Creator to Creator: Heidi Cho

When I first read through Heidi’s “A Safe Haven” zine, I remember pausing to hold her words. It begins with “Listen to your inner wisdom. What is it saying to you?” and ends with “You got this baby”, and in-between lay thoughts, reflections, inquiries, and consolations which feel deeply in my heart.

I love her cartoonish characters who are simultaneously self-doubting and self-comforting (basically my regular state), while igniting warm energies like her closed-eye “Growth” and “Energy Protection” femmes. I also have a bit of a bias for the symbolic Korean images and items trickled throughout Heidi’s work, which I realized coincides with “the romanticization of the diasporic experience” that she mentions below.

Learn more about Heidi’s creative journey, from her doubt in calling herself a “real artist” to how self-care embodies her work. -Mirae

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Can you tell us briefly about your creative practice? When did you start making art?

My creative practice is rooted in my personal narratives navigating mental health, Korean diasporic identity, queerness and family. I began making zines about my experiences when I was 15 years old, heavily influenced by riot grrrls and graphic novel culture. Using illustration, ceramics, mixed-media and storytelling, I use my creative practice as a way to process internal conversations and conflicting emotions with myself.

For a long time, I didn’t consider myself to be a “real artist” due to my lack of technical training around drawing and painting or attendance at art school. In the past 5 years, I began to confidently embrace the title of “artist” and the unique nature of my creative practice. It’s been exciting to see my work resonate with others, as well as be recognized for being true to myself and my creative practice.

Gay Magic, Gay Grief (2017) at Invisible Footprint, Gardiner Museum

Your recent installation of Trauma Drama (2018) at Rice Roll Productions‘ exhibition of Invisible Footprint 2.0: Deep Cuts animated your illustrations into ceramics, papier-mâché, and immersive spaces through shrines. In your Gay Magic, Gay Grief (2017) installation at the first Invisible Footprint, you also incorporated plants and furnitures. What is your process in bringing your stories and ideas into three-dimensional realms? (In other words, how do you envision your work into an installation space?)

Gay Magic, Gay Grief (2017) as well as Trauma Drama (2018) were my first invitations from galleries to create an installation space. As someone who generally works with 2-dimensional illustrations, they were exciting opportunities to materially bring my ideas to life. I envisioned both installations as a three-dimensional scrapbook of my experiences, in showcasing found objects, hand-painted ceramics, papier-mâché sculptures and wall-papered illustrations. In holding intersecting identities and conflicting/shifting ideas, I utilized Gay Magic, Gay Grief, as a material manifestation of this unique positionality. In both examples, I hoped to create an intimate space which showcased how fantastical and conflicting experiences and feelings could co-exist. Physical installations act as another channel of evoking an embodied reaction/experience of art that can’t often be translated through ink and paper.

Many of your work, including Trauma Drama and your zine “A Safe Haven”, are rooted in and about your personal experience of sexuality, family, race, and mental health. How do you navigate sharing intimate stories to an audience who are, ultimately, strangers, while ensuring you feel safe?

It has definitely been a growing process to share my intimate stories and experiences with a public audience. Whenever I feel anxious or embarrassed about the vulnerable nature of my work, I ultimately remind myself that the initial impulse to create is rooted in my personal healing process. It’s been really moving, healing and special to connect with other strangers who share the resonance of my work, which are often folks who identify as survivors of violence, sick people and queers of colour. Depending on the context/space where my work is shown, there have been a handful of incidents of strangers who have described my work as “sad.” When I am met with these reactions, I feel protective of my stories. I don’t see my work as “sad” or “tragic,” but simply addressing the vastness and contradictions of the human emotional experience. Coming from a zine culture background, I always have to remind myself of the importance of marginalized artists sharing their stories/narratives, especially in a world that chooses to minimize our existence.

What drives you to create and/or what do you enjoy the most in creating personal work?

The best thing about creating personal work is gaining clarity of my shifting, thoughts and feelings through making art.

from Productive Discomfort exhibition (March 2019) at Xpace Cultural Centre

How does art play a role in your self-care?

My first impulse to create art, stems from my own self-care practice to make sense of my own individual experiences. In the past 3 years, I have been drawn to ceramics as an embodied creative process. As an illustrator or writer, a blank page can feel intimidating when I feel creatively stuck. Working with clay and water allows me to feel creative and play while removing some of the pressure to produce.

What are questions or themes you’ve been thinking about recently?

I have been thinking a lot of about the idea of ‘pleasure,’ and how to incorporate it more into my personal narratives and creative practice. So much of my work has acted as an experimental space to make sense of my trauma and pain.  The unfamiliarity of ‘pleasure’ feels confusing and new, but ultimately feels necessary in the next exciting stage of my healing process. 

Lastly, what does being a “Canadian” artist mean to you?​

Probably similar to many diasporic, racialized people, the term “Canadian” has never resonated with me. Over the past few years, my relationship to that identifier has shifted, as I am recognizing my own privileges as a second-generation Korean person who gets to make “intellectualized” choices about my nationality. Currently, I am thinking about my own unique experiences about being a diasporic Korean settler artist living and working on Turtle Island. I hope to continue to question “the romanticization of the diasporic experience” as a second-generation Korean living in Canada, my differences relating to my race/racism in contrast to my immigrant parents, as well as my contributions to settler colonialism in Canada. These questions are in constant flux and I can imagine will often shift/grow over time and space.

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To learn more about Kai Cheng Thom, and “Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars“.

To view more of Heidi’s work, visit her IG @heidichomakesart.

New Creator to Creator feature every other Wednesday!

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