Sunday, November 6, 2016

In Hong Kong and back after a three year break!

As you may have noticed, there's a 3+ year break between this post and the one below it—the one that says that I am going for a bike ride in Alaska, and that I'll be back eventually. I thought I was going to spend a few months on the road and then return to business as usual, but it turns out that trip was actually the tipping point for me going completely rogue. Whoops, sorry about that. Except I'm really not sorry at all. 

(If you really want to know what the hell I've been doing in the years since I last kept this blog, I gave an artist talk for the Microsoft Visiting Artist Lecture Series: if you have an hour to kill, it will bring you entirely up to speed by way of Calvin and Hobbes, bike travel, glacial erratic boulders, medieval mercenaries, stuffed penguins, germanic word roots, humane foie gras raising techniques, upholstered dinosaurs, The Princess Bride/Inigo Montoya, Bjork vs. Belle and Sebastian, Alaska, trash cans full of glitter, ponies at slumber parties, Wile E Coyote, breakups, poetry, Antarctica, The Wind in the Willows, observatories in West Texas, The Phantom Tollbooth, braided river bars, murals, Kurt Vonnegut,, and a whole bunch of other things.)

So why am I dusting off this blog after all these years?

Clockwise from upper left: My mom, my grandma and me in China when I was a baby: my grandma with me and brother: the huge pile of art supplies and books I currently have with me: my great-grandparents
Because I'm in Hong Kong and I need to light a fire under my ass to write every day! I'm currently working on a graphic novel exploring the life story of my Chinese grandmother, Sun Yi. Sun Yi was born in Suzhou and worked as a journalist in Shanghai in the 1940's, and during the year of the Communist takeover, she had an affair with a Swiss diplomat and became pregnant with my mother. The two of them fled the country to Hong Kong in 1958, where my grandmother wrote an autobiography titled Eight Years in Communist Shanghai: Love, Starvation, and Persecution. The book became a national bestseller in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and my grandma used the money to enroll my mom at Diocesan Girls' School, an elite boarding school in Kowloon. Sadly, shortly thereafter, my grandma's lifelong struggles with mental illness came to a head and she experienced a psychotic break and was intermittently institutionalized at Castle Peak Hospital. 

My mom eventually immigrated to the states on a college scholarship and brought my grandma over seven years later, and I grew up with Sun Yi living in my nuclear family. Although she and my mother communicated solely in Shanghainese, they didn't teach me to speak the language, and between Sun Yi's mental state and our language barrier, we were never really able to communicate. Now, as an adult, I'm trying to understand my family's ghosts and I'm working on a graphic novel exploring loss of culture, mental illness, mixed-race American identity, loss of language and mother/daughter relationships through the lens of my mother's and grandmother's lives. 

The lovely folks at 4Culture gave me a grant to travel to Hong Kong to dig up some family ghosts, and I am roaming the streets with my sketchbook trying to get a sense of where my mother and grandmother lived, and the culture that shaped them. I'm hoping that by resurrecting this blog, I'll do more intentional writing rather than just the freehand notes I keep in my private sketchbooks. So! No promises that I'll keep doing this after Hong Kong, but for now, I am back and here is what I have been up to so far: 

I'll write properly (after all, that's why I'm starting this blog again) tomorrow—for now I think it's time to go seek out more noodles :) 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Hiding in Alaska

It's been an intense few months, and my bike and I are hiding in Alaska for a month of antisocial time. We'll be back in August and will be incommunicado until then, so I will just leave you with one of my favorite paragraphs from The Wind in the Willows: 

"`I tried "stopping on" one year,' said the third swallow. `I had grown so fond of the place that when the time came I hung back and let the others go on without me. For a few weeks it was all well enough, but afterwards, O the weary length of the nights! The shivering, sunless days! The air so clammy and chill, and not an insect in an acre of it! No, it was no good; my courage broke down, and one cold, stormy night I took wing, flying well inland on account of the strong easterly gales. It was snowing hard as I beat through the passes of the great mountains, and I had a stiff fight to win through; but never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect! The past was like a bad dream; the future was all happy holiday as I moved southwards week by week, easily, lazily, lingering as long as I dared, but always heeding the call! No, I had had my warning; never again did I think of disobedience.'"

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sneak peeks from How Goes the Battle?

Hey everyone,
I am neck deep in studio mode right now as I have a show opening at Joe Bar on April 11th. Put it on 'yer calendar, I'll update with invitation links and what not when I have 'em.

The show is called How Goes the Battle?, and it's about anger, surrender, and the failure of language. I readily admit that it's a cathartic personal therapy project: I've been sorting through the wreckage of a devastating breakup. Each piece is paired with a poem by Kay Ryan. Rather than describe more, here are some detail shots from a few of the pieces and the text of their accompanying poems:

In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn’t have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Geppetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said,
I can’t be human after all.

Words have loyalties
to so much
we don't control.
Each word we write
rights itself
according to poles
we cant see; think of
magnetic compulsion
or an equal stringency.
Its hard for us
to imagine how small
a part we play in
holding up the tall
spires we believe
our minds erect.
Then north shifts,
buildings shear,
and we suspect.

Most losses add some­thing —
a new socket or silence,
a gap in a per­sonal
arch­i­pel­ago of islands.

We have that dif­fer­ence
to visit—itself
a going-on of sorts.

But there are other losses
so far beyond report
that they leave holes
in holes only

like the ends of the
long and lonely lives
of cast­aways
thoughts dead but not.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Quintet of Quays this Saturday. Or: Come Hear Me Read About How Giant Sloths Are Super Hot

I am still very bad at actually telling people about things I am participating in. But in the interest of not starting every post with an apology for not posting, I'll cut right to it: for those of you who live in Seattle, I'm reading this Saturday, January 26th as part of A Quintet of Quays, AKA the third installment of the Greenwood Lit Crawl.

I go on at approximately 8:40 at Naked City Taphouse (I am super excited to be sharing the bill with the always-awesome David Lasky!), full lineup and addresses here:

I. 5:20-6:10 PM – Chocolati 8319 Greenwood Ave. N
Aaron Kokorowski, Amy Billharz, Morris Stegosaurus
II. 6:20-7:10 – Couth Buzzard 8310 Greenwood Ave. N
Aaron Kemply, Arlene Kim, Theo Dzielak
III. 7:20 -7:30 – outdoor presentation Molly Mac
IV. 7:35 -8:30 – Bherd Studios 312 N. 85th St. Suite 101 
Emily Wittenhagen, Queequeg, Doug Nufer
V. 8:40 -9:30 – Naked City Brewery 8564 Greenwood Ave. N
Tessa Hulls, Joun Burgess, David Lasky, Karen Finneyfrock

When I got asked to do this reading, I started going for long walks and photographing strange signs I came across with the intention of using their text to write place-based poems. But that didn't end up happening, and instead I got really obsessed with one sign at the Woodland Park Zoo:

I have written and illustrated a trio of short stories about just what might have happened to lead to the necessity of that sign being posted. They're about the apocalypse, space exploration, and extinct megafauna, and one of them turned into a completely NSFW piece of erotica about natural history museums. Yup. It's illustrated. Here are some sneak preview images: 

Hope to see you guys there! Here's the FB invite.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

That Will to Divest

A poem that has been on my mind of late, offered without commentary: 

That Will to Divest
by Kay Ryan

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you've swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept 
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what 
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I do still exist.

When I said I needed a break from blogging, I didn't think I meant eight months. But I actually take a very long time to fully process things, and this spell of radio silence has been wonderfully fruitful, and I'm ready to come out of hiding. I should clarify that I  haven't actually been in hiding: I've been working on a lot of really fun, strange projects, and have just opted to not broadcast the fact that I've been doing them.

If you'd like to know what I have been doing with my quiet time, please watch this video footage of a talk I gave last month at the Breadline speaker series. It's called What We Make When We're Not Making: An exploration of downtime in the creative process... as explained by hairties. 

I don't like promoting myself (part of the satisfaction of being in hiding!), so here's what some other folks had to say about the talk :

Only a few Zen minutes passed before Hulls blew Vermillion’s mind with a candy-throwing, time-machine-travelling, spastic-laughter-producing presentation on her creative process. Hulls's India ink illustrations narrated her transition from nomadic maker to settled Seattleite and the resulting “terrifying expanse of total freedom.” Have no fear: Humphrey Bogart, Calvin and Hobbes, John Cleese, and the aforementioned Wile E. Coyote guide her through this path of uncertainty and “not making.” Her big discovery? Hair ties. Hundreds of hair ties. Hair ties that she methodically collects and classifies. Hair ties that she ultimately finds have no massive artistic meaning, no dramatic conclusion. Instead, Hulls realizes that they are markers, points of reflection on the endless creative journey that is LIFE. (Did I mention she threw candy?) —Andrew Turgeon, Seattle Out and About

The Breadline Performance Series happens on a magical evening every third Wednesday at Vermillion, a cozy womb of a bar tucked in between Barca and the entrance to Annex Theater on 11th Ave. In my experience, Breadline seems like it’s mostly about reading poetry, and then sometimes something weird happens. Something weird that is also amazing. The weird and amazing thing that happened in the September Breadline was Tessa Hulls and her illustrated talk on the creative process. —Jen Power, Comrade Bunny

I have some really exciting news. 
I just received a grant through the Washington Artist Trust to work on drawing comics about Antarctica. So I'll be spending my cold winter months drawing comics about cold places. I'm very excited to delve back into that whole world, and to be able to do it with two things I didn't have previously: 
1. time
2. paper of a sensible weight

I look forward to being back in touch. 
It's been too long. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Going Home

It’s my last morning in Antarctica, and I’m trying to find some way to say my goodbyes to this place. I’ll be leaving on a C17 this afternoon, and will be seeing the night sky for the first time since the beginning of October. It feels like winter is coming; for the last week or so, the sun has almost been setting, and there’s a quality to the light that makes everything seem partially cloaked in fog. The temperature has dipped back down below zero, and for the last two and a half weeks, I’ve been hiking the Observation Hill loop almost every day to watch the sea ice change.

Some part of me has been craving the presence of a concrete point to measure myself against, and so I’ve taken on this little route as a sort of reflective pilgrimage. The solitary hour that it takes me to walk it each day has helped provide a sense of bearing in the middle of the chaos of leaving. I have been watching the ice turn to ocean, and back to ice again, observing the idiosyncrasies of its tides as it drifts by like strangely geometric clouds.

Once we finally started seeing open water, whales started appearing, and usually on my hikes I’ll see handfuls of them surface in the melt pools. Their spouting sounds like the hydraulics of some vastly echoing factory floor, and it’s hard to believe that the origin is organic rather than mechanical. There is something utterly surreal in the way the noise travels across the surface of the fractured ice.

For all my wry observations about the social dynamics down here, I have been hugely moved by the physical beauty of this place. It’s something I don’t write about very often because I imagine it’s implicit in everything I say. Last week I read Nicholas Johnson’s “Big Dead Place,” a book that talks about Antarctica with the frank and disenchanted cynicism of someone who has been driven half mad by the bureaucracy. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know what it actually feels like to live in McMurdo. There’s a portion in the book where Johnson talks about the descriptions of Antarctica that actually make it to the outside world:

“Describing American journalists who cover presidential campaigns, Joan Didion wrote that ‘They are willing, in exchange for “access,” to transmit the images their sources wish transmitted.’ Similarly, we read in the paper that science in Antarctica is the end rather than the means, and because of this generous pursuit, everything, very soon, is going to be even better than it is now. When the NSF sponsored journalists step from the plane, Antarctica’s beauty speaks for itself, and the psychedelic vastness hobbles the critical faculties. Their stories recount the ‘howling wilderness’ and the ‘gale force winds’ on ‘the highest, driest, coldest’ and most ‘desolate’ continent, which is ‘pristine’ and ‘remote’ and ‘isolated.’
‘I just got back from Antarctica,’ they’re saying.
We are like a broken record still playing classic hits from the days of Captain Cook and Columbus. The reported particulars are not always untrue, but the consensus fellowship of professional journalism keeps things simple and catchy, so that Antarctica always brims with scientists and researchers just as wooded clumps next to the freeway brim with wildlife.”

I wanted to come down here because I was fascinated by the obsolescence of the untamed frontier. The romanticized myth of Antarctica exists only because there are so few of us who come down here to contradict it. And perhaps it’s a myth we prefer to maintain. Any information from this place leaves the continent in a protracted game of telephone, and by the time it reaches a venue for public consumption, it has all been distilled to science and penguins and glaciers. And it is hard to explain the reality of this place to people who have grown up believing in the myth. Sometimes it’s just easier to say, “Yup, there are penguins.”

The remarkable science and the extraordinary people are down here, but they are rare islands scattered against what is ultimately a backdrop of gross inefficiency and the utter breakdown of all communication, neatly wrapped up in a dominant culture of hard partying and mindless consumption.

And while that sounds like a scathing denunciation, I don’t mean it as one. In spite of the rant that I just went on, I love this place. And a huge part of why I love it is precisely because of its flaws and contradictions, the sheer impossibility of its existence. This is a place where everyone is still really excited about getting to take part in Black Friday holiday sales via internet shopping, where packages of new clothes and shiny electronic toys arrive from Amazon on military transport planes. Where stiletto heels rotate through skua, and TV’s are left on 24 hours a day. Where people are constantly passing through a haze of being actively drunk, or hungover before becoming drunk again. 

McMurdo is set up to encourage mindlessness, and the experience of being down here is certainly easier if you just allow yourself to check out and run with it. But my fascination is such that I have felt an obligation to try to document the stories of this place. So I stepped back and decided that my real job down here was to be McMurdo’s resident sociologist cartoonist.

And as such, it has been a rewarding but lonely handful of months: I have been an observer of this community rather than a full-fledged participant. People talk about how it’s impossible to find time to be alone down here, but I have had entirely the opposite experience. I feel like I have engaged with this place, but with very few of the people in it. And again, that’s something I’m ultimately grateful for. Back home I tend to be a complete social butterfly. Down here, I have made very few friends, but I have a great deal of faith in those friendships that I have formed.

The loneliness has been good for me. This has been a year of isolation, and I have essentially spent it meditating. And the bulk of my meditation has focused on the notion of home.

My mom was born in China and came to the United States for college, and my dad grew up in England and eventually made his way to the US by way of Canada. I’m embarrassingly hazy on some of the details, and there’s a part of me that likes to keep it that way so that there is nothing to contradict my romanticized notions of flight and migration. I like to imagine that my parents left their homes following the vague call of some compelling wanderlust, and that they drifted gradually West until they reached the boundary of the Pacific ocean, and stopped.

In my imaginary recountings, I wonder if, in reaching the ocean, they found something large enough to hold them, that they were able to feel some sense of genuine home when faced with the vastness of the water. Or if it was that they had been traveling for so long that they were too tired to cross another unknown ocean. More likely still is that these narratives are just stories that I tell myself, and their settling happened in the natural way of most life decisions: it grew up around them, weaving them in with vines of circumstance until it simply became the reality of their lives. 

But the stories that I choose to invent are ultimately just the underpinnings of the same set of facts, and they do not change the sketch of my upbringing. I grew up in Northern California in a tiny town of 350 people, the daughter of two immigrants whose long journeys finally came to rest along a beautiful stretch of coastline peppered with miles of trails and quiet woodlands.

I always felt out of place in the town itself, and it has never been home to me. But I loved the hills, and I did find home in the sensation of walking. I spent my days out roaming with my reading material and sketchbook, idly trailing my hands against the bark of madrones and listening to the shingled clink of fields of dry grass. Home, to me, has always been the sensation of peaceful momentum.

But the flip side of feeling at home while in motion is that I have never been able to feel at home while still. Over the years, I often wondered if there was a part of me that was missing, if I was constitutionally incapable of feeling the sense of home that, for most everyone else I knew, was implicit. Home was not something I was ever given; it was an abstraction I needed to chase.

When I stop to look back on everything that has happened in the last 365 days, I sometimes can’t quite believe it. I left Seattle on March 1st, 2011, and now I am returning on March 1st, 2012.

In the past year, I biked alone across the United States, ended a relationship with someone I was engaged to, created a solo show’s work of new paintings in under a month, fell in love with someone who was only in my life for five weeks, and then promptly left to come to Antarctica.

And somewhere over the course of this year of insane forward momentum, something magical happened.

I found home.

I don’t know quite when or where it appeared. I think it started as a quiet place within myself, and I reinforced it with every step of this pilgrimage that I have thrown myself into. Down here in Antarctica, I have learned to be homesick. It is an entirely new feeling for me, because I have never had a sense of home concrete enough to tug at me. I have spent my whole life longing for home, and this is the first time I have ever felt like I know what it is. I’m solid and healthy enough in myself to recognize it, and wildly lucky enough to have found it, and I’m ready to go back to Seattle.

It’s funny to have discovered that I was already home, but just couldn’t see it. I first moved to Seattle because of an ex, and, quite frankly, I hated it there. I lived there for about two years and saw the city as a dull, pragmatic place—somewhere that lacked a sense of community, and whose culture was defined by the dull grey of Monday through Friday business casual. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last six months quietly apologizing to Seattle for ever having thought that. My bad, Seattle: it wasn’t you, it was me. 

When I got back from my bike trip, Seattle started smacking me in the face with everything I had complained that it lacked, and in the course of my two months back, I was completely won over. When it came time to go, I didn’t want to leave. My closest friends were out of town, and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about how confused I was over leaving. So I did what I usually do and walked until things made some measure of sense. I ended up passing by a wall with buckets of chalk left out for people to draw with, and I said what I needed to say there. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that things come full circle, and how we don’t move through life in straight lines, but rather in looping curlicues. 

Our progress from point A to point B is hard earned and circuitous, and while I am going back to a set of circumstances that are remarkably similar to the ones I left, everything about this homecoming is different.

It feels like everything has been coming wonderfully full circle this year.

About a month ago I received an email from Hannah Stephenson, a poet who runs a project called The Storialist in which she writes poems based off of visual images. She contacted me to tell me that she had written a poem based off one of my pieces. This was an instance of delightful synchronicity, as I had based that particular painting on a line from a poem by Jim Dodge, one of my favorite authors. I’d first contacted Jim a handful of years ago to ask for permission to use a line from one of his books as the title of a mural I was working on, and had been in touch with him again to send him a print of the painting his poem had inspired. We talked about the interaction of artist/writer and audience, and about the magical way that inspiration crosses different creative disciplines. And so it seemed perfect that his poem had returned to its original form. Poem, painting, poem.

Jim's poem: 

Palms to the Moon
Jim Dodge

We were fifteen. Summertime.

We walked through the moonlit village

the cliffs above the beach.
We made love at that trembling pitch

where sensations become emotions,

none of which we'd ever felt before.

Our hearts like torches hurled into the sea.

A magnificence

that cannot survive

that makes it possible.


No beauty without perishing.

No love without that first desolate moment of heartbreak,

when you know something is wrong,

but you don't know what it is,

or how to stop it.


Midnight, the mountains,

we make a bed of our clothes

on the granite slab.

Naked beyond skin,

we lift our palms to the moon,

our bodies trembling like the limb of a tree

 My painting: "a magnificence/ that cannot survive/the innocence/ that makes it possible"

Hannah's poem:

Hannah Stephenson
Iceland is not only ice, nor is Greenland
very green. The only way to know

about a place is to see it, to go

there. Keep your days unplanned

so you can discover the cafe

in which you will eat one meal,

alone. Later, you will recall the feel

of the warm cup in your hand, the stray

mint leaf in your mouth that swam

upshore from the teapot. A trip

levels every place, makes you rip

apart the truth of where every damn

person is. Chiefly, you. You know

we can only have one experience

at a time, must not shift verb tense

in the same line. But when you go

home, you will miss the place

you just came from, and when you

travel elsewhere, you will want to,

eventually, go home, to your trophy case

of lustrous cities you almost fled

to, that you loved but only got to first

or second base with. Homesickness hurts

because it will always be unrequited.

Hannah’s poem is something that has stuck with me of late, because it touches upon so many of the questions I have always asked myself about home and motion and solitude. And it somehow seems perfect for right now, for the impossibility of leaving this place.

But all of this is to say that I am thoroughly ready to go back. I have come full circle on myself, and am ready to go HOME. 

I am not done with Antarctica. There are so many stories that I want to explore down here, points of fascination that I want to pursue. But for now I am ready to be stationary and explore this strange new contentment with a rooted sense of place. I plan on coming back. Maybe not next season, but at some point… I’m going to hibernate and go radio silent on blogging for a bit. Don’t really know how long, but I just need a bit of a break.

So Seattle, I’ll see you in just over two weeks. And Antarctica, I’ll see you again at some point. Hopefully when I’m down here on the artists and writers grant… And for whoever is actually still reading after this ridiculously long post, I’d like to leave you with a book passage that has been on my mind throughout the course of this year:

God made mud.
God got lonesome.

So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"

"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the

sky, the stars."

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look


Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

Nice going, God.

Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly

couldn't have.

I feel very unimportant compared to You.

The only way I can feel the least bit important is to

think of all the mud that didn't even get to sit up and

look around.

I got so much, and most mud got so little.

Thank you for the honor!

Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.

What memories for mud to have!

What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!

I loved everything I saw!

Good night.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Goodnight, everyone. 

I’m some damn grateful mud.