A Community is a Rocking Chair

“For me, art is not an item that just decorates. It’s experience, it’s more about time. You are offering time to share with the community, and you’re gaining the time and experience of being with others.”

-Limei Lai
From the installation Expectation. Instant photographs, over rice paper, marking the passage of time. 
Courtesy of Limei Lai.

I met Limei Lai at the exhibition of her latest piece on mixed identities. In her installation, she mixes traditional Chinese embroidery, modern embroidery, fabric collage, photographs, and woven containers to bring forth a conversation about her gender expectations, growing up, and creating community through art. 

In my practice, I too have used textiles and crafting to facilitate spaces for people to share and connect with their intuition through embroidery workshops while also exploring the meaning we can find in objects in our everyday lives. I, too, believe in the power of storytelling as a community-building experience. 

Because of this, I was drawn to the fact that Lai invites her audience to share their own experiences with internal and external expectations by making art objects themselves. 

Adela Cardona: Can you tell me about the expectations you grew up with in China and how those show up in the piece, Mixed Identity, in Portland Textile Month?

Limei Lai: When I think about mixed identity, I think about my personal experience. When I grew up, I eventually realized I wasn’t what was expected by my parents. They wanted me to be a boy, because I was born in China. 

Throughout my childhood, I remember my dad said things like, you’re so dumb, don’t go to that school, you’re not smart, just take this job. Then I got married and moved to the US and I feel like I’m not meeting the expectations put on me again.

This old Chinese mentality shows up in the piece in the mix of traditional versus modern embroidery. Traditional embroidery has symbolic objects, like my name, which is Winter Blossom; whereas modern embroidery is the most abstract. 

From the installation Expectation. The apron is used for babies in Chinese culture to protect the belly. Traditional embroidery with square modern intervention. Courtesy of Limei Lai.

Adela: Why use embroidery?

Limei: It’s based on my childhood memory. My grandma did embroidery until she was 80 years old. I grew up in a village where most of the women do embroidery. It was rather commercial, but then what they were making was very traditional. So they were using thicker threads and sewing on linen. 

They had a lot of traditional methods that were very time-consuming. They did it in this place called Women’s House, it was a place for the community to go and do embroidery together. A bunch of ladies spending time together, that’s how I grew up. That’s how I connect. 

From the installation Expectation. Courtesy of Limei Lai.

Adela: Is that why the idea of a community is so important in your work? 

Limei: Yeah. I think it’s sort of symbolic in a way that our objects are containers for this togetherness. I thought, “What am I going to create for myself?” But then, the thought becomes what do I want? I feel like I want a community. So you go inside and look at yourself and eventually say, okay, I’m fine with loneliness. I’m fine with this kind of quietness and I’m fine with not having a lot of normal things like a husband, a bunch of good friends, a large community.

But I do want to have this community that makes me feel like a rocking chair. I can sit here, it’s a really comfortable environment. It’s a loving, caring environment. If I want that, if I want to be included, then the first move is to include others. So my personal practice is an act of including other people; an act of putting myself into the community. 

For me, art is not an item that just decorates. It’s experience, it’s more about time. You are offering time to share with the community, and you’re gaining the time and experience of being with others. The end result is having everyone together, including each other, sharing some of our most tender moments, and opening up to our vulnerabilities.

Adela: So this is why, in your latest piece, you created egg-shaped containers out of fabric where people could also put their own expectations?

Limei: Yes. There were two ways to interact with it; self-guided or with me. We create some artwork and then they include it in the eggs. Really, what I want is to encourage people to express themselves, to have a conversation with others, it is more important than the final object. 

The object they choose has a value in itself, yet the value changes because we seal some of our time together into this object; we put in our understanding and memory. To me, all this energy already exists. You preserved a beautiful moment and you created that community right at that beautiful time. You finished the circle, it’s all in you, it’s all done. I created something for people to experience and to feel.

From her installation, Expectations. Wire and thread container, with participants crafted objects about their expectations. Courtesy of Limei Lai.

Adela: I noticed you have worked with containers before, like pockets, why are they so important in your work?

Limei:  You see, textiles can be a container for memories, just as motherhood is a reminder that our bodies can be a container for civilization. Your body creates the next generation. You create the best artwork of your life and they’re very imperfect, but they’re perfect because they are the future. It is also connected to how I was brought up in a community-focused kind of lifestyle in China. It’s the idea that a community is a container and a shelter for people. When I came here, art became a container for history and storytelling. Then an object becomes the container for artists. It’s a relational thing that exists between the world and the person, and the idea and the person. I find myself making a lot of containers. Partly because people want to be private, and keep something hidden, and partly because it needs to be safe.

Adela: And this play of showing and hiding, it shows up again in this piece. 

Limei: Yes. In terms of the material choice in this one, I was focusing on creating layers, the sheer cheesecloth over objects, contrasted with the wire. This idea of complexity in people, in humans. There is a Chinese writer called Ai Ling Zhang. She died in the United States, but she got super famous at age 30. She was writing novels. In the end, she says, “life is a luxury fur coat, but with all those fleas and bedbugs and all sorts of yucky things inside. So if you open it up, it’s very real.” So that’s why I did that fabric collage, with the idea of seeing through the surface. 

From the installation Expectation. Fabric collage with hand-dyed cheesecloth. Courtesy of Limei Lai. 
Artist Limei Lai, at her installation Expectation. Courtesy of Limei Lai.

Adela Cardona (She/ Her) is a Colombian storyteller, writer, content maker & event producer, dealing with the topics of sustainable fashion, mental health, and gender issues. She majored in Communications and Literature. She is the founder of “Mujeres No Graciosas,” an open mic and the podcast of Colombian creators, “La Bombillera.”

Limei Lai (She/Her) is a multidisciplinary artist and curator who enjoys working with paint, fabric, and clay. Her themes depict her fear and love of Pacific Northwest life and Asian women’s immigrant intergenerational stories. Togetherness and inclusion are her messages. Community engagement performance installation is her passion. She believes that art not only critiques, questions, and reflects, but also celebrates, thus bridging good changes.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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