As artist Julia Chiang unveils her most ambitious work yet, she invites us into her studio to reveal what keeps her inspired
Contemporary art punctuates the coastal landscape for weekend surfers and year-round citizens at Rockaway Beach, where Brooklyn-based painter, sculptor and installation artist Julia Chiang has just unveiled two new murals in collaboration with the close-knit neighborhood of Queens. Although her husband, KAWS, began creating on the streets of New York, these two murals mark Chiang’s debut in public art.
Commissioned by the Rockaway Hotel and Spa, the project was realized with the help of Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy and local residents, who were invited to respond to examples of Chiang’s work with their own designs. Chiang continued the conversation drawing on sketches from the crowd, incorporating their colors, textures and patterns into his plan.
Purple, a favorite hue on the artist’s palette, anchors her work at the Rockaway Sea Girt Residences, where volunteers participated on July 21, a community paint day. Irregular geometric shapes, softer pastel hues and stippling on Chiang’s mural belie another essential element of his practice: listening, receptivity, an equal flow in and out.
We caught up with the artist in his studio to learn more about life after making the seaside his workspace.
Can you send us a photo of the most essential item in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?
I have a lucky hammer. It’s been with me since my first artist-in-residence in 2000 and I’ve never broken anything with it and I’ve nailed hundreds of ceramics into the walls with it. I bring it with me when I have delicate installations and it feels good to have it close at hand.
What studio task on your calendar this week are you most looking forward to?
Finishing and sending two new paintings to the Modern Institute for Frieze Seoul.
What atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I rotate between podcasts, audiobooks, news and music. With two small children, I don’t have much time to read now, so listening has become more important. Listening also helps me turn off my inner noise and chatter.
Who are your favorite artists, curators or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
I try not to fall into the vortex too much, because there are too many friends and favorite artists. Apex for Youth, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Kimberly Drew, Matthew Higgs, Shannon Watts, Robert Reich, Jerry Saltz, Shaun King, Shaniqwa Jarvis and Amanda Nguyen are always on my daily check-in.
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get out of it?
I’m just doing something, anything. Usually something for my kids. Keeping my hands busy usually helps me out.
What images or objects do you look at while you work?
When I’m working, I’m pretty focused on what’s right in front of me. In front of my window, I’m lucky there is a tree and I love to see it change.
What is the last exhibition you saw that marked you and why?
Guadalupe Maravilla at the Brooklyn Museum. It really connected in a very physical way with me. The sounds and objects stayed with me, and my daughter’s voice telling me she wished she could lie inside to be a part of it.
What made you choose this studio over others?
I had my studio for almost 20 years. At the time, I was looking for a place to live and work and install a small oven and this place allowed everything.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Light, love and time.
What was it like making the world your studio, recently doing your very first public murals?
The mural was done primarily on-site at the Rockaway Hotel with children and families from the community. We extended the workshop to neighborhood schools and seven schools participated in sending works inspired by my work. I asked the kids to think about their brand, how their lines and features are part of them and how they do what they do is unique to them. I bonded the colors, textures and shapes they created with mine and this is what now lives on the facade of the hotel.
The other Far Rockaway mural was taken from one of my existing paintings thinking about how the community could physically come together to paint it without being on ladders and scaffolding. It was so great to paint with people who didn’t necessarily know how the mural came about, but were curious to be involved. Being with people who are excited to do something for their neighborhood, painting with them and my kids, having conversations about what they think art is and isn’t, was great.
What was it like collaborating with the Rockaway community while working on these murals?
I liked it so much. I’m honored to have been asked to create something that will live there and hope the people who come across them also feel connected in some way. They did it!
How has your relationship with Rockaway Beach developed over the summers?
Rockaway has always been a close escape. I started going there in the mid 90’s with some surfing friends and it was interesting to see how things changed and stayed the same there. So many people are surfing now! Can’t say I’m a regular, but I love it every time I go out.
Any other public art adventures planned for the future?
Not yet, but I hope so!
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