We featured Elizabeth Merritt Kong earlier last year, originally from Southern California, she is currently in Chicago, studying and refining her work. Elizabeth uses a wide swath of media, her work is mythic and eye catching in the depiction of her subjects. Check out her interview:
Introduce yourself. Where in Southern California did you grow up? What was it like going to school in Chicago?
Well, to be specific, I grew up in Glen Avon. It was an unincorporated part of Riverside County until a few years ago. In spite of this, I always tell people that I am from Riverside; it’s just easier that way because unless you are from Glen Avon or are/have dated someone from Glen Avon, nobody knows where it is. It was a huge shake to go to school in Chicago after growing up and living in the desert of Riverside. First of all it was the coldest I have ever been; the coldest I had ever been before Chicago was in Beijing. In addition to this, everything was different including people, demographics, architecture, food, culture, transportation, weather, vibes, location. It’s like being in a different world living in Chicago. It’s so different when I am here that it is easy to forget about the life I had back in Southern California. And then on the other end when I am back home it can be easy to forget that I have built a new life in Chicago. But overall I think leaving Southern California to pursue a degree in Chicago was one of the best choices I have made in my 23 years of existence.
You describe yourself as biracial and Asian american, how do you identify as biracial? How was your childhood influenced by your ethnic identity? What about your identity are you most thankful for? How did your parents see their racial identity? How did that effect you growing up?
Well, as far as identifying as biracial, it’s pretty much the only way I can, for lack of a better term, “define” myself in terms of race. I mean I basically identify that way because I am. It’s my reality if you’d like to call it that, and it is what it is. When I was younger and even today, most people mistake me for Latina or Filipina and generally won’t even guess that I am Chinese American. Pretty frequently I will be on the train in Chicago going out and about or on the bus or whatever and people will ask me if I am Filipina or something else. When I say “No” they always say something along the lines of “well I have a Filipina/o friend that you remind me of.” Or the whole “Where are you from?” question which is usually followed by “No where are you really from?” or “Well, where is your mother from?” So that is always a strange thing to navigate no matter how often it happens. In terms of thankfulness, I’m thankful that I am aware of myself as an individual. In terms of how it affected me growing up, it was another strange experience. I didn’t know it at the time but I was frequently exoticised because I was half Chinese. It’s so bizare, it’s a strange place where I’m “exotic” enough to sort of objectify but not so foreign that I was completely un-relatable to the society of America. So in terms of how it affected me growing up, I can’t really say since I have nothing to compare it to.
There are a lot of earth tones in your work, what attracts you to the color scheme? How do you choose the colors for a piece?
Well to be totally honest I am attracted to the color scheme I use because it is what I like and relate to. I have been doing a little research on color schemes and I am really into color tetrads. Basically color tetrads are four colors on the color wheel that are equal distance apart from each other. So I have been taking the basic principles of a tetrad and altering it to what I favor.
What are you currently studying in Chicago? What have you learned about your art and yourself at school? What is your favorite location in Chicago? Where do you go to find peace?
I am currently studying printmaking and woodworking in Chicago. What I have learned is that whatever I thought I knew or wanted back home in So Cal is not what I really want. What I wanted back home was a good starting point but not a goal in itself. So far I suppose my favorite location in Chicago is my apartment, the print shop and the wood shop that I work at. All three of those places feel like home. And there is no such thing as peace! At least not in my world; and I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Your work seems mythological, what are your influences? What are the creatures in your work? Where are they from?
Well a lot of my influences come from research in history and just lived experiences. I have researched a lot of history and art in China, Hong Kong, and Mexico because these are places I feel some sort of connection to. I studied in China for a short period of time, my mother is from Hong Kong and I grew up in Southern California which has a huge Mexican American population so I was heavily exposed to that growing up. I actually speak better Spanish than I do Mandarin or Cantonese. I’m definitely not fluent, but I’m much better off with English and Spanish than anything else. As far as the creatures are concerned, they are characters I have created to navigate through my art. They are not meant to be from any specific place because they are more about existing than originating if that makes any sense.
In several pieces there are headless bodies, what does a body with no head mean to you?
Well it could mean a few things to me but the thing I associate with it the most is the potential for an identity and fluidity. I find that people attach too much significance to the face and in some ways that is limiting. By removing the heads of bodies or replacing it with something else such as my masks, I am relieving them of the obligation to be something specific and allowing more freedom of expression.
You use different media, intaglio, wood working, serigraph, painting and relief prints, what kind of expression does each allow for you? What can you say are the challenges of each form of expression? What does each allow you to do artistically that the others do not?
Well I wouldn’t say that each allows me a different expression, at least that is not how I think of it. I know each medium has a different method and aesthetic, but I don’t really think that limits me to certain expression. In terms of challenges, I would say composition in regards to whatever medium I choose. Composition is important to me and depending on what I use, composition may come easier or not. And I suppose the only real big difference I see in my work is my prints and wood working. Prints allow me to run through ideas and possibilities fairly quickly. Woodworking is more static and slow; it requires a different mode of thinking. So I would say that artistically, both prints and wood allow me to exercise different parts of my brain and thought process.
What are you working on now? The year is almost over, do you have plans for 2014? What did you want to have achieved by the end of this year, and did you achieve it? What do you want to achieve next year?
Well when I first started filling out this interview I was working on a spot mezzotint, building frames and preparing to graduate. Mezzotint is new to me so I wanted to work with it before I graduate. But I took so long filling this out I already finished printing the mezzotint. But I’m starting a new one so I guess I’m working on that as well. Anyway, looking back, I think my main goal was to survive the year and graduate. So, I think I am on track. In regards to 2014, I think my goal is to find a job and hopefully get a plane ticket to a sweet location outside of the US. I also have to save up to visit my family in Canada.
What is your favorite animal?
Definitely a horse.