Q+Art: Alexandra Chiou Celebrates Her Father’s Life with Delicate Paper Sculptures
Paper artist Alexandra Chiou is inspired by the fleeting sensation of hope. While this interest informs much of her work, it is particularly evident in Transitions, a delicate series of layered paper collages dealing with the death of the artist’s father. “My latest pieces celebrate his life, legacy, and lasting memory,” the Massachusetts-based artist says. “Each layered collage evokes feelings of hope, love, joy, and wonder that defined his wonderful life and our final years together.”
When Chiou first learned of her father’s impending prognosis, she looked toward his strength of character for reassurance. As usual, he was characteristically optimistic. “Despite facing many challenges and hardships, he was always optimistic and hopeful for the future,” Chiou notes. “As I learned more about my father with the time we had left together, I continued to see these persistent themes of resilience, strength, humility, and courage in his life story,” from his humble beginnings as an orphan in Taiwan to his eventual journey west to study in America.
In addition to showcasing an irrepressible optimism, Chiou’s work also dips into her love of nature. Carefully layering pieces of hand-cut paper, the artist hints at cherished memories of nature: velvety fuchsia petals, coarse meadow grass, and dark, silky soil by the water’s edge. Seen as a whole, her paper works appear to plot the contours of a geographical area–much like a topographic map would. “[I have] always looked to nature’s contours and horizons as symbols of hope during challenging times and life transitions,” she explains.
It is this pursuit of hope that inspired Chiou to create Transitions, a project that builds upon her belief in the resilience of the natural world—humans included.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Alexandra Chiou discusses the power of vulnerability, persisting in the face of uncertainty, and the importance of communicating a personal story.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Alexandra Chiou: Letters to a Young Artist by Julia Cameron. It's one of my go-to books that I revisit every now and then. If I am doubting myself or just need a break, this book is a nice reminder of why I do what I do, and to be good to and patient with myself.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
AC: I draw a lot of inspiration from the landscape and the parallels that we share with it. For instance, the landscape is always evolving and resilient in a way that I strive to be. Some other themes I touch on in my work include impermanence, mortality, beauty, and courage. Vulnerability and also quiet strength are other key concepts in my art.
What are you trying to express with your art?
AC: In my art, I aim to give physical form to abstract feelings and concepts such as happiness, joy, hope, and wonder. I made my latest series while processing the impending loss of my father. During this challenging time, I focused on the positivity, gratitude, hope, and happiness that defined his wonderful life and our final years together.
As I learned more about my dad with the time we had left together, I continued to see these persistent themes of resilience, strength, humility, and courage in his life story, from his humble beginnings to his eventual journey to America. Now that he has passed, his memory and legacy of resilience, strength, sincerity, and courage live on and guide me.
Ultimately, my work is about navigating the unknown and persisting even in the face of uncertainty. Even when we find ourselves in challenging scenarios and life transitions, these situations often reveal our true inner strength and the suns within each of us. I hope to uplift others through my art, and that viewers see and recognize their own vulnerability as power and strength.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
AC: In undergrad, my art instructors didn't focus on writing and communicating your story. Over the years I've learned this on my own through lots of trial and error (just thinking about some of the first exhibition proposals I wrote as a recent graduate makes me cringe). I wish more time was spent in school on asking yourself why you make what you do and being able to tell that story and communicate that verbally and in writing. It's such an important skill to have as an artist.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
AC: I make a schedule and structure my day and week. I set how much time I will work on my art, just as I make time to eat well, exercise and maintain good health. Likewise, I make time for friends and family. I am mindful of my overall well-being, not just how my creative practice is going.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
AC: Generosity is seeing artists as companions and peers, not competition, and supporting the community and seeing shows by other artists and artist friends. Also, generosity is volunteering or helping out and being generous with your time when you can (for instance, if someone needs help with gallery sitting). People will appreciate it.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
AC: Success to me is about expression and emotional connection. By giving physical form to abstract feelings and concepts in my work, I am expressing the complexity and beauty of the human experience. That encompasses all the highs and lows, and ultimately, the power and strength we find from our vulnerability. If my artwork stirs an emotional response in viewers and speaks to them, that to me is success.
What role does the artist have in society?
AC: I believe the role of the artist is to express and share what it means to be human. The artist tells our collective stories and unites society around universal experiences even in spite of our differences.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
AC: I’d rather be historically significant. The two are not mutually exclusive, but sometimes artists find themselves in situations where they have to adjust their art to make more commercially viable work. I would rather be free to express myself and make work I feel is completely 100 percent me without any restrictions, rather than compromising to meet someone else’s artistic vision.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
AC: When I first got started, I took whatever opportunity I could get, and I learned from those situations, the good and the bad. These days I am very deliberate and mindful when seeking new opportunities. If one arises that I ultimately believe doesn’t seem like a good fit for my work or my artistic goals, then I will pass on it.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AC: Building off the works on paper series I referenced previously, many of my newest pieces also incorporate text and poetry. I am really excited about this current direction. During the pandemic, I started writing more. It was a way for me to process everything going on these past two years. At the time, I felt some emotions were best expressed via words rather than just painting. Together, the painting and text combination allows me to express everything that I want to say in my work.
In addition, some of the text and poems I integrated are translations of passages written by my aunt (my father’s sister) to my father before he left for America in the 1970s. It's been quite a journey learning more about his childhood and understanding who my dad was as a person holistically, not just as my dad. It's been quite a journey fully understanding just how many lives he touched during his lifetime.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
AC: I exercise and read. I also make time for walks and being outdoors. When things get busy, I also try to be mindful of that. I have only tried meditation a few times, but it definitely helps put my mind at ease and reminds me to focus on the moment instead of worrying about everything else on my to-do list.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
AC: I have been fortunate enough to have lived in a few different cities (DC, LA, and now Boston). And there are generous people everywhere you go. Just meet people, put yourself out there, find a community and immerse yourself in it, and that will lead to a sense of connection. In that respect, by supporting your community you can be successful no matter where you are. In my experience, location hasn't been a limiting factor.
Please share with us a real-life art-world horror story.
AC: A while ago, I showed my artwork at an outdoor art event for the first time. The tent had developed condensation overnight, and so some of the backs of my framed works on paper ended up soaking wet. Fortunately, since the pieces were all framed, the works were fine after drying all the sides off, but it was an unforeseen issue that was very concerning at the moment. Needless to say, I will not be showing my work at an outdoor event again anytime soon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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