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Introducing... Cathy Lu


Introducing… Cathy Lu
George Adams Gallery: Tell us about your childhood. You grew up in Miami…
Cathy Lu: My parents moved to the States from Taiwan with my two older sisters. I was born here so I’m the “American” one. My mother was a middle school science teacher and became a bookkeeper. My father is now a software engineer working for the government. As a kid I was always drawing mostly from cartoons I watched. And living in Miami where language is so fluid, I mean, Spanish is the first language, English second, and then, and coming from an Asian family, there was Chinese which came last. So I found it easier to resort to a visual language, it was just more comfortable.

GAG: When did you first seriously consider being an artist?
CL: Initially I didn’t like ceramics, in high school I wanted to paint. But there was no space in the painting and sculpture studios, they were very competitive programs and there was  plenty of space in the ceramics studio because not many students were interested. So I gravitated towards ceramics - it was a more chill studio and there was always space to work.

GAG: You received a BA in Chinese language, culture and history from Tufts and also a BFA in ceramics from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts – what motivated you to pursue these two lines of study simultaneously?
CL: Tufts was a compromise with my parents. I actually was a Poly-Sci major for the first two years but I discovered that Poly-Sci majors just were not my people. And there was a language requirement so I studied Chinese language and culture. But after two years I realized I wanted to be more serious about art. Initially I wanted to focus on painting and sculpture but the materials were so expensive whereas in ceramics you didn’t have to buy any materials on your own, so in a way it was more for pragmatic reasons that I focused in that area.

GAG: You subsequently received an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute – what made you consider SFAI after Tufts?
CL: I wanted to be in San Francisco and I wanted to be exposed to more conceptual, experimental work, and to focus on sculpture and not the clay/craft side of clay. I also wanted to be somewhere warm. After Miami, Boston winters were a shock! Anyway, I worked in fabric, wood, metal. I was able to move around to different departments and experiment.

GAG: After SFAI, why did you decided to stay in the Bay Area?
CL: In Boston everyone was so focused on your job. Your art practice was really devalued, it felt like it wasn’t status-y enough. Here in the Bay Area, there’s a little bit less of that. You can have interests and explore those interests and your day job doesn’t matter at all. On the East Coast I felt people were more about evaluating you by your job, whereas in the Bay Area it’s more relaxed. San Francisco is a place where I feel the most comfortable. Diversity of cultures, Asian, Chinese culture, I stayed here because I wanted to have access to that.
The Bay Area art community is so small, it’s a small eco-system and going to SFAI plugged me in to that. While it is hard to survive here financially, artists are always coming together so it’s very supportive. It’s also more laid back than LA or NY, it’s not as commercial, career focused. Here when artists have success they are kind of quiet about it. 

GAG: Right now you’re teaching both at Mills College and California College of the Arts. How do you manage your time in the studio?
CL: It’s difficult. The nature of being an adjunct is that sometimes you’ve got one class or two classes at one school or two schools. Every day feels like a battle. But I’ve gotten better about protecting my time. It’s more habitual now so it’s easier. 

GAG: What do you consider success as an artist?
CL: Being able to make the work you want to make.

GAG: You were an artist in residence at Recology in 2017 – you couldn’t work with clay and so worked with recycled materials. How was that?
CL: It was a challenge. They were very interested in my background in ceramics and my ideas about what makes something “Asian” or “Chinese” or not. That was my interest at Recology. And not being able to work with clay I had to adapt. But what a cultural site! I mean, it’s all of our garbage. What a beautiful place to work on my ideas and I ended up making my most traditional work, like coiled vases.

GAG: Your work has several layers of association: clay as a reference to Asian culture and identity, as a reference to “cultural hybridity,” as well as values associated with ceramics as an art medium. Can you talk more about that?
CL: A lot comes from my own personal experience and this idea of something being Asian and not Asian always fascinated me. I love learning about Chinese ceramics because that is something Chinese people are so proud of. So most of my art comes from an Asian perspective, although in reality everything is much more blended. The term “Asian” is so weird. It is such a broad category for groups of people with different interests, languages, cultures - it’s really a non-term. My parents grew up in Taiwan, okay, so I have a Taiwan identity, but I spent more time in China than Taiwan. And then I’m an American and have that perspective. So when I make a work it always has four different references.

GAG: So is your work a critique?
CL: Maybe a little bit of both? I am trying to acknowledge the good and the bad.

GAG: Your glazing palette is fairly limited - you seem to favor greens and browns and creams. Why is that? Or rather - how do you think about color generally?
CL: It’s actually a reference to the Tang Dynasty, three basic glazing colors.

GAG: Why peaches – and peach pits?
CL: They’re a common symbol in Chinese culture – about longevity. But then in the US, it’s the state fruit of Georgia – it’s the same object, the same fruit. In the US it might be perceived as very American. Then there’s the peach emoji, while also it signifies prosperity in China…
 

Cathy Lu at Archie Bray, with "Untitled (Tall Peach Incense Holder)" and "Nuwa's Hands," 2021

Cathy Lu at Archie Bray, with her sculptures, Untitled (Tall Peach Incense Holder) and Nuwa's Hands, 2021.

Our exhibition Shapeshifters includes ceramic sculptures by Cathy Lu, that explore themes of immigration, assimilation and cultural hybridity. We sat down with Cathy to discuss how she came to work in ceramics, how she incorporates her personal heritage into her work and peaches.

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Cathy Lu placing incense on her sculpture, Untitled (Tall Peach Incense Holder), 2021.

George Adams Gallery:   Tell us about your childhood. You grew up in Miami…

Cathy Lu:   My parents moved to the States from Taiwan with my two older sisters. I was born here so I’m the “American” one. My mother was a middle school science teacher and became a bookkeeper. My father is a database administrator working for the government. Miami is a very multicultural place, and it felt really normal to be part of families that were new to the country. Most of my friends' parents, if not all of them, had immigrated to the United States.

GAG:   When did you first seriously consider being an artist?

CL:   Well, living in Miami it was pretty normal for there to be multiple languages going on: Spanish is the first language, English second, and then, in my family, my parents' native language was Chinese.  I think the difficulty communicating verbally made me more drawn to a visual language. And I always liked drawing, making copies of different cartoon characters I was watching.

"The term “Asian” is so weird. It is such a broad category for groups of people with different interests, languages, cultures - it’s really a non-term."

GAG:   You received a BA in Chinese language, culture and history from Tufts and also a BFA in ceramics from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts – what motivated you to pursue these two lines of study simultaneously?

CL:   Tufts was a compromise with my parents - I wanted to go to art school, but they didn't support that. I was actually was a Poli-Sci major for the first two years but I discovered that Poli-Sci majors just were not my people. I also gravitated towards painting and ceramics, and in college, wanted to focus in painting. But I didn't really like the painting and drawing classes, and they were always really full and competitive. Ceramics was not as popular of a program, so there was  plenty of space in the ceramics studio. Plus all the materials were provided by the studio. It was very chill and there was always space for me to work there. At the same time, I had taken some Chinese language classes, so I dropped poli-sci and majored in Chinese. 

GAG:   You subsequently received an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute – what made you consider SFAI after Tufts?

CL:   I wanted to be in San Francisco and I wanted to be exposed to more conceptual, experimental work, and to focus on sculpture and not the clay/craft side of clay. I also wanted to be somewhere warm. After Miami, Boston winters were a shock! Anyway, I worked in fabric, wood, and metal. I was able to move around to different departments and experiment.

GAG:   After SFAI, why did you decided to stay in the Bay Area?

CL:    In Boston everyone was so focused on your job. Your art practice was really devalued, it felt like it wasn’t status-y enough. Here in the Bay Area, there’s a little bit less of that. You can have interests and explore those interests and your day job can be just that. On the East Coast I felt people were more about evaluating you by your job, whereas in the Bay Area it’s more relaxed. San Francisco is a place where I feel the most comfortable. Diversity of cultures, Chinese culture, I stayed here because I wanted to have access to that.
The Bay Area art community is small, it’s a small eco-system and going to SFAI plugged me in to that. While it is hard to survive here financially, artists are always coming together so it’s very supportive. It’s also more laid back than LA or NY, it’s not as commercially focused, so I feel in some ways, it's more experimental.  

GAG:   Right now you’re teaching both at Mills College and California College of the Arts. How do you manage your time in the studio?

CL:   It’s difficult. The nature of being an adjunct is that your teaching schedule can change drastically from semester to semester. Sometimes you’ve got one class, two classes , three of four classes at multiple schools. Every day feels like a battle. But I’ve gotten better about protecting my time. It’s more habitual now so it’s easier.

Image 3

Cathy Lu preparing a sculpture for firing.

GAG:    You were an artist in residence at Recology in 2017 – you couldn’t work with clay and so worked with recycled materials. How was that?

CL:   It was a challenge. My interest at Recology was to play with ideas of value in relation to materials and finding objects that were "Asian" or not "Asian", and thinking about how weird those categorizations are.  But what a cultural site! I mean, it’s all of our garbage. Without clay, I ended up thinking about ceramics alot, and made coiled vases out of discarded internet cables.

GAG:   Your work has several layers of association: clay as a reference to Asian culture and identity, as a reference to “cultural hybridity,” as well as values associated with ceramics as an art medium. Can you talk more about that?

CL:    A lot comes from my own personal experience and this idea of something being Asian and not Asian always fascinated me. I love learning about Chinese ceramics because that is something Chinese people are so proud of. So most of my art comes from an Asian perspective, although in reality everything is much more blended. The term “Asian” is also so weird. It is such a broad category for groups of people with different interests, languages, cultures - it’s really a non-term. My parents grew up in Taiwan, so I have Taiwanese background, but I spent more time in China than Taiwan. At the same time, both Taiwan and China have both claimed to be the 'real' China. And then I’m an American and have that perspective. So when I make a work it always has these different references.

Cathy Lu, "Peach #2," 2019.

Cathy Lu, Peach #2, 2019. Glazed stoneware, 17 x 19 x 5 inches.

GAG:   So is your work a critique?

CL:   Maybe a little bit of both? I am trying to acknowledge the complexity.

GAG:   Your glazing palette is fairly limited - you seem to favor greens and browns and creams. Why is that? Or rather - how do you think about color generally?

CL:    It’s actually a reference to the Tang Dynasty, and the use of 'san cai', which is Three Color glazing.

GAG:   Why peaches – and peach pits?

CL:   They’re a common symbol in Chinese culture representing prosperity and longevity. But then in the US, it’s a very southern fruit, and the state fruit of Georgia In the US it might be perceived as very American. Then there’s the peach emoji which has its own gendered or sexual meanings. It’s the same object, the same fruit, and yet it can have all these different identities.