Art AND: Cindy Cheng

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Cindy Cheng is a beautiful unicorn. At least, that’s what we both agreed I could call her, as someone who ascended from adjunct professor to a full time professorship. Cheng was joking, but I am not: I think she’s a unicorn for a myriad of reasons. Aside from the standard accolades we could load on someone we think is great—she’s a flat-out kind person, a generous colleague, extremely talented, beloved by her students—Cheng has quietly built up a highly esteemed art career in Baltimore.

In 2017 she won the Sondheim Prize, the same year she came in second for the Trawick Prize. Then in 2018, she was awarded a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant. With an active studio practice that she documents on her Instagram, Cheng has been stretching out the grant money to support her practice, paying for workshops and studio space in Greektown, Baltimore Clayworks, and Hyattsville’s Pyramid Atlantic.

Cheng has lived in Baltimore for 13 years. After moving here in 2007 for MICA’s Post-Bac certificate program, she stayed, and a year later enrolled in MICA’s Mount Royal School of Art graduate program. Cheng is from Hong Kong by way of Vancouver, but she mostly thinks of Hong Kong as home because that’s where her whole family is. Being raised between the two international cities has impacted her worldview and work immensely.

“My references and my aesthetics are kind of this hybridized thing because I’m also not fully one or the other; I don’t identify completely with the way my parents think of the world,” she says. “At the same time, I do find it very difficult sometimes to grasp certain elements of American life as well.” 

A full-time professor in MICA’s Drawing Department, Cheng loves teaching, which she considers crucial “because it helps me constantly think about what it means to make work now so I can work with the students more effectively.” Followers of Cheng on Instagram can confirm that she is pretty much constantly taking workshops and experimenting on her own to learn new skills across media (advanced ceramic techniques, papermaking, and glass-blowing being recent examples) and folding what she learns into both her studio practice and her teaching. 

For Cheng, the environment of the interdisciplinary studio, simulated in art school by classroom work time and interaction with the students, is the most important. Like most educators, Cheng has students with whom she immediately gels every semester, but she also enjoys reaching out to those working in different media, with interests and artistic agendas that are totally alien from hers. These students push Cheng beyond what she already knows and help her to consider artistic disciplines (such as sound and video art) that she has not previously explored. As a result of working with students interested in video, this summer Cheng has begun exploring software to make projection mapping. 

Cheng’s openness to experimentation through combinations of media comes through clearly when viewing her work. Her recent solo show in MICA’s Pinkard Gallery, The Pretenders, played with public and “aspirational spaces” that center on arrangement, display, and the artifice of leisure. Inspired by her father’s interest in arranging antiques, Cheng combined pedestals purchased at auction with glazed ceramics, handmade paper, and Astroturf, among other materials. The result was the feeling of a partly roped-off courtyard in the middle of a heavily trafficked corridor, right outside MICA’s Decker Library, complete with a fountain made out of a ceramic face.

Cheng conceptualized this show as a series of open-ended questions for her audience composed of five main pieces that she is still tinkering with, even after the show has closed. Cheng is interested in the constructed narratives of conspiracy and fringe theories, and for her, water and vapor are important symbols, posing the question of what is elemental and what is false. The sound of the fountain, while actually quite small and only trickling, echoed everywhere throughout the first floor of MICA’s Bunting building, recalling the serene soundtrack of a spa or small park.

Materials lead Cheng’s inquiry, so these themes did not emerge until she began working with her current triad of paper, ceramics, and glass a few years ago. “The clay was asking for this kind of thinking; it was embedded within the material,” she explains. “And then glass is so transformative. It goes through so many different stages, you can iterate on it, you can make it look like something it’s absolutely not. It has this ability to deceive. Paper has its own questions as well. I think I’m really more of a materialist, I think through material and process.”

In Cheng’s work, the interplay between these materials sits just below the surface, activated by their proximity and arrangement in space, which happens first in her studio in Greektown after she has made the elements at Clayworks and Pyramid Atlantic. Even when the combination isn’t what she planned or hoped for, Cheng recycles elements again and again, swapping out ceramic heads and bases whenever she needs, each work building to the next one, sometimes literally reusing parts. There is a shelf in her studio where her “players sit, waiting for their next performance, their next message, their next narrative.” As a result, it’s actually emotionally hard for Cheng to sell her work because it means these parts leave her creative cycle.

Cheng and I chatted about higher ed, how she constructs a narrative for her art, and why the absence of money in Baltimore’s art scene makes for more interesting work.

SUBJECT: Cindy Cheng, 38
WEARING: “Red sweatpants, a white T-shirt with stains, a lightly moth-eaten wool cardigan with large mother-of-pearl buttons, and my favorite gray glove-boots from Muji, no socks.”
PLACE: Bolton Hill, Maryland Institute College of Art


Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book you’ve read or are reading? 

Cindy Cheng: I really enjoyed Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, and I think about how he uses narrative structure to fracture and fluctuate time and space. This is something that I try to bring into my work—specifically, how can I construct a space of layered narratives where particular pieces both inhabit their own zones and extend lines of dialogue to other pieces across a physical expanse?

I also really like short stories that do similar tense things with structure and time—like Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brain” and Lore Segal’s “The Reverse Bug.” Shirley Jackson’s 1948 story, “The Lottery,” is also one of my favorites—it’s totally devastating and it is still resonant and relevant today. I have a preference for fiction over theory.

You’ve been in Baltimore a long time—13 years now. What kinds of changes have you seen? If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, would you live in either New York City or Los Angeles? Another city? 

I got here at the end of the Copycat era, so I experienced a couple of years of that. When I got here, the MICA Lazarus building was just the bank building and it was not renovated. It was super dirty and wonderful. There were way less rules. You could do anything, as long as you weren’t stupid. It was so good because you just experimented. That entire area was totally different, I mean, it was not gentrified at all. Now it’s a little more organized and it’s definitely becoming different. The flavor is changing.

I think that the arts scene is still being run by the artists. There’s still not a lot of money in the arts scene at all. I think the work is evolving and the way people present the work is evolving. Before the Copycat and the Annex were centers where people had shows and now people are responding to the city coming down on building codes. So there’s a little bit of polish, and people are going through proper channels. I think in that way it’s good because there is more of a sense of permanence to what’s happening.

We don’t get a ton of New York writers coming down here, so Baltimore isn’t really in that system, and collectors don’t really come down here to look, even from DC. But I do think that that means that a lot of the work that is made here is made without consideration to whether or not it can be collected or bought, which does do something wonderful for the work that people produce; it’s outside the market. The expectation isn’t that you’re going to make money on a show. So it’s just pursuing an idea because of the idea. To be totally honest, I think the work that’s made and shown in Baltimore is as good, if not sometimes better than the work that I see in these other places where money flows a lot more freely.

I’d live in a city where I could have both a big studio and access to a variety of affordable facilities/resources. So probably not NYC, I don’t know about LA, but it seems unlikely. I’d probably look to cities like Detroit. 

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered or were encouraged to pursue?

I didn’t get interested in art or any type of creative work until I was a sophomore in college and needed to take an art class to fulfill a requirement. I had an amazing Intro Drawing instructor and found myself wanting to spend all my time making drawings. I wasn’t very strategic or deliberate about anything—this is a theme in my life tbh—I just kind of fell into artmaking. But then after graduating from undergrad, I stopped making work for four years or so until I came to Baltimore to do the post-baccalaureate program and then grad school at MICA. Taking a break was good for me. It gave me time to try other things and time to miss studio work—by the time I made it to Baltimore, I knew that I wanted to commit 100 percent to a creative practice. 

I really enjoy writing and reading, so I did think about careers like journalism or some aspect of publishing—I thought being an editor where I could spend most of my time reading and talking with authors would have been amazing. I also prefer being pretty solitary, and I’ve always loved libraries, so I did think about Library Sciences. I find what I’m doing now very challenging and rewarding, but I do think I would have been happy in these other worlds. I’m pretty open to the thought that there isn’t always just one pathway to having a meaningful career or life and I’m actually really taken with the idea that at some point in the future I might have the opportunity to go back to school, learn something new, and pursue another field. 

When we were chatting about your work, you mentioned you’re interested in taking up traditionally Western space and talking about empire and colonialism. Can you explain a bit more about how you engage in that dialogue?
Artifacts of luxury and colonialism—how they overlap and enforce one another—are interesting to me. This is something that I’d like to go back to a little later. Since I was sourcing from my own lived environments, especially from the past, the material language of colonialism was pretty prevalent. My parents collected a lot of objects—many are Chinese antiques but some are artifacts that were popular during Hong Kong’s time as a British colony.

For better or worse, they were markers of status and indicators of an ability to inhabit luxury. They were desirable because before they began to accrue in local households, they were seen in exclusive clubs and other similar spaces, many of which generally excluded Chinese locals as members, but employed them as servers, etc. In this way I see this material culture as composed of objects of power, as reinforcing a hegemonic narrative through the spreading of a particular visual language and defining the possession of such artifacts as an emergence into status or power—a kind of becoming.

If I were to continue exploring this theme, I’d probably want to do more specific research; much of my thinking on this comes from an interrogation of my own experiences, from recollections of my family, and other more anecdotal information. 

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

I play DnD regularly. It’s actually a really meaningful way to decompress and it allows me to keep connected to some friends who have moved away. We started playing years ago, during grad school or right after, and it’s proven to be a wonderfully inventive and fun way to relax. It’s also great to be able to spend time with friends where we’re not just complaining about life (which is also fun and I do that a decent amount too) but engaging with one another in a challenging and totally escapist way. And we get to make stupid and often violent choices without consequences! Win-win. 

Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?

Diana Eusebio, who is currently a senior at MICA, is an amazing designer and I wish I could stock my closet with her stuff. I love jumpsuits and she has one in her 2018 line that I’d wear all the time. I’ll definitely be keeping my beady eye on what she does as she leaves school and embarks on new projects.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the work you’d make.

Omg, I have so many nascent ideas or skills I’d like to learn or develop further. I would love to make a larger, more evolved fountain that incorporates different materials like clay, glass and maybe marble, I’d love to pair it with a glass chandelier or two or three (I’ve wanted to develop chandeliers for a little while) and then create other glass- and neon-oriented lighting elements/constructions.

I’d like to learn projection mapping and incorporate that into the installation. Connected to this, I’d like to learn how to use audio and video editing software. I’d love to have elements that move and are activated in more specific ways, using motors and sensors, etc.—this is, again, something that I’ve been curious about for a while and know nothing about, I’d love to learn. My practice is really driven by learning skills and if I had unlimited time and money, I’d dive into that for a while and let those new knowledge sets or the questions that emerge from such material explorations to lead me to themes that could be explored. 

What advice do you have for someone in the arts who recently moved to Baltimore and wants to meet people and get involved?  

Go to openings (once we can do that again), participate in workshops or classes at places like Baltimore Clayworks, the Baltimore Jewelry Center, OpenWorks, A Workshop of Our Own etc. If you can, get a studio so you can be part of a making community—even if you don’t often see people, you know folks are there and it’s motivating. And eventually you’ll meet someone.

Go to the artist lectures (Goucher has had a brilliant run of shows and talks thanks to Alex Ebstein’s indefatigable energy), and MICA has a solid and extensive visiting artist and mixed media lecture series. Make work and apply for shows! Baltimore has a very open and diverse creative community and I’ve found it to be welcoming and supportive. 

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I’m not much into astrology, but I know I’m a Libra—which is supposed to be all about balance? Fairness? But I’m pretty judgmental and I hold grudges… so I think I’m not a good Librarian. Even though I considered being a librarian earlier in life, maybe it just wasn’t in my stars. I also do terrible word-play, according to my husband Joe. 

Who are your art heroes and what do you look to them for? Meaning, do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Omg yes, Louise Bourgeois forever. There is no one more badass, she was making work up until the week before her death, she was always pushing herself. There are still works I’ll see in museums or online and I’ll be like, “Ooooo what is this fresh thing?” and it’s Louise Bourgeois! She matched her craft with her thinking, she stepped into controversial and often highly personal or sensitive territory with so much verve, she’s just unparalleled. I would love to have coffee with her but I think I’d be a sweating, gasping, trembling lump who wouldn’t be able to do anything but stare at her and I’d probably just creep her out. 

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think she’d say I eat too many chips and drink too much coffee, watch too many murder mysteries and need to exercise way more. I used to be much more health-conscious, but I went to a school where health and fitness was structured into the curriculum. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

I worked in a commercial gallery in Hong Kong soon after graduating from undergrad. I loved my colleagues—they were wonderful—but the work was not very interesting, it was more about moving stock. And we had some incredibly entitled clients—there was this one guy who was incredibly wealthy who refused to come into the gallery during open hours, demanding that we stay open for however long he needed after closing time. And he was pretty slimy. There were also some artists in the gallery stable who were pretty shady with some of the women on staff. But working at that gallery made me want to make work again because I was dissatisfied with what I was seeing.

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind?

Nothing from the news—everything is so insane that it’s difficult for something to happen that’s beyond imagination. But I recently learned that my dad, Paul, is in fact named Mark, which is the name of my twin brother, Mark. 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? As an educator, I like to talk about it with my students a fair amount. Is there any advice you’d give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of an art career?

Failure, and using what I learn from failures—what they reveal—is a foundation of my practice. This is fortunate because I fail a lot. I think it’s natural because much of my practice is driven by learning and integrating new skills. Failure can be used as a mechanism for growth, it’s indicative of pushing, making, or thinking past existing thresholds. I often talk to my students about this too and emphasize that failure is one of the most useful tools for creative practice. 

As for dealing with disappointment, it depends on the type of disappointment—if it stems from something not working out in the studio, I’d recommend stepping back—maybe call it a day, go home and binge on some TV—then coming back the next day to analyze what’s going on and give it another whack. If it stems from application rejections, that’s tough. It’s just one of those situations where you can do as much as you can to put together a strong application and then just forget about it. You win some, you lose some. I’m still in a position where I win some and lose much more, so my approach is to send in an application and assume it won’t go anywhere, then just go back to the studio and do my thing. 


Cindy Cheng is participating in a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Joan Mitchell Center Artist Residency in New Orleans, both of which have been postponed until 2021—specific details are TBD.

Cindy Cheng's exhibition photos by Joseph Hyde. Photos of the artist by Joe Letourneau.

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