Metamorphosis on the Go
The story of mixed-media artist Priya Lin
by Cindy Cowen
Priya Lin is no stranger to spiritual pilgrimage. Born in Taiwan and currently residing in Tucson, Arizona, the mixed-media artist has undergone numerous transformations during her lifelong journey to discover herself, her culture and the sources of inspiration that inform her art. As her canvas takes its next formation, she has come to find home and artistic recognition in the desert Southwest.
Growing up in Taipei, Taiwan in the 1970s, Priya recalls an environment thick with cultural ambiguity. She perceives the affliction as unique to Taiwan due to the country’s lack of a strong cultural identity, coupled with concurrent influences from China, Japan and the West. She views the cultural character of Taiwan as a “borrowed identity,” adopting aspects of several other countries but with no unique and unequivocal cultural identification.
The influence from Japan was strong during her childhood. By the 1980s, Japan experienced the cultural explosion of Kawaii, a quality emphasizing cuteness that initially emerged in the 1970s and which quickly became permanently entrenched in the very identity of Japan. Soon after its emanation in Japan, the Kawaii movement rapidly swept into China and Taiwan, with popular Kawaii icons such as Hello Kitty playing a dominant role and looming large in her childhood. More than any other influence in her youth, she recalls this era of her Eastern upbringing fondly and feels that the Japanese trends that influenced her as a child helped shape her sense of cultural kinship with Japan and the East later in life.
When asked about her cultural identity, she answers that she is American. Because her sense of herself as an adult was formed in the United States, she has a more concrete understanding of her identity as an American than any other nationality. She likes the “melting pot” nature of America and how the country is a culmination of many different elements. In hindsight, she marvels at how she has morphed from one person into the next during her journey to discover herself and believes this process of metamorphosis is similar for most immigrants to America.
As a mixed-media artist, Priya uses a number of mainly visual mediums to convey her art. However, she also expresses herself through writing, primarily poetry. Her relationship with poetry as an art form has changed substantially with time. The poetry she grew up with in Taiwan, written by ancient, long-dead poets and written in old Chinese, is something she never viewed as an artistic endeavor. When she relocated to Tucson in 2013, her initial views of poetry were brought into question as she realized how significant the art form is to the desert city. With this realization, poetry quickly gained importance and momentum for her. After writing poetry for several years, Priya sought out alternative forms of expression and began to focus her art on what she calls “visual poetry.” She first experimented with the notion through the use of clay. Curious as to whether clay could capture her expression of poetry, she was surprised to discover the results – the shapes and colors forming her essential poetry with boundless formation.
She moved to Hawaii in 2010, during what she classifies as an “incubation phase” in her artistic maturation. The Big Island, uniquely positioned between the U.S., mainland China, Japan and Taiwan, felt very much like home to her. The numerous transplants from Japan imparted in her a greater sense of belonging, and she quickly fell in love with the island way of life. During her three-year tenure in Hawaii, she worked as an artist’s model for such well known Hawaiian artists as Arthur Johnsen and Eide Hansamut. In the unique island culture, with its heady environment of myth and legend, she found a strong source of inspiration that would continually infuse her art.
Priya relocated to Tucson, Arizona in 2013 and has graciously come to accept the desert city as her home. She finds the location to be an unexpected source of inspiration and connection to her ancestry. To her surprise, she has reconnected with her Chinese heritage in Tucson more than anywhere else and enjoys the vibrant culture in the area, including the expansive Chinese medicine community.
Since moving to Tucson, she has also reconnected with the art of calligraphy. Growing up in Taiwan, calligraphy was mandatory for Priya and her elementary school peers, and she initially took up the practice with some complacency. She now finds that calligraphy has assumed a completely different meaning, bringing her closer to the roots of her heritage. She appreciates the austerity and indisputable “Asian-ness” of the act and connection with her ethnic roots, reveling in the use of black ink on a white background. She feels the practice connects her to her culture and childhood as well as to her understanding of herself as a Taiwanese person.
In March 2016, Priya had her first solo exhibition at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun in Tucson. This marked a pivotal moment in her artistic progression, as her work gained immediate international exposure and she found herself and her art instantly thrust into the public eye. The exhibition, titled Reconnect with Your Spirit Animal Totems, featured representational art depicting animals and Chinese calligraphy characters to which the artist has a spiritual connection. An aim of the exhibit was to encourage viewers to connect with their totem animals or to connect with a person, place or time in life that would allow for a more integrated sense of self. The exhibition drew an impressive turnout and ignited a powerful and positive response in the public. Priya looks forward to her next solo exhibition in early 2017.
She has also participated in several recent group exhibitions, including an exhibition in May with artist Benito McDonald at St. Francis in the Foothills in Tucson that focused on the concept of ritual, titled Ritual: Explorations of Artistic Chemistry. She participated in five group exhibitions in 2015, including a Poetic Art Exhibit at the University of Arizona in May 2015 and SACA’s [Southern Arizona Clay Artists] Emerging Artists at the Joel D. Valdez Library in Tucson in September 2015.
Her passion for poetry remains robust, and she is currently working on a book that explores the use of haiku in poetry. She is also self-publishing a book of poems and photography that is strongly inspired by Hawaiian myth and legend. The work is a study of seven chakras that have had a profound influence on her and that are explored through her vivid poems and stark and powerful photographs. The book is an accolade to the many influences that have guided her life and art, among whom she includes German poet Rainier Maria Rilke as well as Madame Pele, the Hawaiian Fire Goddess of Volcanoes and mythical creator of the Hawaiian Islands.
While living in Hawaii, the artist looked to Madame Pele as a spiritual mother and guide and a continual source of inspiration. The words she feels best describe the fiery goddess also succinctly describe Priya herself:
She is not for tapping
She needs to exist in her pure form
She is alive and she is active and she needs to stay that way