By Anya Shukla
Taylor Wang’s Instagram, @yingshiart, features finely-detailed oil paintings, hyper-realistic digital art, and celebrity-related fanart as I’ve never seen it before. I spent a minute staring at a portrait of Billie Eilish—side-eying the viewer like she couldn’t care less—which manages to capture the pop star’s world-wearying languor. Wang’s best work—and this is oddly specific—gives me the sense that I’m lying on a small town road at two in the morning a la The Notebook. There’s a sense of peaceful isolation about each painting, regardless of whether there are one or multiple subjects in the frame.
One of Wang’s Instagram captions reads: “… not sure why I’m uncomfortable with ppl I know from school following my art acc but I am.” This moment of self-doubt served as an antithesis to Wang’s easy assuredness during our conversation. Yet perhaps Wang is hesitant to share her work because her art often grapples with her Chinese-American identity.
For most of her life, Wang went to a school where she felt her identity wouldn’t be accepted: “I would try to distance myself from being Asian-American. Every stereotype about Asians, I would be the exact opposite,” she said. She participates in a mostly-white art program outside of school and noted the isolation she felt as one of the only people of color in the room.
“There’s a reason why people who look like me aren’t entering these spaces, and their community and family aren’t allowing them to: it’s because they feel like they don’t belong there.” If Wang had seen more representation at a young age, she believes she would have felt more empowered to battle cultural norms and pursue her interests.
Wang, a Chinese-American, comes from a traditional family, one where the only acceptable career choices were doctor, lawyer, and engineer. Her parents initially accepted her artmaking… with a caveat: “My mom said, ‘Taylor can continue doing art because it fosters creativity, which is a trait that colleges like. Then, she can go to medical school,’” Wang laughed. But once she started winning contests and galleries started to feature her work, her parents began to realize arts were a viable career. Wang now plans to study art in college.
“Arts education is equally important as STEM education, or any other type of education,” Wang advocates. But Washington falls 45th among 50 states in terms of arts education funding, and arts are always the first victim of budget cuts. In the professional world, application fees to galleries cost $60 to $80, not including the cost of framing, hanging, or wiring your work. “The arts are just inaccessible for people in a marginalized group or those who are in underserved communities,” Wang said. She comes from Issaquah High School, where she is lucky enough to have a stable arts program, and wanted to use her place of privilege to support other teens affected by financial barriers to the arts.
To combat these inequities in the art world, Wang and fellow Issaquah High student Alice Mao co-founded Student Art Spaces, an organization dedicated to providing teen artists of color and female teen artists with a free exhibition in a professional setting. “We sat down in Starbucks one day and thought, ‘Okay, how do we get this started?’” Wang laughed, “We watched YouTube videos on finances; we started looking things up: ‘What is a 501c3?’, ‘How do you pay your taxes?’” After reaching out to arts organizations all across Seattle for advice, writing two successful grant proposals, and hosting a Kickstarter, their work culminated in their first gallery, which featured 40 artists, in August 2019. Their second gallery, originally scheduled for this month, has unfortunately been canceled due to coronavirus-related concerns, but the organization quickly pivoted to create an online zine.
Student Art Spaces has led Wang to become more confident in her artistic and arts leadership abilities. She and Mao sent hundreds of emails before finding a space for their first event, yet they did it all as a group of teenagers. “It was an incredibly difficult experience, but also a liberating one,” she noted. “It just goes to show how powerful young people can be when they mobilize.”
Student Art Spaces has also helped Wang discover the importance of creating artwork that centers on her Asian identity. Now, she doesn’t shy away from her culture. “I’m proud now, of my background,” she said. “I’m really happy that I can translate my heritage to my art."
Learn more about Student Art Spaces at www.studentartspaces.org.