemade food and other snacks for my maternal grandma every month.

We have a system. My maternal grandma lives with one of my uncles and his household. They have a table on one end of their garage. We arrive and park in their driveway, they open the garage door, we place our gifts on the table, and we stay at that open end (I sometimes stand directly under the garage door and think back to my childhood fear of being decapitated that way) while they’re at the other end. We briefly say hi and exchange a few words and maybe take a photo of the two of them from this distance. We drive away as they watch us, and my grandma waves, and I wave back. In July I overheard my mom saying that every time she says goodbye to her mother there’s a feeling of sadness, and I mentally agreed. Pre-pandemic, my mom would spend time with my grandma at least a couple times a week: Sunday dim sum and errands in Chinatown, a weekday dinner at their favorite neighborhood restaurant.

My maternal grandmother is also the woman who raised (and spoiled) me when my parents went to work. We were close. I was her favorite, which boosted my ego because she has 20-something grandchildren.

I use past tense because her memory has been fading. (This is why, for those of you who follow me on social media, over the summer I was delighted to learn that she still remembers how to play—and win—mahjong, pictured above.) Before the pandemic, this was my #1 stressor. It was on Christmas 2019 that she officially forgot who I was. And it felt even worse to me that it was an otherwise joyful moment. We were at her house for the annual Christmas party with extended family and it was the end of the night and an aunt was trying to shuffle her off to bed so we were saying our goodbyes, and she forgot who I was and did not remember raising me. It was bittersweet because she was genuinely praising me and joking, “Oh, I must have done a good job then!” and doing it so cheerily and rubbing my arm and looking at me with kindness and wonder, yet I couldn’t help but let the tears flow as I smiled and nodded sadly with everyone watching us. Without context it was a cute exchange—she was even saying how tall I was (I’m 5’1”)—but I felt like I was dreaming. It was like her true self—her innate personality and humor—shined through, like she was seeing me objectively since she wasn’t beholden to our decades of memories and experiences together. It revealed to me that every version of her would like or love me, that if she met me for the first time she would still feel the same, and she’s always been the kind of strong, opinionated, firecracker of a woman who’d just as easily let it be known if she didn’t like someone. Still, it was a pain I’d never felt before. Earlier, I’d thought I’d be OK with it like Miguel in Pixar’s Coco, but I wasn’t. Then again, unlike Miguel, I’d lived an entire life with her.

Then COVID-19 hit and my priorities completely changed. On March 1, the last time I went to yum cha and before the location of the state’s 4th case was confirmed (we’d received news of it from a cousin who saw a post by a local hospital worker that said Arlington Heights), I suspected community spread and shifted to survival mode for my family. And when your mindset shifts to staving away death, sickness, and suffering, everything else can seem so trivial. I was now happy my grandmother was alive and safe, and I would do everything to keep it that way. Her memory loss also became a silver lining to me: She wouldn’t have to worry about what was happening (she barely knows what’s going on); she wouldn’t have to miss me. I became OK. Throughout the pandemic I’ve even joked about her condition with my mom (imitating a little old lady voice, “Who are these two women who bring me snacks every month?” “She probably doesn’t even remember the previous visit; the snacks are a nice surprise each time”).

So, two days ago it was a race against time for my mom to bake my maternal grandma a cake and for us to drive the 8 or so miles to her, hurriedly wish her a happy birthday, and then get back in the car and leave, before anything happened to my paternal grandma.

We made it, as my paternal grandma held on. She clung to life until all the HK family could be at her bedside at once, holding her hand and bidding farewell. I couldn’t be with her as she was dying of course, but I don’t regret it. I will now always remember her as she was in life: Loud, fierce, hiking mountains in her 80s. Life and death may have been on my mind, but so has memory.

I’m suddenly thinking back to when my maternal grandfather died, on Father’s Day—the Father’s Day that the Bulls won their 4th championship and the first one Michael Jordan won without his father—when I was 8. That was a death that changed my life in so many ways, and marked the end of one era and the beginning of another: I wrote my first diary entry; my mom eventually quit her job; [because] my grandma, who used to live in the house across the street from the one I grew up in (my parents had intentionally moved there so she could babysit me), moved out of that house and started anew. There were too many memories there for her. After staying with us for a little while, she moved to Palatine, where she’s been ever since.

Life is strange and everything can change so quickly. Now more than before I think about how little time we have with our loved ones. The years are fast.

This day is one of life and death, but on this day I celebrate both my grandmothers’ lives. On this day I choose to celebrate life.

P.S. Something I was always proud of was how both my grandmothers admired each other. They’d always individually praise each other to me, telling me how they thought the other was so impressive and such a good person. They have so many children and thus so many in-laws, yet it was my grandmothers who connected. In my youth I’d joke how it was a testament to how powerful I was. (Of course, being my maternal grandmother’s favorite probably didn’t hurt.)

P.P.S. Oh, the limits of the English language. In Chinese we have completely different words to distinguish between one’s maternal and paternal grandmothers.

Monday, November 23, 2020

You Are Stardust


You Are Stardust by Jenny Lam, acrylic paint on wood, 8.5 x 6.375 x .125 in.

Resilient. Loved. Those were the first words that came to mind when presented with You Are Beautiful’s blank “You Are __________” board for their Virtual Winter Exhibition.

DIY board from You Are Beautiful.

But then, as I was playing around with my paints (in case I was a little rusty—I hadn’t painted in over a decade! what better way to get back into it than such an inspiring prompt), something else came to me.

I was testing out the colors of my new paints, painted this miniature
while playing around, and fell in love. November 2, 2020.

What both humbles and empowers me, makes me feel small in the best way and makes me feel part of something bigger than all of us, something greater than all of this, is space, the stars. Always has been that way—refer to this page of my diary from when I was 13.

A diary entry from Spring 2001, during landing
(hence the shaky handwriting) of a flight home from D.C.

“We are made of star-stuff,” Carl Sagan said. “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” That fact has always comforted me, and I think we all need to be reminded of it in these times.

You are stardust. 

This photo is the most accurate when it comes to the painting's colors.
(Taken with a Samsung Galaxy; all others iPhone 5s.)
The virtual opening is December 12 at YAB HQ, where my piece will be available for purchase. [12/12 update: The show is live!] [12/13 update: My work has been sold!]

(Painted this a couple weeks ago, mailed it to You Are Beautiful last Monday, and can’t wait to see what others have created! Thank you, YAB Sticker, for the quarantine project, and for lighting a fire in me to make my own art again.)

P.S. For more about the creative process, development of an idea, and evolution of this painting, check out the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Making a Ruckus // The Art Advocate

Rest in peace, Paul.

9 years ago, Paul Klein gave me my first art review. It was for the first exhibition I independently curated, and I was so excited to have an actual art critic come and preview the show as I was installing it. Not written in his article: When Paul smiled and said to me, “You’re making a ruckus.”

At the time my privacy setting for this Facebook status
was "Everyone but Paul Klein."
The intro to Paul Klein's preview of Exquisite Corpse
in Art Letter, "Art: Preseason," 1 September 2011.

Paul and I indeed hadn’t met until that late summer afternoon at Fulton Street Collective. (I knew of him, and I’d cold-emailed him my press release.) The first part of his post-visit preview reveals as much about him as it does about me, perhaps even more so. Paul exemplified the best of Chicago’s art world: welcoming, unpretentious, unconcerned with your credentials, no frills, funny as hell. He called himself an art advocate, and he was right.

I never signed up for his popular Klein Artist Works course (side note: I just learned that all his videos are now on his website, free of charge—what a treasure trove), and I met him long after he was no longer a gallerist and dealer, so unlike most who were touched by him I can’t speak as a student or mentee of his. But anyone in his orbit can attest that he was a positive force. In fact, so strong was his gravitational pull that something as seemingly insignificant as a few sentences in an online newsletter—which may not have looked like much for an established arts professional—was enough to assure my novice self that I was on the right track.

Almost exactly 5 years (and a hell of a journey) after that exhibition, Paul emailed me this and invited me to speak on a panel about “What Matters.” The other panelists were Edra Soto, Magalie Guerin, Juan Angel Chavez, and Tom Torluemke. The fact that he trusted me, trusted in what I had to say, especially alongside such titans, again reflects his character.

That was in fall 2016, which means he was already battling cancer then. According to his CaringBridge site, “in the fall of 2014 Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer that had metastasized to his liver [and his] doctors gave him 6 months to live.” He was going through this yet was still blessing us with moments like these

Laughter between Paul Klein and me at the "What Matters"
panel at Startup Art Fair Chicago, 25 September 2016.
Screenshot taken from a video by Contreras-Gabriel Project.

and moderating a discussion on such a theme. That floors me.

One can only hope to be half as good as Paul was, to leave a mark on multiple generations of local artists like he did. We walk in the footsteps of giants. Daunting as that may seem, we can take it one step at a time:

Advocate for artists like he did.

Make a ruckus.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


SLAYSIAN Virtual Exhibition has gotten some great press coverage throughout Illinois’ shelter-in-place order. I’ve compiled a collection of these articles / interviews with artists (and yours truly) / reviews / etc. here. (Also in Facebook album form for the highlights.) Take a look!

May you and your loved ones continue staying healthy and safe.

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