Atlanta-based painter explores her Asian American identity in abstract art

You can see Christina Kwan’s unique work around the city
Artist Christina Kwan works on a new painting in her Midtown Atlanta studio. She has recently been experimenting with art that goes beyond canvas.

Artist Christina Kwan works on a new painting in her Midtown Atlanta studio. She has recently been experimenting with art that goes beyond canvas.

Blues, greens, yellows and reds clash and blend in a small art studio in the Promenade Tower in Midtown.

Christina Kwan, depending on her instinct, violently splatters or delicately brushes paper, canvas and wall with paint.

The Atlanta-based artist turned her passion into a full-time job in 2021 and has been painting for most of her life. Kwan said her paintings explore her East Asian heritage, and she has always struggled to combine her Asian and American cultures in art.

Working in abstraction has forced Kwan to not overthink her multiple identities, she said. It has instead allowed her to explore what it means to be Asian American, a mother and a woman living in the United States without the pressure of fitting into certain artistic styles.

“I always feel like I’m breaking apart and coming together at the same time, and I want my paintings to feel that way, too,” Kwan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview at her studio.

Kwan’s earliest memories are of being a skilled artist in elementary school in South Florida. She said her work would often be used as an example in class and was displayed in the hallways. She said she doesn’t recall a time during her childhood when she didn’t want to eventually become an artist.

Her parents, who are immigrants from China and Vietnam, wanted her to be a doctor and did not approve of her art dreams. She explained that she often butted heads with them when it came to her passion, but admits they just didn’t want anything to hinder her ability of having a better life than they did before coming to the U.S.

In an act of rebellion, Kwan chose to major in drawing at the University of Florida.

Christina Kwan displays her art work at Cat Eye Creative near downtown Atlanta and sells originals and prints online.

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Growing up, Kwan said her parents never spoke Chinese or Vietnamese at home, and she has never visited either country. She said she struggles to identify as Asian due to her disconnect from her parents’ heritage and as American due to her physical appearance and learned cultural practices.

Now as a mother herself, she said she is not making an effort to connect with her parents’ background, and is instead utilizing her art to explore and create her own definition of what it means to be Asian American.

“Sometimes (my art) is about being Asian and sometimes it’s about being a mother and sometimes it’s about just being someone who lives in the United States,” Kwan said. “There’s just all these identities and thoughts and feelings that I have all at once, and I think we all have all at once, and it feels too much to contain. So sometimes I’m just like, ‘Well, I’m gonna spill it all on paper or spill it all over the wall.’”

After graduating in 2010, she found herself in several different jobs, including curating and selling artwork at galleries, retail and marketing. It was her marketing work for Whiskey Bird, the Asian American fusion restaurant in Atlanta, that landed one of her first murals in the city in 2019.

Owner Anthony Vipond said Kwan pitched herself to the restaurant after coming in a few times to dine — and he trusted her vision. That eventually turned into a mural in the indoor dining room and patio, and another one featuring several artists on the front of the building. The indoor mural, the first Kwan finished, incorporates bold calligraphic brushstrokes of blues and greens that seem to simulate leaves.

Vipond said he did not provide Kwan with any guidelines, allowing her to reinvent the dining room as she saw fit.

“When you allow artists to do what they’re really good at and give them that freedom, I think you always get the best results,” Vipond said, adding that ”what’s been the most amazing thing to me is her ability to transform spaces with her art in a kind of a very subtle way and then also through various painting applications.”

Christina Kwan's brushstrokes sometimes require a full range of motion and other times they are a simple flick of the wrist.

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Since then, Kwan expressed a strong ardor for painting murals, though she said paper remains her “first love.” She has recently been combining mural and canvas, allowing her artwork to expand beyond the bounds of a canvas and flow freely. This new exploration is the reason she found herself working within the abstract in the first place.

Most of Kwan’s work is instinctual, but since becoming a mother, she said she has questioned herself less and less. A lack of alone time is just one of the reasons Kwan performs a brushstroke without hesitation. She thinks her paintings have become more assertive in the past few months.

Being confident in her work has also opened the door to experimenting with different paints, including ink made from firearms. Kwan explained that she recently bought the ink made by artist Thomas Little, who buys handguns and dissolves the iron-heavy parts in acid to form iron sulfate. She said the ink, which can appear as a deep black or brown like coffee stains, has allowed her to explore what it means to be a mother concerned about gun violence in the U.S.

“I guess working in abstraction feels freeing in a way because it doesn’t have those defined touch points or references as in, it can be one thing or the other. It can be whatever you feel, or whatever you see in it. … I think it just helps me process and also helps me to see that there can be beauty in that chaos,” Kwan said.

Even with abstraction being so open to interpretation, Kwan described being an artist as constantly having to walk onto a stage and allowing others to make an assessment of how much you’re worth. She said it can be a humbling experience. And when your work tends to explore your own Asian American identity, Kwan said it can be difficult to accept that not everyone will enjoy your craft.

Christina Kwan switches between working with vibrant and neutral colors in order to find balance in her artwork.

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Nicole Kang, an Asian American artist and creative manager with the Asian American Advocacy Fund, said it feels like you’re watching a dance when Kwan paints. The two met in 2016 and worked together on the outside mural at Whiskey Bird. Kang said they are both attempting to find a sense of wholeness in their dual identity, and art is often the best place to express that.

“Although her images and the paintings are not explicitly Asian, there is a sense of Asian influence in the way she uses her brushes. … it’s kind of like the spirit of it rather than it being explicitly Asian,” Kang said.

And the goal has never been to be explicitly Asian, Kwan explained, but rather to explore those roots and reinvent them to better fit how she perceives herself. The artist explained that she is interested in creating her own traditions and seeing how they translate into her art.