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Embodied: A Conversation with Chloe Chen

Chloe talks with the Brown Art Review about trauma, survival, and narratives of healing in advance of her solo exhibition, “embodied.”

On The Hill
On The Hill
Embodied: A Conversation with Chloe Chen
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

March 11, 2024
8 Minutes

Chloe Chen (@chloeachen) is a senior concentrating in Visual Art and Sociology. Her vibrantly colored work spans printmaking, sculpture, and oil painting. Her recent senior capstone exhibition, “embodied,” pulled from personal and collective narratives of trauma and survivorship in order to challenge dominant narratives of healing and cure. I sat down with her as she prepared for the show to talk about the exhibition, her relationship to art, and the themes that she’s exploring. The following conversation has been edited for clarity. For a fuller conversation, a recording of our interview is accessible through the Brown Art Review podcast, I highly encourage you to give it a listen.

Charlie Usadi: Hi, Chloe! 

Chloe Chen: Hi!

CU: Congratulations on your upcoming exhibition. I've taken a number of courses with you, and I'm always so impressed by how personal and emotionally weighty your work is, not to mention just the technical skill you implement throughout all your pieces. I wanted to conduct this interview ahead of your show to give readers insight into the work you're doing and your artistic perspective. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. 

CC: Yeah, thank you so much, I'm excited. 

CU: I like to start these interviews sort of “outside of the studio” because everyone on campus has so much going on beyond just one thing. Could you just introduce yourself a bit and let people know where they could find you when you're not working in the studio?

CC: I'm Chloe. I'm a senior at Brown, studying sociology and visual arts. Outside of art, sociology is taking up a lot of my time right now. I'm writing my senior thesis for sociology, conducting a lot of interviews, data collection and analysis for that. I'm also in a public health research lab right now that's focused on mindfulness-based interventions for health inequities and queer resilience. That's been a really great community for me to be in as well. Other than that, I'm also really active in the anti-sexual violence activist community. End Sexual Violence at Brown is a group I've been a part of since freshman year, and they've always been a really tight-knit community that I've loved being a part of. We've built a lot of support systems at Brown, which I'm really proud of. Beyond that, I like to go on runs, learn new recipes, and play board games in my free time.

CU: That's wonderful. It’s all really great stuff you're involved with. I find that no matter what I'm doing, having a variety of outlets helps give me energy to do the other things.

CC: Definitely. Yeah.

CU: In terms of artmaking and your practice, I'm interested to know where your relationship to art began. I know it might be hard to pinpoint, but when did you start to think of yourself as an artist?

CC: Ooh, that’s hard. Well, I guess to start, both of my parents are artists – they met in art school –and because of that, art has always been a part of my life. When I was a kid, it was like a big family activity to draw or paint all together. But I also think seeing my parents navigate art in a very commercial way was interesting for me as I started thinking about my own education and career. They’re both in the film industry now, where there's a lot of overworking and exploitation in a way that can drain the creativity and independence from artmaking, and I was seeing that and thinking, “I don't want to do that.”

So, I did art for fun throughout high school, and when I came to college, I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to major in art. I always wanted to keep it up as a hobby, as something to do to relax, but it was after I took VISA 0100 with Daniel [Stupar] that I had the realization, “I really like this.” 

CU: Through your college career, have there been any other courses or professors who’ve helped to develop your artistic perspective or changed it? 

CC: Definitely Helina [Metaferia]’s social practice class. I took that my junior spring. That was one of my absolute favorite classes because all the things that I did in that class I previously would not have considered art. Social practice is very exploratory. It's about dialogue, being in a community, and thinking of everyday life and social change as art. For my final project, me and a classmate, Henry, ended up doing an entire week of events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. We hosted a survivor-centered exhibition, had trauma-informed yoga, a panel of speakers, and we called the project “Restoration, Resilience, and Resistance.” It was thinking about gathering, protesting, and conversation about sexual violence as art. It really expanded my perspective on what art can be and what the impacts of art can be.

CU: I think we should talk about the work you’re making now for your senior show. It connects so directly to the work your sociology research focuses on. 

CC: Yeah, my capstone exhibition is called “Embodied.” I've been thinking a lot about how trauma and past painful experiences become imprinted onto people's bodies and memories, specifically thinking in the context of my own experience with sexual violence, as well as from hearing about others’ similar experiences within these activist spaces I’m in. I’m interested in exploring how we navigate survivorship and the different material cultures produced in the process of pain and trauma management. On the topic of embodiment, I’m also thinking about how physical and emotional pain materializes in different ways and how our bodies move through spaces differently in the aftermath of trauma. 

“embodied” show promotion poster.

CU: Do you find that the sociology research and activism that you're involved with influences the studio work you create? Vice versa?

CC: Absolutely. I don't think it was intentional, but my sociology thesis is actually very, very closely tied to my capstone’s theme. For the thesis, I’m focusing on pain management strategies and how cultural upbringing affects sexual violence survivors’ experiences navigating post-assault care. That really touches on similar themes that I explore in my art as well, especially when it comes to pain and trauma management. So yeah, I definitely would say that it influences my art a lot.

CU: It's great that the work you're doing in these different spheres all connect to and support each other. Where did this interest in pain management emerge first? Within your art practice or sociology work?

CC: I would say it emerged in art first. It was a difficult subject to breach in art for the first time because it feels so personal and not really something that I had said aloud to a class before. I think the first time that I brought it into my art was in Daniel Stupar’s foundation-level sculpture class. I made a sculpture, Nesting Dolls, that was speaking about my experience with lasting trauma and PTSD, how I feel like trauma never fully disappears or “heals” but rather becomes further and further nestled inside my body. That's one of the pieces that's going to be in my show, and it was the first time I dealt with that experience in my artwork.

Nesting Dolls, 2021, clay, plaster cloth, and acrylic. 

I didn't touch the topic again for a while. But then, I was taking a bunch of sociology classes, focusing a lot on racial and ethnic disparities and resource access disparities in my research work. So the topic came up again, where I realized disparities in survivor care and support were extremely sociologically relevant. I had never really considered that this could be a part of my academic work before because sexual violence is something that's ignored or understudied in a lot of fields.

Once I started doing research on the topic again in sociology, I brought it back to my art. It’s been a back-and-forth, and now sexual violence, trauma, and pain are all very prominent themes in both of these fields that I'm working in.

CU: It must be challenging for anyone to make work that's so raw, so personal. What is your perspective on that? Especially in studio classes when you're thrown in with, say, 15 strangers, but more so when you have to put work up in a public gallery space. How do you present work which is so emotionally charged?

CC: Yeah, it's difficult. I still remember the first time I presented that sculpture piece in Daniel's class, it was so difficult for me to put into words what I wanted to say. It’s still hard for me, but I feel like translating it into art is so important to my own processing of what's happened to me and to feeling connected to the survivor community at a broader level. I think what’s most powerful for me to witness is when people come up to me and tell me that they've resonated with something, even if it's not the exact same experience that they had.

It is empowering for me to see my experience reflected in other people's art as well. So for me, even though it is a personal and emotionally charged thing, making art about my trauma can feel like an important part of connecting to my community. 

Inner Children, 2023, oil on canvas.

CU: It's a subject that has so much shame tagged on to it, so to take the step to say this is something you’ve experienced is incredibly brave and such a powerful way to foster that community. What sort of thought went into the text that accompanies the show? It must have taken a lot of care to craft it. 

CC: Yeah, I've been thinking about pain and trauma for a while in broader, less articulated ways. Then I recently took a disability studies class, and the scholarship in that class hit these themes that I've been thinking about in big terms right on the nose. So I’ve gotten a lot more into reading disability studies literature, which talks a lot about existing in defiance of these linear expectations of healing and cure.

And I've been thinking a lot about my own experiences of pain and trauma, which are chronic, unpredictable, not linear, you know, things can regress or ebb and flow. Being introduced to that body of literature really helped me articulate what I wanted to say, thinking about pain and trauma in the context of the cure-driven Western medical industrial complex.

Chronic, 2023, oil on canvas.

CU: Are there any specific authors, activists, or writing which has been particularly influential? 

CC: Yeah, within that Disability Studies scholarship I mentioned is Eunjung Kim’s Curative Violence, which talks about violence that is inflicted on disabled people and justified in the name of “cure.” Anything by Tobin Siebers is also really interesting. I read both of their works in a class on disability and sexuality, which was an interesting intersection for me to explore. 

In terms of influence from other artists, Amanda Ba has been really great. Wes Sanders actually introduced me to her because he thought that one of my pieces was stylistically similar to hers. Now I routinely look at her work because I think it's so cool. She also looks a lot into Asian-American identity and sexuality.

I am also really interested in performance art. I don't do any performance art myself, but thinking about relationships to the body and the private-public dynamic is something that is very central in performance art. I’m thinking of, for example, Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight,” where she carried the mattress that she was raped on around Columbia University’s campus. I think work that centers the body and how bodies move through space and relate to others is really interesting. 

CU: When you're sort of starting the process of conceptualizing a piece, do you often look towards these varied sources of inspiration? Where does the process start?

CC: The process, for me, usually starts with specific events or specific pieces of material culture. For the Tiger Balm piece, for example, I was starting from the point of a specific object. I  wanted to think about how that specific object shaped my own perceptions of pain and how it’s been passed down through generations in my family.

Tiger Balm, 2023, oil on canvas.

I think it is that way for a lot of my other work, it's maybe more narrative-driven, if that's the word. Thinking of a specific object or a specific event and then creating a story around that. I dabble in a lot of mediums, so I don't think a lot of my work is medium driven, it’s probably more driven by the story. 

CU: Could you speak a bit about your relationship to the medium within your work?

CC: I haven't really settled on a medium that I'm most drawn to. Maybe it's because I'm still taking a lot of studio classes. For example, I took oil painting and silkscreen last semester, which were both new mediums to me, and because of those classes, I was producing a lot in those mediums. Now, because I don't actually have a studio this semester, I've been experimenting a lot with Linocut block printing and going back to those little “Sculpey” clay pieces—things that I can do in my own room. I honestly think I've made a lot of art that I never would have because of those constraints. So that's kind of how I've been experimenting with mediums.

Jumping Buddha – Fleshy, 2024, linocut and acrylic and Jumping Buddha – Taiwan, 2024, linocut and acrylic

CU: So these prints were made in your dorm room?

CC: Yeah, that's me and Buddha [laughs].

CU: Oh my gosh! What are you doing?

CC: We're jumping. Me and my family used to take a lot of jumping photos when we would travel, so these are all silhouettes from jumping photos. I was just thinking a lot about my relationship to my body as a kid and how that's changed from then to now. This other one was also mostly just me experimenting with block printing, it was meant to mimic those door hangers you see on Lunar New Year, which bring good luck and fortune. The central symbol is one of the older versions of the character for Tiger. It’s the symbol that's repeated on Tiger Balm. There’s a lot of references to similar objects throughout my pieces. 


CU: In terms of your perspective, your specific cultural identity is so tied to your experience and relationship to pain represented through your work. It’s not about a universal relationship to trauma but a very personal one. When you're working on a show that references many specific cultural or personal references, do you feel like you have to explain them to everyone, or do you just present them knowing there’ll be different levels of understanding?

CC: That's a good question, and I feel like it's one that I'm still figuring out. This is my first time doing a full solo exhibition, so I feel like the only context in which I’ve presented my art has been in crit in classes where you get a lot of space and time to explain your work. So I don't know, I often feel like though my art is connecting to a community and being presented to an audience, a lot of it is ultimately for myself, for processing my own trauma and experiences. So I don't think I have to explain. It's like a little fun fact, you get let in on the secret if I do tell you. A lot of it is for myself and for other people in the community that see it who are like, “Oh my God, I used Tiger Balm all the time when I was young, and this is what that reminds me of.” 

CU: There's something really special about being “in the know,” being in an exhibit and thinking, “My gosh, this is speaking to me specifically.” Sharing that connection with someone. 

There is a great variety of mediums used throughout your work, but regardless of any medium you’re using, color remains such a strong element of the work you do. Red, specifically, is prominent. Is that a conceptual choice?

CC: Yes, I think it is. I also just really like the color red [laughs], and I like the bright shades of red you can get with oil paint and screenprinting, which I was mostly using. I can't remember where it started, but because pain and trauma are such central themes in my work, red is what I first think of when I picture those feelings. 

Cigarettes, 2023, silkscreen.

There's also cultural associations with red within, like the Taiwanese-American community, you know, the color being prosperous and lucky. I think that’s an interesting juxtaposition to these ideas of pain and trauma. Also, the red I use is usually very bright and very bold, and in trying to speak out about these topics which are often repressed, numb, or just generally dismissed, I think having bright, bold colors is empowering for myself.

CU: In terms of working through traumatic experiences, do you find that your time working through these topics has helped you figure out your perspective on it? 

CC: I think so, yeah. I think art has always been central to how I process things. There's a lot of new types of art-based healing practices that have come out, so I genuinely think that it's a good practice for me to get my thoughts out, get my feelings out. Through making art about bodies all the time and having it be the center of my artwork, I feel like it has also healed my mind-body connection a little bit. 

But I'm still making art about pain, and it is a little painful sometimes. It can feel weird when I've started on a piece, and I feel like in order to work on it, I have to go to a traumatic and dark place or to access these painful memories in order to make progress on it. But this has been a theme across my sociological work as well. I've been thinking a lot about post-traumatic growth, which is a term used to talk about newfound strength and newfound growth that people experience after traumatic events. I feel like this art is a large part of that for me.

CU: Do you think that after the show, you'll want to keep working within this subject? It sounds like you’re still so interested in the themes you’re exploring within this body of work, and you mentioned you’ll want to continue exploring it, but I also know you mentioned that the themes are pretty heavy. 

CC: I want to keep making stuff on this theme, and I know I can keep making art on this theme even after the show. I mean, this has been something that I've been thinking and reading about for so long. But yeah, I can't wait to make art that is just a little bit less heavy on the heart when I'm doing it. For the past year or so, I've been thinking about my capstone and about putting things up in a gallery, but I miss making things that are out in the world, like tote bags and patches, or going back to knitting, things like that. I have really enjoyed the structure that the capstone has given me to make these pieces. But I also do miss being able to put some of my time towards those other things.

Now that I've explored so many different types of mediums, I want to go back to screen printing. I want to go back to printing on fabric, I really enjoyed that. I do think I want to take a break from these heavier subjects. I just want to make art about frogs or something for a bit. I like frogs [laughs]. 

CU: I’m excited to see what comes next! One final question, where can readers find more of your work?

CC: I don’t have any accounts or websites dedicated to my art yet (working on that!) but in the meantime, I do post some of my work on my personal Instagram @chloeachen.

CU: On behalf of the art review, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. It’s been a pleasure.

For readers interested in seeing more of Chloe’s work, I highly encourage you to check out her Instagram account. If you are interested in hearing other artists on College Hill speak about their perspectives, other interviews can be found on the Brown Art Review website (look under either the “Interviews” or “On The Hill” categories)!

(All photographs courtesy of Chloe Chen)

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