Pandemic Parenting

JJ Lee Bio

JJ Lee (b.1969) (BFA, NSCAD ‘92, MFA, York University ‘99) was born and raised in Halifax, NS to parents immigrated from China and Hong Kong. She is an equal opportunity appropriator who explores the intersection of Chinese and Canadian cultures in mixed media paintings and drawing installations.  Lee has exhibited extensively in both public institutions and artist-run centres across the country.  She is the recipient of several awards both for her individual work and her collaborative work with The Drawing Board (an award-winning collective with N. Waldburger and A. Swartz). Lee’s work is in public and private collections in Canada and the USA. JJ lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter and is a tenured Associate Professor, Contemporary Issues of Representation at OCAD University. She is represented by Prow Gallery in Halifax, NS and Gallery on Queen in Fredericton, NB. [Read full interview LINK]

Artist Statement: having a child, and in light of active dissemination, practicality and sustainability, my work has changed from single large-scale canvasses to multiples, paper and collaboration. The humble every day accessible materials (many art supplies come from office supply stores) is extended and unexpected dialogue is created by collaboration. Making the artwork accessible to a broader public is critical for me and my practice as an artist and an educator. Like my hyphenated identity as Chinese-Canadian-artist-professor-mother-of-child-with- disabilities, I’d like to further explore hyphenated practices such as drawing, installation, performance, collaboration and alternative ways of communicating this new work.

1.     Images 1 and 2: Sign Languages

Having had a steadily growing individual practice for fifteen years, this changed with the birth of my daughter in 2007. Firstly, it altered my studio practice into short, truncated, yet highly efficient patches of time. Secondly, she inserted herself into my studio and unintentionally led me into collaboration. Using a “call and response” methodology, our collaborative process was the most challenging experience of my artistic career. Responding to her initial lead, we drew simultaneously on the same paper and met in the middle.  We created large-scale mixed media drawings to explore the gap between non-verbal, visual communication and language acquisition. As she was an integral part of my personal life and my work is about identity, my daughter naturally became a part of my professional art practice. Collaboration with my daughter produced surprising results and pushed my practice and research investigations into unknown and unpredictable territories.  It culminated into the exhibition Sign Languages at loop Gallery in 2013. The experience also initiated a much-needed re-charging of my teaching practice. It led me to learn new approaches to making and reinforced a guiding and reciprocal teaching practice.  This new-to-me manner of working allowed for a reassessment of my practice as an artist, educator, and communicator. It supported my notions of multiplicity; encompassing multiple identities and approaches as well as providing the challenge to create a unified result. 

“Labels” (and details), watercolour and pencil on paper labels, t-pins, each 2” x 4’3/4”, entire dimensions 36” x 18”, 2014
2. Image 3: Labels

Labels (and details), watercolour and pencil on paper labels, t-pins, each 2” x 4’3/4”, entire dimensions 36” x 18”, 2014As a way for me to squeeze in art making in my busy life as mother, Chair of a university program, professor, and partner, I started drawing on 2”x 4 ¾” paper labels (shipping tags) from an office supply store. I viewed these small works as short moments of mediation. Already labeled as partially deaf and bi-racial my daughter was later diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. An Autistic person may respond to external stressors with a meltdown. After an argument, Mei ran to my studio and ripped up some of the labels into tiny precise pieces, ultimately destroying these systems of identification. At first devastated I decided to include this in the work. From destruction, creation can arise.

Labels, Installation View, Hurry Up and Wait, Asian Arts Alliance, Philadelphia PA, USA, 2015
3. Image 4: “Reproduction”

Soon after I incurred a concussion and wasn’t allowed to engage in any cognitive activity except drawing.  For the drawing installation “Labels” I drew anything on these tags that crossed my mind and is about seeing, the brain and neuroscience, including autism.  These shipping tags refer to labeling and transportation of peoples’ personal belongings to other places. Many of the images are lifted from medical and biological sources that are used to identify people and animals. “Reproduction” has a biological definition but also references my act of copying and recording found images and moments of my life. In this installation, contributions and collaborations from my daughter are interspersed. The drawings are pinned like specimens.  Some semblance of categorization is suggested but closer inspection reveals an arbitrary and nonsensical grouping, disintegrating into a chaotic form. Tags are scattered and piled on floor, some ripped, some blank. I thought about the meaning of medical labels, identity, systems of classifications, grouping, cultures, and the arbitrary approaches to categorization. In reality, labels do not capture the complexity and diversity of being we all experience.

Labels, Installation View, Hurry Up and Wait, Asian Arts Alliance, Philadelphia PA, USA, 2015

My mother and her friend in Hong Kong, 1957. White conte on found vintage paper used to wrap clean laundry from my grandfather’s laundry, 24” x 36”, 2022
Ang Ying and Saum Po, charcoal on found writing paper, 8.5” x 11”, 2021
The impressions of my mother’s handwriting slowly appeared as I was drawing this.
4. The Drawing Board

Significantly, my growing interest in collaboration led me to found the artist’s collective, The Drawing Board, with peer artist-educators Natalie Waldburger and Amy Swartz. It developed over conversations about our work in both the studio and classroom, and as mothers over drinks at a restaurant with brown paper covered tables and crayons.   In 2017 we had our first exhibition, Back to the Drawing Board of our collaborative drawings and a performance which looked at the intersection of creativity and the structure of cultural institutions.

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