We had the good fortune of connecting with Calvin Lai and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Calvin, what role has risk played in your life or career?
One of the many tools in my artistic toolbox, is the ability to embrace and, at the same time, temper risk taking. It’s an essential element for making work that is unique and relevant both to one’s self, as well as to the greater art audience. For my own satisfaction, I am always wanting to explore different ways of painting. I have to do this in order to create pieces that are fresh for myself, and for creating unique work amongst the vast amount of art out there. But taking risks can also scatter the artistic vision and confuse a viewer, and without building a cohesive style within a long term art career one’s work becomes weaker. Risk without temperance loses sight of the broader vision. The trick I find is making sure you are very mindful about taking chances. For me, this has opened me up to reaping the benefits of risk taking while building upon a recognizable body of work.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Art, it’s a twisty, windy, and circuitous road. I’ve often reflected along my path about where I am and how I got here, both professionally and artistically, and all I know is that there are miles to go before I can say “I’ve arrived”. The work I’ve produced over the years reflect the many turns I’ve taken. From my fantastical and surreal drawings of my youth, to the classical traditional renderings of my college years, to the place where I am now; a painter hanging between realism, expressionism, and impressionism.
I’ve always searched for ways to hone my style and aesthetic, but the work I do these days best represent my own goals as an artist. For me, I feel that one’s art comes from personal taste in conjunction with one’s relation to their artistic process. When I became serious about art as a career I dived into studying classical realism. I followed in the footsteps of countless other artists studying traditional painting, but as my skills improved I was overwhelmed and became restless whenever I worked. I found myself not enjoying my painting process. Perhaps it was a subconscious decision, but my art began to change. I began to leave errant marks in the composition. Colors and shapes began to find ways out of the borders of objects, and marks that were not based in reality became the reality on the picture plane. My pieces began to combine highly rendered areas alongside other areas that were incredibly loose and almost abstract. The more I did this, the less overwhelmed and restless I felt while still satisfying my urge to render realistically. In reality, my past pieces lacked the importance of the artist’s experience, as well as, the ability to convey one’s self in one’s work. I believe my paintings have evolved to this point because I want to create art that express who I am, as well as capture the world around me.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Living in San Francisco and also being a musician, I have the luxury of finding the right community to flourish in. One of the groups I’ve found is a unique subculture of musicians and dancers who enjoy live music from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The pandemic has really hindered a lot of the venues I would normally have gone to, but there’s usually a few shows or music parties that I would definitely take a friend to. We’d also go hit up the Legion of Honor as I feel that it’s one of the best Museums in the city. In order to see the summer life of the Bay Area I’d bring them to Lake Merritt where people go to lounge by the water and hear impromptu music groups playing an assortment of jazz, salsa, swing, and, yes, Balkan music. Being in Northern California, one is not too far away from some glorious nature, so camping would be on the list of things to do. Just a few hours north are redwoods, a few hours south is the glorious coast, and to the east are the hills. There’s no shortage of things to do in this unique part of the world.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
To the great artist Yim Fong Lai, my mother