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UNTANGLING the UNKNOWABLE IRENE CHING IRENE CHING Kristi Chan's Bodies of Water


Bodies of Water, 2019 Prints Installation

Kristiana Chan is a first-generation Malaysian-Chinese artist, writer, and educator from the American South whose work explores the intersection of ancestry, healing, and mythology. Her work explores memory, race, and the political, historical, and mythological heritage of the landscape and its material elements. Working across disciplines, often using video projection, archival photography, site-specific sourced materials, and multimedia works on paper. She is a Teaching Artist Mentor with the Performing Arts Workshop, and a member of West Oakland based CTRL+SHFT Collective. She is a graduate of the New York Foundation of Arts Immigrant Artist Program and has curated with Kearny Street Workshop and the California Institute for Integral Studies. Kristiana is based in the Bay Area.



The Heritage Pages collages gracefully honor your family and ancestry. Please tell us a little more about your family.


A lot of my art and inquiry comes from trying to ask questions about ancestral lineage, and questioning where stories have been lost, language has been forgotten, and relationships have been left behind through immigration, assimilation, and migration. When my family moved from Canada to North Carolina for my dad’s job it was a huge culture shock. We landed in a really white suburb in the early 2000s. We experienced a lot of racism--I was too young to understand it but I could see how my parents were affected by it. I learned to assimilate, effectively erasing a huge part of myself to try to avoid more painful micro-aggressions and ignorant remarks (it didn’t work). It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco as a young adult and found myself in a city with a lot of multigenerational Asian Americans that I was able to see how disconnected from the identity of my heritage and my parents’ cultures.

When did you start your art practice? Did you study it in school or in college?

I always remember making art as a kid. Most kids stop when they realize people might not think it’s good. I just kept doing it, my mom would buy me art supplies and take me to art classes. I don’t think I was special at it. I just loved it. It also felt a little bit rebellious, like I wasn’t supposed to be an artist. I couldn’t see myself doing anything that I saw anyone else was doing.

Are you still teaching at Performing Arts Workshop? What are your classes like?

This organization has been around since 1965. It’s a wonderful organization and I love working there. Everything is done through an anti-racist framework and offers various training and workshops to employees. It’s my favorite job. I teach middle school 6th-grade classes and mentor other teaching artists. Right now, I’m teaching a hybrid art-science class. My curriculum this year is inspired by the TV show Avatar the Last Airbender, and we spend a couple of months studying and learning about each element, doing art, and looking at artists who use each of the 4 elements in their work. It’s a unique challenge to come up with a new art project every week to teach students over the internet without access to the art supplies in the classroom!


What are some of the valuable things that teaching has taught you? Have you always wanted to teach?

I became a teacher accidentally. At first, it was just a job I could do as an artist. I had some skills and I worked at a summer camp in school. The first job I got out of college was teaching a study abroad course in Argentina and realized it was a really fulfilling experience.


The way that I approach my art is influenced by being around kids. Teaching has taught me how to maintain a child’s mindset and having excitement, joy and delight is the thing that keeps me coming back to my work. I think about my preschool class learning about mixing colors for the first time--they totally freak out when you mix yellow and red and it turns orange. They look at you as if you’re a magician!

If I have a block in my work, I always ask myself if I’m having fun, and if not, what do I need to create my own magic? The adult brain fed on capitalist messaging can be such a drag sometimes. It’s not good for my art-making.


In your travels, what are the places that inspire your work the most?


Photo Credit: Kristi Chan The Galapagos Student Trip, 2013


I’m a huge natural science nerd, and one of the coolest opportunities I had as a student was to go to the Galapagos Islands. I returned a couple of years later as a teacher with students and we lived on a boat for a week. I get a lot of inspiration from the water and going to different coastal communities. I love seeing how people interact with the water, whether it’s fishing, diving, swimming, or other reasons.


Some of your artwork seems to allude to the unknown, dreams, or the mysterious things we might not totally understand as humans. What is the inspiration behind this?


One of the concepts I’m really interested in is memory. I’m fascinated by how imperfect it is and how it’s transmitted through our DNA. Also, I’m fascinated by how materials have memory; water has memory, clay has memory. The landscape remembers the histories humans have chosen to forget.

"I keep meeting the octopus in my dreams. She is a symbol - underworld, the unconscious" (Kristi Chan)

It’s me accessing these lost memories. That’s part of me reckoning with a history that I feel was lost to me, my culture, my languages...I know I will never be able to recover these lost histories or lost family stories, but it’s the attempt to remember through accessing the land or touching the water.


These elements have been around longer than me and I’m interested in the history they contain. It feels like I go in trying to find some thing, but what happens is there’s a connection, even if it’s a different one than what I was intending. The names and stories of my ancestors may forever be lost to history, but I am connecting to something bigger by trying to remember them in this way.


The other part of where my work intersects with surfing is with identity politics and land access. I feel like a lot of times in California, we divorce the history of our land and coastal areas from the contemporary lived experience.


Surfing is now a mainstream culture in California. It started out as a white male culture, and the popularization on the mainland is a direct result of our colonial history with Hawaii. Something that I think about a lot is how we are divorced from our own histories and I often think about that through the lens of surfing. My friends and I have had guys follow us out of the water to our cars and approach us while we’re changing to harass us or tell us we don’t belong. There is still a level of violence that people don’t recognize as wrong, and accept it as part of the culture.


To me, this reflects the colonial violence of the settler mentality: “I got here and established dominance first, so I have a right to do what I want to anyone else who comes after me.”


What are your favorite materials and mediums to work with? Are you working with any new materials or mediums as of late?


My practice is weird because I work with so many different materials. When people ask me, “So, are you a painter?” or “Are you a photographer?” I have to respond yes to all of them. I work in photo-based materials, but a lot of my photography doesn’t use a camera. I also use cut paper, play with light and shadows and projections, and create installations.

Photo Credit: (above) Katie Kron, 2019, (below) Louis Chinn, Kristi Chan and Meng Yu, 2019

Right now, I’m working with clay and working with specific histories of Chinese immigrants in the early settler days of California. I want to use the natural and found materials to learn how to interact with the land and the water through a historic lens.


So many histories of other people groups--the First Nations, the immigrant workers, the enslaved and indentured laborers, were left out of the written record--my work is about how the land and water has remembered them all.


If you had any advice for an aspiring artist, what would that be?

My advice would be to just keep going. The thing about being an artist is that you get to live a life that no one else has lived before. So, if along the way you feel lost, you’re probably doing it right. You’re making it up as you go. That’s the hallmark of an artist’s life, you just create it as you go. Because our society does not celebrate that structure of a life, we often feel lost and confused and that we’re failing.


I think there’s great freedom in that. It’s just unfortunate that our society doesn’t value art the way it values other vocations and trades.


I would say to anyone that wants to be an artist, find people that support you, find people that believe in you, and find other artists. Stick with them. The voice in your head is going to be really loud and the voices of others who think art is not worth it are also going to be really loud. You just don’t have time to listen to that.


Intertidal Series, 2020


Photo Credit: Taylor Lahey, 2021

At what age did you start to feel a connection with the ocean? &/Or When did you start surfing?


I always felt a connection to the ocean. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains in Canada but dreamt about the ocean and the waves as a kid. It wasn’t until I made trips to the ocean in North Carolina as a tween that I first got in the water. I didn’t know how to swim then, but would just wade in the water and felt every time I got in that something just shifted. I finally learned how to swim and a friend in high school taught me how to swim through the waves and jump over them. I started surfing when I first moved to California when I was 22. I knew I had to be in the ocean. I started surfing in January in the stormy ocean and just threw myself in the water and just got rocked. I didn’t have any paddling muscles. It was so hard. I don’t recommend anyone start surfing that way. It was just a lot of paddling white water closeouts. I’d look at surf reports thinking “Hmm...9-12 ft, well that’s smaller than yesterday!”

Photo Credit: Lauren Crew. 2017

What were your first experiences with surfing? Women in the water?

I barely remember any women in the water when I started, sometimes on occasion and we’d smile or nod at each other but that was the extent of it. The scene was mostly older white dudes. I’d usually paddle out with 6-10 people. It wasn’t as crowded as it is now. Everyone would always be very stoic in the water and I just thought that’s what I needed to be. I realized that is all bullshit. It’s a very old school surfer mask that you put on. No one talked and it was very weird to me like it was not cool to have fun or be expressive in the water. A lot of people just ignored me and honestly, people still do that until they see me catch a few. They see the way I look and make assumptions about my skill level. I’ve definitely seen a lot of competitiveness, territoriality, and localism in Santa Cruz. One old local guy even told my friend “I live here and I surf here every day, so I can do whatever I want whenever I want.” When she asked why he kept repeatedly dropping in on her.


Where are your favorite places to surf?

I love a good peeling, uncrowded right point break about shoulder to head high. Those are my favorite conditions to surf in. How do you balance your life surfing with making art and other things that keep you busy (job, family, etc.)?

I understand that not everyone can do this and it’s a huge privilege to be able to, but I tend to structure my day around the tide windows. My routine shifts an hour every day. I feel really lucky to be able to do that right now because I have a mostly self-directed work schedule. I can work early in the morning or late at night.


Who are your biggest influences or heroes in surfing?


The people I look up to the most are the Hawaiian lady longboarders like Rell Sunn, Kelis Kaleopaa, and Kelia Moniz. I feel like I resonate the most with that style of longboarding and I really admire the flow and ease that those surfers have.

What’s your after surf routine? Do you have one?

I usually stay in the water too long and then I’m usually late for a meeting and will take it in the car while ordering a burrito. On an ideal day, it’s shower, burrito, or grocery store sushi and a nap.

Kristi Chan Website

Kristi Chan Instagram

Article by Kristi Chan "Photos from San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade" (2017)

Article by Ashtyn Douglas "Agents of Change: Brown Girl Surf" (2017)

CTRL+SHFT Collective

Performing Arts Workshop

Institute for Women Surfers, 2017


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