As a selected artist for this year’s Inter|Urban public art project, I was asked to create a piece inspired by Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winning book by Peter Ho Davies’, The Fortunes - that will be featured on Cleveland’s RTA Red Line trains (installation late-August).
My piece was inspired directly by the rich descriptions of landscape and experience given in the first portion, The Fortunes (Gold). I found the recurrent theme of ‘seeing the elephant’ striking and have used an elephant as the central focus in my piece, comprising almost the whole of the train’s window frame. To ‘see the elephant’ is the complicated realization that gaining something desired (to have ‘seen it all’, ’the mother lode') may come at a significant cost, to both personal identity and to the larger culture. This much anticipated and sought after ‘elephant’ may not glitter as gold in reality, often leaving the viewer disappointed or disenchanted. This is an overarching theme for the protagonist, Ah Ling, as he adjusts to life in America.
The elephant in my piece is visually ‘built’ so to speak with Davies’ imagery, much from the descriptions of the Chinese immigrants, himself and those who were building the railroads. I hope the piece honors the author’s story while also connecting to some of our current issues surrounding immigration in America. With recent raids on immigrant workers, detention camps, and talk of tent cities for housing the children of immigrants, the parallels I see between then and now are many.
Within the elephant and it’s surroundings is a plethora of imagery, all drawn from Davies’ writing. I’ve included visuals from the time: upper class American (flocked wallpaper, chandeliers, pocket watches), Chinese identities (queue, incense, kite patterns, wallpaper patterns), and working class Chinese-American experience (tent cities, rock walls, trains, men in hanging baskets, overcrowding). With these inclusions juxtaposed together, I hope to speak to the contradictory nature of America (’the elephant’ for many) - at once both that bigger than life myth which glitters, racing forward and at the same time, something much more complicated, difficult, and harsh. These contrasting layers built up give texture and an interweaving nature to the piece - combining pattern, color, and a variety of mark making techniques.