Glowing With the Flow: A Conversation with Jocelyn Tsaih
Jocelyn Tsaih is a self described “art human” who works in animation, design and painting. Her illustration clients include Apple and The New York Times, and the distinction between her commercial and personal work is softly blurred, like the outlines of her signature figures. No matter the platform, her subjects radiate an undeniably personal essence.
Kristin Farr: Tell us about how moving to California affected your work.
Jocelyn Tsaih: On the surface, my work seems to have shifted because I started utilizing more colors and exploring symbols of nature, like flowers, which have been inspired by my surroundings in California. Digging deeper, I think the changes in my work have come about because I forced myself to experience a big move and pushed myself out of my comfort zone. California is pretty different from what I’m used to—the nature, the people, and the slower pace of life. Adapting to a new lifestyle has put me through a lot of identity crises and, inevitably, crises with my work as well. This might sound like a negative thing, but I’m really grateful for having gone through it. I’ve gotten the chance to lead my work into all sorts of directions, and I think this exploration has been crucial for my work to eventually settle into a more authentic place.
Where else have you lived, and how have those places influenced you?
I’m originally from Taipei, but shortly after I was born, I moved to Shanghai with my family. After living in Shanghai until I was 18, I moved to New York to attend SVA. Having lived in these places surrounded by various cultures, I feel like I’m constantly reflecting on where I really belong. I think a lot of us “third culture kids” have this issue of feeling like we’re not fully part of one thing or the other. I believe this is why I put so much of my personal self into my work—it’s a world that I’ve crafted, feel comfortable in, and can fully own. I also think it could potentially be a survival tactic. Since my definition of home is constantly shifting, it helps to feel like I have a grounded sense of self, which I try to achieve through building this world within my work.
Your figures seem like representations of souls. How do they support your vision?
The figures are meant to embody the core spirit of us as beings, so they are very much like souls. When I first started drawing the figure, it was a depiction of my own soul, but after learning that so much of what I was sharing resonated with others, I realized how some of our deepest and most personal vulnerabilities, struggles, and joys, are actually very universal. Through the depiction of these figures, I hope we’re able to understand ourselves and others a little bit better; hopefully fostering more empathy and compassion.
What’s an ideal illustration assignment?
I love assignments that invite me to visualize abstract or emotional concepts. To me, these types of projects are like drawing challenges. I have a lot of fun working through them and trying my best to bring them to life.
Tell me about your impactful Save Our Chinatowns project.
I started Save Our Chinatowns at the beginning of the pandemic when I learned that Chinatowns all over the United States were suffering from huge losses due to racially motivated fears related to Covid. Some organizations had been popping up to help out New York Chinatown, so I decided to start a fundraiser for San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns. Slowly, the initiative morphed to help out other AAPI-owned small businesses, as well as AAPI artists. SOC is now known as Cut Fruit Collective, and while I’m no longer on the core team, it’s been really amazing to see what they have accomplished and how they have continued to support the AAPI community within the Bay Area.
You seem to communicate care through your work by sharing personal stories on Instagram.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen a lot more creatives share vulnerable tidbits about their lives and communities on social media platforms like IG. Reading and learning about some of the things they’ve shared has helped me feel less alone, especially in a time of extreme isolation. Simultaneously, this has helped me confront my own vulnerabilities and feelings. Being honest with myself and letting myself go through all the ups and downs in this way has helped me become more self-aware in and out of my work. I think I’ve been intentionally pushing myself to share more things, both on IG and within my work, that might’ve scared me to share in the past.
Tell me about the process of noise reduction in your work. You seem to concentrate on essential feelings.
I’m really glad that this comes through in my work! I definitely try to reduce the noise in my work so that whatever illustration or painting I’m making can most accurately portray the main idea or essential feeling I’m trying to achieve. I think this is something that’s stuck with me from my graphic design days, where I learned that communicating an idea clearly is key. I do think that creating an illustration or painting is slightly different though, because even if I think I’m communicating an idea clearly, the final result can always be interpreted differently. I like the openness of this process and how it can help the final form take on new meanings.
I like your newest paintings with the neon glow. Tell me about those.
Those paintings were made for my solo show, Nowhere Else To Go But Within, which was up at Glass Rice gallery last summer. I wanted to move away from painting flat and try adding more dimension. I decided to paint all the backgrounds black and have the figures and supporting symbols become the focus. In a way, the decision to use black was to evoke a sense of darkness and create the feeling of void. I limited my color palette to mostly white, blue, green, purple, and red. Against the black backgrounds, these colors seemed to have a neon-like glow to them. I liked this effect because there was the juxtaposition of darkness vs. light, which helped emphasize how I was feeling.
What is some memorable feedback you’ve received?
Someone described the paintings from my solo show by saying that the “figures seem melancholic yet at peace.” I found that to be really interesting because I hadn’t consciously tried to make the figures seem at peace at all, but it helped me view my own work in a different way.
What else have you been working on this year, and what’s coming up next?
I’ve been doing a bit of animation work this year, which is something I haven’t done in a while. I’m currently in Oaxaca City, Mexico, about to begin a three-week artist residency. I’m not sure what I’ll be making, but I’m just excited to give myself the space and time to be immersed in a new environment and see where that takes me.
Enjoy! Last question: What do you love about eggs?
I’ve always been obsessed with eating eggs. They are the most versatile food. But besides loving to eat eggs, I also really love the shapes and forms they exist in. They are simple, delicate, and perfectly balanced. Maybe this is why I also love drawing eggs. So I guess I love to eat, admire, and draw eggs.