Alumnae Spotlight: Irene Chan, Ch’An Press

August 11, 2014 by

Washington DC area artist Irene Chan first came to WSW in 1996 as a studio intern, then returned two years later as an Artist’s Book Resident to produce a sculptural book inspired by Chinese philosophy. In the years since, Irene has cultivated a multidisciplinary conceptual practice, working at the intersection of print media, papermaking, installation, storytelling performance, and book arts. Her recent work stretches the physicality of the book form while exploring popular culture, racial stereotypes, autobiography, and oral history.

Now an Associate Professor of both Visual Arts and Asian Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Irene has self-published 29 limited-edition artist books as Ch’An Press and has exhibited and performed her work at over 76 venues in the last 10 years. We recently caught up with her after she performed five nights of An Incomplete (Sex) Education—along with a violin, a knitted flower garden, a leaf-shaped-book-turned-skirt, and a cheeky, erotic mochi dessertat the Prague Fringe Festival.

Excerpt from Irene Chan's "An Incomplete (Sex) Education"

Irene’s leaf-shaped book/skirt before and after it is “pollinated” with text in An Incomplete (Sex) Education.

Irene, how did your multidisciplinary work develop to include such a diverse range of approaches? How does it all come together in your practice?

Two of my favorite things to do as a child were writing stories and trying to copy drawings from my father’s mechanical drafting books with his tools. I studied architecture with a minor in English in college. I enjoyed architecture school, but did feel like I was a needle on a vinyl record moving in parallel, but slightly off, the groove. While in graduate art school, I took a book arts class and instantly loved it. Working three-dimensionally felt natural and I could incorporate my own images and text into the work. At the same time, I enjoy making installation art because it is a way to express what I feel about the environment and man-made nature. It is wonderful to work with space.

When I realized I had a Taoist upbringing I started to consciously cultivate this Chinese philosophy in my life and work, then later I started creating work that was more personal and narrative in nature. I grew up with oral storytelling; my mother and maternal grandmother were amazing storytellers. I decided to tell personal stories live on stage. There are two performances now and artist’s books were created specifically for them.

I let the subject matter decide which media I use, usually only one or two at a time. My hope is that my pieces are seamless and cohesive. The intent is that the form is the medium by which the content shines through.

Irene Chan's silkscreened purse, Cè, which is a part of the WSW collection

‘s silkscreened, seapod-shaped purse. Check out  in the WSW Collection!

How does Chinese philosophy play into , the artist’s book you created at WSW?

In my sense of materiality, the importance lives in the obscure and neglected details. This is one of my interpretations of Chinese philosophy. In , I took my collection of small residual matter (dried plants, shed snakeskin, body fiber, etc.) and put them directly in the photo enlarger. I created a series of silkscreened books from these images that “read” in a mysterious nature’s language. Each of the three pieces fits into the other and then they fit into the belly of a large seedpod-shaped purse, also screen printed.

You produced not too long after you were an intern at WSW. What was it like coming back as an artist-in-residence?

I was an intern the summer between my years in grad school. It was one of the most significant experiences in my artistic and technical development and was very intensive and stimulating. I was flattered and delighted when Ann and Tana asked me two years later to come back. It felt like coming home and a continuation.

Everyone was fully supportive of . When I was a resident, I was a recent graduate and had only been making artists’ books for three years. was then the most complex artist’s book that I had made and the edition was fairly large (70). It involved silkscreen printing, three structures, die-cutting, and tight registration. I also spent a great deal of time figuring out how to print with water-based ink onto the waterproof material Tyvek. The experience definitely added to my confidence and encouraged me to explore and continue with alternative book art forms. My residency was during a pivotal time and WSW definitely influenced my career in many ways.

Irene Chan as a studio intern at WSW in 1996

Irene as a studio intern in 1996, alongside Development Director & Co-Founder Anita Wetzel.

As you began making more autobiographical work, what themes emerged? What became the source material for your storytelling?

I started moving towards personal storytelling in 2007 when I had an encounter with a man who approached me and asked many insulting questions based on my look of Asianness. I felt trapped and very upset. I realized that every week since I was 12, there has been at least one person who comments or asks me a racial question. I came up with Asian American ? Project, an artist’s book that is a set of cards to hand to people. Each card has a reply to a specific question. When they have the card in hand, I am able to get away! After this project, I started to make personal narrative artist’s books. Some of these books are designed to be in live storytelling performances.

How do you approach your materials as you move between making objects and performing?

I usually start with an idea and then explore which medium would be the most suitable. I like making sculptures and artists’ books for performances that can also stand alone. I’m also seeking ways to keep the material aspect of books relevant, especially now when digital books become increasingly popular. I’m interested in making books that cannot be read digitally.

A book like An Incomplete Friendship is performed with a hole in the center and my hand casts shadows on the pages. The pages are miniature stages that are the school playgrounds when I was a kid. An Incomplete Alphabet starts as a book and then becomes installation. Moving Parts Concentration is also a game that is “read” by playing with the pieces physically. I’m currently performing with An Incomplete (Sex) Education, a flat leaf-shaped book that when opened becomes a flower. Then I wear it around my waist and eventually put it into a garden and “water” the flower book with hand-cut paper text.

Irene Chan performs "An Incomplete (Sex) Education"

Irene performing An Incomplete (Sex) Education. Photos by Meg Knowles (left) and Jan Nagle (right).

Your projects about racial and cultural identity seem to employ both discomfort and humor. In pieces like Asian American ? Project, Yellowskin Bracelet, and Moonfaced Typecast, hyperbole and exaggeration create an almost comical effect, but discomfort is still present for the viewer. Likewise, An Incomplete (Sex) Education is performed with an array of absurd objects (like a phallic mochi dessert!). What roles do humor and discomfort play in your work?

I tell stories that are true to what I saw and experienced. The artist’s books and visuals may seem to be exaggerated, but accompanied with the stories, they are actually very true to life (my life that is!). Since the subject matter is about my struggles with facing racism, gender politics, and the immigrant experience, there is bound to be some discomfort. I hope to relay some of the emotions I was feeling so the audience feels them too. Sometimes audiences are caught in the space of not being sure whether to laugh out loud; other audiences openly laugh throughout and are quite talkative with comments and questions afterwards.

Irene Chan's "Hot Dog on Crumbly Wonderbread"

“Hot Dog on Crumbly Wonderbread” from My Childhood Lunches.

You’re currently working on My Childhood Lunches, a new print-based project. What inspired it and where do you see it going?

My mother was an excellent cook of Chinese food. Embracing American culture, she packed bag lunches that were a hybrid of Chinese and American food. As I re-make these lunches now to draw and photograph, they strike me as being interesting visually. And they will be essential for telling stories; I would like to explore performing with these large lithographs. I printed several perspectives of one lunch, “Hot Dog on Crumbly Wonderbread”, while a resident artist at Pyramid Atlantic last spring. There will be more lunches forthcoming.

We can’t wait to see what you do with them! Irene, lastly, what advice would you give emerging women artists?

While making one’s work, try to push out any negative voices and pressures from others. Try to create work that is honest and true to oneself. There will always be a variety of criticism and advice. And even if one wanted to, it is impossible to please everyone. Listen carefully and then choose advice carefully.

This November, catch Irene teaching “Paper Lithography” at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, MD and exhibiting and performing An Incomplete (Sex) Education and Other Works at Counterpath in Denver, CO. Check out all her work at, see more of her performed artist’s books and videos on Vimeo, and follow her projects on Facebook