There’s more than one clear link between Jocelyn Tsaih’s works for clients (Apple, The New York Times, W+K), and her murals and paintings, but the obvious one is her charismatic amorphous figures. Prancing, lounging, quietly pondering, the character pops up in all of the illustrator’s work in various forms, a universal, genderless every-being to bring personality to any scenario. But look closer and there’s other consistencies across her portfolio: a distinctly calm atmosphere and softness that is just lovely to look at.
Born in Taipei but raised, for the most part, in Shanghai, Jocelyn tells It’s Nice That she went to a very traditional, academic school that didn’t really value the arts as a legitimate career choice (sounds familiar…) “I had always been very interested in art but the way that art was viewed by my immediate community made me really conflicted about considering it seriously for my future.” Luckily her parents supported her to pursue her passion, and she landed a place at the School of Visual Arts in New York where she studied graphic design. Then, after seven years in New York, she moved to her current hometown of Oakland, California.
It was at SVA that Jocelyn’s idiosyncratic character first turned up in her sketchbook, a vent for her illustration flair while studying graphics. “While I really enjoyed design, I felt there were too many rules and limitations for my liking. I needed a separate outlet that provided more freedom, so I started drawing on my own time.” Ironically, she says, her design education still influences how she draws her figures, in the way she restricts them to a self-imposed set of visual guidelines. They began in pen and paper, then became digitally painted, and finally jumped off the page into murals, paintings and, this year, 3D figures.
As a whole, Jocelyn’s artworks stand out for their simple compositions; “I like the boldness and clarity of only having a few elements within an image,” she says. But this simplicity is a result of lots of rumination. She certainly isn’t one of those artists who thinks through sketching. Rather she takes a long time to “marinate” an idea in her head before putting anything on paper. “Sometimes these ideas come from intense feelings or experiences that are hard to articulate, so I want to make sure I really consider how to translate it into visual imagery instead of rushing through it.” When she’s ready, she does rough sketches until she’s “captured the spirit” of her topic – something that often takes longer than the final execution. “The important part for me is making sure I’m simplifying an idea down to its very core in a visually effective way.”
The past two months has seen her take a break from client work to focus on a series of paintings for her debut solo show, Nowhere Else To Go But Within, at Glass Rice gallery in San Francisco (until 28 August). As the title alludes, the series expresses the range of emotions many of us felt over the pandemic, using her trusty amorphous characters to personify these feelings in a way we can all empathise with. Jocelyn describes the paintings as the result of an “extended period of physical stillness and simultaneous emotional commotion,” confronting “the discomfort of sitting within her own vulnerabilities, sadness, and softness,” as well as a document of our personal and collective grief.
The first half of the series is melancholic, depicting blue figures on black backdrops, created when Jocelyn “first began to examine what was laying beneath the surface”. Feeling isolated and having vivid dreams about missed loved ones, she used these paintings as catharsis, “fumbling through the darkness and creating space to make sense of it all”. The second half, though, is more hopeful, reflecting a shift in her outlook through the figures, flowers, butterflies and water droplets painted in bright hues of orange, purple and green. “There’s a glowing energy that feels uplifting rather than the grounding weight of the blue,” she describes.
The duality of the visuals tells its own story, Jocelyn says. “They acknowledge that this more hopeful point in time could not have been reached without the clarity obtained from the darker moments.” Showing both sides, Jocelyn concludes, authentically expresses her experience of “embracing the hard bits with the good bits”.
Jocelyn Tsaih: Forced to Grow (Copyright © Jocelyn Tsaih, 2021)