Arts

There's no such thing as the perfect family, and this artist's work taps into that fact

As a kid, Sami Tsang was told to be quiet and well-behaved. "My work kind of does the opposite of that," she says. See her latest creations at Art Toronto this weekend.

These clay children are meant to be seen AND heard. Look what Sami Tsang's bringing to Art Toronto

Photo of the artist Sami Tsang painting a large ceramic form of a plump cartoonish toddler with blue pigtails. She works in a white-walled artist studio. The artwork rests on a surface, and appears to be two or three feet taller than the artist.
Artist Sami Tsang paints in her Toronto studio. (@samiclayee/Instagram)

She's a little girl in panda slippers and pigtails. Standing in a wide-legged power-stance, this kid is serving serious attitude, even as tears trace rosy lines across her face. Made of painted  stoneware and standing nearly one metre tall — roughly the height of an actual doughy-limbed child — the figure is a recent creation by artist Sami Tsang

It's a piece the Toronto-based ceramicist feels a particular affinity toward. She is bigger than most of Tsang's previous ceramic works, and her pose suggests a message that the artist is often striving to express. This character knows her place in the world, says Tsang. She knows her "sense of worth." And she'll be displayed with pride at the Art Toronto art fair this weekend, where Tsang is one of just four artists whose work will be singled out in a Special Projects booth. 

A recent honouree at the Craft Ontario Craft Awards, Tsang's work is also currently appearing at the Art Gallery of Burlington through Nov. 26. Tsang is also a past recipient of the Gardiner Museum Award, which she won in 2019 upon graduating from Sheridan College's ceramics program. No matter the scale, her figures are wildly expressive, suggesting three-dimensional caricatures that are often heavily embellished with drawings that are just as loose and fantastical as the forms they're painted on. 

Born in Ontario, Tsang spent much of her childhood in Hong Kong. At age 12, she left home to attend an arts school in Canada, and through her art, she's reckoning with the experience of growing up between cultures. CBC Arts reached her at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, where she is an artist-in-residence, to chat about her plans for Art Toronto.

Photo of a ceramic form of a pudgy child with blue pigtails and panda slippers.
Sami Tsang. My Secret Attempt, 2022. (Sami Tsang)

CBC Arts: How are preparations for Art Toronto coming?

I am very happy right now with the progress I've made. I actually got invited to do this maybe two months ago. My studio was empty when [gallery founder and director] Simon Cole from Cooper Cole reached out to me. Some work was at the Art Gallery of Burlington [for the exhibition Know Your Place] and some was sold.

We talked about what would be good — that it would be better to work on a body of work, maybe five large sculptures, like standing figures, instead of playing with a bunch of different ideas. I liked the idea of having one body of work so visually it looks more cohesive.

So that's what you're presenting at your booth?

Yeah, five new large standing figures.

How large is large? Because I was looking at your Instagram and there's a post where you mention your work is getting so big it's going to give you back trouble. So is it because of these new works? 

(laughs) Yeah, honestly. I built five, and the first one was OK. Manageable. The second one got a little out of hand. It got bigger than what I thought it was going to be because that happens with coil building — the technique that I use. It's kind of like a 3D printer. You go from the bottom up, coil by coil, with clay.

I guess my largest piece in the show would be 39 inches high. Yeah, that's the second piece.

You mentioned it's a cohesive body of work, so what's the story you're telling with these five new pieces? What's the exhibition about to you?

My work is about domestic encounters, and I'm speaking as someone that grew up in a more conservative Hong Kong family. I always felt like my voice wasn't very welcome because I'm the youngest one and I'm a girl. I grew up being told that there's a place I'm supposed to be, and to know your place because you are the youngest girl.

What was that place? What expectations did you grow up with?

Be obedient and be a listener. Don't give attitude. Don't question or challenge. Never challenge (laughs). Any type of family shame, or anything that's negative happening in the family, you don't share it with outsiders — you don't express it outwardly. My work kind of does the opposite of that right now. 

Photo of a ceramic form of a pidgy cartoonish person. Their skin is aquamarine and their feet have monstrous faces and limbs.
Sami Tsang. Me But Not Anymore, 2022. (Sami Tsang)

Just making art period would be a rebellious thing to do if you grew up feeling you couldn't use your voice.

Yeah, exactly. It was a very big challenge when I was in college. That was the beginning of me trying to, like, even figure out what I wanted to say in the work.

I think I am still working on navigating what I can share with the audience — what I feel comfortable with and what I like to keep to myself. But my work is mainly about having feet in two different cultures, like Western and Chinese. I have been living in Canada longer than Hong Kong now. I'm 25 and I moved back to Canada when I was 12. I've been here longer. And I do feel like I am learning about the Western culture — how women can speak up and women's empowerment. I think my work is about that. 

Closeup of a painted and decorated ceramic figure.
Sami Tsang. Detail of Me But Not Anymore, 2022. (Sami Tsang)

I'm under the impression you've been working with ceramics since you were a teenager, is that right? You started in high school?

Right. I've always been really into drawing and painting, and I loved it so much that my mom would pay for so many art classes. So, since I was four. I did traditional Chinese painting for seven years — you know, oil painting and sketching. And then when I was 12, I felt like being an artist wasn't very supported in Hong Kong. I just didn't see people doing it as a career. So I wanted to move to Canada, and I feel like in Canada I can be whoever I want to be. And so I moved to Canada when I was 12. 

What about your family? Did you go on your own?

I went on my own. I have my uncle and my aunt here, and I was born in Canada — Windsor. So I have citizenship. I kind of just left my parents there, and it was very difficult. Honestly, it wasn't just because I wanted to be an artist, it was because back in Hong Kong my relationship with my parents wasn't great. I think that was [the age] when I started having opinions, and the rebellious side of me was coming out. There's so much I wanted to say, but I couldn't say it in the family. And so I felt like it was time for me to leave. And then within two weeks, I just came to Canada. It was a very quick decision, and also the best choice I ever made for myself. 

I went to an art-specialized high school [H.B. Beal Secondary School] and half the day was making art and half the day was normal classes. I did ceramics in grade 11 and since then I've never stopped.

I don't think many people would have the independence and means, or the courage, to move across the world like that at 12 years old.

Yeah. Now when I think back I feel the same. I realize how young I was. 

Photo of a ceramic form of a pudgy child with tangerine pigtails.
Sami Tsang. Hot Tea Melts Me Down, 2022. (Sami Tsang)

With this new body of work that you're bringing to Art Toronto, you didn't have a whole lot of time to put it together — just a couple of months. What's your process? Your figures are so expressive. Do you start from sketches or how do you begin?

When I have ideas I always start from home. I will be in my apartment at night and I'll start sketching. I'll think about what I want to talk about. 

By going to therapy weekly, I'm able to look internally constantly. I like to figure out how things make me feel and how I process things. So therapy is the first step, and the second step is reflecting on the past, or just imagining. [My art] is not always based on real experiences; sometimes it's imagination. So I'll play with that too. 

[The art's] mostly talking about how every family, including mine, they all have problems. And I am trying to share that because I feel like I was brought up not to share that my family had any problems. 

Photo of a ceramic form of a pudgy child with pigtails.
Sami Tsang. Staying Put Is Moving Forward, 2022. (Sami Tsang)

When you're making something, do you imagine where it will end up where it will live once it's out of your studio?

Not so much. What's important to me is making a piece and getting my voice out — not even out to the world. Like, at least it's out of my system. The next priority is to connect with other people through a conversation.

There'll be plenty of people coming through your booth at Art Toronto. What sort of things do you like talking about in relation to your work?

I start by talking about what my work is about and then normally they can either relate or empathize. And I think that's very powerful — if they can share that they can relate to the piece or they can relate to my story. The power of being heard: that is important to me. 

Photo of a ceramic form of a pudgy child painted in yellow, blue and orange.
Sami Tsang. Say Your Sorrys, 2022. (Sami Tsang)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Art Toronto. Oct. 27-30. Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Toronto. www.arttoronto.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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