“The best way to learn about anything is through art,” says Korean American artist Lauren Hana Chai, whose paintings explore her family history and cultural heritage. The first in her family to be born in the U.S., Chai was raised by her paternal grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii, earned her B.F.A. in painting at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and lived and worked in New York City and Austin before coming full circle and relocating to the island, where she is part of a growing arts community. In her practice, she says she is constantly seeking balance: Between East and West, dark and light, work and rest, and classical techniques with folk art. Find out what fuels her creativity and the inspiration behind her latest works, which she describes as “the Korean folk art version of Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights.’”
When did you start making art?
I’ve been creating since I had the motor skills to hold a pencil. In my immediate family, no one was exactly artistic. My uncle, a blues musician in Korea, was the only other artist in the family I was exposed to as a kid. I later found out there were creatives on my mom’s side. But even though my family didn’t fully understand it, they never discouraged me from pursuing art as a career — although they didn’t know what that would fully mean, including a lot of broke moments!
When did you decide to pursue the arts as your main focus?
After graduating in San Francisco, I saved up some money and moved to Austin, where I decided to live off of my savings and made the art thing happen, just creating my work every day. In Austin, I kept trying to create the work that I used to create right after graduating or while I was in school. But nothing was coming out correctly and I hated everything. Then some type of shift happened where I developed a style that was fitting for who I was at that time. I was looking more into my Korean heritage and roots and doing a lot of research and connecting with the family, and so all of that came out of my paintings and everything became very bright.
Eventually, I had to get a part-time job again. At first, I felt like I’d failed, when really I made so much work. Those were the paintings that ended up being in many shows on the island when I returned back home. What I thought was a failure since I wasn’t selling anything during my time in Austin ended up becoming a very fruitful time.
Being an artist and trying to make a living means that I have different avenues to make it work. For me, I like to create merch out of my art, something that is a bit more affordable for people like stickers and prints. I will sell them in a store locally as well as doing pop-ups and conventions and selling them in the artist alleys. For a while there, I was also doing murals consistently. Along with part-time jobs that give me plenty of time to create, it all adds up.
Tell me about your process. How does your work go from idea to execution?
I picked up this technique during my senior year of art school: I put together a composition in Photoshop of files and images I’ve saved in a folder on my computer I’m attracted to, and create a digital collage to paint loosely from as a guide.
In my earlier years, it was much more intuitive. At this point in my practice, I’ve seen where all of that has led to and why I’m picking what I pick: Korean American culture, a clash of East and West. I’m classically trained in Renaissance painting, but also inspired by art out of Buddhist temples and Korean folk art.
What’s inspiring you lately?
For my recent series “Souls in Motion,” I really wanted to step back and world build, and take everything – whether it’s about my identity, Korean American culture, sex and death – and find the sense of universality and sacredness within those personal themes. I describe it as a mythological Korean folk version of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” But instead of painting about fear, which Bosch often did, I’m painting about love.
I’ve painted a lot about dark themes, especially straight out of school. Right now, I’m interested in finding healing through love, the progression in life through love, how love moves us all. It’s always about the balance in my life.
Describe the environment you create in.
I’m very lucky: I live in a live/work home studio by Artspace, a U.S. nonprofit that builds affordable housing for artists. It’s the first one to be built in Honolulu. It’s got cement walls and floors, exposed ceilings so you see all the pipes – it is definitely designed with artists in mind. My living room is my studio. Once I wake up, I step out and see my work.
I’m so glad i’m back home. For awhile there, I thought I needed to be back in a city, or in New York. But being around family has been really healing. Being away from them for so long was kind of painful while I was going through hard times. They raised me so now being able to help them out means a lot to me. Also to be back in Hawaii and see how the art community has grown — it’s a really amazing feeling.
Do you have any rituals or routines to get in the zone?
My routine is always changing. Lately I’ve been enjoying more peaceful mornings, taking my time. I find myself getting more energized in the afternoon. These days, I’ve been trying to schedule in rest and also that balance of getting out of the house helps clear my mind and gives me the energy to come back and work.
I’ve always loved working from home, what I’ve always done whether in San Francisco or Texas, and now here. I’m one of those people who kind of enjoyed isolating during quarantine and lockdown. I like hunkering down. So basically I spent a year hermitting and creating and then spent another year or two showing all of those works. Now I guess it’s back to being a hermit, now that I understand that this is my rhythm.
How do you boost your creativity and push through creative blocks?
It’s a lot of internal searching. When I initially started out, my very first series was “Last Known Locations,” about the search for my mother who went missing when I was 11. Creating it involved looking at old VHS tapes of us, painting from stills of me as a baby, looking into my family history, looking into my Korean heritage and learning about Korean art.
The best way to learn about something is through art. I was really going to the root of traditional art and what makes Korean folk art so different from that in other Asian countries. All of that then kept catapulting me into questioning who I am and the bigger questions we have in life about truth and figuring out how to tame all of this chaos and darkness and turn it into some kind of strength. I’m always researching and reading books, usually nonfiction, about Korean culture.
Residencies are also a great way for me to get out of my space and out of my home, be somewhere completely new and have more clarity in my work or be able to create things in a new environment which allows new creative ideas to emerge. Also I like that it allows me to connect with other artists and different communities. Having that experience is invaluable. I learn so much from traveling and meeting new people.
What are your biggest influences?
I love the ten symbols of longevity in Korean folk art, or minhwa, that commoners and anonymous artists used to create and give to each other or sell, that symbolize different things like a happy marriage or Lunar New Year.
I’m also fascinated with Korean classical literati painting, which was for the educated and wealthy who could afford it. That’s why Korean commoners created folk art as a version for themselves.
Both are huge influences on me, and I love to combine them. I’m a big believer in breaking rules. There’s a place for everything in this world and there shouldn’t be limitations or boxes. Everything is borrowed from something else. Anyone should be able to enjoy these forms since art is a universal language.
What is one tool you could not live without?
My oil paints! They’re the first medium I fell in love with. I actually went to art school as an illustration major for the first three years until I used oil paints and switched over to painting.
I felt like painting came to a point where it was a little too familiar. I was stuck in a formula. Something was happening where I needed to jog things up. I thought, “Oh no, am I going to have to break up with my love of oil paint?”
But I just can’t do it. I couldn’t ever let them go, even as much as I am exploring other mediums right now. I’m working with ceramics and woodworking and video and experimental art and soft sculpture, using dish sponges as a medium.
All these things I’m playing with further inform my practice. I love change, experimentation, and the unknown. These new practices are definitely helping me reinvigorate. Try to figure out painting in your own way without being educated; it creates its own character.
What do you hope audiences take away from your art?
I hope they feel some type of magic. Whatever emotion it might be, I hope something ignited in them. I was just looking at an artwork installation that won a proposal project and when I saw the winner, something lit up in me and gave me goosebumps. There’s so much power in that. I want to be able to give that to other people.