Cha’s exuberant paintings are inspired by food, mixed heritage and retro kids TV sets
After stints at Headspace and B-Reel, the Korean-American designer and artist decided to get back to her core creative passion, via an artist residency in Japan – and the results are pure joy.
- Jenny Brewer
- 7 June 2021
Korean-American artist Cha started out as an illustrator after school, but “slowly veered away from it” for a decade, she says, and has recently returned to her creative roots. Born in Canada, she grew up in a “small, slow town” in Delaware, US, before moving to LA to work at agencies and tech companies such as B-Reel and Headspace – the latter as senior product designer. Though this was a great career, Cha tells It’s Nice That, she felt she “went too far into the opposite direction,” from her core passion. “I started to really miss working with my hands, and decided to paint and draw for myself again.” The paintings she made “felt innocent and playful,” she adds, and free of any pressure or brief. “I would paint small funny observations, things that make me smile, paint rocks and leave them around.” Soon she wondered if she “could do this longer than just on weekends”, bravely quit her job, and upped sticks to Japan to undertake an artist residency at Shiro Oni Studio. “I feel like this was a really important step,” she comments, “because it sparked this craving for a cultural connection. And now I’m still exploring what that connection means to me through my pieces”.
As such, her paintings are deeply personal, filled with observations and stories about Asian American life, Korean culture, and her own heritage and childhood. “I feel like my current work is very much about celebrating my culture, so I do this for myself,” Cha says. “I’m not trying to explore the Korean experience or the American experience. I come from a perspective of someone who doesn’t fully belong in neither here nor there. My hope is that people who view my works find comfort in being in the middle.”
Cha’s paintings are eye-poppingly vibrant, featuring bold yet soft-edged forms filled with vivid solid block colour, and the odd glistening droplet of water for added juiciness. Choosing colour is “probably the most time-consuming part of my process,” she says, because it’s an important factor in bringing these stories and memories to life. “I’ve always gravitated toward bright, complementing colours, but what I hope to achieve with my colour choices is to show the energy and joy that I imagine that each of these moments have,” Cha says. “I feel colours emote different emotions, so I get pretty obsessive and it takes me days or weeks to decide what feels right.” One of the major colour inspirations she cites is the TV sets for retro kids shows, particularly the Korean and Japanese ones she grew up watching – usually “bright, playful and happy,” tones which often pop up in her paintings. She also cites the work of Yoshitomo Nara as influential, and Mitsuki Kawaii – “Her work makes me feel so happy, like a giant hug” – plus “every Sanrio character” and their “enlarged, glistening eyes”.
Some of her recent works have looked to depict the Korean diaspora experience: her grandparents’ tale of moving to the US and what they left behind, and her life now in Koreatown, LA. Where small-town life didn’t provide many avenues for connecting the two, living in LA has been “eye-opening… and also DELICIOUS,” she says. Cha adds she finds a lot of inspiration in food and food packaging – one piece she made recently for the Communitea fundraiser shows mouth-watering Korean pears nestled in polystyrene packaging, and is about “how a plate of cut fruit and a Korean drama would always bring the family together”. Another titled Eggplant shows some delectable fried eggs on tree tops underneath a red sun. “I love food… but different interpretations of food. Drawn food, sculptures of food, food that looks like other foods, food that looks too tiny, or too big. I love Japanese vignettes of food in anime. It brings me a lot of joy,” she laughs. She also loves the work of Claes Oldenburg – “how can you not enjoy a giant leather hamburger”.
Another titled Bathhouse is based on Cha’s first experience of a Korean bathhouse aged 12. “It was the first time I’d seen SO many naked bodies, but specifically Asian women’s bodies! I was very shy, and remember nervously following my mom. But I think this is where I started to learn to feel comfortable in my own skin because everyone else was.” Yu is a tribute to her grandmother, a “calming” piece to give the subject a “moment of rest”. While Gosaeng is Cha’s most solemn piece yet, in response to the Atlanta shootings and rise in anti-Asian hate crime, and also inspired by her grandmother’s immigration story: “needing to be our rock while having no time to shed any tears,” Cha says. Gosaeng translates as struggle or hard work. Finally, a painting titled Hanbok is one of a number of portrayals of Korean women, herein wearing a traditional braid and dress, and “celebrating my reconnection to my heritage… a representation of the joy that I feel in my culture,” Cha concludes. “I hope that it shows how vibrant and alive it is!”
GalleryAll images copyright © Cha, 2021
Cha: Eggplant (Copyright © Cha, 2021)
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Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.