New York based artist Jocelyn Tsaih is tuned-in to what it means to be human. By observing human nature, in all its forms, she's able to to successfully translate the subtleties of human behavior visually into her work. Simple and effective, Tsaih’s playful illustrations strike an immediate and recognizable chord. Although her figures may be faceless and lack human elements, they display authentic ethos and incite the viewer to impart their own feelings and interpretations. We recently swung by her studio in Chinatown NYC to peep her new work and talk about what it means to be human, flesh through ideas of dual cultural identity and of course her favorite topic, eggs.
Jessica Ross: You’ve mentioned in the past that the majority of your process is taking the time for an idea to marinate and evolve in your head before translating it to paper. What ideas are you kicking around right now?
Jocelyn Tsaih: Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now is the dichotomy of the cultures that I identify with and how to translate that into my work. Some of my work already deals with identity and self-reflection, but I’d like to push those ideas further by being more specific to the concept of culture. As a Taiwanese-American raised in Shanghai, I want to explore how communication differs from culture to culture within my own work. To a certain extent, I’ve felt like a foreigner in both Shanghai and New York. During my 16 years in Shanghai, I grew up in a Westernized community. I didn’t really think about it much at the time, but looking back, I realize I was very detached from the local community and lifestyle. I thought I identified with American culture more, but once I started living here I noticed that there are many aspects of American culture that I don’t relate to either because I didn’t grow up here. Having lived in New York for a while now, I’ve met many others who have their own stories about cultural shifts. It’s been really insightful to learn about everyone’s backgrounds. The idea of how different cultures can affect the way we see and understand things is something I’m working on learning more about. I hope I can find a way to convey it through my work.
What is it about human nature that keeps bringing you back? Is making this work necessary to understanding your own feelings as a person?
Human nature is really fascinating to me. I like being able to analyze how we are so similar to each other yet so different as individuals, especially in our behaviors and reactions to things. I’m interested in how people from different cultures have varying perceptions of universal concepts such as human nature. Making the work that I make is definitely a way for me to process my thoughts on what I’ve observed about others and about myself. A lot of my work is a direct reflection of my own reactions to the things I’ve observed around me. If I stop making work for a while, it feels like my thoughts are completely muddled. It’s hard to grasp how I feel exactly without translating it into a drawing first.
You've been dipping your toes into experimenting with color, how does it feel to break the ranks of black and white? How does it alter your process and do you think you’ll continue to try out new palettes?
I think at one point I thought that I could be content with just black and white, but naturally I became curious and had to go back on my own word to play around with color. Right now I’m mostly experimenting with primary colors. I like how vibrant they are and the different types of energy they add to my illustrations. It's amazing that adding just one color can completely change the mood of an illustration. On the other hand, once I started to use color I think I became easily distracted and ended up focusing more on the aesthetics of a piece rather than the concept. I can become a bit too caught up in whether something looks “pretty”. When it comes to my personal work, I’d prefer if the concept of the work outweighs the aesthetic. Now that I'm more aware of how using color affects my process, I’m thinking I'll try to limit myself to one or two colors in each drawing so that it acts as another layer on top of black and white. I'm open to experimenting with different palettes, but I’ll just have to be more conscious of their purpose.
I ask this question a lot but I think it’s a good one. What do you listen to (music, podcasts, street noise) while you work? It’s fascinating to hear artists’ responses, some real surprises.
I listen to a lot of house, techno, and electronic music in general. I prefer to listen to rhythmic, repetitive music without words because I'm horrible at multitasking. I have to have full concentration on what I'm doing or else it's all over. Sometimes I prefer silence too because it helps me have the most clarity.
I know you’re moving to San Francisco soon (congrats by the way!) but how has it been to live in Chinatown in NYC? Being raised in Shanghai do you feel like it’s a bit of home for you?
Thank you! I'm really excited about the move but it's been pretty surreal to live in Chinatown in NY. I’m clearly biased but Chinatown is my favorite neighborhood in Manhattan. In some ways it really reminds me of Shanghai but in other ways it feels completely unique. Seeing familiar scenarios like the elderly exercising together in the park makes me really nostalgic. It’s so cute! I see that all the time in Shanghai too. But Chinatown is also its own thing and there’s tons of stuff that goes on here that feels very separate from my experience in Shanghai. It’s been fun to notice the differences between the two. I really want to start photographing the sights and scenarios in both places to see if I can even distinguish the differences. I’ll try to do that before I move away. I’m going to miss living here!
I love eggs, you love eggs, we all love eggs. What is it about them that just makes you so incredibly excited? Enough to start an entire eggif blog?!
I love that everyone loves eggs. I’m honestly impressed that a simple food could become such a huge trend. I’m obviously guilty of feeding and buying into the trend, but I really just want to celebrate the simplicity of eggs and the simplicity of my love for eggs. It started out as a fun challenge to see how ridiculously I could express my obsession for eggs. Eventually I kept coming up with new ideas so I created a whole series of GIFs and put it in a blog. I’m pretty sure I’ll never stop loving eggs so I plan on creating more and more eggifs as long as I can come up with more ideas.
Looking at your work, you seem very in-tune and self aware. Do you think making these illustrations have helped you gain insight or psychological acumen?
Some days I really feel in-tune with myself and some days I feel completely off without really knowing why. Meaning I try my best to be self-aware, but that doesn’t always mean I’m clear on how I’m feeling. I hate that - I hate not knowing why I feel a certain way or why I react a certain way to something. It makes me feel like I’m not in control of myself. I think making these illustrations is, in a way, how I attempt to “take control” of the unknown bits and pieces that I haven’t quite figured out. It helps me work through my tangled thoughts and try to see myself objectively, as weird and impossible as that sounds. Even if I can’t have a completely omniscient view of myself, illustrating my thoughts also helps me understand others better. I’m hoping by gaining more insight intrinsically that I can better understand more about human nature.
What would you say has been a recent high point in your career? Feel free to share any low points too if ya like, no pressure!
It’s been a really fun year with multiple mural projects around the world. I’ve been working on the Art & Graphics team at WeWork and had the chance to design and paint murals in Hong Kong, Seattle, and Seoul. I also had a collaboration with Tictail back in the summer where I designed a mural that was installed in the Lower East Side in New York. We had a group show event to celebrate the mural and the idea of “Body Language.” The feeling of seeing my work in physical spaces and on the street in my neighborhood is really rewarding! I feel really lucky to have had all these opportunities this year.
What do you have coming up that we can keep an eye out for? Where can we follow you?!
I’m working on a fun collab with a friend for the holidays and I’m going to be selling some new stuff at a market during the time of Chinese New Year. I’ve also just started to experiment with ceramics so hopefully I can showcase those pieces at some point. You can follow me on Instagram @jocelyntsaih, that’s where I post most of my updates!
See more of Jocelyn's work here: www.jocelyntsaih.com
Interview and photos by Jessica Ross.