Interview with Painter Mary Y. Lee

Mary Y. Lee, courtesy of artist.

Mary Y. Lee, courtesy of artist.

As I closed out my summer internship with ACDC as the Communications Intern, I am honored to share with you a conversation that I had with Mary Y. Lee. Mary is a an artist who exhibited six paintings at the Pao Arts Center that depicted the Chinatown community, including two portraits of former ACDC A-VOYCE youth. I sat for Mary’s work titled “Dare to Challenge”, which is a painting of me wearing my mother’s blazer.

I grew up in a family of Chinese immigrants. One of the strongest people that I know is my mother. She taught me what it means to be humble, driven, and resilient and the value of community and family. She is one of the reasons why I am an intern at ACDC, serving to help Chinatown residents and the Chinatown community. By wearing her blazer, I sought to channel her powerful energy. I had never been painted before, so when I saw my portrait exhibited at the Pao Arts Center, I felt seen. I felt that my family story, which has shaped me and gave me purpose, was validated and heard. Mary painted the phrase “tian xia wei gong,” or everyone is equal under the heavens in the background. This phrase, which is also written on the Chinatown gate, pays homage to the years of oppression and resistance that Asian Americans have endured. I wanted this phrase to be inscribed in my portrait because it reminds me that no matter what happens, no matter how many people tell me to go back to china, no matter how many people discriminate [against] my mom because of her strong accent, no matter how belittled AAPI folx are systematically made to feel, we have a place in America just as much as everyone else. We will never be silenced. I am immensely grateful that Mary was able to give me and other Asian American youth a platform to share our experiences. 

Mary Y. Lee’s portrait of Selina,  Dare to Challenge , 2018. Oil on linen. Image courtesy of artist.

Mary Y. Lee’s portrait of Selina, Dare to Challenge, 2018. Oil on linen. Image courtesy of artist.

We will never be silenced.
Mary Y. Lee,  Josiah Quincy School , 2018. Oil on linen. Image courtesy of artist.

Mary Y. Lee, Josiah Quincy School, 2018. Oil on linen. Image courtesy of artist.

Thank you Mary again for having a conversation with me about your story and your experiences as a Chinatown community artist. Thank you for using your art as a tool to empower and narrate the stories of the inspiring people who compose this neighborhood.

Residence Lab Artist Profile: Katytarika Bartel

Photo: Artist and community activist Katytarika Bartel  Taken from their instagram @katytarika

Photo: Artist and community activist Katytarika Bartel

Taken from their instagram @katytarika

Katytarika Bartel is a filmmaker, youth worker, and community artist. They co-founded ANGRY ASIAN GIRLS, a community organization that gives a platform to a group of individuals dedicated to changing the way the AAPI community is represented. They also teach media and design to youth at the Castle Square Tenants Organization’s youth program. Katy’s work specializes in identity politics, recognizing identity as a powerful vehicle for change. Along with Lily Xie, Crystal Bi, and Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Katytarika Bartel is a driving force in our Residence Lab program. We are so excited to feature her as part of our Residence Lab Artist series.

Thank you Katy for taking the time to come out to the ACDC office for an interview. It was so inspiring and meaningful hearing about your experiences as a LGBTQ mixed-race artist!

Selina Li: Where did your family immigrate from?

Katytarika Bartel: “My mom emigrated from Bangkok, Thailand when she was about 21 years old. She landed in California where she met my dad, who is a second-generation immigrant of German descent.”

SL: Was Boston the first place that they landed?

KB: “I was born in California and then moved to New York City. My family lived in Harlem for a while and then spent some time in Connecticut. I’m kind of all over the map. When people ask me where I’m from, which is often, I don’t really have an answer because I moved 10 times as a kid. Having one home is not really a familiar thing to me and that is a perspective that I bring with me. So far, I have lived in Boston the longest. I write a lot of poetry around the question, ‘Where are you from?’ because I think there’s a shared experience behind the question.”

SL: Because you’ve moved around a lot, what does the word “home” mean to you now?

KB: “I love exploring the concept of home. In our Residence Lab discussions, I do a lot of work with my team around the idea of home, what it means, and how home might not be a place. Home for me is where my mom is because I didn’t identify much with my Thai background growing up. I suppressed it because I was always ashamed of my identity, especially while attending a predominantly white high school in Connecticut. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be different at all.’ People were constantly telling me that I didn’t look Asian, so I thought I shouldn’t identify with that part of my background. I had a lot of feelings about being in-between identities.

Now, I have embraced the parts that I used to feel ashamed of, and I feel most at home with my mom. The food that she cooks for me and the way she holds and makes space feels like home. She’s always been my grounding place.”

SL: Were there any artists or musicians in your family?

KB: “My dad was an artist. His career was based in architecture and engineering, but in his free time, he was a painter. He painted a lot, but he never pursued that as a career path. He probably didn’t think that painting was practical as a profession. He passed away this year from cancer, and at his funeral we displayed his artwork. Some of his friends never knew that he was a painter because he never shared it. My mom is also very artistic but would never identify as an artist.

My family didn’t encourage me to be an artist. I don’t think they were super psyched when I told them I wanted to study film. I didn’t feel supported by them until my film was screened at the Boston Asian-American Film Festival.”

SL: Who inspired you to make art for the first time? How did you get started as an artist?

KB: “I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until I went to college. I went to study creative writing and I never thought of myself as super artistic. I realized quickly that I very interested in art and activism and the link between the two, so I transferred to Emerson College. However, there’s so much privilege at Emerson, especially white privilege. There’s a pipeline of students whose parents already work in the film and theatre industry, so they have this advantage over others. The conversations that I had and the people I met were very interesting. It fueled my art.

I made my first documentary at Emerson. I was inspired by some of the Asian American folx that I met while studying at Emerson. It was cool to learn from all these queer AAPI femmes doing filmmaking. I picked up a camera and I’ve been exploring film ever since.”

SL: What medium are you most comfortable with?

KB: “My voice and my camera are the two mediums that I am the most comfortable with. The first type of art I did was slam poetry, which I did in high school as a hobby. I went to Brave New Voices, which is a national slam poetry competition. I have performed spoken word poetry in Boston at different venues. I use my voice in art for public organizing, activism, and slam poetry, while my camera is the tangible medium.”

SL: What kind of poems did you write about?

Pictured: A poem that Katytarika wrote in 2017 called “re-gifting”    Photo from their IG: @katytarika    Check out more of Katy’s powerful poetry here:    https://www.katytarika.com/poetry

Pictured: A poem that Katytarika wrote in 2017 called “re-gifting”

Photo from their IG: @katytarika

Check out more of Katy’s powerful poetry here: https://www.katytarika.com/poetry

KB: “The first poem I ever wrote about was being mixed-race and navigating that. Looking back at it, I think there was so much I had to learn about myself. I was very confused and conflicted with my identity, so most of my poems were about being mixed-race and queer. Slam poetry is a way of giving myself space to speak. For example, East Meets West (EMW) Bookstore in Cambridge was one of the first places that I had felt like home in Boston and that I could be seen on a stage. They house the longest running Asian-American open mic event in New England. Four years ago, one of my best friends, Dahn-Bi, made me come with her. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s so many Asians here. Everyone’s making art. Where has this been in my life?’ It was incredible. Slam poetry and EMW have been huge inspirations for the work that I wanted to do. I featured friends from EMW in my documentary, Re(Orient).

SL: And is it the same for photography and videography? What or who do you take pictures and videos of?

KB: “I always take pictures and videos of others. Whereas in spoken word, it’s always about myself. It’s always my learned experience, because I don’t want to speak for anyone else. But, the cool thing about the camera is that you can tell other people’s stories for them in a way that is visual, relatable, and engaging. You can give them a platform that they might not already have.

I’ve been doing video work for a while, and my videography has always featured Asian-American artists and activists except for one documentary I did in Cuba about race. My videography work almost always highlights local activists and my photography work is an offshoot of that. I’m a self-taught photographer. I’ve been documenting every Asian artist and activist that I can think of in ways that are affordable, accessible, and beneficial for the subject who I’m featuring.”

SL: Who inspires you to make art?

KB: “All of my friends inspire me. I thought about this question for a while too because I have insecurities about being self-taught in my mediums. I eventually earned a journalism degree at Emerson. I did not finish my film degree, so I don’t know the technical aspects of everything in film. I often have this imposter syndrome when I’m making film, even though my work has been featured in film festivals. I don’t know elite photographers and filmmakers. I don’t see myself represented in most of the people who have ‘made it.’

I draw inspiration from both artists and non-artists in my community. For example, Jeena Hah, the Programs Manager at ACDC, inspires me all the time. The young people who I work with inspire me. People who are passionate about what they do and who work for the community inspire me.”

SL: Why did you decide to highlight the community and Chinatown in your art?

KB: “For Re(Orient), which is a documentary series I produced, I interviewed my best friend Dahn-Bi who co-founded Angry Asian Girls with me. I also interviewed Ricky, my partner, who was a volunteer at EMW Bookstore, and is a spoken word poet and designer and the singer-songwriter Haezy Choi. I thought it would only be shots of their art, but while interviewing them, I realized that I couldn’t encompass their work and who they are without featuring their communities. For Dahn-Bi, I couldn’t capture them without filming the Angry Asian Girls team working in Chinatown. Same thing with East Meets West bookstore--the community built that place. For Haezy, her audience was everything to her, and she talked a lot about finding community in Boston. These three episodes started as a short documentary series but turned into 20 to 30-minute episodes. I realized that community is also part of identity.

I realized that community is also a part of identity.

A lot of the Chinatown community is East Asian, yet despite being Southeast Asian, it still feels like home to me. My mom and I go grocery shopping in Chinatown, and I have many meaningful memories of Chinatowns around the U.S. Being around the language and the food here and working with youth in Chinatown who have similar experiences to my own means a lot to me. I want my art to capture that essence of home for others to see and for other to find.”

SL: What role does your art play in community organizing and activism?

KB: “There’s a lot of community organizing and activism in my work with Angry Asian Girls (AAG). We started off as a collective but grew into a community organization. We realized that a collective is very internally centered and focused on the artists, whereas an organization is focused on what’s around us.

Pictured: Katyarika with co-founder Dahn-Bi    Photo from @katyarika

Pictured: Katyarika with co-founder Dahn-Bi

Photo from @katyarika

Dahn-Bi and I met through the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative (AAWPI). We were interns there and both interested activism and disrupting politics, but in a different way than AAWPI’s approach. There were seven AAPI women in our cohort and at the time, we were all angry at how silenced we were while at the State House. There was a lack of opportunities and lack of representation, aside from ourselves.

To fundraise for AAWPI’s next cohort, Dahn-Bi and I drew from the cohort’s collective experience and frustrations at the State House. We decided to make and sell ‘Angry Asian Girls’ t-shirts. Sales took off and we made $3,000 that summer. We realized that selling the shirts were strictly a business interaction and we didn’t want to start a brand. We grew AAG to accomplish what we really wanted--to give back and create space through community events. It started with the two of us and now we are a larger community. We hold space for the many people from the queer and AAPI community, Asian American women and non-binary identifying folx.

Art can impact the community in a lot of different ways because you are creating a space that facilitates joy, which is powerful. I think when people hear of ‘Angry Asian Girls,’ they only think, ‘You’re angry. You’re radical. You’re organizing.’ We are these things, but our events subvert those perceptions. Our events are also positive and safe spaces that hold joy, make art, and create.”

Art can impact the community in a lot of different ways because you are creating a space that facilitates joy, which is powerful.

SL: How would you want your work as a videographer, photographer, and poet to impact the community?

KB: “I want more people to recognize what poetry can be. I teach slam poetry in the spring at Castle Square and I love when young people see that poetry isn't just what they learn in school. When I show youth a video of a slam poetry performance by my friends, their eyes light up. Being a youth worker, I think if growing up, I had a mentor who also identified as artistic--if I had different supports--my path would have looked very different.

Slam poetry is like music and storytelling combined in a creative way that most people are unfamiliar with. I feel so strongly that poetry should be given more platforms. I also want to make videography and photography more accessible. Teaching low-income communities photography or videography and providing them with the proper resources can help them thrive in the digital age.”

SL: What is your favorite art project and why?

KB: “What I’m doing in Residence Lab is quickly growing into my favorite art project! We are working in the lot near the Chinatown Gate (10-12 Hudson Street), and I walk by that space all the time. I used to live in Chinatown because was previously the only place I could afford to live. I think it’s really exciting to transform a space that’s been referred to as the ‘piss lot’ into something beautiful, and more importantly, something meaningful that was created by and for the Chinatown community. I believe that the residents and community members care about this space so much more than any developer would.

I believe that the residents and community members care about this space so much more than any developer would.

We work in teams with Chinatown residents and our team talked a lot about how to make the space interactive. We decided to build on the themes of ‘play’ and ‘oasis.’ We are constructing nine large wooden boxes that can be rolled around. Each facet will feature photos of all the participating artists and residents who helped create the space, and stories about Chinatown that explain why this neighborhood is home for some of them on the boxes.

What I’m doing in Residence Lab is becoming one of my favorite art projects because I’m always thinking about how I can make photography more community oriented. Expanding the process and end-result beyond the photographer-subject dynamic can be hard.”

SL: What is the most rewarding and the most challenging part of the Residence Lab experience?

KB: “The most rewarding aspects are working with the residents and then eventually seeing the art in its full glory. I would hate if I was only asked to make the space ‘look pretty’. That approach that allows an artist to enter the community and impose what they think it needs without input from residents.

Pictured: Katytarika’s photoshoot with Joyce and her family    Photo from @katytarika

Pictured: Katytarika’s photoshoot with Joyce and her family

Photo from @katytarika

Many workshops within Residence Lab have guided and shaped the artists' relationships with the residents, and the program provided a space and outlet to work with residents in ways that I never have as an artist. For example, I proposed plaques, but Joyce, one of the residents said, ‘I have kids and I think it would be fun if they could interact with it.’ That was how we came up with the idea of movable blocks. Our idea included a plan where the blocks could also form a stage, which was inspired by another resident, Maggie, who noticed that Chinatown doesn't have a stage area. This was a cool need to learn about, so the most rewarding aspect was the process.

The most challenging part so far was cutting wood at a hardware store for our blocks, but it is also rewarding to work hard to bring something come to life. While we have a relatively small budget, it’s exciting because I’m not the only ‘artist’ doing the work. It's a collective effort.”

SL: What are your aspirations as an artist? How would you like your art to grow?

Pictured: Katytarika with Crystal Bi from Moon Eaters Collective    Photo from @katytarika

Pictured: Katytarika with Crystal Bi from Moon Eaters Collective

Photo from @katytarika

KB: “I never thought I’d get this far as an artist. I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can start making strides. I want to create long-term projects and make waves in those inaccessible, elitist circles where you don’t see a lot of people like me represented. I want people to know that anyone can rise if they are intentional about it.

I think that we can be giving more to the Chinatown community like what Residence Lab offers. Residence Lab teaches me about how residency, communities, and art should be done. The program offers childcare, stipends for artists and residents, food, and it’s structured in a supportive way. It was a pleasant surprise for me to be supported in this way with all these resources. It’s an important community-oriented approach to preserving Chinatown. Residence Lab challenges the gentrifying pressures encroaching on Chinatown’s borders and within Chinatown. Residence Lab also explores how to take preventative measures. I love this concept of activating space along the borders of Chinatown as a means of protecting the community through art.”

Thank you again Katy for the thoughts and feelings you put in the work you do to serve and empower the Chinatown community. We are so lucky to have you in our team.

To see the work that Katy and the other Residence Lab group has worked so hard on for the last few months, come to the Hudson Lot this Friday (August 23rd) at 5:30pm!

Residence Lab Artist Profile: Crystal Bi, Moon Eaters Co-Founder

Pictured: Crystal Bi-Wegner taken by the Cauldron

Pictured: Crystal Bi-Wegner taken by the Cauldron

For the second part of the Residence Lab Artist series, I am pleased to feature Crystal Bi-Wegner. Along with Lily Xie, Crystal Bi-Wegner is the co-founder of Moon Eaters Collective and a community artist at Residence Lab. Moon Eaters Collective is a zine that uplifts the voices and experiences of AAPI femmes. Crystal is a multi-racial community LGBTQ artist and art teacher. She is an illustrator, painter, and a sound artist. As a community artist, Crystal hopes to uplift people’s voices that are not often represented in the media and help turn community needs and wants into actual changes through art.

Selina Li: Can you explain to me a little bit about your family background? What was your family like? What was growing up like?

Crystal Bi-Wegner: “Growing up, it was just me and my mom for the first part of my life. Later - as a teenager - we moved in with my mother’s partner who became my stepfather. My stepfather was from Hong Kong but immigrated to the Bronx in the 60’s. We would visit his parents in Chinatown in Confucius Plaza. Especially in New Hampshire, we were one of the only Asian families. It was hard to find a community and I didn’t really find a community until coming to Boston.”

SL: How did you come to create Moon Eaters with Lily?

Pictured: Lily Xie on the left and Crystal Bi on the Right

Pictured: Lily Xie on the left and Crystal Bi on the Right

CBW: “I think it was that sense of wanting to find community, especially with intersectional identities. Being queer and being multi-racial, I wanted to find an outlet through a community, even if the community wasn’t always physical. The motivation for creating a zine-to create something on your own or to self-publish-is something that the mainstream is not giving a voice to. So, the zine seemed like a good format for stories that I don’t see a lot on media. I don’t really see a lot of stories about identity and it can feel very lonely.”

SL: Being multi-racial, a person of color, and raised by a single immigrant Asian mother, do you see your identity being reflected in the work you do at Moon Eaters?

CBW: “Absolutely. I feel that working on Moon Eaters is the first time that I was really taking charge of my identity. In addition to being able to visit Taiwan, creating art about my identity brought me closer to myself. More specifically, I was trying to figure out how to keep my culture in my everyday life, how my identity affects the way I present myself, and how I understand myself in spaces. I think Moon Eaters allowed me to not only take charge of my identity but also to find other people who wanted to have that conversation too.”

SL: How has your generation impacted your lived-experience as an artist?

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s illustration from her instagram @crystalbi_b    A person with long hair

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s illustration from her instagram @crystalbi_b

A person with long hair

CBW: “I love this generation because we are thinking really deeply. Information is so readily available at our fingertips and it’s interesting getting a sense of the world with so much information. Compared to 20 years ago, folks are a lot more open to diversity and diversity of experiences. In fact, I think folks are craving to hear those things. There still needs to be more representation of queer experiences, but I’ve seen a lot of community form around that and the experiences of being queer is becoming more out in the open. I think that has been really empowering and great to see. I think being part of a community that makes art out of those stories has been important to me.”

SL: Can you describe the type of art you do? What kind of artist are you? How do you create?

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s illustration using a scratch board from her instagram @crystalbi_b    A person with braids hugging the moon

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s illustration using a scratch board from her instagram @crystalbi_b

A person with braids hugging the moon

CBW: “I think a lot of my artwork has to do with identity. I work with a lot of different mediums. I am an illustrator. I grind my own ink and make self-portraits. I am also a sound artist. I record sounds from outside, which is known as a field recording. I put these sounds into a digital audio work station and pull them into a beat. As a sound artist, I did a performance piece series where I cooked, Iooped the sounds of cooking into a beat, and served the food after. I’m also a visual arts educator for Boston Public Schools. I teach sound art, sound design for film, and storytelling for radio.”

SL: People may assume that art consists of drawing and painting rather than recording sounds. How do you think sound art specifically could make a difference in the community?

CBW: “I think any art you are creating that expresses yourself, tells stories, and changes people’s perceptions is art. Sound is another medium. I feel like I work with sound the same way that I would pick up colors in painting. I put sounds together and mix them together and it feels very similar to painting for me. If you add stories and narratives on top of it, they become another layer of how you can express things or change people’s perceptions. I think all of that is art. I also really love sound art because people may think they aren’t an artist because they can’t draw, but by engaging in sound art or radio story, people understand that they are creative and that they do have something to say. Anybody can record something, but not everyone feels comfortable drawing.”

SL: What inspires you to make sound art? What motivates you?

CBW: “I think I am really sound sensitive. I took classes at MassArt, and one of the classes I took was a sculpture class where you also needed to draw. One day, I didn’t do my homework so I said to my professor, “I don’t have sketches, because I can’t sketch it. It’s a sound sculpture.” And he thought the idea was cool. Initially, I didn’t know if I could do it, but I rented field recording equipment from Mass Art.

When I recorded the world around me for the first time with a field recorder and heard every detail, it was like putting on glasses for the first time.

In high school, I didn’t want to wear glasses at the time even though I needed them so I would squint at the board. But, the first time I put glasses on, I was so amazed. I thought to myself, “This is what things are supposed to look like.” When I recorded the world around me for the first time with a field recorder and heard every detail, it was like putting on glasses for the first time.”

SL: Do you have specific artworks or artists who inspire you?

CBW: “Definitely. There’s a sound artist called Samson Young. He does performance and sound work. I think he does story-telling through his sound works. He had this one piece where he watched footage from a silent Iraq war movie and added sound effects post-production. He did this for 12 hours in a museum. Samson’s application of sound was extremely interesting and altered people’s perceptions about the war.”

SL: What was your favorite art project?

CBW: “I’m working on a mural right now at English High School. All the students must think about one quote, ‘I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams,’ and illustrate based on that quote. I put their art together on photoshop and projected it on a wall. The students have been working on this project for three and a half weeks and it has turned out so well. They all came up with very different things. The theme, which is Black Girl Magic, is a positive message that we can send to the larger community. It was one of my favorite projects and I hope to continue doing murals.”

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s most recent art project    A person with glasses drinking from a long straw

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s most recent art project

A person with glasses drinking from a long straw

SL: Murals are all about community members and artists coming together to form one great artwork that can change and inspire a lot of people. In Residence Lab where Chinese members and artists also come together, why do you think it is important to have this connection between community members and artists?

CBW: “Creating the situation where folks understand that their stories are important is really special. Programs that center residents and artists or students and artists can create the situation where we can highlight these different voices and let people know, ‘your story and your voice matters. You are an artist, because you have a story to tell.’”

Your story and your voice matters. You are an artist, because you have a story to tell.

SL: When and why did you decide to highlight the community in your art?

CBW: “I think I've always been a community artist. I love art for myself, but in my job where I work as a counselor, one of the schools I worked for didn’t have an art program, so I started one. I always wanted to do social justice and art hand in hand. I loved art as a high schooler. I also studied international affairs in college, and I was always interested in youth development. Being a community artist was a merging of my main interests.”

SL: How do you think art can play a role in community organizing?

CBW: “I think the role of an artist is to change the way people think about a certain situation. In community organizing, artists can shape the story and communicate the message that a neighborhood or a community wants. The role of the artist is to make sure the story they express through art entices people so they can stop and engage with it.”

SL: Do you have future aspiration as an artist? Do you have personal goals you would like to set for yourself as an artist and how you would like your art to grow?

CBW: “I think my main goal is be a community artist and continue to do work like this. I want to work with a lot of different media. I am going into a master's program at Mass Art called the Dynamic Media Institute and it’s a marriage between storytelling, technology, and art. I’m interested in learning new skills like augmented reality, virtual reality, additional sound skills, and installation art can help better advance my knowledge as a community artist.”

SL: You talk about being able to uplift voices of those who aren’t usually present in the media and being able to address underrepresentation. Why do you think it’s important to address underrepresentation and build accessibility through your work as an artist?

CBW: “Creating a diversity of experiences in America and weighing each story equally within our culture is important. Equitable representation is political. Not hearing the stories of other people’s experiences normalizes the dehumanization of others, limits people from economic opportunity and prevents people from having a political voice. Even though representation may seem insignificant to some people, it has weighted effects.”

Equitable representation is political.

“I do really believe that we start off drawing to process or tell our stories. I think I would remind people to find a creative outlet.”

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s illustration using pen and ink from her instagram @crystalbi_b    A person sitting on the pool smoking from a cigarette

Pictured: Crystal Bi’s illustration using pen and ink from her instagram @crystalbi_b

A person sitting on the pool smoking from a cigarette

Thank you, Crystal Bi-Wegner for taking the time to share your upbringing and experiences as a queer, mixed-race community artist. Thank you for the amazing work that you have been doing for the community!

Don’t forget to stop by 8 Hudson Street in Chinatown on August 23rd between 5:30pm and 7:30pm to see the meaningful art work that Residence Lab artists and residents have worked on for the past few months.

After checking out the Residence Lab kick-off, stop by the Chinatown Gate for a free screening of Tyrus at 8pm for our annual Films at the Gate Festival!

Residence Lab Artist Profile: Lily Xie, Moon Eaters Collective Co-Founder

I had the chance to sit down and have a conversation with Lily Xie and Crystal Bi, Residence Lab artists and co-founders of Moon Eaters Collective about their perspectives as AAPI LGBTQ artists. Recognizing the lack of queer Asian representation in the media, Lily Xie and Crystal Bi-Wegner created the Moon Eaters Collective, a zine that centers Asian American femme art and AAPI queer experiences. Lily and Crystal both joined Residence Lab as community artists with the hopes of using art to activate and preserve spaces in Chinatown.

lily_headshot.jpg

Pictured: Lily Xie with her art pieces

Lily Xie is an LGBQT+ illustrator and cartoonist who grew up in Chicago with immigrant Chinese parents. She began making art in order to release and visualize her inner thoughts and feelings. Through Residence Lab, Lily hopes to weave vulnerability and external-processing in her community work and empower Chinatown residents.

Selina Li: What is your family background like? What was it like growing up? 

Lily Xie: “I am a second-generation immigrant. Both of my parents are immigrants from China who came to the US in the 80s after the Cultural Revolution. They settled in Chicago where I grew up and I’ve been in Boston for the past 10 years.”  

SL: What is your preferred medium?  

Pictured: Lily Xie’s illustration for Moon Eaters. A woman with glasses drinking from a straw.   Source:  https://lilyxie.cargo.site/Illustration

Pictured: Lily Xie’s illustration for Moon Eaters. A woman with glasses drinking from a straw.

Source: https://lilyxie.cargo.site/Illustration

LX: “I work in illustration, book making, and print-making. Working with combinations of these three mediums feels very intuitive to me.” 

“Crystal and I started the zine, “Moon Eaters Collective” in 2018. We wanted to bring together other people who were queer Asian artists like us and build a community. We wanted to do that by collecting people’s work and sharing that.” 

SL: How did your family react when you told them that you were making art? Were they supportive? 

CX: “I don’t really talk about my work with my parents. My mom knows that I do art and that I draw, but we don’t talk about the specifics. From their perspective, what I do seems like a very impractical thing, especially as immigrants where they had to work so hard to make a living—to get by. To do something where there is no guaranteed or stable income is very risky to them.”  

SL: How has your generation impacted your lived experiences as an artist? 

CX: “Things like being risk-averse, working really hard, being able to make a lot of sacrifices are values that I inherited from my family, who believes that these skills are what kept them alive--what was necessary for their survival. My parents were my first teachers, but as I’ve gotten older, more “teachers” have offered me different possibilities of living.  

I think a lot about making my own choices and negotiating between upholding their values as a daughter and what is harmful or not helpful for me. As an artist who wants to remain curious, I think values like being risk-averse or fearful of change is damaging and inhibiting. It feels bad to dismiss these values entirely, but it also feels bad to hold on to them too tightly as well.”  

SL: What inspired you to make art? Who inspired you? 

Pictured: Lily Xie’s illustration of two people for Boston Hassle to accompany ‘So I’m a Student- Now What?    Source:    https://lilyxie.cargo.site/Illustration

Pictured: Lily Xie’s illustration of two people for Boston Hassle to accompany ‘So I’m a Student- Now What?

Source: https://lilyxie.cargo.site/Illustration

CX: “I started making art by drawing and wanting to share with people. At the time, I had just gotten over a breakup, and felt very lonely. I had all this energy and things that I wanted to express, and I needed a way to get it out. Drawing to me is very meditative. It is a way to process and do self-healing. I started making illustrations and zines about that topic. My favorite part about doing this is that I liked being able to share my work, go to markets and talk to people, get their feedback and have conversations. I felt like this was a good way of expanding just beyond me.” 

SL: You mentioned being able to externalize how you feel inside. What does that mean in the context of our society where people are often conditioned to feel certain emotions and not always able to truly express themselves? How does your work align with that? 

Pictured: Lily Xie’s art piece about the inter-generational gap between Asian grandparents and AAPI grandchildren. An elderly woman is illustrated with words on her right shoulder:  应该还有一会儿吧?  (translation: there should still be some time left, right?)  Source:  https://www.instagram.com/p/BtG1JXnnED5/

Pictured: Lily Xie’s art piece about the inter-generational gap between Asian grandparents and AAPI grandchildren. An elderly woman is illustrated with words on her right shoulder:

应该还有一会儿吧?
(translation: there should still be some time left, right?)

Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BtG1JXnnED5/

CX: “I think my work directly opposes that feeling. We live in a space, especially if you are not male or if you are someone from a cultural or racial background, where you are taught to minimize yourself and to brush aside your reactions to things. 

I hope others can feel like, “I saw this piece where someone was being very honest about themselves and giving validation and light to their process of feeling and that makes me believe that I have permission as well.” 

I hope to tap into that feedback loop. As people feel more like they have permission to be true to themselves, the more they can go out and let other people know that this is ok and in turn, engage in mutually healing work.” 

We live in a space, especially if you are not male or if you are someone from a cultural or racial background, where you are taught to minimize yourself and to brush aside your reactions to things.

SL: What is one piece of advice that you have for an inspiring artist or someone who is fearful of doing art? 

CX: “Be curious. I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I have been reading work by Adrienne Maree Brown. One of the things that she talks about is staying curious in your life, not just in art but also in relationships and love. We tend to be fearful of making mistakes and of not doing the right thing, but I think we can instead turn our attention to what makes us curious and what actions might be pleasurable or might invoke curiosity. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. You can just be curious about what happens when you are playful and do something some type of way.  I am also trying to teach myself these things.” 

SL: Why did you decide to be a part of Residence Lab? 

CX: “Both Crystal and I were interested in being community artists whose work engages with and seeks to benefit the whole community. I think it was perfect to have this framework and structure provided by Pao and ACDC. Meeting residents has been wonderful and having a chance to practice community artwork was exactly what we were looking for.” 

SL: How do you think that art can play a role in community organizing, activism, or changes in the community? 

Pictured: Lily Xie’s art piece  A person is lying on a flower. The words on the right say, “I just need one moment/To rest inside myself”  Source:  https://www.instagram.com/p/BWoS7G0AVdH/

Pictured: Lily Xie’s art piece

A person is lying on a flower. The words on the right say, “I just need one moment/To rest inside myself”

Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BWoS7G0AVdH/

CX: “Art is being used to build coalitions and advance strategic goals or policy goals where you need people to buy in. It also operates in the realm of the heart. To get people to be in the movement with you, you must access their heart space and doing art is a good way to access that. It has also been useful for me as a tool of meditation and healing. I think art is healing work for a variety of reasons, among race, class, and gender. It can be a useful tool for bringing people together, because it is a low barrier of entry--you just need to find paper and grab a pencil. 

Sometimes art can give legitimacy to an idea or a narrative that people would brush away if it was just through writing.” 

To get people to be in the movement with you, you must access their heart space and doing art is a good way to access that.

SL: How would you want your work to impact the community?  

CX: “I hope that the residents we work with in this program can feel empowered. I hope they feel that they have access to art-making in their tool box to improve their lives or even just for fun.  

I hope that we [Moon Eaters Collective] can be successful at supporting ACDC. I know a big part of their vision is to be able to have ANCHOR areas where people understand that Chinatown is an important neighborhood and place to preserve. I hope that by activating spaces, we can build public interest and bring more curiosity. I also want for the residents to feel happy to live here.” 

SL: What is the most rewarding part of Residence Lab? 

CX: “So much of my work with Residence Lab so far has been rewarding. I've learned so much, not only from Jeena and Anju and other facilitators, but also from the residents—discussing their interests, concerns, and dreams.” 

SL: What are your future aspirations as an artist? How would you like your art to grow? 

CX: “I hope to become an artist that is more sensitive to the needs of people around me and to become more skilled at turning what people need and hope for into a form of art intervention. I also would love to continue doing work with the Chinatown community! My day job is doing stuff with data, so I would love to bridge those worlds together and bring technology into the art practice and vice versa.” 

SL: Why is it important to address underrepresentation and to build accessibility through your work? 

CX: “There are some unique experiences and challenges to being both queer and Asian American that we wanted to understand more of and have more of a framework for Moon Eaters. Crystal and I were really interested in seeing work from people who share these identities. Even more broadly, we didn’t really know what this means for us. We have a long-term hope to mobilize the community we are building to work towards justice and policy agendas as well. We hope that we can activate artists with organizers in the future.” 

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Pictured: Lily Xie’s illustration about the beauty of ferns

I would like to thank Lily for her wise words about channeling vulnerability and emotions in a creative way, for the time she took to talk to me about her experiences as an AAPI LGBTQ+ community artist, and for being a part of Residence Lab. Artists like Lily who use their skills to center Chinatown residents’ experiences and voices are extremely valuable members to Asian Community Development Corporation. Look out for Moon Eater’s Co-Founder Crystal Bi-Wegner’s interview piece in a few days!

Don’t forget to come join us August 23rd at the Hudson lot for Residence Lab Kick-off where we will be featuring the art that Chinatown residents and community artists, like Lily Xie collaborated on during their time in Residence Lab! The event will start 5:30pm and end at 7:30pm.

How Can Artists and Residents Work Together to Shape the Future of Rapidly Changing Chinatown?

Art, like community voices, can be powerful. When art is inspired by community voices and experiences, it can become a tool for change.  

How can we continue to preserve Chinatown through art? How can emerging artists and residents work together to shape the future of a rapidly gentrifying Chinatown? These are some of the questions that we explore at Residence Lab, one of ACDC’s placemaking initiatives that leverages the community’s assets, skills, and experiences to cultivate spaces that foster happiness, engagement, and mobilization, in collaboration with BCNC’s Pao Arts Center. 

This year’s Residence Lab artists are Katytarika Bartel from Angry Asian GirlsPonnapa Prakkamakul, a landscape architect, and Crystal Bi and Lily Xie from Moon Eaters Collective. They are working alongside our residents in a seven-week workshop series to co-create the future of Chinatown through art. Our artists use various mediums such as site furniture, zines, and portrait photography to highlight the narratives of marginalized communities in their work. 

With Chinatown boundaries shrinking under the pressures of gentrification and displacement, we developed the ANCHOR initiative as a strategy to “anchor down” and preserve Chinatown homes, businesses, and cultures through creative collaboration, art activism, and resident mobilization. The acronym serves as guiding principles for this work: 

Activating spaces 

Neighborhood needs 

Community 

Housing 

Open spaces 

Resident-centered 

Photo: A-VOYCE Alumni Zi and Billy in front of the ThinkChinatown Mural “Tied by a Thousand Threads” during the unveiling event

Photo: A-VOYCE Alumni Zi and Billy in front of the ThinkChinatown Mural “Tied by a Thousand Threads” during the unveiling event

In 2016, Billy and Zi, both ACDC youth program alumni, wanted to develop a platform for residents to transform underutilized spaces. With this in mind, they created ThinkChinatown, one of ACDC’s first ANCHOR projects. Yvonne, a Chinatown resident submitted a proposal, which culminated in a collaboration with local artist Shaina Lu, to create the mural, “Tied by a Thousand Threads” currently on display along 15 - 25 Harrison Avenue. This two-part art project, which consisted of the mural and a video documenting the project, not only connected the intergenerational experiences of Yvonne’s immigrant family, but also the shared experiences of the Chinatown community spanning from the early 1900s to today.  

Through ThinkChinatown, ACDC saw the empowerment and mobilization that comes from listening to and prioritizing the voices of the Chinatown community. We recognize the potential that art has in unifying people and advocating for change, which is why we launched Residence Lab.  

We are so excited to learn from the skills and experiences that our artists and residents bring to the table. Stay tuned for a Residence Lab profile series where we highlight each Residence Lab artist and some of our residents! 

Photo: Residents and Artists Lily Xie and Crystal Bi at the Chinatown Backyard

Photo: Residents and Artists Lily Xie and Crystal Bi at the Chinatown Backyard

Thank you again BCNC’s Pao Arts Center for partnering with us. Special thanks to ArtPlace America, Barr Foundation, and Sasaki’s Fabrication Studio for your generous sponsorship and support in helping make Residence Lab possible.

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