We had the opportunity to spend a brisk fall morning in the studio with one of our favorite Bay Area creators — artist extraordinaire, painter of joy, and funky-style-maven, Chelsea Wong. Chelsea’s magically situated studio lies deep in the Outer Mission; her workspace is drenched in warm sunlight, something people in the Sunset haven’t seen in quite some time.
We met there to share stories about her process and how the pandemic has changed her paintings, her multicultural upbringing in Seattle, and her biggest inspiration.
After spending a couple of hours in Chelsea’s presence and amongst her work, we can say her art brims with just as much passion and joy as she does!
Read more from our interview with the wonderful Chelsea Wong below!
I’ve been a superfan of your art for quite some time, so it is a real treat to sit down and chat with you. Part of what I love about your work is the sense of joy and positivity that is sparked within. Is that purposeful? Has your art always been filled with optimism and exuberance?
The joy and exuberance is purposeful. I do it for the viewer, but mostly for myself. I believe in manifestation. I have hard boundaries about what I let in and give out in my life. I like to cultivate good feelings in myself and share them with the world. Good feelings radiate inwards and outwards, which helps others feel good too. Unfortunately, it’s the same with bad feelings. Emotions are contagious and life is too short to not be happy.
If you could see a piece hanging on one person’s wall — who would that be?
Peggy Guggenheim because she revolutionized the art world and I admire her collection and her vision for the arts. Plus her collection resides in her museum on the Grand Canal in Venice, and although Venice is touristy, it is still a city floating on water and there is something magical about that.
What are you currently listening to?
I am listening to a below average Stephen King novel. I’ve listened to so many of his audiobooks that I am down to the dregs and I’ll take what I can get. Musically, I listen to a lot of playlists that friends make or I come across on the world wide web. Three songs I listened to today are Gigolo by Yuzo Iwata, This Guy’s In Love With You by Herb Alpert, and Back at the Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith. If that tells you anything, I’m traveling across the space time continuum of music daily.
Your pieces depict real-life scenarios — groups of people gathered together at the beach, enjoying a picnic, dancing with friends, shopping at the market. Do you observe people in their natural settings or do you imagine them? Tell us about your process.
I live the experience! A lot of my paintings are inspired by real life events. Having fun and getting out of the studio is part of my practice. I don’t like to be cooped up all the time. It helps to have new experiences and if you look at my paintings, I always have big groups of people in them, because I like to hang out with big groups of people. I take a lot of photos and use them as reference material. Things I see that I find interesting get woven into my work in small and big ways.
Multiculturalism, racial diversity, body inclusivity, and representation permeate your art — can you elaborate on how this became a part of your work?
I grew up in a diverse family. I am half Japanese and Chinese and my sisters are Black and Japanese. My father is from Hong Kong and my mom is a 3rd generation Japanese-American. If you line up my family in a row, we look like a brown rainbow. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of representation in the media that looked like us or had the same experiences as anyone in our family. Because I grew up in a multicultural and diverse family it’s natural for me to represent this in my art. I also feel it’s my duty to include people from all different walks of life: having fun, experiencing joy and living life to its fullest.
What is the feeling you hope people walk away with when experiencing your pieces?
I hope people have a positive feeling and experience after seeing my art. I want to give people feelings of joy, happiness, and have them see themselves in my work. However, I do like to leave the meaning open to interpretation and appreciate that people feel different emotions when looking at my art.
Do you ever branch outside of gouache, watercolor and acrylic? For example, in your free time, do you experiment with different mediums? Textiles, clay, etc.
When I have time I do ceramics. I’m not into sculpting the forms but I love glazing. I glaze like I paint. My mom is a ceramicist so when I visit her in Seattle she has forms ready for me, it’s a true collaboration. If I had more free time I’d go into fashion. Take a shoe-design class or learn to sew.
Who is your biggest influence?
My mother. She is now retired but worked as a graphic designer my entire life. She was even pregnant with me in art school! She worked as a freelancer for many years and ran her own business. That along with her design sense gave me an early sense of art and aesthetics and carved out an alternative path to the typical 9-5.
Tell us about your background — where you grew up and the role art played in your homelife.
I was born and raised in Seattle and was lucky enough to have artistic parents. As I mentioned, my mom was a graphic designer who now does ceramics, and my father is a retired professor, who is now writing. Growing up we traveled and went to museums. I was exposed to good art from a very early age. I didn’t know I wanted to do something creative until my later highschool years; but it all makes sense now. I went to after school art programs in elementary school and highschool and was encouraged to be creative from a young age.
What moves you?
Good art. Kind gestures. Authentic stories. Stories of people overcoming difficult obstacles. The ballet. The news. Heroes of all kinds, big and small.
Has your art changed since the pandemic?
Yes. I pushed myself to work big. I work in acrylic on canvas now, before I only painted small-ish and in watercolor. My work used to be a lot about urban life, city scenes, and since the pandemic it's really shifted to nature. The hustle and bustle of the city really quieted down during the shutdown. I don’t take the bus any more, I bought a car, and I try to get out into nature as much as possible. You can see the change in my art.
Describe the aesthetic of your home.
It’s like an episode of hoarders meets old world eclectic style. Antiques, dark wood, lots of patterns and textiles. Lots of earth tone pinks, ceramics, ornate chairs, books and rugs.
How would you describe your sense of style in three words?
Eclectic, practical, fun.
What is your most frequented restaurant in San Francisco?
Besides Chez Chelsea, I have eaten at the R & G Lounge in Chinatown more than any other restaurant in the city. Get the deep fried crab. I also love House of Prime Rib and it's the only restaurant where I book regular reservations. Lately, I operate within a 3-block radius so I would probably say Bon, Nene. I love their mentaiko spaghetti.