Featured Artist: Jenny Lam + Interview with the Lover's Eye Press Team
When I first saw Jenny Lam, I knew I had to meet her. As an artist, independent curator, writer, and overall badass, Jenny's sparkling grace and exuding talent make her an inherently magnetic and unforgettable figure. Not only is Jenny brilliant, but she is probably one of the busiest artists I've ever encountered. Her interest in the world and people around her reveals her belief in the importance of facilitating connections between individuals through conversation or collaborative art projects--sometimes both simultaneously.
After agreeing on a series of questions, I, Michael Williamson, and Jules Wood sent them to Jenny and then received her responses several days later. Her unedited words and works of art are provided below. We hope you will enjoy this great conversation!
Eniko Deptuch Vághy: Jenny, it’s so lovely to interview you as the second featured artist of Lover’s Eye Press. Welcome! To start off, I’d like to ask how you found your way into your identity as an artist. From the “About” section on your website, it’s clear that from the very beginning you were a greatly resourceful, inspired child who could do anything she put her mind to, but what was it about the realm of art that called to you specifically and compelled you to make a home within it?
Jenny Lam: Thank you, Eniko! It’s so lovely to be featured in Lover’s Eye Press. I’ll start by saying that I was born an artist, which might sound clichéd, but it’s true. I’ve literally been drawing for as long as I can remember. I started as soon as I could grip a pen in my infant hand, which is why, to this day, I still hold all writing and drawing utensils incorrectly; my hand looks like it’s balled up in a fist. And then as a young child, I loved watching and was inspired by animated films and TV shows. I think that early association of art being something that is so common and accessible informed how I approach contemporary and fine art.
Jules Wood: What advice would you offer an artist who wants to make their work more widely accessible? Has your art always been community-focused? How did you develop that ethos? Also is “Artists on the Lam” merely a pun on her name, or is there a larger connection between your group and being outside of the law?
JL: The great thing now is with online platforms, it’s easy to make art widely accessible. When you share your art online, such as a virtual exhibition, people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see it in person at a gallery or in your studio—because of their location or any other reason—can enjoy your art. In terms of being more conceptually accessible, I’d say, try to get out of the artist/art bubble and consider the mindset of your friends or other people you know who aren’t involved in the arts at all. I think it’s been easier for me to steer clear of art world discourse because I didn’t go to art school (although I did major in art) and didn’t get an MFA. But honestly, instead of focusing too much on this, create the art that you want to create, and focus on your own art, and that can be enough.
I think ever since I fell in love with interactive art, that automatically tied my art with community. And seeing the disconnect between how the contemporary art world is perceived (and sometimes is in reality) and my own love of art, and wanting to bridge that distance, and show people that art can be as fun as I have always known it to be.
“Artists on the Lam” is absolutely a pun on my name! I love wordplay and it was the first thing that came to my mind when I started this venture over a decade ago. I always enjoy incorporating a bit of playfulness in the things I name, including art shows, of not taking myself or any of this too seriously. I also thought it was an appropriate name because I’m an independent curator and not affiliated with any one gallery or institution, so I curate art shows all over the city and in all sorts of different venues, and thus the artists I showcase are on the move. I dig your interpretation though.
EDV: As I’ve stated in the intro to this interview, I do believe you are the most single-handedly busy artist I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Every time I go on social media you are doing something new and fabulous or receiving praise for your projects, and it’s really lovely to see. That being said, how many projects are you currently working on now? What are your hopes for them?
JL: Why thank you! The primary project I’m currently working on is curating a group exhibition called SLAYSIAN 2.0. It’s a celebration of Chicago and the Midwest’s Asian artists, and it was originally supposed to open as SLAYSIAN in March 2020. Due to the pandemic, I postponed the physical version and spent the beginning of shelter in place moving the entire show online. Two years later, it’s finally happening in person (with masks and proof of vaccination required for all visitors, to continue keeping each other and our communities safe), and since many of the participating artists created brand new work for this iteration, I added the 2.0. The digital show served as welcome respite in a frightening time, and I hope that this edition brings joy and hope to people as well. It’s a celebration, after all. It’s on view until January 15.
Speaking of hope, one passion project / labor of love I’ve been working on since 2008 is Dreams of a City, which we’ll talk about!
(For the uninitiated, for this project, I handmake blank pre-stamped self-addressed postcards, each with the same prompt, “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die. Use this card as your canvas,” and each with a different code on the bottom corner. I leave these cards in public spaces throughout the city, using these codes to record where I leave each one. So, when a card returns to me, I’m able to tell where it was found, and gradually, I can create a map of the city with all these people’s dreams.)
EDV: The project of yours I first became acquainted with was Dreams of a City. I wanted to ask what inspired you to create this project and what has the experience of receiving all of these messages regarding people's precious dreams been like for you?
JL: I was thinking of interactive art, and I wanted to ask something universal. We all have dreams and hopes, no matter where we are. When I created the project I was living in New York City for college, and Manhattan is such a compact place where you walk a few blocks and it’s a completely different neighborhood, so that directly informed the data and mapping aspect. When I moved back home, I thought Chicago was an even more fitting place to relaunch and revamp the project since this city is so segregated.
The experience has been overwhelming in all the best ways! From the responses/messages I receive to the responses of people who then read these messages after I share them. I’ve always said that the project as a whole is essentially a message of hope, as well as a love letter to this city, comprised of hundreds of individual love letters, and it is.
EDV: What potentials do you wish to help unpack and uncover in the art world? What avenues do you feel like the art world has yet to traverse that you feel must be excavated?
JL: Oh what a question! One avenue I’ve explored that I’m still quite proud of, and that people to this day still tell me they’d never seen anything like it before, was with something I did called I CAN DO THAT, a show that I feel was quite emblematic of everything I set out to do. In 2012 I created this exhibition based on how a lot of people go up to contemporary art and say, “Well, I can do that,” or “my kid could do that.” (It was a pet peeve of mine, and being in the art world it felt so ubiquitous. And, occasionally, I was guilty of thinking it too.) So at the show I had the artists’ original art supplies in front of each piece, as well as blank canvases and other surfaces, and challenged visitors to see if they could, indeed, “do that,” or if they felt like they could improve a piece, they were able to directly paint or make any mark on that original work of art. It was glorious.
Most people might feel intimidated walking into a contemporary art gallery; this show did away with that from the get-go. Art is for everyone.
At so many opening receptions I’ve been to, barely anyone even looks at the art. At I CAN DO THAT, people were directly involved with it, including its very creation, and a lot of guests stayed for hours—which rarely happens—spending time with each piece, and having beautifully spontaneous encounters and experiences with one another. These were people from all walks of life, across generations. The event exemplified my objective: of that accessibility we talked about, of bringing people together, and, maybe, seeing the world anew, and learning a thing or two.
Michael Williamson: Because LEP publishes art alongside poetry (& soon fiction), I wanted to ask you about about language. Does language or literature inform your work at all? Do you feel a kinship with poetry? How do you see your artwork coexisting with literary works?
JL: I actually did used to write poetry; it was an art form I didn’t know I’d love until college, where I participated in my school’s creative writing program. And then suddenly I discovered I was a poet! Much like contemporary visual art, poetry is another art form that gets an unfair reputation where people think, before even engaging, that they won’t “get” it. And then you actually engage with it and completely fall in love.
For creative writing in general though, that has always been a passion of mine—along with visual art—ever since I was a child. The two went hand in hand: Throughout childhood I loved creating my own picture books; I’d write the stories and illustrate them, all on printer paper that I’d then staple together. So these two art forms are very much intertwined in my mind.
And when I was a tween and young teen, I wrote high fantasy novels for fun. Didn’t we all?
EDV: Jenny, it has been a joy and privilege to speak with you. By this time, I’m sure our readers have become devoted fans. What would be the best way for them to stay connected and aware of all of your new ventures and career developments?
JL: Likewise, Eni! It’s been an honor. My website is http://www.artistsonthelam.com, my blog is http://artistsonthelam.blogspot.com, and I’m @artistsonthelam on Instagram (as well as @dreamsofacity for Dreams of a City) and @TheJennyLam on Twitter. Thank you so much!
Jenny Lam is an artist, independent curator, and writer from Chicago, and she has a BA from Columbia University. She is the founder of Artists on the Lam, which was named “Best Visual Arts Blog” in the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago issue, and her show I CAN DO THAT was named the audience choice for “Best Art Exhibit” in NewCity’s Best of Chicago issue. Her own art has been exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center and Chicago Public Library, and she is a two-time recipient of the Individual Artists Program Grant from the City of Chicago. Read more at http://artistsonthelam.com.