Contemporary art punctuates the coastal landscape for weekend surfers and year-round citizens at Rockaway Beach, where Brooklyn-based painter, sculptor, and installation artist Julia Chiang just unveiled two new murals in collaboration with the close-knit Queens neighborhood. Although her husband, KAWS, got his start creating on New York streets, these two murals mark Chiang’s public art debut.
Commissioned by the Rockaway Hotel and Spa, the project was completed with help from Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy and local residents, who were invited to respond to examples of Chiang’s work with their own drawings. Chiang continued the conversation by pulling inspiration from crowd-sourced sketches, incorporating their colors, textures, and patterns into her plan.
Purple, a favored hue on the artist’s palette, anchors her work at the Rockaway Sea Girt Residencies, where volunteers chipped in on July 21, a community paint day. Irregular geometric shapes, softer pastel hues, and stippling on Chiang’s mural belie another critical part of her practice: listening, receptivity, an equal in and out flow.
We caught up with the artist in her studio to learn about what life is like after making the seaside her workspace.
Can you send us a snap of the most indispensable item in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?
I have a lucky hammer. It’s been with me since my first artist in residency in 2000 and I’ve never broken anything with it and I’ve nailed hundreds of ceramics into walls with it. I bring it with me when I have tricky installs and it feels good just having it around.
What is a studio task on your agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?
Finishing and sending off two new paintings to the Modern Institute for Frieze Seoul.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I rotate between podcasts, audio books, news, and music. With two little kids, I don’t get much time to read now, so listening has become more important. Listening also helps me turn off my inner noise and chatter.
Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
I try not to fall into the vortex too much, because there are too many favorite friends and artists. A few always on my daily check in are Apex for Youth, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Kimberly Drew, Matthew Higgs, Shannon Watts, Robert Reich, Jerry Saltz, Shaun King, Shaniqwa Jarvis, and Amanda Nguyen.
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?
I just make something, anything. Usually something for my kids. Keeping my hands busy usually helps work it out.
What images or objects do you look at while you work?
When I’m working, I’m pretty focused on what’s right in front of me. Outside my window I’m lucky there is a tree and I love watching it change.
What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you and why?
Guadalupe Maravilla at the Brooklyn Museum. It really connected in a very physical way with me. The sounds and objects have stuck with me, and the voice of my daughter telling me she wishes she could lay inside of it to be part of it.
What made you choose this particular studio over others?
I’ve had my studio for almost 20 years. Back then, I was looking for a place I could live and work and set up a small kiln and this place allowed it all.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Light, love, and time.
What was it like to make the world your studio, completing your first-ever public murals just recently?
The mural was made mainly on site at the Rockaway Hotel with kids and families from the community. We extended the workshop to neighborhood schools and seven schools participated in sending artwork inspired by my work. I asked kids to think about their mark, how their lines and strokes are a part of them and no matter how they make what they make, it is unique to them. I collaged the colors ad textures and shapes they made with mine and that’s what lives on the hotel facade now.
The other mural in Far Rockaway was taken from an existing painting of mine thinking of how the community could physically come together to paint it without being on ladders and scaffold. It was so great to paint with people who didn’t necessarily know how the mural came to be, but were curious to be involved. To be with people excited to be a part of making something for their neighborhood, painting with them and my kids, having conversations on what they think art is and isn’t, it was awesome.
What was it like to collaborate with the Rockaway community while working on these murals?
I loved it so much. I’m honored to have been invited to make something that will live there and I hope the people who pass them feel connected in some way too. They made it happen!
How has your relationship with Rockaway beach grown as the summers have progressed?
Rockaway has always been a close escape. I started going there in the mid-’90s with friends of mine that surfed and it’s been interesting to see how things have changed and stayed the same out there. So many people surf now! I can’t say I’m a regular, but I love it every time I get out there.
Any more public art adventures planned for the future?
Not as of now, but I hope so!