The DART Interview: Chemin Hsiao

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 13, 2019

Peggy Roalf: Which came first, the pen or the brush?

Chemin Hsiao: The brush. In Taiwan, where I grew up, it was customary for children to learn how to use the brush to write calligraphy in elementary school. It was considered an honor back then if you could write beautiful characters. I was among the kids who had to practice diligently and followed the trend. So later on, when I would hold a brush for painting purposes, it felt natural to me. 

PR: What are some of your creative inspirations—artists, music, literature, culture in general—that you draw from for your work?

CH: My work is often drawn upon nature, specific locations/environment, the people living in it, and my memories associated with them.

PR: Do you keep a sketchbook? If yes, how does that contribute to your workprocess? If yes, does this figure in with your teaching?

CH: Yes. For instance, the “Strangers” series was created from the sketchbooks I kept through the years. Those direct observation of moments in life often serves the purpose of collecting and archiving important objects that have been part of my daily life. When the time comes to search for elements to create the larger narrative pieces, such as “My Journey to the West” series, they will quietly creep into the work. Yes, I often shared the importance and usefulness of keeping sketchbooks with my students.


PR: Where do you live and how does that place contribute to your creative work?

CH: I live around the Jackson Heights area in Queens. It’s an neighborhood where I could conveniently get groceries and food similar to my hometown in Taiwan; I guess this brings comfort to my daily life in the first place. Opportunity-wise, I would say living in Queens and being able to work with Queens Council onthe Arts on various projects through their grant support has been a blessing.

PR: Please describe your workspace and how it contributes to the illustrator’s

basic condition of working alone.

CH: I have a corner of my home as the workspace, with two desks, an easel, laptop and scanner, surrounding by few potted plants. The space simply allows me to sit quietly to paint, draw, prepare for teaching, or take care of emails.

PR: Please describe your work process—is most of your work done directly, or do you also use digital media?

CH: The majority of my work is done traditionally—for instance, pen/watercolor on paper, or acrylic on canvas. Digital media becomes involved in the following circumstances:

• When digital coloring is required for a drawing, such as some pieces in the series,


• When I sketch for ideas or arrange visual elements for composition.

• When the work involves moving image, like this “Daffodil” piece, but each of the

frames was still done with traditional medium. 


PR: How do you know when the art is finished—or when to stop working on it?

CH: During the process, you continue working until your mind said, “this is it, I can’t add any more into it.”

PR: In your ongoing series, “My Journey to the West,” you bring a wide variety of animals into your art. What is there about including animals in your paintings that is significant to you?

CH: For some reason, memories of animals in my early childhood have always stayed with me. Also, since my arrival to New York City years ago, I have visited the zoo often to paint the animals. It is a calm, happy and rather free space to be. For me, each of the species that have appeared in the work has a specific reason to be there. It could be their behavior, how they associate with certain period of my life events, or simply how they represent certain people I know. It serves as a metaphor to help the narrative aspects of my work. Or, in special occasions, such as the ArtSite Public Art Commissioning work, “MyJourney to the West III: Playground” on a rolling gate, I utilize them symbolically for representing the diverse community in Jackson Heights without pinpointing any specific ethnic group.

PR: I see from your newsletters that you have done a great deal of community work in Queens, from the public art commission for a “rolling gate mural” to workshops at the Queens Botanical Garden and at senior centers, to teaching high school students. What does this kind of work, which is apart from your work as an illustrator, bring to your practice?

CH: As mentioned earlier, a lot of the opportunities came or grew from the support of Queens Council on the Arts. The ArtSite mural on the rolling gate is a part of the collaboration between 82nd Street Partnership in Jackson Heights and QCA to help local business, but also to offer Queens artists an opportunity to create new work that celebrates the culture diversity in the area. Together with the Sitting with the Garden exhibition in 2017 at the Queens Botanical Garden via the New Work Grant, these opportunities offered financial support for artists to create work in the community. My creative work certainly grew with those awards and grants; for instance, to be able to paint on a rolling gate as public art with legal protections arranged by the QCA, and to contribute to the neighborhood I live in, all good causes.

The seasonal watercolor and printmaking workshops at the Queens Botanical Garden grew out of the 2017 exhibit I was in and I enjoy every bit of it working with the kind staff in the organization and teaching visitors of all ages who obviously enjoy nature in the first place. The garden is simply a nature environment in the same way that the zoo serves in my practice: I sit with the plants, and artwork flows from that process.

I started working with seniors in 2018 via the SU-CASA program, which aims to enhance the well-being of older adults through art activities. I also work with StudioLab program with Abrons Arts Center, which led me to teach Visual Arts to high school students. Overall, teaching is another way to sharpen what I practice daily through the means of sharing with others. It helps me organize and understand my own creative process.

PR: Could you tell the readers a little about your experience as Artist in Residence within the SU-CASA Arts Program—and why you were interested in being part of this?

CH: Working with seniors is such a special experience. They are people who are well suited for art activities because with their age, they have a lot of life experience and wisdom and they can follow instructions more patiently than teenagers do. Specifically, they’re ready to explore any different art medium/content to enrich their lives. And they are always enthusiastic about what we are about to do and make the most out of every class.

Also, one of the interesting things about SU-CASA is that you might be assigned to the senior center in which the participants come from your culture background and speak your native language. In my case, I was assigned to work with a center in Flushing area, where the majority of the community only speaks Mandarin. Having someone knowing their background and introducing visual arts with their language means a great deal to them. Also, because many of the seniors didn’t have access to art-making while growing up, they appreciate your effort in bringing art into their life. When you witness how happy they are when engaging with art, you felt much rewarded for participating in this meaningful program.

PR: If you could live and work anywhere, where would that be—and why?

CH: I will be fine at exactly where I should be at that moment, because there is always\something to observe, to capture, and make it into something beautiful.

PR: What would be your dream job—the one thing you have always hoped for in an assignment?

CH: I try to think in a different way, just capture the next proper opportunity or assignment, and allow it to lead me to the next project. The one I’m working on will always be my current dream job.

Chemin Hsiao (b.1984, Taiwan) is a visual artist based in Queens, New York. He was a recipient of New Work Grant (2017 & 2019) and ArtSite Public Art Commissioning (2018) from Queens Council on the Arts.

Hsiao received his BFA and MFA from the School of Visual Arts. He has exhibited in solo exhibition at Queens Botanical Garden, and group exhibitions at New York Foundation for the Arts, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, El Taller Art Center, New York Hall of Science, E. Tay Gallery, Abrons Arts Center, Local Project Art Space, Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, Taipei Cultural Center, Society of illustrators Gallery, Gallery Nucleus in the United States, and LiTE-HAUS Galerie and Direktorenhaus Gallery in Berlin, Germany.

He has taken part in artist residencies at the Kingsbrae International Residence for the Arts in Canada, SU-CASA Residency in New York, and the Cuttyhunk Island Artist Residency in Massachusetts. He is currently a fellow at the ARTWorks, Inc. program supported by the Jerome Foundation at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, and participated in the 2016 Immigrant Artist Program at the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Currently, Chemin has a group exhibition Urban Tribes in 3 venues (El Taller Art CenterNew York Foundation for the ArtsE. Tay Gallery) around New York city. "My Journey to the West: A Big Wind Blows" appeared in this interview is on view at El Taller Art Center. The next "Watercolor Painting Workshop: Roses" at Queens Botanical Garden will be held this Saturday, June 15th, 11~1pm, Printmaking Workshop: Cacti & Succulents, on Saturday, July 6th, at 1~4pm