“One thing that’s really important to me is that the art happens with the community and not with it, or necessarily even for it.”
Shaina Lu, a queer Taiwanese American educator and artist from Malden, Mass., is onto something big.
Lu is what many would describe as a “superhuman”, someone who can be found everywhere, who somehow does everything; this person is extraordinary and creates feelings of effectiveness through their impactful work and presence that inspires and benefits a collective of people. Over time, these awe-inspiring, activated moments begin to lend themselves to practical, communal social change. Most of the time, Lu does this with his art and has nurtured a visual presence in Greater Boston, with works that can be seen in Malden and Boston’s Chinatown. Art and social conjuncture go hand in hand for the esteemed illustrator, often leading communities to seek out her expertise to help develop visual and inviting elements of art that can introduce and explore complex social issues between neighborhoods and Boston identities.
During the week, the Wellesley College and Harvard Graduate School of Education graduate is a media arts professor at Eliot K-8 Innovation School in the North End; but that does not prevent it from being everywhere else. You can also often find Lu with his lion Sifu and peers dancing to Wah Lum Kung Fu Academy at various events across town, or you can catch her helping a social cause. Now the artist is gearing up to release four books, one of which, published by Harper Collins, may have found inspirational routes in Boston’s Chinatown.
The Scope was able to catch up with Lu to find out how she does this and what it all means to her, her art and the Greater Boston community. Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell the readers a bit about yourself?
I am a queer Taiwanese American artist. I always say that I am a person who is interested in the intersection of art, education and activism. This is how I explain what I do to children… I enjoy creating community art for social change. Community art means that my art occurs in conversation with community members in the places where I live, work or play. So for me specifically, I live in Malden, the unceded lands of the people of Massachusetts and Pawtucket, and I currently work in the North End. And then I played in Chinatown and worked there for a while. My art is therefore made in dialogue with the people with whom I live, work and play. I’ve done protests with photography and painted collaborative murals in the past, and right now my passion projects are working on writing and illustrating stories.
You do a lot of community education. You help people and organizations bring their initiatives and inner thoughts to life through public art, event flyers, and other visual means often devoted to social and racial justice. As an artist, can you tell me about the potential ways or conversations of art that you hope to integrate into these communities when undertaking these projects?
One thing that’s really important to me is that art happens with the community and not with it, or necessarily even for it. I think it definitely has to be a collaborative effort. I don’t believe that art should come to communities. Often what I hope to accomplish is to have myself as an artist and also, you know, a resident or a community member, working with other community members so that the art feels like it really belongs in the community.
I think the process for that is usually that sometimes we have art workshops where we brainstorm things, sometimes we draw things, we imagine things, and we have questions that we answer as a group. As a group, [ people that I work with] have things they want their community to know about them or things they want to say; then we collaboratively develop a message that we want the art to say. So, for example, working with Asian CDC the young people of Malden, we painted together two switches and some things they were thinking where “we really want people to know that we belong here in Malden, us as a young Asian American; we want them to know that we stand for racial justice, mean all of our values and we want Malden to feel like a warm, welcoming and inviting place for people of all genders, races and nationalities. So those were the driving forces that the young people brought in and wanted to express, so I worked with them to find the best way to communicate that. Through lots of conversations and brainstorming, we settled on a potluck-themed idea and one that was truly inclusive. [social justice] March [in the neighborhood].
You’re soon releasing four new books under Harper Collins, and one book in particular is summed up as one girl’s mission to save her favorite community food cart and neighborhood from gentrification. Were you inspired by what you see happening in Boston’s Chinatown?
Yeah! I’m super excited. Two are actually picture books. But my book with Harper Collins is called “Noodle and Bao.” I know the editor described it as a girl’s plan to save her community, but it’s really inspired by the work done by community organizations. I was inspired by what organizations in Boston’s Chinatown have done and others. I was really inspired by the Package C history, in particular. There are a lot of activists who are – I don’t consider myself an activist, I’m not worthy – but those older activists are still there, and they’re still helping and mentoring the new ones. They founded the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), and they have been executive directors of Boston Chinatown neighborhood center (BCNC) and ACDC at the time, and that was something. The story of Parcel C is truly amazing and inspiring to me.
So I was working in Chinatown; I was the program director of their school age programs program called Red Oak. He is, I don’t know, a little over 50 years old. [and was] started at Josiah Quincy Elementary School by parents and community members. So I also like this beginning at the base. I actually have a lot of Red Oak students in my school [in the North End] right now, which was the most amazing thing in a different context. When I was in Red Oak, I took the kids on a lot of walking tours for their field trips. We were looking at the buildings and streets of Chinatown, and we were like, ‘Oh, what’s going on here?’ What do you notice happening here in this building? ‘Why do you think the inkwell is made of glass and metal?’ “Who do you think these places are for?” And I think one thing that would have been amazing is if we had some sort of text about gentrification that was grounded in a Chinatown-like setting; it doesn’t have to be Chinatown, but I would have liked to have an accessible mid-level text for them.
I went to a potluck my friends were having at the Pao Arts Center. They had us write down our wishes for the year, and I was like, ‘I wish or I hope I will’. So, I started thinking about this story about housing, gentrification, food, and innovation, rooted in a sort of Chinatown story, but I wanted it to feel a bit universal; [so, the book] has animal protagonists and things like that.
That’s where the story comes from. The story of Parcel C really inspired me. I also thought a lot about the building on Harrison Ave. Than my ACDC mural I painted with Yvonne is lit, this building was planned – more – but was to be demolished and become a hotel with an Asian-inspired lobby or something. I don’t think it’s planned anymore. I don’t remember exactly what the new plans are. Yet I think back to when I was attending Chinatown Residents Association (CRA) meetings, I felt that really inspiring moment where all the CPA alumni and others, you know, were just sitting in Josiah Quincy’s cafeteria. They all turned to the microphones and said, ‘We don’t want a hotel. We don’t want Chinatown to feel like a very temporary place. And that was really cool. I was like, ‘This is really awesome. You’re coordinated, just like speaking your truth in another language to all these developers sitting here. And I was like, I really want it to be in this book. And I want the kids to read this.
How can people collaborate with you on an art project in Boston?
I do this on a fairly limited basis. My criteria for commissions is really a bit like, ‘Do I like it, and will I have joy every minute of this project?’ And then I think the other thing is, I know, actually a lot of artists are like, ‘You shouldn’t take social justice cause projects because they’re always like, you know, blah, blah , blah.” But, I wonder whether or not the cause is something I believe in or support. I’m making a commission for Rubato at present. There was a bakery in Quincy called Contempo. And it is now the son of the original owner who takes over. He was a community organizer for CPA, and I thought, “I’m absolutely going to do something for you and your bakery. So I feel like our values are really aligned. I like what he’s trying to do with his bakery. It tries to serve the existing clientele but also bring different audiences to their food, which I say, “I love it”; It’s kind of the subject of the graphic novel.