Women of Wednesday: Jenny Lam on Bridging Segregation With Art and the Necessity of Representation

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a weekly micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Jenny Lam, 28, Artist, Independent Curator, Writer (Chicago)

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

The show I’ve just curated was called LEXICON, and was on view at the Zhou B Art Center in July. Featuring artwork across all media by over 40 local and international artists, this exhibition doesn’t include any artist statements. Instead, viewers are invited to think of their own interpretations for each piece (more than 60!), write down what each piece means to them onto Post-it notes, and stick their thoughts up next to the artwork. The opening was a great success! I wrote about it here. All the artwork can also be viewed online here.

It was a follow-up, of sorts, to a show I curated a few years ago called I CAN DO THAT, which was based on how a lot of people go up to art and say, “Well, I can do that.” So at that exhibition I placed art supplies in front of each piece, and visitors were able to physically change and attempt to replicate the art, to see if they could, indeed, “do that.” It was a blast.

Audience participation in action at the opening night of LEXICON

In the shows I curate, I’m always incorporating audience interaction and participation and striving to make art as accessible as possible, to get people to have fun with art and with each other. Art has the power of art to break barriers, to connect.

Speaking of connecting, an ongoing large-scale art project I have is Dreams of a City. I started it in New York in 2008–9, my last year of living there as I attended Columbia University, and I brought it to Chicago in 2012. I’ve been leaving thousands of pre-stamped, self-addressed postcards all over the city, each with the prompt, “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas,” and each with a different number, which I use to record where I leave them. When a card comes back to me, I’m able to tell where it was found, and I can piece together a map of dreams. In such a segregated city, with this project, I hope — even if it’s in the smallest way — to unite us, humanize us, give a microphone to those who feel like they don’t have a voice, show how similar we can be, show how different we are and the beauty in those differences.

One of the hundreds of postcards Lam has received so far in the Chicago edition of Dreams of a City

I’m also writing and illustrating my own children’s books. Many of them will be based on my own life and the lives of my extraordinary friends, since you don’t often see a whole lot of people who look like us and do the things we do represented in picture books. The first book is an immigration allegory, set in a fantasy universe where each country is a fantastical kingdom with mythical beasts and all that jazz. (It’s a return to my fantasy fable roots, in a sense; the first — and last — story I got published was in an anthology when I was 13 and it was about dragons rising up against their human oppressors. Woo!) It comes from a personal place as I’m Chinese and the Chicago-born daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong. Our stories deserve to be heard.

Representation isn’t just important; it’s necessary!

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

Being just one person. That “independent” part of being an independent curator often rings loud and clear. It can get overwhelming and frustrating. Especially since I’m figuring things out as I go (I didn’t go to art school and I certainly never took a class on curating).

That being said, being independent means I also have freedom. I get to curate these crazy shows. Yeah, each venue will have a different set of rules and red tape and logistical hurdles, but for the most part I have free reign to realize my artistic visions.

On the opening night of LEXICON. Photo by Sergio Gomez.

3. What do you need to continue your work in the way you envision?

A stable source of income doing what I love would be great (says literally everyone). A bit more specifically and seriously, though, I’m always looking for good venues at which to curate shows. I need people to buy art from my artists and from myself. I need art collectors. I need galleries to connect artists with and vice versa. I need (a) good platform(s), a wider audience.

For my picture books, it’s a whole new territory for me, so I need resources for the process in general (such as how to get my drawings and writing into book form and make it actually look professional — I’m no graphic designer, and all my art is by hand), a way to publish them, a way to sell them.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

1-hour sketches Lam’s. They’ve been taped above her bedroom window, filtering sunlight and collecting dust and cobwebs, so she has named them the Gossamer series, 2008.

Purchase art! LEXICON’s artwork can be viewed online here. A sample of my own art is here. I’m open for commissions as well, so if you have any drawing requests (maybe you want me to sketch a portrait of you or a loved one, make a silly doodle of you and your friends, create some greeting cards for you, etc. etc.), email me here!

In fact, email me if you can address anything in #3! (Or hit me up via the links below.)

Follow me on my blog, Artists on the Lam, and on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr to stay tuned for updates on upcoming shows and news about my art and books.

5. What is your favorite quote?

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” –Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Lam, in her element at Hobbiton