The Pandemic Parenting Exhibit is curated by Rachael Grad as part of her Remote Residency with MoM. Each week during the month of August, Rachael interviews and collects information about four outstanding mother artists and their practices. Then, her interviews will appear here and also link to the exhibit page online.
“My work as a professor is to challenge the status quo and show that there are different ways to be an artist.” ~ JJ Lee
RG: What is your current focus?
JL: I have an upcoming exhibition next June through August in a Halifax Museum. I went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to clear out my parents’ house and found all kinds of things. I started drawing based on these discoveries and proposed a show to the Museum. I was going back and forth to Halifax while my mom was sick. My recent work is about losing my mom and ancestry. The drawings of my mom were emotional and healing.
RG: How does being a mother impact your work?
JL: My 15-year-old non-binary child Mei came to Halifax during one trip while I was taking care of my dad. Mei was a comfort to me. The death of my mom and Chinese funeral rituals were a learning experience. I brought my dad back to Toronto to live. I have 4 siblings and am the youngest. The past few years during the pandemic have been an incredible amount of caretaking a child and my parents: first my mom and then my dad. Caretaking takes up an incredible amount of time and energy.
RG: How did this parent caregiving come into your art?
JL: Caregiving changed my work, making and understanding. I started drawing on paper from my grandfather’s laundry that I found in my parents’ house. For a while I couldn’t do work on my mom so I did work about my grandfather. It’s difficult to capture my mom and her essence from photos. I started drawing on the found paper. Physical impressions of my mom’s writing in Chinese letters started coming through the paper. Intergenerational trauma is passed through DNA. I feel that that this show is not my show. For 30 years, the art was mine but not this new work. I am making drawings of my mom on laundry paper, my mom sewing in a shrine, and my grandmother and her friend. My recent work is about matriarchy and Chinese culture. My grandmother ran the house. There is a tradition in Chinese culture of the eldest son and his wife moving in and taking care of the son’s parents. I used to have a different impression of my grandmother then later learnt from family that she had had difficult life.
RG: How did your work change when you became a mother?
JL: My work changed when my baby was born but became more interesting when I started collaboratively working with Mei. My child taught me a lot including forcing me to face my own biases about art. Mei draws freely in her mark-making and stories.
RG: How do you balance creating, parenting, and teaching?
JL: My first exhibition with Mei was when Mei was 7 years old. My next exhibition didn’t include Mei and Mei wasn’t happy about it! At the time I was the Chair of First Year Painting and Drawing at OCAD University with a tenure track job. We realized later that Mei is hard of hearing and is autistic, so the show was about non-verbal communication. I was drawing on tags that represent labels about being autistic, Chinese, Canadian, and others. Then Mei ripped up my drawings into tiny pieces. I felt upset, violated, and destroyed but then Mei and I made a collaborative work out of putting the pieces together.
RG: Do you still collaborate with Mei now that she’s a teenager?
JL: Mei no longer wants to collaborate or get feedback on her art from me. Mei is part of the new digital generation.
RG: Are you collaborating in other ways?
JL: My work expanded through collaboration with dance-choreographer sister and The Drawing Board. In The Drawing Board collective with Natalie Waldburger and Amy Swartz, I lose individuality and have the freedom to make what I want. We can’t separate being moms and creatives. The Drawing Board formed because we didn’t have time to make our own work. The art practice responds to what’s happening through our lives. My work as a professor is to challenge the status quo and show that there are different ways to be an artist.