Ones to Watch 2018: artist Jeffrey Cheung
It’s Nice That’s Ones to Watch shines a light on 12 emerging talents who we think will conquer the creative world in 2018. From a global pool of creative talent, we have chosen our 2018 Ones To Watch for their ability to consistently produce inspiring and engaging work across a diverse range of disciplines. Each of our selections continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible with their creative output. Ones to Watch 2018 is supported by Uniqlo.
Creativity can be an isolating pursuit. Not so for Jeffrey Cheung, a socially-motivated artist with a conscience. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in elementary school, like many kids, Jeffrey enjoyed drawing, but it was in high school that his practise developed with the encouragement of the community around him. “I had a group of friends in high school that would always go to figure drawing classes and we became pretty close,” he tells It’s Nice That. “They were very influential to my artwork at that time in my life.”
After a move up the coast to Santa Cruz for university where he studied studio art several years later, Jeffrey found once more that it was his peers, rather than teachers, that had the greatest impact on his work. “I had a pretty great community of artists and friends there which was awesome, but I think I really started to develop my style after graduating,” he muses. “I am very grateful and privileged that I was able to spend time on art in school and had the resources that I had, but I think I really got the most outside of a traditional school setting. I always did mediocre in art classes and never had any teachers that I felt particularly close with. I think my peers and friends have definitely been the most influential on me and are usually my main inspiration.”
After graduating, the artist headed back home to the San Francisco Bay Area where he set about reconnecting with the local artistic community. Working from a print studio at a community college, Jeffrey enrolled in a free printmaking class for queer young artists called Queer Ancestors, led by Katie Gilmartin, a printmaker and former sex researcher and cultural studies professor. “I think being in a creative setting that was queer focused really helped me feel comfortable with who I was and be more free with my work,” says Jeffrey.
“My sexuality and identity was something that I struggled with and I think a lot of folks struggle with at some point. I think through my work I have come to feel more comfortable with who I am and even feel empowered. I think in recent years I have realised how important that is and I’m trying to unlearn toxic societal conventions of gender norms and stereotypes. It’s important that we have that sort of visibility to show others that its okay to be different.”
Enter Unity, the umbrella term for the platform started by Jeffrey and his partner Gabriel. Unity is a sprawling, ever-evolving platform which lives online and in real life. From publishing zines to hosting meet-ups and workshops for queer teens to designing graphics for the underbelly of skateboards, Unity broadly aspires to make skateboarding more inclusive. “Unity queer skateboarding is here to represent and support queer skaters,” the Unity website shouts loud and proud in text that seems scrawled on MS Paint. “You are not alone!!!”
“We actually started Unity as a name for our music project,” Jeffrey says. “It was a two-piece, guitar and drums. He had never played any instruments and I thought it would be something fun for us to do. Unity also became a name that I would write on the back of my own zines, and then eventually grew into a small press. Now it is the name of the skateboarding project. Gabriel came from more of a science background but is very also very talented as a visual artist and community organiser.”
“The name Unity is much more appropriate now than ever and has brought a lot of positivity into my life along with many new friends and a new community I’ve never had before,” Jeffrey continues. “When we first started it, I only knew a handful of other queer skaters and now we have a whole community. Each month we do queer skate meet-ups and there are always new faces and folks just learning how to skate. I think it is making a huge change at least in my immediate skate community, to see how supportive and welcoming everyone is. I am seeing so many LGBTQ+ people skating and learning, it is amazing. When I was a teenager I never thought something like this would happen.”
More of a collective or community than an exclusive team of skaters, many of Unity’s riders have creative endeavours of their own. “There are so many talented people involved with Unity and it is always growing,” Jeffrey says. “Many are also involved with the music, art, zine, LGBTQ+, community. Just a couple of projects that come to mind are Mixed Rice Zines, Sex, Techno Pagan, Evil Twins, Diddley Squat, Not Shit, Shade, Twompsax, Mini…”
Unity recently moved out of Jeffrey’s studio into a new studio and retail space with local radio station Lower Grand Radio into the upstairs space of a bookstore in downtown Oakland. “Lower Grand Radio is a community-based online streaming platform with eclectic programming, and are good friends of ours who we have often collaborated with throughout the years,” Jeffrey explains. “It will be a multi-functional space that will hopefully be a safe and creative space, especially for queer/POC folks. We hope to have zine and printing workshops and other events here soon.”
In the Bay Area, as is the case throughout many creative cities, space is at a premium as rents sky-rocket and marginalised people are pushed further and further to the fringes of existence. “I think queer representation, visibility, resources, and space is very important and I think we are trying to provide those things,” Jeffrey comments. “In the past a lot of these issues were not often shown or talked about in the mainstream and makes LGBTQ+ folks, especially youth, feel more isolated and alienated. Seeing queer representation in art and in life is very empowering and is very impactful.”
And Jeffrey’s quest for Unity doesn’t stop in Oakland: Gabriel and Jeffrey have plans to bring Unity across the world to Paris for the Queer Art Book fair in March, where Unity will be hosting a queer skate meet up for the city’s locals. “We hope to do more queer skate days in different cities this year,” Jeffrey notes. Never one to halt his ambition, 2018 will also see Jeffrey’s first solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary in June. Watch this space.