Jia Sung’s paintings, illustrations and sketches might be static, but everything in them seems to be moving in a rhythmic motion, like it has a life of its own. Jia is an artist from Singapore who is now based in New York, USA. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design last year with a BFA in illustration. Apart from many private portrait commissions, she has worked with clients like Penny Magazine, Charleston Magazine, Huffington Post, Harvard Asian American Policy Review, Artists Against Police Violence, WILD Magazine, etc.
Jia is greatly influenced by the power of words, and has explored this in her personal project ‘Play On Words’ where she imaginatively transforms a few interesting/uncommon words into sketches and paintings. In this interview, Jia talks about word plays, trickster stories, Buddhist art, snow, painting, Frida Kahlo, Beyonce, Singapore, poetry, New York, and a lot of other things. Read on:
Tell us something about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the uber-compact city state of Singapore. Looking back, I was a really nervous and sensitive kid, which I guess hasn’t really changed much. Growing up in the tropical heat, surrounded by skyscrapers, condos and malls, and indoctrinated by various British children’s books, I fantasized a lot about nature and “real seasons”. Although, now that I’m based in the East Coast of the US, I’m not so sure snow is that great, and I have a pretty generic city slicker relationship to the outdoors – in calculated doses, no insects, and ideally observed from a comfortable seat with snacks and drinks in hand.
You were born in Minnesota. So when exactly did you move to Singapore?
I think I was exported to Singapore as a year old baby. My parents are from Singapore, and I was born mid-degree. So once the promised PhD was obtained, we moved back. It was weird growing up as technically and legally a citizen of a place I had no memory of, but it’s proven useful now since I’m establishing myself in New York.
Also, It’s probably best I didn’t grow up in Minnesota, since my tolerance for cold is so low.
What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
We had a lot of books around the house, and I think reading so much gave me an awareness of the conjuring power of words, their ability to evoke complex worlds populated by complex people. I’m still so interested in the symbiotic and complementary relationship of the verbal and visual; how they feed off and recall each other. Folklore and myth I found especially compelling – trickster stories, shapeshifters, and creation myths probably being the top three. I loved the way the stories echoed in iterations across cultures and time, and their detachment in describing horrors, incest, magic, dismemberment. They made me curious, because they both reveal and obscure – they are so encrusted and weighted with symbol and costuming, but don’t tell the full story, speaking for some and silencing others. I liked sensing the vast gap of time that these stories bridge and how their inner logic remains intact, relevant and comprehensible even centuries later.
This love for icons and symbols pulls me toward religious imagery – saints, martyrs, arhats, demigods – despite my lack of any religious convictions. I did attend a convent school early on, so I absorbed a lot of Catholic imagery without really understanding my own relationship to it. Buddhist art in particular fascinates me – the wheel of life is one of my favorites, diagramming the methodical splintering of the six realms of existence, with the animal symbols of the three vices at the hub of the wheel.
Folklore and myth I found especially compelling – trickster stories, shapeshifters, and creation myths probably being the top three. I loved the way the stories echoed in iterations across cultures and time, their detachment in describing horrors, incest, magic, dismemberment.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
As an adolescent, school seemed endless, like an extravagantly slow death. I think art making and thinking gave me a sense of a purpose, a lens that helped me filter the world around me in a way that made sense.
Did you have a formal training in art?
Yes. I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design last year. It was definitely a formative experience. It’s where I learned to paint, to use color, and started to question what I’m thinking and making and why. On one hand, I’m still struggling to assemble everything I learned there in a meaningful and cohesive way, but on the other, at least I have something to occupy me for the rest of my life.
Could you pick up one personal project and tell us a bit about its making?
I recently made a zine based on Li Bai’s poem, ‘Drinking Alone Under the Moon,’ where I wrote and illustrated my own translation from the original in Chinese. Lately, I’ve been re-thinking my relationship to the language I’ve been slowly losing for years, and literature seems like a natural path of reconnection for me.
How did your project ‘Play on Words’ start?
The Word project is an expression of my love for language, and an attempt at discipline. I have a collection of words that I love and never get to use in everyday conversations. So I made these drawings where they could come into play instead. As for discipline, consistency is something I struggle with, so working in a (originally daily) series is an effort to address that. Although looking at the series as a whole, it still feels wildly variable.
Keeping my hand in motion helps stave off the anxiety of being my own taskmaster, and reminds me that all my projects start from small things – small motions of preparation, studies done over a period of time, ideas that have been brewing and gestating over years, sometimes coming together into a cohesive work or series.
How do you balance between personal projects and commercial work?
Most of my work is currently personal, so my main concern is staying motivated and finding out what a sustainable routine looks like for me. I try to draw every day, even if it’s just a little sketching on a long train ride. Keeping my hand in motion helps stave off the anxiety of being my own taskmaster, and reminds me that all my projects start from small things – small motions of preparation, studies done over a period of time, ideas that have been brewing and gestating over years, sometimes coming together into a cohesive work or series.
My main commercial work is portrait painting in oil, which I feel really lucky to be doing – getting paid to paint faces is a sweet gig!
A lot of your work has a very surreal/dreamlike feel to it. It’s beautifully hazy. Do you agree?
Thank you, I’m really happy to hear that! Yes, my hand tends to be fuzzy – I have a really scribbly, wobbling mark. Maybe it’s an extension of my wavering spirit.
How does Singapore inspire you and your work?
It’s difficult for me to say. The closer you are to something, the harder it is to see it clearly. Maybe the interest in cultural intersections inspires me. But it’s difficult for me to say.
You are now based in New York, USA. Tell us a bit about your experience there. Also, how difficult is it to try to establish yourself in a city that’s so saturated with creative professionals?
I love being in New York. There is always something new to see – exhibitions, lectures, and communities to tap into. There is this hum of activity on one side, and the pockets of quiet you make for yourself or stumble upon on the other. I think the challenges I face here are the challenges I would face anywhere I go to carve my own niche – I don’t know if I belong here. I don’t know if I’m needed here.
Tell us a little bit about your usual day at work.
I’m still struggling to find a routine out of school, as I have a rather erratic personality. But I rarely miss meals, so I can say that food and tea are the major organizing principles in my day. My schedule is most structured when I have a portrait commission going on. I then work through the daylight hours, breaking for meals, during which I usually read some articles or a book, and then switch gears to my personal work.
Who are the artists that you really admire?
Frida Kahlo has been on my mind a lot since I watched Beyoncé’s Lemonade. How she drew on her life, her pain, her inner world to build a personal iconography, the looming presence of her obsessive and wounding love for Diego (/Jay Z?), and the deeply-felt connection to her community. Recently, I’ve also been looking at Henrik Drescher, Dana Schutz, and particularly Onchi Koshiro. He was so prolific and so good at everything; sometimes, I’m not sure if he motivates or discourages me.
I take a lot of strength from reading too. Helen Oyeyemi has been my subway companion for the last couple of weeks. Over the winter, I finally read the entire Journey to the West, as translated by Anthony C. Yu, because I thought it would prepare me to nibble away at the original Chinese text. But every time I sit down with my dictionary and open the PDF, my eyes just cross, so the progress on that has been slow.
Is there something in particular that really inspires you?
I’m always drawn to depictions of that edge of unreality where the interior world bleeds into the exterior, and you can’t quite tell them apart. So that’s where the loyalty to artists like Oyeyemi, Kahlo, and previously Haruki Murakami comes in, I guess.
Lastly, what are you currently working on?
I’m starting to paint regularly again, which is really exciting for me. Otherwise, I’m planning out some comics and starting up the Word series again.
I think the challenges I face here are the challenges I would face anywhere I go to carve my own niche – I don’t know if I belong here. I don’t know if I’m needed here.
FEATURED IMAGE CAPTION:
All the images are artworks by Jia Sung.©
Jia’s photograph is provided by her.©