“A Place of Her Own” – The Art of Cynthia Tom

The idea for “A Place of Her Own” , Cynthia Tom’s on-going collaborative art project, really took shape about three years ago when Cynthia began showing work at the annual Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition DAy_of_the_Dead_10-06__27__webin San Francisco.  This show has traditionally been dedicated to victims of violent death in the Bay Area.  It is not, however, simply or exclusively a memorial to those who have died.  It is also about those left behind and it is about art’s power to heal.  For the exhibition, artists create installation pieces of reverence and remembrance.  Often the installations are rooms – full scale assemblages.  

It is work that Cynthia Tom is uniquely qualified to pursue.  Since childhood, she has been creating assemblages.  She was taught by her mother, also an artist, who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Sue Tom was one of seven children of a merchant-class father who was a gambling and opium addict. Her mother had been sold to him in China and brought to San Francisco in a cargo-hold.  After her father died when she was 12, there was no money for art supplies.  With no formal training and limited resources, Sue Tom fashioned assemblages from things others had thrown away.  It was, for her, a way to re-invent her world – one that she passed on to her daughter. 

Cynthia works in a variety of media – painting, collage and sculpture.  Bright colors, texture and 3D are all characteristics of her art.  In terms of process, she starts with a single germ of an idea or an image.  Over time she builds onflying_in_the_trees_2_op_800x1208 that seed, gradually adding context and narrative to the work.  The process can be a long one and she is often working on as many as 20 pieces at a time. Her background did not provide the opportunity for formal training in an art school.  However, my guess is that this is fortunate.  The unique combination of whimsy with a serious message that is present in her best work probably would not have benefited from a BFA degree.

Her art is an exploration of personal and social issues – those in the lives of her ancestors, those in her own life and those in the broader community of women, and Asian women specifically.  The rooms that Cynthia created for the Dia De Los Muertos exhibitions were extensions of these explorations.  Like many third and fourth generation San Francisco Chinese-Americans, Cynthia Tom’s journey began years before she was born.  It began in China and ran through Angel Island on the way to San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The experiences of her grandparents and her parents, experiences that hugely influenced who she is as both an individual and an artist, were often shrouded in mystery Boxed Set Meta IVand shadows. The stories were harrowing.  Like many Chinese of their generation, her parents were reluctant to talk about them. 

In the Dia De Los Muertos rooms she had license to more fully explore those stories. The scale of the project made her think about their impact on her in new ways.  She began to question her assumptions.  Which assumptions were hers?  Which assumptions had been imposed on her by others?  She posed the question, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”  Starting with an Artist-In-Residence program at the de Young Museum (in association with the Asian American Women Artists Association) in January this year, she has created a five-year collaborative project seeking multi-faceted artistic responses to that query.

You can see Cynthia’s work at San Francisco Open Studios.  She is also a featured artist on ArtSpan’s Tour des Artistes, an exclusive tour of select artist studios this Sunday, that raises funds to support art education in San Francisco elementary schools.


One Response

  1. […] 1890 Bryant Street (at Mariposa)   If you can only go to one party all night, this is the one!  Cynthia Tom and Tanya Wilkinson are sharing a studio – both have been featured on SF Art News.  But […]

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