Ask “What If”, New York-Based Artist Phyllis Yao

Phyllis Yao graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Painting, where she was a recipient of the Florence Leif Award. Since then, she has been an artist-in-residence at Lijiang Studio in Yunnan province, China, and has exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, Colorado and Rhode Island. Phyllis’ many loves include hip hop, graffiti, Chinese pop songs, and making dumplings from scratch—a result of her having grown up between New York City and Guiyang, a small developing city in China.   

My Mother’s Jade Deserves a Shrine (under Scorpio), 2018, 17”x19”x1.5″, weaving in artist’s frame with beads, pom poms and mom’s jade  

Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

I am a native New Yorker who spent a few years and summers living in China with my mom. Currently, I am a teaching artist and have returned to New York, more specifically Queens, after graduating from university. Besides my art practice, I have many interests including playing classical piano, reading about the cosmos, Chinese tea art and caring for my papaya and lemon trees. 

Mā, 2017, 54.5″x75″, oil on canvas

What is your process like? Is there a theme that you are currently addressing?

I conceive ideas through so many ways; reading non-fiction and Chinese poetry, looking at landscapes, from art, from memes, playing music, making little doodles… but conveying a feeling is often the driving force in creating a work of art. The feeling is expressed through narrative, though I have never felt the need to illustrate a story. I enjoy finding the various colors and materials to express my ideas. Because of this, my work can sometimes look very different from each other, but that has always kept me moving and exploring new ways to make art. All this said, the core of the work has always been about growth, maternal love and relationships. Before the pandemic, I was working on paintings from drawings I made in late 2019, but now, my brain has pivoted and wants to create less narrative-based pieces (figurative works can also feel restricting). Maybe it is because I want to escape our crazy reality? 

You’ve worked with different materials and techniques in your projects. How do you choose the media for your creative process?

I have always gravitated towards painting, weaving and graffiti. Painting is magic, weavings are warm and intimate, and graffiti is free and bold. One summer, I learned how to paint with glazes on oil ground canvas and was enamored by the glowing atmosphere it can create. Using oil pastels, cold wax, and acrylics under oil paint is also super fun. I love to build and get physical with my work, which is probably why my paintings are a little on the larger side. I enjoy experimenting with these different materials and ask myself ‘what if?’ often. Although they are tools to express an idea or feeling, I think and debate the idea of what would express it best visually. It’s challenging because what’s left out is as important as what’s used. 

China’s a Beautiful Country, 2018, 46″x60″, oil on canvas

What do you find the most challenging in pursuing an artistic career?

What artist wouldn’t say time and money? Haha, working on my ‘arts career’ is also difficult when I am simultaneously growing my ‘job career’. There are so many things to manage, and then you have to clean and cook, but you also want to see your friends a few times a week. I am working on balancing it all a little better. 

What does “community” mean to you? How do you see yourself in a community?

When I think about ‘community’, I think about my art community and being part of the Asian American community in the USA. Both are important and precious to me, and a huge part of my identity. I see myself as an active member in both; I celebrate my heritage and connect with other artists through social media, visiting studios and going to see exhibitions together. 

Summer 2019, 2020, 58″x68″, weaving with oil on canvas

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a painting that involves music! It is currently in the beginning stages and is what I am looking for (a break from narrative work) so I’m excited. 

Do you have any advice to share with others?

Since we are in a pandemic, I recommend everyone to continue wearing a mask, to take good care of yourself, and reach out and send love to your friends and family often during this time. Art related advice would be to clock in the hours but take it slow and have a good time. 

Growing Backwards, 2019, 50″x60″, oil and acrylic on canvas
Xǔ Dānzhū, 2018, 66″x78″, oil and spray paint on canvas  

text & photo courtesy of Phyllis Yao

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