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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Flo Wong: Art, dreams, and activism

<und of Whitney Houston’s voice singing “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody/ I wanna feel the heat with somebody,” grows louder as I step through the doorway. Whitney’s voice is emanating from the room, but at first glance I don’t see anyone there. The sunlight comes in through the windows that look over Lyman Lakes. About fifteen easels are set up in a semicircle around the room, facing different still scenes. When I take a step to the side, I see that, hidden behind the easels, is a girl, painting. Palette in her hand, the brush makes splashes of color appear on the blank canvas as Whitney sings about dancing the night away with someone who loves her.

The floors are spattered with splotches of white paint. Nearly every surface is covered in some random patch of paint. Everything that was once clean wood is now covered in layered drips of paint: red, orange, blue. On the walls are both complete and unfinished works, watching as other paintings come to life. “It’s like a museum in progress,” I say. Flo turns and laughs at me: “Yeah, I guess so.”

I am not an artistic person, not a creator. Yet I have a love of art. I love spending a quiet day in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, wandering the floors of the giant building and soaking in the detail and meaning of each painting. I think of art as belonging in museums, relics of the past lives and geniuses of people who came before me. Now at Carleton, I realize that art is something alive for many students. Yet I wondered: what it is like to be an artist in the 21st century? What does it mean to make art at college for four years and then have to go out into the “real world”? In a college full of Computer Science (CS) and Political Science majors, what is it like to be an artist?

To answer my questions, I found Florence Wong, better known as Flo, a senior Studio Art major at Carleton whose specialty is painting. Flo spoke to me about her experience as an artist, a student, and a person of Carleton College for the past four years.

There are 14 Studio Art majors in the Class of 2016. There may be nothing as beautiful nor as terrifying as being a Studio Art major. For four years, you develop your talent and skill, take classes that open your mind and practices to new ways of thinking, and grow close with other artists. On the other hand, this major can be terrifying because you are judged by your work, and question what you plan to “do” after college.

Funnily enough for an art major, Flo didn’t have experience with art when she came to Carleton. She wasn’t drawn to Carleton (no pun intended) for its art department and she wasn’t even sure what she wanted to major in at first. She did know that she wanted Carleton’s community. “In looking at colleges, I knew I wanted to go to the US, and it seemed like Carleton had a collaborative atmosphere, the students loved their professors, and there were small class sizes,” with strong academics as well, recalled Flo. All of these things seemed to make the perfect college for Flo.

Flo went to an international school in Hong Kong for high school, where she felt there was a “fast-paced, competitive vibe. There was a huge emphasis on material or financial success.” This fast-tracked, material-driven atmosphere wasn’t one that Flo wanted to pursue.

At Carleton, Flo found a different atmosphere, one of support and meaning. “At Carleton, people are encouraged to do what they want to do, what interests them. My mindset of what I wanted to do changed here.” In her senior year, Flo has participated in an ETB play This is What Sticks, worked on creating a 3D model of history professor Susannah Ottaway’s research on 18th century English workhouses, and keeps in touch with the community of Farm House, the sustainable living interest house on campus where she lived for two years. Flo accredits all of these unique experiences to Carleton’s atmosphere, one that allowed her to experience new opportunities even though she hadn’t tried them before, a welcoming environment to try things out.

When I asked Flo if she had always been inclined towards art, if she made artistic messes of her baby food, if there was any sign she would become an art major one day, she laughed and said “Not at all.” Flo did not think she would major in art when she came to Carleton; she just took an observational drawing class, then painting, and then she wanted to take more.

Even with her newfound love of art, Flo didn’t originally declare Studio Art as her major. In fact, she declared CS. Yes, Flo still takes CS classes and enjoys them, but when she talks about the community and support of Carleton, the way her eyes lit up as she talked about her first painting class and listening to her explain her comps project all point to Studio Art as her true passion, not CS. Even the cartoon giraffe earrings she wore screamed “Studio Art major”; so why had she picked CS first?

“I declared CS before, but then when I was comparing the classes I really wanted to take, I wanted tot take more studio art classes. I did consider a CS and Studio Art double major but I didn’t want to limit the classes I could take in other departments.”

Flo had to grapple with the decision between CS and Studio Art, the feelings of not wanting to disappoint anyone but also wanting to study what she was most passionate about. “I’m close with my mom,” said Flo, “and I think I told her a few times that if it wasn’t family pressures and what others thought of me, I’d declare Studio Art in a second.”

“The summer after my sophomore year, I worked for a corporation company. I was very unhappy with that lifestyle, nine to five being in front a computer, and I couldn’t imagine becoming a computer scientist and doing that for my entire life. I wanted to work and find meaning in the work I do, even if the future is unstable.” After this summer as an intern for the marketing team at The South China Morning Post, Flo felt more inclined to re-declare Studio Art as her major, because she thought it would offer her a different life path than the corporate feel she experienced as an intern. Flo acknowledged that her feelings were idealistic at the time, but they were authentic.

Over that summer between sophomore and junior years, she grappled with the decision of whether or not she should switch her major. Her mom was actually the one to bring up the idea that Flo should switch her major to Studio Art. “She thought it made the most sense. When I heard her say that, I felt surprised. I feel like my family is very traditional, so I am thankful for their support.”

At first, her extended family didn’t share her mother’s support. They were curious and questioned Flo’s choice of Studio Art as a major. “I come from a family of investment bankers, so what I’m doing is something they’re not used to. I have always felt like the black sheep of my relatives,” said Flo. When she told them about her Studio Art major, “they’d be dubious at first. I’ve always felt like I have to prove myself to them, even besides my major.” Yet their doubt turned into support once they saw what Flo was creating in college. Some of her paintings had been circulating among her relatives. Flo updated her cover photo on Facebook to a picture of a painting she had made, and her aunt saw it and sent it to the family. “They were impressed with my work. It was nice seeing their reactions,” she said with a smile.

Once Flo re-declared her major as Studio Art, she found the community and work she’d been looking for. Flo loved growing alongside other artists. While they were making their own art, they learned the skills together, and she watched her peers grow. There could be group input on each other’s projects, or simply just being there for each other, in the same studio, as they settled in to work for hours a time on their projects. “You don’t immediately get what you want, you just constantly revise. Making art isn’t a linear process. In the end, it’s very rewarding knowing that you’ve created something.”  

Making something, while rewarding, takes time. I have heard from friends who have taken art classes at Carleton that these courses are difficult because of the sheer number of hours one has to put in to the projects assigned for the class. Outside of instruction time, there are several hours needed to plan and execute the process.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that when they took obs draw, it just took a lot of time, but for me, when I took obs draw, it was just the same amount of course load time as a regular course for me,” reflected Flo. “Art is something where you can spend a lot of time in, and you have to decide when to be finished.” Art, and the decision of when to be done, seemed to come naturally to Flo. I could not imagine having to just decide when to be done with a project, but Flo said this wasn’t a problem for her—except for when she took ceramics. She lightly lamented about the course’s time load, unsure if it was the professor or the course itself, but recalled how she would have to spend half of her time in the studio to meet the time-sensitive demands of the clay. “I would say that generally art classes take up a lot of time, but then it just feels like time is passing by when you’re doing it because it is really enjoyable.”

The process may be enjoyable, but it’s a process nonetheless, and I was curious about Flo’s approach to her projects. Does she plan out every part of the process, or spend a lot of time revising? Acknowledging that everyone approaches art differently, Flo described her process as “just sort of going into it and then letting the process dictate what happens,” usually starting with a sketch of what she wants for longer-term projects.

Even with all of the planning that can go into a piece, do artists have to scrap their ideas and restart, or do they roll with it if plans don’t go the way they were expecting? In Flo’s mind, she lets the process of creating the piece come above trying to stick exactly to “the plan.” “I think all projects never really go that much according to plan. When you first plan out a project, you never really know what the final product will look like. Even though you usually have a plan, projects are constantly evolving, and there are always things that you can take a step back and evaluate what’s working and what’s not working, and make changes. I think projects probably won’t be that different from the initial plan, but they are a constantly evolving process.”

In this evolutionary work, Flo is glad to have the community of Studio Art to help her grow as an artist. I wondered if, like in writing a paper, there was someone that Flo turned to for advice in creating her pieces. As Flo has said, art is a process, and going through a piece alone seemed daunting I asked Flo if there was anything like the Writing Center for artists—who could she turn to if she didn’t know where to go with a piece or what to do to make a piece better, more complete? Flo nodded along as I asked her this question, not phased by the strange analogy of my question. “Everyone just kind of asks everyone for advice and the teacher for advice before going in to a piece. It’s a really supportive community.”

But because there are many people in the community, and they might have conflicting opinions, might it be confusing to listen to all of that advice? Flo laughed when I posed her this question because, yes, it can be confusing. “It’s funny, because two of our professors always have two very conflicting opinions. Then, I just choose which advice I like better. David has been my comps adviser, and I really like going to him for advice because he really pushes you to do what you want, asks you questions to see what you want to get out of it. He’s encouraging in that sense, he’s not pushing his own ideas on you, and then letting you form your own ideas. That is super helpful.” Maybe the best advice anyone can give an artist isn’t giving them a direction for their piece but instead asking them questions, listening to them and working to find the artist’s vision for the piece.

In addition to her comps adviser David, Flo is also influenced by other people in her work as a painter. Specifically, Flo recalls how a friend asked her a question during her junior year: if she could create one painting, if she could depict one thing, what would it be? Flo reflected on this question, and decided that portraying her dreams would be the most amazing thing she could think of. From then on, her paintings took on a surreal, fantasy quality, depicting fantasy landscapes and alternate worlds. She was also influenced by the animator Hayao Miyazaki after watching his films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, how he could build beautiful, scenic landscapes and different worlds through his art. Flo wanted to do that too.

But in addition to creating beautiful scenes and alternate worlds, Flo’s art reflects the influences of nature and animal ethics that have become major focuses of her work. Growing up, Flo’s mother really loved animals, and this made an impression on Flo. In high school, Flo took a class where she learned about the food industry and its social, environmental, and ethical problems. Flo recalls watching the documentary Earthlings that contained undercover videos of factory farms and showed how animals were treated on these farms, which opened her eyes to the issues of the food industry. After that, she gave vegetarianism a try for two weeks, followed by a service trip she went on where half of the volunteers were vegetarian. Flo remarks how after being around these vegetarians, “it was a really easy transition to being vegetarian because I could just see what food they ate and eat what they ate. The ease of that made me want to become vegetarian.” The process of becoming a vegetarian was a thought-provoking and reflective one for Flo. “One thing that bothered me during the process is that there are all of these horrible things happening in the food industry, but it’s very separate to what’s being advertised. Not a lot of people know about it, and if they do know about it, they try to block it away from their ethical values.”

It was at Carleton that Flo took her personal food justice a step further and become a vegan. “Coming here, I saw that there were a lot of vegan options in the dining halls, and they were super good. The egg and dairy industries are just as bad as the meat industries, so I decided to try veganism. It was more of a gradual change. I think Carleton’s environment makes it really easy because they are also other vegans around and an awareness of food justice issues.”

While becoming a vegan is a big choice and political, I wondered if there were other ways Flo was involved in food activism. Did she work with Food Truth on campus or protest Tyson chicken? Not exactly. “I act more through my art because I don’t want to seem like I am forcing my values on everyone else. I think I’ve found it more valuable to set an example for other people to follow rather than try to actively change them. I can passively persuade people. There’s a stereotype of vegans being super angry and preachy. I think that method isn’t the most effective method.”

Flo’s paintings clearly show her thoughts and feelings about the relationships between animals and human beings. Her comps displays and flips the traditional relationships between humans and animals on their heads. In one piece, “Taxidermies,” Flo depicts a buck sitting on a couch in an open, bright cabin room. Over the fireplace, there are three heads of humans mounted on the wall, displayed where the buck’s head would normally be. In front of the fireplace, a human form splayed out like a bear’s fur usually is. I recognized one of the heads on the wall of the painting, a Myers RA, and Flo laughed and said that yes, she had asked her friends to be in the piece. She took pictures of them and painted them into her imaginings with ease. Flo wanted her comps to be humorous rather than violent, which she hoped would help make the material accessible to viewers.

With her political comps, a depiction of Flo’s animal activism, Flo reflected on how her painting and moods or beliefs interact. “I find it’s the content of what I’m painting that affects my mood more than my mood affects my art. I think sometimes when I am painting really satirical or political art, I would feel angrier about the problems. But then, I think as I started creating more political art, I became more immune to the anger.” Her art is her activism, and as she interacted with these ideas more frequently, she has become less emotionally affected from the paintings, but still as reflective on the issues.

Now that her four years at Carleton have come to a close, Flo is taking her art, passions, and activism out into the larger world. Flo has applied to several art-related jobs: teaching, museum work, and digital/social media marketing and design. “You can do a lot with an art degree. The skills you learn are helpful, like how to manage concepts, how to think through concepts from an idea, and evaluating your own work and the work of others constantly.” Now that Flo is graduating, she sees her younger idealism in an even more tangible way, acknowledging that “even if you’re an art major, that doesn’t mean you won’t be working for a company” or even in front of a computer. Flo is happy she chose Studio Art because it has given her an open link to the world in all its complexities, a link to creativity and possibility more than anything. “While it might be unstable, it allows for an a very unlinear life, which is interesting and valuable to me. Becoming an art major made me more open to different perspectives in life.”

After Flo said that, I had to tell her she seemed very calm and open to whatever life would bring next. Wasn’t she freaking out at all? Didn’t she feel uncertain about the future? I am only a freshman and I am already freaking out, feeling my time at Carleton slip by as my first year comes to a close. When I asked her these questions, she laughed lightly and said, “I have freaked out. I think all seniors are freaking out.”

 “I definitely have fears. Especially as an international student, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in the U.S. in the long-term because of the U.S. policies and Visa system.” Flo wants to stay in the U.S., but fears that she won’t be able to. “The reason I don’t want to go back to Hong Kong is partly cultural.” As a student at an international school, Flo was taught in English, and as a result, her Cantonese is weaker compared to her peers at non-international schools. “The locals would see me as a foreigner even though I am from Hong Kong.” As a result, Flo feels a little distanced from her home, and has gotten used to feeling like a bit of an outsider.

Maybe that’s why she chose Studio Art. In Studio Art, she got to create her own worlds, the fantasy landscapes that she loves to create, bringing her dreams to life. In Studio Art, she found a community of people willing and ready to collaborate, create, and grow together. In Studio Art, Flo found a voice for her activism, a way to voice her ideas and beliefs, making an impact in the world in a way she feels comfortable. In the end, being in artist in the 21st century, as Flo has shown me, is about making art and letting yourself be heard through that art. It’s about that ephemeral “process” from which Flo has learned so much, and taking these four years of creating out into the world for some new creation, even if it’s no longer paintings. 

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