Interview: Shea Chang

Fluid between both abstraction and highly detailed representation, Chang’s realm of symbolic narrative is depicted through paintings through dizzying leaf motifs, crowded forest views, and lone natural objects. The snakes, moss, leaves and rocks each unfold a subtle narrative of wilderness, fear and familiarity spawning from time spent the forests in the Canadian West coast, where she grew up as a child. 

Currently based in Toronto, Chang’s cross-disciplinary practice is in rooted in art, design and art-education. Stemming from a background in illustration and informed by her pluralistic immersion in urban/ rural environments, and by her multi-racial and queer identity, her work investigates the relationship with nature as a passage of self-reflection and understanding one’s own personal narrative.

What would you say your work is about?

I would say that my work is about commingling and connecting realms that are seemingly disparate, at odds with each other, or are unfamiliar. The subjects that I choose to paint are all parasitic and cooperative in some way. One element grows and pokes out of someplace else, emerging from one teeming pool, or empty color field and into another realm. I think that is symbolic how we move, grow and change as human beings. I try to use this transposition in my painting as a means to implant myself into nature in an attempt to build, grow, experience, reflect and decompose what I am reflecting and break down the ways in which I am doing it. I play with the recognizable and familiar within the forms but depict them in a way that makes them a more of a record of growth in my own personal narrative and exploration of my own inner wilderness.

Your imagery reflects your interest in nature, but your color palette is otherworldly. Can you tell us about your choice of color?

I paint with colors that are more obviously manufactured and somewhat atypical because I want the images to be somewhat arresting and accost the viewer into a particular space. There is definitely a psychedelic quality to the light and color that I use, and that creates a mood that is teeming with life or slowly upheaving. 

The colors also speak to the way I’ve become to understand nature as a whole. I think that it’s no longer something that is pristine and untouched. It’s authenticity and artifice is subjective. For better and for worse, the places that we once thought of that were wild or separate from us are not really that way anymore. Nature has now become something that we look at to form our own understanding of ourselves and our world. By subverting these concepts of the ‘natural’ and the ‘human-made’, I’m questioning our relationship to nature and acknowledging the ways we manipulate it and consume it.

Tell us about your process from reference to execution. 

I am pretty meticulous and spend a lot of time rendering the details on each piece, so planning them out helps me to make the process more efficient. I mainly paint subjects that I have photographed and/or sketched in person but usually combine multiple photographs or angles into one painting. Each piece is based on a small sketch, a compositional or color study to outline my main direction and allow for me to paint the layers of paint according to where they are in proximity to the foreground. The background layers are more flat with some simple and loose layering and broader brushstrokes, then I’ll work in finer and finer brush sizes. Sometimes with all that slow building of the forms, I have to go back and balance out the values or refine some details and push some areas back. I also switch between looking closely at the reference material and the actual form or figure, and allowing the brush strokes, forms, and colors to grow in different ways on their own. 

Is there anything you do to inspire yourself when you experience a creative block? 

In terms of ever feeling ‘blocked’, I think that’s just usually a problem of perspective. I also think that it’s fairly easy to get lost in what you’re doing, lose sight of the goals that are set out initially, so it’s important to step back regularly and critically engage with where the work was, where it is currently, and where it needs to end up. Since my work straddles the line between representational and imaginative, I have to balance the looseness, freedom and the subconscious while making some critical decisions at the same time. Sometimes I look at it as though my art practice like a car driving down a road, and I have to be able to navigate that road as both the driver and the passenger. I have to balance my time between looking at the reference and allowing my imagination to lead the development of the painted form and make decisions that are more instinctual. So, reminding myself that I have to look at my work through these very different lenses is how I avoid feeling really blocked.

I believe that creativity can be thought of as a well, a resource that has a certain threshold before it runs out. It’s important to feed that well, to make sure that you have a stream of input of inspiration if you expect yourself to output something worthwhile. So in terms of what I feed on for creativity, I travel, look at other art (not just painting but also film and performance art) and I surround myself with people who are ferociously art-loving and open-minded, and who push me to change and grow in my own perspective. 

What are you currently working on and what should we be on the lookout for?

I just got back from a really inspiring trip to the West coast of BC, Canada, and San Francisco, and I’m super stoked to get into some darker, queerer work based on some natural forms that I photographed there. I’ll be continuing on working with these hairy, mossy forms, but will be focusing more on where they are coming out of and where they are growing into. I’m also playing more with basic geometrics and figures integrated and hidden within these natural forms so it should get pretty good and weird.