Instagram and other social-media platforms can provide curated snapshots of a life, but artist Christina Kwan (@christina.kwan.art) peels back the curtain even further. She gives followers an inside view of her life as a working artist, often chatting from inside her car or while taking a break from her paintbrushes. Kwan candidly shares how she deals with rejection and sometimes struggles to be identified as an artist.
Kwan, 32, was born in Winter Park, Florida, and moved to Atlanta in 2010 after graduating from the University of Florida. She may be best known for her feather-light ink marks and the vibrant splashes that wash across her canvases. In recent years, she’s expanded her studio practice to include large-scale public spaces. Her delicate abstract florals and vivid shades can be seen among the murals in Cabbagetown and inside such businesses as Whiskey Bird restaurant and The Sentimentalist, a bridal shop. She’ll soon have a mural in Talat Market, opening this spring in the Summerhill neighborhood.
In a sit-down conversation with ArtsATL, Kwan talked about living the artist’s life.
ArtsATL: What type of work did you find when you first moved to Atlanta?
Christina Kwan: After I graduated from school I knew I needed to get out of Florida. The economy was still recovering after the 2008 recession and honestly, Atlanta was the closest place. I emailed every gallery and out of nine of those emails, one wrote back to offer me a job. At the time I was an arts administrator and quickly became the executive director. After realizing I was unhappy spending all of my time doing work for other artists and not making any art of my own, I quit. I worked a string of different jobs while I focused on my own paintings until about two years ago. Now I’m able to work as a full-time artist.
ArtsATL: You’ve been very open online about the struggles you’ve faced and, in particular, finding the confidence to call yourself an artist. Why is that?
Kwan: I was raised to believe art was a hobby, and my family didn’t support my decision to pursue an arts degree. A lot of my work in college reflected on the tension and fragility I was experiencing within my relationships. There have definitely been times that I wanted to quit and I often don’t feel like I work hard enough. It has been a real obstacle for me to say that I’m an artist because there is conceptual work and types of shows that I feel I’m just not ready to do yet. I am proud of the work that I’ve done, but I just know I can do more.
ArtsATL: You’ve developed a recognizable style. How did you get there?
Kwan: I’m sure my work is heavily influenced by the artists that have stuck out to me. One of my inspirations is Julie Mehretu. I saw her work in my freshman year of college and I was obsessed. When I see her pieces I think, “How do I get there? How do I pour so much of myself into something, into a material that it can make someone else feel the way I’m feeling now.” I try to practice every day and work hard to improve.
ArtsATL: In recent years you’ve expanded your painting practice from using acrylic watercolors on paper to making murals in public. How did you get there?
Kwan: It’s really challenged me in a way to consider the boundaries outside of a piece of paper. I’m still figuring things out, but it’s the kindness of a lot of Atlanta friends that has helped guide me. I started doing murals because I didn’t always feel connected to the ones I saw. I thought maybe this thing that I’m missing from public murals is something that everybody else is missing too and I could paint it.
ArtsATL: What can you say about the inclusiveness and openness of the creative community in Atlanta?
Kwan: That’s definitely part of the key to my success. When people ask how I got here, I tell them that I just talk to people. When my friend Parnass Savang, who co-owns Talat Market, told me he was opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, I said: “So you know I’m going to paint a mural for you, right?” I’ve lived in Atlanta for 10 years and I have built connections with friends and small-business owners. I interact heavily online so when people commission me to paint a mural for them, there’s a certain level of trust that’s already been established.