Deja Vu
Acrylic, 36" x 40"
Lenore Chinn, 1986

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Essay
Lenore Chinn

I am an artist of second generation Chinese American descent and a first-born daughter. In 1951 my family was the first of Asian origins to move into San Francisco's outer Richmond district, at that time an all white, middle-class neighborhood. As a child of the late forties and early fifties my concept of the world was greatly shaped by family expectations deeply rooted in our cultural and historical heritage. But as a family surrounded by a culture vastly different from our own we adapted to new attitudes, values and ways of communicating.

My parents' decision to leave the safety and familiarity of Chinatown led to experiences, conflicts and ideals which were unprecedented for that era and unique for Asian Americans. This path, forged by my father in pursuit of his own professional goals as an educator and mathematician, opened the door to a new way of life. My younger brother and I grew up with a family model which offered a traditional cultural framework of community and family along with the opportunity for embracing non-traditional and non-Asian ideas. In short, my life's journey became a cross pollination of other world views.

While San Francisco now boasts a thriving mixture of cultures with many communities co-habitating across old neighborhood lines, this picture actually evolved over many decades. Ethnic enclaves were more clearly delineated when our family bought a home in Richmond. The sale of property then was severely restricted and realtors were not inclined to offer bidding to non-whites outside of their own racially designated areas. Unaware of these prevailing attitudes, I accepted the fact that there were only a handful of Japanese and a sprinkling of Chinese. In my early visual landscape there were no Hispanics or African Americans and very few families of mixed heritage.

In the popular culture of that era, images of Asians were limited to such icons as Hop Sing on TV's Bonanza, or The World of Suzy Wong and The Flower Drum Song in films. Children's fiction produced an all white Fun with Dick and Jane, the well known Seven Chinese Brothers, and the infamous Little Black Sambo with its melting tigers. Without realizing it at the time I was greatly influenced by this peculiar absence of our ethnic American presence in virtually every facet of our lives outside of our home. And this phenomenon was not limited to mass media. In fact it was widely prevalent in American textbooks outlining our country's history - which began, as we were told, with the "discovery" of the New World in 1492. Our existence was defined and limited to a mythology created by and for a white majority audience.

In today's more enlightened age we may now argue for more cultural sensitivity and suggest an authentic depiction of our ethnic American heritage. With incremental success we may challenge the "harmless" nature of those early childhood fables, including the lopsided versions of history which have fostered a prejudice in us all. The importance of a more inclusive presentation of our existence cannot be understated. Even a benign omission of our reality creates an artificial understanding of a people's experience, sense of being and cultural identity. The results of assimilation and enculturation can be confusing if not emotionally trying when one is caught between conflicting forces which demand a singular cultural allegiance.

In my own history the monochromatic palette which initially obscured my view of the world was broadened only by sporadic introductions to new friends outside of my immediate family. Over the years the Richmond district's sea of white inhabitants met with an influx of new tongues, cultures, ethnicities, races, and religions. This triggered a lifelong curiosity for me and a cultural challenge for my family, which struggled to maintain Chinese traditions and viewpoints. But this set the stage for a complex layering of cultural encounters and a personal odyssey which defied many of the labels, mores and social limitations imposed on the "cultural others" of my particular post-war baby boom generation. These early explorations gave me the foundation for a more global perspective in the way I identified with others, prompting an insatiable appetite for understanding the rituals and traditions of people from very diverse backgrounds. Ultimately, this also became a part of my growth and development as a visual artist.

As a very young child I always had an interest in drawing and painting, experimenting with different media, and making things for my own entertainment. I have fond memories of my father taking me to the public library where I was fascinated with books on drawing and constructing functional toys. Despite conflicting family expectations about the appropriateness of this interest beyond my early years, I continued to pursue my artistic inclinations. I majored in advertising art and design at City College of San Francisco but took a detour into sociology at San Francisco State College.

A brief stint at an advertising agency convinced me that I did not wish to make commercial art my profession. But my accumulated skills in graphic arts photography, writing and marketing proved advantageous when I finally opted to focus my attention on fine art. During these years of my search for a career choice I had also begun to nurture a very strong leaning toward social justice and human rights causes. In later years I would see how my various seemingly unrelated interests would merge and profoundly dictate the style and content of my work.

My signature paintings, with their super realistic, crisply rendered compositions convey a subtle message of visibility for the socially and politically disenfranchised peoples in my personal social landscape - people of color, women, lesbians, and gay men. In my oversized acrylics on canvas I explore a genre that is largely invisible in the fine arts. Through character studies in contemporary themes I restore cultural difference to center stage, creating a presence which resonates in its luminosity, texture, color and light. While enticing the viewer with a non-confrontational aesthetic these narratives simultaneously challenge old world views and compel a rethinking of how we define society's others.

As a full-time studio artist supplementing my income with a non-art related job I have been able to paint on my own terms images which document my life and those within my social milieu. Through juried competitions regionally, nationally and internationally I have gained exposure for my work and attracted collectors who recognize and understand my unique iconography. These figurative works have become the subject of artist profiles, academic discourses on contemporary and lesbian/gay fine art as well as women's anthologies.

Because of my visibility as a lesbian in San Francisco's electoral politics, I also assumed a new role as a cultural activist. I became a writer and lecturer at times, stressing the importance of creating our own network of like-minded artists and writers. I advanced the idea that in the absence of a system that functioned adequately for contemporary artists such as myself, it is critical to identify our own resources, our own educators, writers, historians and artists of note.

As marginalized artists who do not conform to archaic standards of taste, content or political convention, we are virtually locked out of the arts establishment as it currently exists. And while I believe we should strive to make fundamental changes within this structure we cannot overlook the socio-political implications of this course of action. Along with this strategy we must seriously begin a process of deconstruction. That is, instead of relying solely on the good graces of these power brokers in the art world to validate our worth and serve our needs, we must acquire the knowledge and skills to implement our own ideas. We must organize and give voice to our own creative communities politically, economically and artistically, develop our own scholarly forums and identify our own collectors. In essence we must expand our idea of our role as artists and create a cultural framework that works for us. In a way I see this process as no different than trying to negotiate the emotional acrobatics of assimilation. While we may find aspects of the arts world beneficial to our overall goals and learn from this institutional model, it is equally important to preserve the core of one's identity. As a positive thinker I know that it is possible to extract elements from one's myriad learning experiences and convert them into a well of resources. This is the vision I advocate and through our efforts I believe we can become catalysts for social change.


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All text and artwork are Lenore Chinn.