Contemporary art punctuates the coastal landscape for weekend surfers and year-round citizens at Rockaway Beach, where Brooklyn-based painter, sculptor and installation artist Julia Chiang has just unveiled two new murals in collaboration with the close-knit neighborhood of Queens. Although her husband, KAWS, began creating on the streets of New York, these two murals mark Chiang’s artistic debut.
Commissioned by the Rockaway Hotel and Spa, the project was completed with the help of the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy and local residents, who were invited to respond to examples of Chiang’s work with their own designs. Chiang continued the conversation by drawing inspiration from crowdsourced sketches, incorporating their colors, textures and patterns into his plan.
Purple, a favorite shade in the artist’s palette, is anchored in his work at the Rockaway Sea Girt Residencies, where volunteers participated on July 21, a community painting day. Irregular geometric shapes, softer pastel shades and dots on Chiang’s mural belie another fundamental part of his practice: listening, receptivity, equal flow in and out.
We met the artist in his studio to learn what life is like after making the sea his workspace.
Can you send us a shot of the most indispensable object in your studio and tell us why you can’t do without it?
I have a lucky hammer. It has been with me since my first artist in residence in 2000 and I have never broken anything with it and have nailed hundreds of pottery to the walls with it. I take it with me when I have complicated installations and it’s nice to have it around.
What’s a studio assignment on your diary this week you’re looking forward to doing?
Finishing and sending of two new paintings to the Modern Institute for Frieze Seoul.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts or do you prefer silence? How come?
I scroll through podcasts, audiobooks, news and music. With two young children, I don’t have much time to read now, so listening has become more important. Listening also helps me turn off my inner noise and chatter.
Who are your favorite artists, curators or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
I try not to fall into the vortex too much, because there are too many friends and favorite artists. Some always in my daily check-in are Apex for Youth, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Kimberly Drew, Matthew Higgs, Shannon Watts, Robert Reich, Jerry Saltz, Shaun King, Shaniqwa Jarvis, and Amanda Nguyen.
When you feel stuck preparing for a show, what do you do to unlock yourself?
I just do something, anything. Usually something for my kids. Keeping your hands busy usually helps to fix it.
What images or objects do you look at while you work?
When I work, I’m pretty focused on what’s right in front of me. Outside my window I am lucky that there is a tree and I love to watch it change.
What is the last exhibit you saw that hit you and why?
Guadalupe Maravilla at the Brooklyn Museum. He really connected in a very physical way with me. The sounds and objects have stuck with me and my daughter’s voice telling me that she wishes she could lie down inside to be part of it.
What prompted you to choose this particular studio over others?
I have had my own studio for almost 20 years. So, I was looking for a place where I could live and work and set up a small furnace and this place allowed me everything.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Light, love and time.
What was it like making the world your studio, completing your first public murals recently?
The mural was mostly done on-site at the Rockaway Hotel with children and families from the community. We extended the workshop to neighborhood schools and seven schools participated by submitting artwork inspired by my work. I asked the children to think about their sign, how their lines and strokes are part of them and no matter how they accomplish what they do, it is unique to them. I put together the colors, textures and shapes they created with mine and that’s what lives on now on the hotel’s facade.
Far Rockaway’s other mural was taken from an existing painting of mine thinking about how the community could physically come together to paint it without being on ladders and scaffolding. It was great to paint with people who didn’t necessarily know what the mural was like, but were curious to get involved. Being with people who are excited to be a part of creating something for their neighborhood, painting with them and with my kids, having conversations about what they think art is and isn’t, was amazing.
What was it like collaborating with the Rockaway community while working on these murals?
I loved it so much. I am honored to have been invited to create something that will live there and I hope that the people who pass them will also feel connected in some way. They made it possible!
How has your relationship with Rockaway Beach grown as the summers progressed?
Rockaway has always been a close escape. I started going there in the mid 90’s with my surfing friends and it was interesting to see how things have changed and stayed the same out there. So many people are surfing now! I can’t say I’m a regular, but I love it every time I go out.
Other public art adventures planned for the future?
Not for now, but I hope so!
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