After I take 100 photos, I stop and make a piece of art on the same theme.
For every art piece, I try a new medium: colored pencil, glass, plastic, collage, cardboard, cut-paper, wood-burning, sewing, you name it. I don’t like to sketch really, so I may draft a few guidelines, but it’s mostly making it as I go.
So far, I’ve shot 3,350 photos and made 33 pieces of art. Probably more by the time you read this.
Y the X?
In case you haven’t guessed yet, my theme is X.
Depending on what part of the world you come from, an X can mean different things, including: the letter x, a mulitplication sign, something obscene, something large, the number 10, a warning, a superhero, a kiss, or shorthand for a holiday. I am always discovering new meanings.
As an artist and designer, I am also drawn to its form. It’s balanced, centered and harmonious, while at the same time depicting intersections, conflict, and sharp angles. If you look, you can find X in many realms. I notice it as a decorative and/or structural element in nature, textiles, architecture, and engineering.
In addition to discovery, X has come to represent markers in my life; important people, places, and things. Over the years X has become both art therapy and a memory project for me. I can remember where most every photo was taken, as well as the story and the feelings behind every piece of art I’ve made.
Here are 3X stories
It all started out randomly 7 years ago as a documentary exercise. I started exchanging X’s with a colleague in Shanghai, who I called Mr. X. In my native language Shanghainese, X does not have romantic connotations, and my relationship with Mr. X was correspondingly platonic. It’s quite common for me, or anyone, to refer to a Mr. X in a public place as a shorthand, that protects their identity and expedites conversation. It’s not a big deal.
In 2015 my father became seriously ill. The doctors told me he had a finite number of days left. I decided that spending time with him was the most important thing I could do. My manager supported me in this regard, and I was able to spend lots of days (and some nights) in the hospital with him. In between the check-ups and doctor visits, I had a lot of time to make X’s by hand with whatever limited materials were available.
After my father passed away, moving to Seattle last year was a new beginning for me in many ways. I cherish the clouds, mountains, water, and trees. In China, it would have required a 3 hour flight to be in a place as beautiful as this. I’ve also started to work in larger formats, which feels at once liberating and challenging.
Here are my XFAQ’s
How did you get into this art thing?
It’s funny, I’m not an artist by training, and this project is not really a part of my job. I mastered the STEM curriculum growing up, but the thing that always brought me joy was art.
You look like an artist. How is it that you are a designer at a tech company?
I think the answer for me is something about living a balanced life. My managers at Microsoft in Shanghai, and now in Redmond have both been very supportive at every step along the way. They reflect a larger culture that encourages creativity.
The truth is that helping people be successful is a very creative endeavor.
Why make art every 100 photos?
For me this project has helped my to see my life more clearly. I find that making a piece of art is slower and more intentional that pointing-and-shooting a photo. Making visual art also makes me appreciate the creativity and skills of the UI and visual designers I work with. I have learned that creating things that appear effortless really requires a lot of practice.
Why change mediums each time?
In Shanghai, my manager challenged me to always try something new. It has helped me gain the confidence to try novel things. Now I’m always looking for new materials. Since my medium constantly changes, the material choices I make are somehow more important and more enduring than an instagram filter or a photoshop trick.
How long will you keep making X?
I think it’s a lifelong project. It’s sustained me through tough times in my life; I can’t see stopping anytime soon.
Why do I keep doing it?
It’s become sort of my signature. I can’t NOT do it.
As a practice, it is sustaining and contemplative. It’s sort of like a visual journal that reflects memories, life, patterns, and friends. (My friends even and family even send me their X photos.) It continues to help me express myself.
Side notes on why: I was invited to Milan Design Week to exhibit my work in the first Oriental Design Exhibition in 2013. I loved how people whom I’ve never met were interacting with the work! I have also had exhibitions of my work at Microsoft, which has somehow made me more approachable to my new teammates. There is a truly social aspect of X that is mysterious and energizing.
Final note on why:
My father was an optimist, who wanted only happiness for me. Making these images makes me happy, and it also makes me feel like my father is living on somehow through me and through my work.
I hope you find an X in this story that makes you happy.
My question for you
As a designer and a creative person, what do make that sustains you?
Follow me on instagram. If you are a fellow maker/creator at Microsoft, I’d love to see what you are up to!
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