New Jersey-native Caren King Choi is a visual artist of Chinese-Taiwanese descent and the mother of two young children. Her solo exhibition "Drawn In" – on view through April 1, 2022 at Gallery Aferro in Newark – showcases two different bodies of work. Meticulously crafted from thousands of tiny stickers, Choi’s Red Portraits depict friends and family members, mostly children. Meanwhile, her playful Mom Doodles illustrate the ups and downs of parenthood.
We recently spoke with Choi to learn more about her art and her life.
How would you describe your creative practice?
Honestly, my creative practice is kind of… everywhere. I am inspired by things that I see or my life experiences. My most recent body of work is the Mom Doodles, because parenting is what's going on in my head and my life.
Now, with a one-year-old and three-year-old, I rarely have time to sit down, even for quick doodles. So, I try to incorporate self-expression into anything that I'm doing – I do crazy hairstyles on my daughter, snow sculptures, or anything that is part of my life already where I can inject a bit of extra thought, fun, or creativity.
Caren King Choi's Mom Doodles illustrate the ups and downs of parenthood. Photo of artwork by Rachel Fawn Alban.
How did your solo exhibition at Gallery Aferro come to be?
I was invited to exhibit just a few months prior. I had no time to make new work, so I considered the space and how to represent my art practice right now. The Red Portraits are art-space friendly, and what I am best known for. Meanwhile, the Mom Doodles are quick, fast, easy – and represent something that's true about my life.
So, I decided to show these two bodies of work that might not make sense together, but are reflective of my practices, my mind, and my life. I can be very minute, focused, and serious. I can also be very loose and quick, fast, and humorous.
I'm still kind of gobsmacked about it. Who gets this kind of opportunity, especially a stay-at-home mom? Aferro engages the whole community, not necessarily just art people. I can show people that art doesn't have to be aloof or hard to figure out. Sometimes art can just be a doodle of breast feeding.
Tell us more about your Mom Doodles.
I started them in 2018 when I became a full-time mom. I'm making art that is important to me, and I can represent honestly where I am right now. I can churn them out and I make zines and books.
When did you start creating Red Portraits and how long does each one take?
I started the very first one in 2006. Then, there was a long hiatus. Eventually, I started it up again, probably around 2012. My process is slow, and each Red Portrait takes a lot of time, so I don't have that many of them. Each one takes between 40 - 140 hours, depending on how complex it is, how big it is, how many faces there are.
It's a lot of stop and go when you're working on the Red Portraits, right?
Absolutely. Even before I had kids it was stop and go, because I was never able to sit in the studio for 20+ hours at a time. I would do an hour here, 3 hours there if I was lucky. More recently with the kids, I am lucky if I have 30 minutes to work on art.
That kind of sustained, focused attention on such tiny details must be physically challenging.
Yes. I’ve worked out different methods. The first one I did on the floor, but I was in my early 20s at that time. Eventually, my husband built me a drafting table. That was great until I started going bigger – even on the drafting table is it's too hard to move around the big pieces. I move up, down, and sideways. So, for the large pieces, working on the wall is nice. Keeping materials organized is challenging. Figuring out where to put my stickers and pencils while I work… it ends up being a bit of a mess.
Caren King Choi's Red Portraits are crafted from thousands of tiny stickers. Photo of artwork by Rachel Fawn Alban.
What is the biggest challenge for you as an artist?
The biggest challenge for me is balancing what I want to make versus what other people want to see. For some reason, lots of people who aren't artists – or even consumers of art – tend to have a lot of opinions on how I should proceed with my work. Regarding the Red Portraits, people offer suggestions like, “You should make little ones so that you can sell them,” or “You should do different colors.” I do consider feedback and try to take suggestions seriously, at least to test and see if the idea makes sense in my mind.
Sometimes what I want to do is not interesting or appealing to other people, so I need to work that out and decide for myself. I also get a lot of people asking for commissions or pet portraits. No, I don't want to spend this many hours looking at your dog.
People also make suggestions about my Mom Doodles. They will tell me about certain situations that they've been in and want me to doodle what happened to them. Sometimes their ideas connect with me and what I feel is right or true for my work - but not always.
Close up of one of Caren King Choi's Red Portraits. Photo of artwork by Rachel Fawn Alban.
Artists often make decisions around who they create for – if it’s for the art market or a niche audience or for themselves. Who do you create for?
For me and for my family.
I always need to balance between the practical and then the aspirational. Practically speaking, it didn't make sense for me to make a Red Portrait measuring 33” x 44”, which is enormous for this medium. So, when I made “Mount Rushmore,” I knew I wouldn't be able to afford to frame it, and I have nowhere to store it. I'm always balancing that that aspect of artmaking – the work I want to make versus where it's going to go afterward. I consider if I am OK with it sitting in my house if nobody wants to buy it. Is it something that I can store? Is it something that I still want to look at afterwards? You never really know. You just need to create and let the work have its own life afterward.
I also need to accept that “Mount Rushmore” probably won't be sold, because it's hard for a collector to deal with something that size. Also, it is expensive due to the amount of time and labor that went into it. But the compulsion to create was so strong that I decided to make it and then see what happens with it later. Sometimes I can take big steps of faith.
Pick one of your Red Portraits and talk us through your process of creating.
Stella is one of my nieces. She's got lots of hair, and flyaway hairs falling over her face. She's got kind of got a toothy grin. This is probably the only Red Portrait where I took the source photo. I only pick photos that I love, and I need them to have a certain kind of energy to them.
I was trying to get Stella to pose looking off into the distance because I had in mind a specific Communist propaganda poster. I got this shot in between posed shots, where she was feeling awkward, goofy, and had that funny little smile. I'm not the best photographer, but that's why the accidents are the best ones. I love this photo, partially because her hair is crazy and because of her expression. She’s happy but also self-conscious.
Niece (Stella), china marker, graphite, and stickers on paper, 28×22. Photo courtesy of the artist, Caren King.
I start by gridding out my source image, marking the X and Y axis with letters or numbers so I can reference specific points in the space. Then I recreate that grid on a piece of paper so that I can work square by square. That gives me the freedom to move around. I don’t have to go in a logical order in the same way as when I draw - like working from the head to the neck. With a grid, I can move from working on the background to a tooth to a shirt, to a hair. However, I do usually go somewhat consecutively, I don't like jumping around like that.
Usually, I just pick a corner and then I start going square by square. Next, I color white label stickers with a red grease pencil – which is also called a china marker. A darkly shaded sticker might be a 14 out of 15 – 15 measures the hardest that I can go with very few white spots. A pale red sticker might be mostly white.
I treat each square as an abstract and focus on creating line and shape. I can’t think about whether it is a tooth or a nostril or a strand of hair. I have to, kind of, change my mentality when I am doing this to not make it too complicated. I just think, “OK, I have to make this shape light and it gets darker.” Every detail becomes completely abstracted on this tiny little scale.
?Images in header include: Caren King Choi with her work “Mount Rushmore” at Gallery Aferrro; an installation view of Choi's Red Portraits; and artwork in Choi's Mom Doodles. Photos by Rachel Fawn Alban.