Getting an Education with Eva Kwong
If forced to name one defining theme of Eva Kwong’s career, an apt choice would be “education.”
Since the 1970s, Kwong has exhibited art in traditional media, mostly ceramic sculpture. Her academic career is equally long. Kwong has taught at Kent State University, The Ohio State University, Cleveland Institute of Art, and The University of Akron. She has presided over 200 workshops and lectures throughout the US and China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and Italy. In September of 2021, Kwong concluded a visiting artist residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, CO. It was the seventeenth grant, award, or fellowship she has won since 1981. She works hard to always be learning. “Every year I teach myself a new thing, make myself learn something new,” Kwong said.
The fruits of some of these exercises can be seen in the gallery. Around 2015, Kwong unveiled her first pieces made with 3-D printers. These figures share visual and thematic sensibilities with her ceramic art. Kwong’s most famous bodies of work involve smallish sculptures inspired by organic forms: cells, microorganisms, fungi, plankton, organelles, spores. Her installation Bacteria, Diatoms & Cells has been displayed numerous times in many different venues since the early 1990s, and grows and evolves each time. The piece mounts dozens or even hundreds of her organic sculptures on a wall. From a distance, all the writhing, squiggling shapes look like a school of fish swimming in synchrony. Closer up, viewers can see this unity emerges from diversity. Different figures resemble worms, sea stars, sand dollars, paramecia. Kwong has made close study of diverse biological entities—enough to impress the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has collected several hundred of her pieces.
The shape and meaning of individual pieces may only make themselves known midway through their creation. Her process of installation, by which multiple pieces are integrated into larger wholes, is intuitive and minimally planned. Each action creates an effect, and each effect suggests a new action to harmonize with the last one. In a sense, Kwong lets her organisms guide their own creation.
“I don’t like to overthink it. Otherwise, it would not be as much fun to make it,” she said.
After a lifetime of firing clay in kilns (often kilns her own hands had helped assemble), mastering 3-D printing was a trial-and-error process for Kwong. However, she can make virtues out of accidents. A slumping or misshapen organism might be cast in the role of an elder of its species. Fabrication errors suggest the infirmities of old age. These pieces heighten the reality of Kwong’s fictional ecologies. No living thing is ever truly complete. Anything alive is currently occupying one moment in a process of growth, metabolism, withering, and decay. And we all live alongside junior and senior generations—and even with those who have passed away.
Time and death are felt presences in Kwong’s work. “Over the years, some of my works have dealt with mortality, the passing of time, the passing of lives,” Kwong said. The feelings around mortality that her art evokes are not dread, but fondness, gratitude.
“I’ve lost many members of my family, so I think my connection to the spirit world has to be stronger,” she said.
Kwong eagerly acknowledges all those she has learned from, and not just in the studio. Her art is interwoven with a worldview with roots in her earliest memories.
Kwong spent her first years in Hong Kong. Along with her parents, Kwong was raised by her grandmother, Ching-Fun Chow. Kwong said she was her grandmother’s “sidekick,” following her everywhere, watching her work with her hands, and learning a philosophy of interconnectedness. “She taught me the joy of making things with our hands, and the transformative possibilities of materials. She also taught me that we are part of the natural world,” Kwong wrote. She fondly remembers traveling to the countryside to visit aunts, and exploring, watching her family interact with growing things.
Later, Kwong’s family emigrated to New York. There, she attended the High School of Music & Art on the edge of Harlem. Despite the school’s aesthetic curriculum, Kwong says a guidance counselor belittled her ambitions to study art beyond graduation. She was told: “You’re just a Chinese girl. Don’t even apply to college, you won’t get in.”
Kwong’s Puerto Rican classmates were likewise discouraged from continuing their education. It was those fellow students, not a school official, who directed Kwong to ASPIRA of America. ASPIRA is a nonprofit promoting educational achievement in underserved communities. The organization primarily serves Latino students. Knowing this, Kwong was initially reluctant to approach ASPIRA for help applying to colleges. Her classmates nonetheless encouraged her, saying, “Your hair’s black!” The implication seeming to be recent immigrants, especially immigrants of color, have more commonality than they have differences. Students of color all faced discrimination in schools which were supposed to serve them.
Kwong received a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI. Around the same time Ivy League schools were developing their own race-conscious affirmative action policies, RISD had undertaken its own student diversity initiative. The effort was spearheaded by John Torres, an African American sculptor and educator. He was appointed by RISD in 1969 to serve as the school’s first recruiter for Black students. Torres took an expansive view of diversity. He encouraged not only Kwong to attend, but also Latinos, Native American students, and Italian Americans from working class neighborhoods of Providence.
RISD not only helped Kwong refine her artistic skills, but offered her opportunities to deepen her knowledge of subjects which had long fascinated her. Doing work-study at the school’s Nature Lab, a catalog of natural objects for students’ reference, she could spend hours examining specimens of plants, seeds, insects, taxidermy, and other organic objects. She took classes on artistic traditions of China, Japan, and India.
Kwong found important mentors at RISD. “I [had] teachers who didn’t just look at me like an Asian American student. They saw me as a person, not a statistic,” Kwong said. However, from other faculty, she faced hostility. When she was considering graduate school, Kwong said one professor told her not to bother: “You’re just a Chinese girl. You would not get in.”
A graduate professor said, “I don’t know how you’re going to pass the GRE.” Even after Kwong did, scoring better than her fellow classmates, the professor told her “I don’t know how you did that.”
Kwong responded, “I studied.”
Two years after earning her BFA at RISD, she was awarded an MFA in Ceramics and Drawing by Temple University in Philadelphia. Kwong married her fellow RISD undergrad Kirk Mangus in 1976 during this time.
Despite their shared medium, Kwong and Mangus’ bodies of work embody distinct styles. If Kwong distills the elegance of natural forms, even her most diverse, densely-populated assemblages of protozoan forms have a harmony to them. Describing her husband’s work, Kwong writes, “Mangus’ work can range from delicate, realistic pencil renderings to expressionistic impasto painting, to sinuous sgraffito drawings on clay, to heavily carved rough wood-fired vessels. His surfaces are populated with images of his friends and family, animals real and imagined and references to art history, comics and other cultures.”
Beginning in 1985, Mangus served as head of Kent State University’s ceramics department. While maintaining individual artistic and academic careers, he and Kwong collaborated as educators. Though officially an adjunct, Kwong helped build and manage the department at every level: from finances, to supply orders, to supervising students, to building kilns. She and Mangus developed the department until his death in 2013, from a sudden aneurysm. Mangus was sixty years old.
Decades in academia have helped Kwong to make and display the art which most interests her. Many of her solo shows and installations have taken place in university galleries. Sculptors and other 3-D artists often must fight uphill battles to be displayed in commercial spaces, which tend to favor painting. The desire to show work believed to be familiar or accessible, for the sake of making sales, can also give an excuse not to show artists from diverse backgrounds. Kwong has been explicitly told by gallerists that they would not display her work because of her race. Recalling an interaction with one gallerist, Kwong said, “I was told, ‘We like your work, but we don’t think we can sell it because of your last name. People might think it’s too weird.’”
Even still, Kwong readily admits the shortcomings of higher education. Academic politics are tiresome at best. But Kwong has also faced barriers her white peers have not. “I always felt that I would have been treated differently if not for my ethnicity. Maybe my pay would be much higher, and I would be more supported as a dedicated faculty,” Kwong said. She says her experiences of prejudice made her a more empathetic educator. She recognizes that students may face challenges for reasons not only stemming from race, but from factors like socio-economic background.
“Because I had to struggle through school, it helped me have a different view of the struggles of students…I think I’m able to help a lot of students because of the experiences I’ve gone through,” Kwong said.
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