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Kathy Liao

Mid-America Arts Alliance
Uncommon Voices 2020

Kathy Liao
In Kathy Liao’s home office
Kathy Liao

Artist Kathy Liao thrives on the stress of deadlines, and risk is a motivating force in her work – at least, that was her pre-pandemic take. In January, Kauffman looked to artists like Liao for their perspectives on navigating an uncertain world – not anticipating what was right around the corner.

As with many people, this year has brought changes to Liao, but the loss of her teaching position has actually opened new avenues – and, it has impacted her work. Surprisingly, the large-scale work of her past, which focused on reflections about separation from her family, no longer resonated for Liao. While she’s still separated from family members by several states or half a world, her work has shrunk to a smaller scale and has become more of a response to the state of the world during the pandemic.

Q: How have the events of 2020 affected you and your work?

I had been teaching at Missouri Western State University as an assistant professor of art. I’d been there for six years and was applying for tenure. In March came a huge financial crisis for the university, which wasn’t only caused by the pandemic. The university eliminated the studio arts major. So, out of 10 fine arts faculty, four of them were let go, including me. I was lucky to pick up a position at Mid-America Arts Alliance as the Artist INC program specialist.

Q: Can you tell us how what you’re working on now is different from what you would have been doing this time last year?

Last year, I was working toward a solo show, so I felt like there was a unifying theme behind what I was working on. I was thinking back to my personal family stories and immigration experiences.

I think that’s still relevant, but around February, I remember the work I was working on were these airport scenes of traveling, moving from one place to another, that distance between myself and my family. And, at this point, it feels a lot more pronounced – that sense of distance – because I’m not able to travel and see my family anymore.

A huge part of my interaction with my family has always been on FaceTime, it’s all so absolutely fascinating to see how this has become the normal way of interacting in every aspect of our lives now. At the same time, the idea of traveling, or crowds, of meeting people in person, all feels a lot more foreign and uncomfortable.

So, in February I was working on this giant wall painting that was a 120” by 260” on-wall drawing of an airport scene: the arrival terminal at LAX. It was a memory of mine when I was immigrating here; my memory of being greeted by my relatives welcoming me when my family first moved here.

Now, I stand in front of that painting, and it’s empty. There’s nobody at the airports now. There is no type of this interaction at this point.

I think it’s been eight months now … I have not touched that painting. I’ve turned to making small sculptures, something that’s very tactile that I can mold and shape and carve away. I’m not sure where the work is going, what it’s about yet, but it’s more just kind of like an immediate tactile response to what’s happening around us.

I realize in my current capacity, I am still… supporting other artists, I’m still creating community.

Q: Last time, we talked about the risks of being an artist. In light of this year, do your career risks seem different now?

No, I’m still happy with my choices. A huge perspective shift that happened to me this year was no longer being in that professor teaching position. For the last 10 years, I’ve always been an educator, always been in academia teaching artists, and that’s what I always thought I was meant to do. I’ve always seen it as this one path: I’m making work, I’m building my art career, but at the same time it’s aligning with being in academia. And having that being gone, being thrown off of that path, it actually opened up possibilities to other things I can do.

I’ve always known that what I do as an educator is to support these young artists, teach these artists professional development and how to create a sustainable art career, and be a mentor. And I realize in my current capacity, I am still doing that, just in a different way: I’m still supporting other artists, I’m still creating community.

Q: What “new normals” – good or bad – do you see or anticipate coming out of this year?

Working with programming and teaching, I anticipate one of the “new normals” that’s coming out of this year is the hybrid teaching/programming model.  I think that even if we do go back to in-person programming or classes, there will be a component where participants can still access the materials and engage in the programming virtually.  I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon.  The amazing thing about virtual programming is that it does increase accessibility and eliminates certain barriers for artists to participate.  I think we were headed that way, but the pandemic sped the progress of making these accommodations and encouraged innovation in the types of programming one can offer.  Virtual does not replace the in-person interaction opportunities, but I think it will add ways to how artists can connect, share resources, and collaborate in the future.

Q: Has anything in the past year changed your mind on your view of the world?

I can’t begin to share how much I felt shaken to the core this year. With the BLM movement, learning, questioning, and reckoning with my own privilege and positionality. And in addition, gaining new perspectives after leaving academia, and diving head-in into arts administration and arts advocacy.

I can’t begin to share how much I felt shaken to the core this year. With the BLM movement, learning, questioning, and reckoning with my own privileged and positionality.

Q: As we look for hope in the New Year, where do you see opportunities to rebuild society’s systems better?

Recently I met Carson Elrod with the Be an Arts Hero Initiative, and he really drove the point through in the VALUE of arts workers in this country.  As a nation, and as individual artists, we do not place value in the creative class, we do not recognize the contribution of arts and culture to the economy.  As an artist, we don’t even know how to advocate for ourselves, being conditioned in a society that turns a blind eye on arts and culture workers.

Taken off the Be an Arts Hero website: “The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that Arts & Culture accounts for $877,809,406,086 and 4.5% of the U.S. economy, contributing 5,107,889 jobs,” and “Arts & Culture add 5X more value to the GDP than agriculture, $87B more than construction, and $265B more than transportation.”

The arts need representation on Capitol Hill, we need to recognize the value of arts and culture in our economy and provide funding and relief support to arts workers and the creative industry.

Fundamentally, we need to change the way artists and arts workers think of ourselves. In professional development programs, as we work with artists individually, we not only have to teach artists to recognize the value in the work they do, but also have the tools to advocate for themselves and have a seat at the table, beyond their studios.

That’s where my head is at right now. And of course, this is the time to dream big. So much has been turned on its head this year, from racial reckoning to the climate crisis… this is time to dream and envision a better future.

Explore other 2020 Uncommon Voice Q&As