Chelsea Ryoko Wong

Chelsea Ryoko Wong (b. 1986, Seattle, WA) is a painter based in San Francisco, CA. Wong began her studies at Parsons School of Design and finished at California College of the Arts with a BFA in Printmaking in 2010. Wong’s work has been shown at Jessica Silverman, San Francisco, CA; Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA; Taymour Grahne, London; New Image Art in Los Angeles, CA and more.
February 27, 2023
Tell us about your practice.
I am a figurative painter and muralist based in San Francisco. The works I create promote racial and cultural diversity through empowerment and joy. These heavily stylized and colorful scenes are populated with people in environments inspired by California nature, San Francisco neighborhoods, personal histories, and collective stories. The narratives I create feature strong central characters, connecting over tea, feasts, swimming, and celebration. Combining my curiosity about resilience, humanity, and interconnectedness with seeped-saturated sunsets in glimmering bodies of water, I am painting my own time capsule of the world we live in now.
You’ve described your practice as interdisciplinary, working not just in painting but murals as well. Does your approach differ between one or the other or do you consider them two halves of the same whole?
To my own detriment, the approach does not differ too much between making a painting in my studio and planning a mural on a large-scale wall. I prefer to do both spontaneously and unplanned. When working I like to sit with the medium and let whatever needs to come out manifest. Creative magic happens when I am able to listen to myself and respond to my environment. I see murals and painting as two expressions of the same art, except with murals a client has to trust me infinitely more, whereas paintings usually have no particular endgame in sight. Both are so much fun in their own ways. Mediums I would love to explore one day are textiles, shoe design, furniture design, and fashion. The possibilities are endless!
Joy is an emotion that comes through in your works, and you’ve mentioned how that is intentional. Can you talk a little about why that is important to express? Has that taken a different form since the pandemic?
Growing up as an Asian American woman, society didn’t give us a lot of permission to experience joy. TV shows informed us we are allowed to be subservient, smart, nerdy, and hard-working; and magazine ads said they don’t make clothes or makeup for us. And the news today makes us feel othered, attacked, and brutalized. And this is not just an Asian American woman phenomenon, it’s an all-pervasive societal phenomenon. So when I think about how society has changed or how I would like it to change, joy is a feeling that comes to mind. We as humans, gendered and non-gendered creatures, people of all colors from all lineages, have the agency to control the way we think, manifest happiness, create joy and experience life the way we want to. For me, joy is one emotion in my daily routine that has the power to heal and transform.
Your paintings often blur the lines between fact and fiction – are there particular elements you feel are important to stay truthful to?
Nothing on the canvas except staying truthful to myself. I think the magic in art is that you are creating something that didn’t exist before. I use a lot of photo references but find myself frustrated when I try to make things too true to life. For example, if I’m painting a landscape from a photo and there is a rock on the left but not on the right, one kind of flower but not another, the process and outcome start to lose magic if I try to stick to the truth. My work is at its best when I use my agency to add a little fiction to reality.
How has your printmaking background influenced your approach to painting?
It’s pervasive, if I were painting any closer to a printmaker I’d just be making prints. I have a BFA in printmaking and only took a handful of painting classes in my life, one of which we were only allowed to use black and white. I realized only somewhat recently (yikes!) that I paint like a screen-printer. I love the flatness and layering of screen printing and the problem-solving of working in layers and figuring out what to do first, foreground or background working back to front, etc. It’s what I was drawn to and studied in college, and is intrinsic to my process. I can’t shake it.
What has been inspiring you lately?
California nature, architecture from all decades, Japanese Zen Buddhism, interiors, and furniture design. Buddhist teachings by Thích Nhất Hạnh, mindfulness. Healing and transformation, friendships and relationships. All things that come from the water, dead or alive, from big seafood feasts to mysteriously low tides. Joan Brown, San Francisco, maximizing sleep, unusual cloud formations and colors, family.

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