A Culture of Possibility Podcast #13: Cynthia Tom on Art, Immigration, and Trauma

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 13th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available on 21 January 2022. You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.

What ideas, work, issues, questions would you like to see featured on “A Culture of Possibility” in 2022? Drop me a line. We’d love to hear what you think.

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In this podcast, I talk with Cynthia Tom, a California-based visual artist and creator of A Place of Her Own, “an art-making and exhibition-based organization dedicated to sparking transformation from chronic heartache to resilience in women of color,” using art to challenge generational wounding from colonization and patriarchy and to build equity. I’ve admired Cynthia’s work for many years, and was thrilled to have this opportunity to talk about it.

Cynthia began by describing her work. “When I say I’m a visual artist, I do painting, mixed media, installation—large and small, like giant room installations. I teach workshops for healing using artwork. I used to run an arts organization. Everything I’m doing is actually moving—at least in my little part of the United States—towards social justice, waking people up to other cultures that are here that are not the majority. I myself am a third- and fourth-generation Chinese American woman, on my mother and my father’s side. They came at different times with a lot of trauma in the background. And that has been largely inspiration for my work and my commitment to women.”

Like many of the artists we’ve interviewed, Cynthia has a personal practice (you can see her artwork here) and a community-based practice, each supporting the other.

The way she tells her origin story as an artist makes the relationship clear:

“I grew up making art with found objects. I didn’t know it was because we were poor, but our neighbors used to leave broken plates and jewelry and beautiful old napkins and all kinds of things in our gateway in San Francisco. My mom always had us making things. So making things just was a natural state. I never thought I was an artist because I didn’t know what to paint and I thought artists were painters. Eventually I found my way into making found-object jewelry and collaging on purses, which were called ’emotional baggage.’

“I was a street artist. I was a pharmaceutical rep by day and then I did my street artist stuff. Eventually I quit the pharmaceutical job to do the street artist, much different pay-scale. I put written words and images on the purses, and people started connecting, they would say, “Oh, my God, how did you know I’m going through this horrible thing? This purse speaks to me.” The same thing with the jewelry, they were brooches with found objects. They had themes on them that sometimes I wasn’t even aware of till the buyer saw them. I would make them so fast that I was just choosing images that I was attracted to. And here I am, 40 years later, still teaching collage that way.

“Those were the inklings of starting to do work with people who wanted to explore their inner selves. I didn’t have training in that, but it just came. I feel like it was guided by spirit. And then I just started painting. I didn’t know what I was doing. I watched public television a lot and I learned how to paint by watching those kind of shows. I just let myself paint whatever I felt like. I didn’t have any rules because I didn’t go to school, I never thought I could afford it. I actually got a business degree and just worked. It was never an option to be an artist. My parents never said they were artists until my mom finally did in her 90s. Because being raised Chinese, the generation that we were—it’s still true today, a lot of Chinese families—you’re not allowed to become an artist because you have to become a dentist or a doctor or something productive. But I found out that art is the way to move people in ways that nothing else can to help change.”

In this episode, Cynthia describes the evolution of A Place of Her Own, in which eight or so women at a time use a series of workshops to engage the question of a place of their own using artmaking processes grounded in intuition: “If they could design their own place, their own metaphoric space. Who gets to go there? What happens there? What is what exists there? What does it smell like, look like, feel like?”

This inquiry revealed common challenges. “I didn’t realize how much trauma there was till I did this,” said Cynthia. “I found out that most of the women, including my mother, who I included in a show, couldn’t come up with what they wanted for a place of their own. It’s like complete lack of self-agency until they were able to talk about their traumas, which were very heavy, sexual abuse, violence, children of of addicts…. The biggest foundation of it is looking at your ancestral family patterns. This is all work that came to me because I was doing it to heal my own ancestral wounds, because I had a lot of human trafficking in my family, which was pretty common in the 1920s between China and the US, a lot of selling of children and women.

“What I’ve learned over the years is when people do that, when we actually map out the traumas on your family map, it takes the emotional pain out of it, and you’re able to start seeing your family from a different perspective. You’re not so wounded anymore, and you’re able to begin to heal the wounds. And sometimes your family goes with you. And sometimes they don’t. And that’s okay.”

In the podcast, you’ll hear more about these workshops and the exhibitions that emerged from them. For now, here’s a story about one participant’s project.

“Janet King, who is Native American, was not allowed to make art. At age four, her mom took her two pencils away from her. She came to our class. She was 62. And she had so much fun. She’s native Lumbee, which are out of North Carolina, native indigenous folks out of North Carolina. Her art piece was going to be her Lumbee cabin, so she made a miniature cabin. She lives in this in a town called Oakland, which is very urban, and somehow she stumbled on all these little twigs that someone had just cut down on a meridian dividing two-way traffic. She found a little box that look like the shape of an A-frame cabin, and I showed her how to use a glue gun. She made this little cabin that was perfect. And inside her cabin is a place where people can go to remember who they were before they were colonized. Because that’s the population she worked with at the Native Health Center in Oakland. She had never done anything like this before. But when she hit that, I kept telling her ‘Don’t worry, the objects will come to you for this art piece.’ That’s the kind of work that comes out of this.”

I love the prompt of remembering who you were before you were colonized. Cynthia and I also discussed the concept of “trauma-informed art,” the importance of having a thoughtful, caring, effective process and trusting it, and the centrality of intuition to her work.

“Our intuition,” Cynthia said, “we’re born with it. When we’re little, we learned to ignore it in order to stay attached to our families. Not that maybe they didn’t do anything wrong, or they did something wrong, or they didn’t do something which was probably wrong. We learn to give up who we are. So what this does, what A Place of Her Own does, is ask you to allow your little child to come back out and trust that their voice is very strong.”

Long Hard Road” by Sade.

A Culture of Possibility Podcast #13: Cynthia Tom on Art, Immigration, and Trauma