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Lauren Tsai

Lauren Tsai

Words & Photography / Naz Kawakami

The Internet makes it easier than ever to think you know a person you’ve never met. Sometimes I’ll meet somebody and shake their hand and pretend that I don’t know their name, that I haven’t scanned over their Instagram several times via the explore page, and that I don’t possess an enormous amount of information about them—where they went on vacation, what their lives are like and who they are. But the truth is that I don’t possess that information. I don’t know a person just because I see the things that they make public. This lesson was most apparent to me upon meeting Lauren Tsai. I came upon her art through her social media account some time ago, and immediately became a fan. At 18 years old, she is successful internationally as a model—and now television star—and I had expected to interview a person who was good at art, but had other things in mind. I, wrongfully and shamefully, expected to meet someone who put their art on the backburner. Much to my relief and guilt, I was taken by the amount of passion toward her work, her determination, and her work ethic. I discovered the amount of feeling and focus she pours into what she creates, and how integral it was to her as a person.

Lauren held her first solo art show on January 2nd, 2017 at ARS Café which featured several original works and prints of many different mediums. Lauren’s pieces can be both melancholy and fantastical, but possess a uniformity in style that is unique to her.

Naz Kawakami: How and when did you start painting?
Lauren Tsai: I’ve been painting since I was about two years old, and I’ve always loved it as a hobby. I’d always draw during school, after school, and before I went to bed. I started taking it seriously in my junior year of high school when I planned on going to an art college.

You didn’t go to college?
I actually got into some art schools and then I deferred from one in Brooklyn that I planned to go to this year. I’m not too sure if I’m going to go to college yet…we’ll see if it’s right for me.

Which mediums do you prefer?
My favorite medium is definitely watercolor, but I also really enjoy ballpoint pen.

What draws you to watercolor?
I love the tones you can achieve, and I love that you can layer everything. I love that it really bleeds and flows on paper…that uncontrollable bleeding of the colors…you can’t really get that with other mediums.

Why do you paint?
I think I paint because I have to.

Because when I don’t, I feel like I get really stressed. When I’m not drawing or creating anything, I feel like there’s no purpose to anything in my life. I honestly only feel satisfied when I’m creating something.

Your first show at ARS in January…How do you feel about it?
I was really surprised at the turnout! I thought maybe ten or fifteen people would come. The whole time I was thinking of everything I could improve on for the next one.

There’s a next one?
Okay, if there is a next one. My goal is to show in Tokyo this year.

It feels like you’d much rather be in Japan.
Yeah. Working as a model is much better in Japan. I really like the fashion over there. There’s a lot more work over there, too. In the past I’ve really enjoyed meeting photographers and stylists from Japan. I think there’s a huge community of creatives in Tokyo. Living in that city, I feel really inspired to work hard and improve. I really like being in that environment.

It seems like you take a lot of influence from different styles of painting, where do you think you fall in line?
A lot of people say that my work is like surrealism. I think I’m really inspired by fantasy, as in video games and movies and stuff. I’ve always wanted to be a concept artist for creature design. I think I use a bit of realism when I draw human figures, but I tend to draw from imagination so it always turns out a little fantasy-ish.

A lot of your work features very expressive or contorted faces and bodies. Is it the bodies or the contorting of bodies that makes you want to draw?
I think a lot of it is my interaction with people and how I feel about it. I never feel like drawing when I’m happy. I guess most of my work is inspired by feelings of sadness and loneliness. It might show in my work.

Maybe a little?
I think I’m more attracted to artwork that’s inspired by sadness rather than happiness. For my own work I like to pull from those emotions.

At the show, how’d you decide the order of the pieces? Was each one meticulously placed on the wall at that height in that spot in that order?
Well to be honest I only had a month to prepare. John Koga from ARS told me that he had January 2nd and 3rd open and I was like, “Shit, I’ll take it!” I just started producing everything, so there wasn’t a specific concept to it. Most people pick just one thing and sort of paint around that and they all kind of match, where as mine was kind of all over the place. When we hung the paintings up we tried to separate one side with watercolor and make the other side the acrylic side. I definitely wanted to keep the watercolors together in their own world.

Yeah one side of the room was really bright and the other was full of sketches. Was one your grandfather?
Oh that was actually a random old guy at a figure drawing session at the Museum of Art! Well I wouldn’t say random old guy, his name is Keith. But no, it’s not my grandfather.

Can you explain the writing on the wall at the show?
The writing on the wall? [Laughs] Oh yeah, I wanted to do something to try to bring the pieces together. I didn’t want to get too emo with the show. One of the things I wrote was “Take me to better places” and that’s also the title of one of the paintings.

For more about Lauren Tsai:
Where is this better place? Japan? Home?
I’m trying to think of what I want to say; I had a lot of reasoning behind it. I think I’ve always wanted to leave Hawai‘i and pursue art and entertainment elsewhere. I like the idea of leaving. And that’s not the kind of leaving that means never coming back. It’s just leaving in pursuit of something. I think I wrote on the other side, “This is where it all begins.” I’m really using the gallery show to keep pushing myself for more in the future.

Your show was called 18. Lucky number?
So, I had to make a title for the show and I had no idea what I wanted to do. Honestly it’s called 18 because I’m 18 now, with the idea that I’ll do another one in the future. There isn’t a really deep meaning behind it. It’s just because I’m 18. When I look back, hopefully I remember how inspired I was to do art at this age, or if I ever give up on art, remembering this show will make me get back into it. Hopefully I never get to that point.

What are you pursuing in art currently? What’s your end game?
My end game? Like I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to work for an animation studio doing concept art. For the near future, I’m hoping to do more gallery stuff and some illustrations for fashion magazines in Japan. I’m working on a collaboration with a company in Tokyo to design some bags and shirts for their new line. I’m also doing some paintings for a restaurant in town and planning some meetings with galleries in Tokyo. I’m really open to everything. Yeah, I have no idea what I’m doing.

You do stuff aside from art; I hear you’re famous?
I’ve been working in Japan as a model for about three years now. I’ve been in high school so I’ve only been able to go for three months at a time during Summer, but finally after graduating I thought, “This is the year I move! This is the year I dive into it!” but then I got a reality TV show job here in Hawai‘i so I came back.

Wait, what? Reality TV?
Haha, oh yeah I’m doing this reality TV show right now. That’s why I’m here. I can’t really talk about the show too much or they get mad at me. I came back for that and thought I ought to make the most of being here and make as many connections as I can.

Do you think that conflicts with your artistic credibility?
I think it works well together. I’m able to make a lot of connections as a model within the creative community. Those connections help me get my art to a larger audience. I think the biggest issue I’ll face in the coming years is having to decide on one to commit to.

What are you going to do, man?
I honestly have no idea. [Laughs]

Well you had your first solo exhibit, you’re on TV, what do you attribute your success to?
Oh, no. I don’t consider myself a success.

Well how about just your degree of success?
[Laughs] Um, I’ve sent a lot of emails. That’s the most important thing in making it. A lot of people are really passive and want things to come to them without going for it. I think if you want to make it you have to be the one who is asking. When I first tried to model, I was sending out emails and audition tapes and photos, I got rejected over and over and over. So now I am just constantly trying to connect with people.

Asking for what you want?
Not really asking for what you want, just being open to being rejected. I think putting yourself out there is the only way to make it. You cant wait for anything because the reality is that nobody else cares about your success. No one cares if you make it. And if you’re not fighting to make it then it’s not going to happen.

Any last words?
Last words? I don’t know what I’m doing…and that’s okay.