Parking Lot is our lax interview series where we get to really know a creative. We get to learn about what they've been up to creatively, some random facts about them, some telling ones, and just about anything else that comes up. In this installment we speak with Toronto based artist Shellie Zhang
We first got in contact with Zhang right around the onset of US presidential elections late October into early November. In our chat we find out how the US's new presidential administration personally affects Zhang, her experiences growing up between China, the US and Canada, where she'd like to see her creative pursuits go, some of her earliest creative memories, and also we talk about her ongoing photo series that tracks the history of a Chinese delicacy that has over the years been denigrated--among other talking points.
"i don’t know that I am easily adaptable – it is more of a choice between adapting or getting left behind. I think starting out my Western experience in Baltimore made me quickly aware of my class and identity because it would be suddenly cited and sometimes used against me. I spent a lot of my early years in Canada and the US trying to better assimilate and move away from my Chinese heritage. In my more recent life, I am retracing my steps, relearning histories, customs, and traditions as a means to re-familiarize myself with what I lost and forgot. In my work, I am also interested in exploring the social and personal factors, which led to this type of self-erasure."
PP: How are you doing these days?
SZ: Exhausted yet ready. First week post-election has been draining. I feel as if I am simultaneously mourning, scared and ready to fight. I am thankful for kindness because I have experienced some incredible tenderness from those close to me and also from strangers. This past week I have locked eyes with so many people on the subway as we both stare a moment longer and exchange smiles. I feel as if we are all draining ourselves to check in with one another. I feel motivated to create work, dialogue and actions that keep this momentum and hope going for those that seek it.
PP: Canada and America have pretty close relationship so when there's a change in either state, it has its side effects. How do you see the results of the election personally/directly affecting you? Where’s how you feel about the results come from?
SZ: My father works in Michigan and goes there daily. Michigan and Detroit really get a bad rep because of the area’s poverty and crime, but what scares me most about my father commuting there every day is that this is the place where two white men were given no jail time after hunting down and killing an Asian man in cold blood with a baseball bat. Vincent Chin’s death was motivated by xenophobic hate, ignorance and lack of resources available to the people of this region. I am scared to think of the hatred that will arise as the area continues to be neglected and who the blame will be pushed upon.
I keep seeing and hearing this post-election trend in Canada about how much better we are as a state. This really bothers me because one, how it is helpful to assert whatever privilege we have to those fearing for their lives in the US, and two, we really aren’t the US’s morally superior neighbours. Flint has no water, neither do the majority of the Indigenous communities in Canada; Water protectors are protesting the North Dakota Pipeline with their lives and Trudeau just approved two here; Americans voted for Trump, we voted for Ford.
Most times when I critique the state in conversations with settlers who were born here, I can see and hear their confusion and resentment at me for speaking against a country that I should be thankful to have been let into – as if vocalizing a desire for Canada to better itself is a right reserved only for those who are truly “Canadian”. Canada and America bear striking negative similarities but as a collective we are quicker to forget.
PP: How would you say your year was?
SZ: The year has been a series of perpetual ups and downs and a great year for reexamining my self worth. Slowly I’m learning to negotiate my interests and contributions to center in on projects that I am committed to being involved in. Previously, opportunities were slim and I was living under the harmful misconception that exposure is exposure and that you have to pay your dues. I’m slowly starting to realize that focusing my time and energy only towards projects that I am interested in is a form of self-care and development.
PP: You recently visited New York how was your trip there?
SZ: Amazing as ever. When I was little I first went to NY for some type of immigration paperwork and I absolutely despised the city. Everything was too large, loud and chaotic for me, piled on top of the fact that I did not understand English coherently yet. It was very much like the episode of the Simpsons where Homer visits the city and hates it.
Now, I try to make the most of my short trips there. The main motivation behind this trip was for me to visit MOCA to see this exhibition on Chinese food narratives through the voices of 33 Asian chefs. I’m currently working on a long term project about the history of MSG and the stories presented through this show parallel a lot of thoughts I have about food history and identity. The highlight of this recent venture was being able to visit Wing and Wong Co, NY Chinatown’s oldest shop that specializes in hand painted ceramics. Their store also does a lot of public programming to address the gentrification of the area and the history of Mott street. The family who runs the shop was so kind and I am such big fans of what they do. You walk in and you just get this sense of immense legacy and warmth. My friend Mohammad jokingly mentioning that that this may be the last time he could visit the US. It breaks my heart to think how much NY may change the next time I visit if I am able to go.
PP: How has it been being out of school the last couple years and making your own independent work in Toronto? How easy or difficult is it to focus on making your own work?
SZ: The program I came out of was very small and I was very involved with the insular University world, participating in student unions, clubs, committees, etc. As a result, it was a bit of a shock when suddenly all those ties were cut off as I was thrust into the real real world, unemployable with debt hanging over my head. The initial hardest thing was to be able to make time to create work when other commitments and concerns were looming over me. Grads fresh out of school aren’t eligible for a lot of funding so I worked various jobs and internships, eventually learning that I needed to set aside time in the studio as I would with any other obligation. Creating work needed to be something that I would not negotiate myself out of and eventually it became second nature. I was fortunate enough to keep in touch with friends and peers also in the arts, which helped with sharing resources, having discussions and motivating one another.
"...opportunities were slim and I was living under the harmful misconception that exposure is exposure and that you have to pay your dues. I’m slowly starting to realize that focusing my time and energy only towards projects that I am interested in is a form of self-care and development."
PP: How do you think you've matured creatively with your own work since being out of school? How do you think your time at UofT help shape your artistic development?
SZ: I think since being out of school I’ve had the time to reflect and narrow in on what I hope to do as an artist and what I am interested in. Many assignments and works produced in school were useful exercises that equipped me with the necessary knowledge to make work, but although they prompted me to think about what I wish to accomplish, I never really got this time to reflect until after I graduated. In a way, U of T prompted me to ask critical questions about visual representation. Once I was thrown back out into the world, I had to confront all of these considerations and re-examine where I want to situate myself as an artist.
PP: Growing up, you lived in a couple different places when did your family first move to Canada? What other places did you guys live at before coming to Canada?
SZ: I immigrated to Maryland, Baltimore at the age of 3. We moved once or twice in the city before I went back to Beijing for grade one. Then I bounced between there and Suzhou (where my mother’s family is from) for a year or two until we returned to Baltimore, and then moved to Windsor. For a while in my early adolescent years, my mother and father lived Detroit while I stayed in Windsor with my grandma. We also occasionally moved back to China over summers. After high school, I moved to Toronto and have stayed here since.
PP: What kind of a kid where you growing up? Do you think your identity changed as you moved from place to place? Were you easily adaptable to new changes and place you moved to?
SZ: I was a very outgoing child in the beginning. My mother told me I use to go up to strangers in restaurants and ask to sing a song for them. After I moved, I became much shyer after having to adapt, but eventually got more comfortable. It’s a wonderful thing that children can get along so easily at times, though navigating the world of adults was much harder. I remember we use to live on the border of two small neighborhoods where there was a park in between. A woman once came up to me and my mom and told her that the park was for the residents of her neighborhood, the richer neighborhood. I don’t know that I am easily adaptable – it is more of a choice between adapting or getting left behind. I think starting out my Western experience in Baltimore made me quickly aware of my class and identity because it would be suddenly cited and sometimes used against me. I spent a lot of my early years in Canada and the US trying to better assimilate and move away from my Chinese heritage. In my more recent life, I am retracing my steps, relearning histories, customs, and traditions as a means to re-familiarize myself with what I lost and forgot. In my work, I am also interested in exploring the social and personal factors, which led to this type of self-erasure.
"...we [Canada] really aren’t the US’s morally superior neighbours. Flint [Michigan] has no water, neither do the majority of the Indigenous communities in Canada..."
PP: Do you have any siblings? How were your parents like with you growing up?
SZ: I have a younger sister. She is 12 years younger than the first and me in our family linage to be born outside of China. This age gap has made it so that we never fight and get along well. I love my sister and can’t wait to take her out for her first drink. My mom, sister and I all share the same zodiac sign of the sheep. I like this harmonious image of us.
My parents and I had to navigate many cultural differences and disagreements as I was growing up though they never stopped being supportive and loving. While they were definitely concerned about me venturing into the arts, I am very fortunate to have Chinese parents who encouraged me to pursue my interests. After attending the 89 protests and seeing the horrors that were committed by the government, my father decided that our family needed to move. By then, they had already established a life for themselves in Beijing. Moving to the US meant working many unstable jobs, going to school again, learning a new language and navigating a new country, all the while raising me. I think that going through this process with my family made us immensely close because we were all we had.
PP: What are some of your earliest creative memories?
SZ: When I was in third grade, we were learning cursive by repeatedly rewriting words along dotted lines. I remember writing my name over and over again in cursive until the last line, where I drew flowers along my name. When I got this worksheet back, the teacher had marked “very creative”, “very pretty” or something along those lines, though I failed the worksheet and had to do it over again.
Still drawing flowers but barely using cursive nowadays.
PP: Can you remember an early memory of feeling embarrassed about something?
SZ: Somehow when I was learning English, I had mixed up the words volcano and astronaut in my mind. I started going around to people saying that I wanted to be a volcano when I grew up, and even made a song and drawings about it. I don’t remember when I was finally corrected, but it still makes me a bit red to think about how enthusiastically I went around telling folks I wanted to be a magma flowing rupture in the Earth.
PP: When was the first time you felt really smart? what was the situation ?
SZ: Although I wasn’t doing so great in math when I was in China, when I moved back to the US, I excelled from the bits of knowledge I picked up. Math was probably my best subject, until I got to High school and stopped taking it.