March 29, 2015
Cynthia Tom is a Chinese American artist and San Francisco native, well-known around the Bay Area for both her work as an Asian American artist and activism as a feminist. On February 26th 2015, the second annual A Place Of Her Own artists’ exhibition was held in San Francisco, California. Hosted by the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), the purpose of A Place Of Her Own is to provide an artistic and therapeutic outlet for female trauma victims. At the head of this event is Cynthia Tom, a San Francisco native and Chinese American artist.
Born in the early 1960s, Tom grew up surrounded by positive artistic influences. Her father, Richard Tom, was a ceramicist, while her mother, Sue, worked in sculpture. Tom herself is a painter who primarily works in acrylics, though her paintings are not always bound to a canvas.
“Acrylic on canvas, acrylic on anything,” says Tom in regard to her medium. “Wood, chairs, clothes, food. But I also do mixed media.”
Indeed, Tom’s work frequently seems to find itself outside the boundaries of a canvas. Apart from her furniture paintings, Tom also creates miniature boxed dioramas—found object constructions often depicting scenes of empty domesticity. Tom’s creativity has, quite literally, no borders.
This is not to say, however, that Tom is resistant to the canvas. To the contrary, Tom’s traditional paintings are perhaps her most well-known artistic endeavor, having been exhibited in both the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum of Fine Arts. Calling her style “Cultural Surrealism,” Tom’s paintings frequently depict Asian women cast against surreal, dream-like environments. For Tom, this subject matter comes from a place of intuition.
“I don’t usually know what the painting is going to look like until it’s finished,says Tom. “I always try to paint intuitively… I don’t try to paint a picture of something. I just paint what strikes me aesthetically.”
That aesthetic is a mix of cultural sensitivity and female empowerment.
“Initially, I started to paint larger women just because I wanted to get that out into the universe as normal. She points out the consistently larger bodies of her subjects. “And also to inspire women to own their own power. And then I started making sure they were all Asian women because I wanted people to kind of get used to seeing more Asian faces.”
The representation of Asian Americans is a significant issue for Tom. In particular, Tom feels that the art world is largely ignorant of Asian American artists and would like to see that change.
“Asian American artists are still completely invisible in this country. We’re not Asian art—we’re Asian American art.”
Perhaps it was this mix of cultural and feminist ideals that lead to the inspiration for Tom’s A Place Of Her Own. Place aims to teach art as an emotional outlet for struggling women. For four months, Place participants engage in a weekly meeting and discussion of their lives, struggles, and art. The unifying question for the women of Place is simple: if you had a place of your own, what would it be?
For Tom, the question is of enormous significance. “Men…kind of are taught that already. They’re taught that you can, you know, put a stake in the ground and get what you want. But women are taught to support that man. So, I mean, Im making sweeping generalizations, but that’s my life experience.”
It should be noted that Place is predominantly targeted toward (but not exclusive to) Asian women. According to Tom, Asian women are the ones most in need of a coping environment like Place. The issue, Tom specifies, stems from cultural practices and attitudes.
“I found out Asian American women or men don’t go [to therapists] at all. So there’s nowhere to heal—there ís nobody to talk to. Even your girlfriends might be against you leaving an abusive husband because that ís kind of the nature of it—across the board, Asian women, that’s our culture. Don’t shame your family, don’t shame your parents, don’t shame your communities. So what you doÖ you just hold it inside.”
It is evident that Tom is speaking from a personal place. Having struggled with these cultural differences herself, Tom turned to art for her own coping and subsequent healing. Now, she hopes to pass that experience on to others.
A Place Of Her Own officially began toward the end of 2013, with the final exhibition of participants’ work occurring in early 2014. As acting President, Exhibitions Curator, and Programs Chair of the AAWAA, organizing Place is an equally professional and personal ordeal for Tom.
Fortunately, the work paid off.
“It was the first time [these women] talked about [themselves] and I think it helped them find their voice. A few artists rose to the top and it was the first time they talked about being raped, or having domestic violence currently at their house.”
Tom’s sense of pride is palpable.
“And they’ve all gone on to, like, teach their immediate community how to do some kind of art project around healing. So I feel like this project, if I start being able to snowball it into more places…it’s a new concept where you don’t go see a therapist. You come in and you use community to heal.”
Tom quit her day job shortly after the success of the first Place artists. She now works full-time as the head of the AAWAA, having committed herself fully to the longevity of A Place Of Her Own. The second Place exhibition ended in early March after a week-long showing; the third Place session will begin in the fall.
“I’m really hopeful for this project,”says Tom, “because I’ve seen miraculous things happen.”
See more of Cynthia Tom’s art at: http://www.cynthiatom.com/index.html