Artists on Coping: Cecile Chong

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

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At EFA Studios. Photo: Gaby Deimeke

Cecile Chong is an Ecuadorian-born, New York-based multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and installation in which she layers material, identities, histories and languages. Her work addresses ideas of culture interaction and interpretation, as well as the commonalities humans share both in our relationship to nature and to each other. Inspired by materials as signifiers, Chong is interested in how we acquire and share culture, and how world cultures now overlap and interact in ways previously inconceivable. With uncertainty looming in everything from our economies to our weather patterns, she’s concerned with the fragility of our civilization despite the universality of its cultural underpinnings.

AS: How are you coping?

Cecile: I am trying to stay optimistic despite the fear and chaos. Somehow parts of this experience remind me of my past. Perhaps this reminds me of those times after a breakup, like when a linkage has been abruptly severed, and staying home for weeks to help oneself mourn, reflect, heal, and gather strength to face the world again. I’m also remembering when my sister and I lived with my caring but firm grandma in Macau during our teenage years. My grandmother was very strict, and my sister and I hardly left the house. It was then that I learned to do bead work and I would spend a lot of my time beading after school. I think it was a way of coping with the feeling of being shut in. I couldn’t wait to grow up to be independent and free, but last month I found myself in lockdown and beading again. I finished two partially completed strainers that I found in my apartment. The beads were so small, and the work moved so slowly that I had left them unfinished. With so much time on my hands now I was able to complete them.

During the first few weeks of quarantine, I also read and slept a lot. Lately it has been more about organizing our home and checking in with loved ones. I used to talk to my mom who lives in Ecuador once a week. Now my siblings and I do group chats with her every night. We usually end up singing the songs of Mercedes Sosa, Julio Jaramillo and Luis Miguel. We laugh a lot and it helps to keep our spirits high.

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STRAINGERS at Main Window DUMBO, 2019. Beads on kitchen strainers

AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?

Cecile: I was in two group shows, one at Materials for the Arts titled “Contemporary Reuse 2020” and one at Saint Joseph’s College titled “Reflections” curated by Meridith McNeal. Both exhibitions were already installed when the quarantine happened, but the openings were canceled. We did have a virtual opening on April 16, for Contemporary Reuse in lieu of the opening on March 19. There were also an MFA guest critic review and an artist talk that were canceled.

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Contemporary Excavation at Materials for the Arts, 2020, Encaustic, plastic, plaster, and metal leaf Photo: MFTA

AS: Has your routine changed?

Cecile: For the past year I was enjoying a nice flow, going to my studio almost every day. In February of 2019 I stopped teaching art full time at the public schools. Before this quarantine I was truly appreciating the long uninterrupted stretches of time in the studio. While teaching I was not able to be in my studio as much as I would have liked, now I’m away from my studio again and back to thinking about materials, concepts and solving problems in my mind. I was in the midst of working on a large blue and white tapestry at the studio, looking at blue and white ware and its role throughout history in transmitting ideas and imagery across cultures. Now I’m mostly focusing on the research part of the project and reading about the Silk Road.

I was told that it would take two years to “decompress” from teaching after retirement, I have the feeling that staying home all these months is accelerating that process.

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(In Blue) Series, 2019, Encaustic and mixed media on wood panel

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

Cecile: The inability to be there in person for loved ones is very frustrating. We can’t escape this feeling of extreme pain in the world, of people losing loved ones, and knowing that they’re dying alone with no one by their side. Also it is very difficult having good friends being sick, and not being able to go to see them, or not being able to hug and comfort a friend who has lost someone.

This is big trial for humanity. I fear for people in vulnerable positions. I fear for those at home suffering domestic violence. I am very concerned about the Black and Latinx communities and the immigrant communities which have been hit so hard during this crisis. I am worried about the resurgence of anti-Asian racism that is rising in this country and in other parts of the world. There is a sense of helplessness that takes over.

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EL DORADO – The New Forty Niners at Wave Hill, 2019, Encaustic, plastic, plaster, clay, fiberglass reinforced resin, and paint   Photo: Stefan Hagen

AS: What matters most right now?

Cecile: I see this crisis as a warning about how we see ourselves in nature. We often think of nature in massive terms; oceans, mountains, forests, hurricanes and tides. Meanwhile this microscopic organic entity, born of human interaction in the natural world has brought us to our knees. We have to pay close attention to the ramifications of what we do as part of a world ecology, because nature will have the final word on whether we thrive or regress.

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(left) Chicken Little at The Painting Center, 2018 , Mixed media,
(right) Chicken Little at Westbeth Gallery, 2017. Photo: Phillip Reed

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

Cecile: It’s time to reexamine and reset many aspects of our society. It’s painful to think that in our lifetime, the way we live has improved in terms of technology and material goods but not in the way we treat each other and the place in which we live. If we could see ourselves as we are, offspring of mother earth, imagine the chaos, injustice and misery we could avoid. Our health and safety depends on our collective vision and action. We should be more ambitious about improving our lives by treating our environment and each other with respect, integrity and kindness and move culture and society forward.

We have been literally separated from one and other. The partial shutdown of our society has exposed many of our vulnerabilities and inequalities. In coming back together we can proceed as we did before or we can aspire to something higher.

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_other Nature at Smack Mellon, 2020, Steel fence, artificial flora, plaster and encaustic sculptures, blacklight, video projection, and audio track. Photo: Etienne Frossard

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: