She is a little girl wearing panda slippers and pigtails. Standing in a wide-legged power-stance, this kid is serving up serious attitude, even as tears trace pink streaks across his face. Made of painted stoneware and standing about a meter tall – roughly the height of an actual limbed child – the figure is a recent creation by artist Sami Tsang.
It’s a piece that feels a special affinity for the Toronto-based ceramicist. He is larger than most of Tsang’s earlier ceramic works, and his pose suggests a message the artist often tries to convey. This character knows his place in the world, says Tsang. He knows his “values”. And she’ll be proudly on display at the Art Toronto Art Fair this weekend, where Tsang is one of only four artists whose work will be soloed in a special project booth.
A recent honoree at the Craft Ontario Craft Awards, Tsang’s work is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Burlington until November 26. Tsang is also a past recipient of the Gardiner Museum Award, which she won in 2019 after graduating from Sheridan College’s Ceramics Program. Regardless of scale, his paintings are highly expressive, suggesting three-dimensional caricatures that are often heavily embellished with drawings that are as loose and fantastical as the form in which they are drawn.
Born in Ontario, Tsang spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong. At the age of 12, he left home to attend an art school in Canada, and through his art he is reckoning with the experience of growing up within the culture. CBC Arts caught up with him at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, where he is an artist-in-residence, to talk about his plans for Art Toronto.
CBC Arts: How is the preparation for Art Toronto?
I am now very happy with the progress I have made. I actually got invited to do it two months ago. My studio was empty
We talked about what would be better – rather than playing around with a bunch of different ideas it would be better to work on one body of work, maybe five large sculptures, like standing figures. I like the idea of doing one thing so visually it looks more cohesive.
So what are you presenting at your booth?
Yes, five new large standing figures.
How big is big? Because I was looking at your Instagram and there was a post where you mentioned that your work is getting so big that it will give you back problem. So what is the reason for these new jobs?
(Laughs) Yes, really. I made five, and the first one was fine. manageable The second one got a little out of hand. It turned out bigger than I thought because it happens with coil building — the technique I use. It’s like a 3D printer. You go from bottom to top, coil by coil, with clay.
I guess my largest piece in the show will be 39 inches high. Yes, that’s the second piece.
You mentioned that it’s an ensemble piece, so what’s the story you’re telling with these five new pieces? What is the exhibit about you?
My work is about domestic encounters, and I speak as someone who grew up in a more conservative family in Hong Kong. I’ve always felt that my voice wasn’t very welcome because I’m the youngest and I’m a girl. I grew up saying I was supposed to be there, and to know your place because you were the youngest girl.
What was that place? Did you grow up with expectations?
Be obedient and listen. Don’t give attitude. Do not question or challenge. Never challenge (laughs). Any kind of family shame, or anything negative happening in the family, you don’t share with outsiders – you don’t outwardly express it. My job kind of does the opposite of that right now.
Just making art period would be a rebellious act if you grew up thinking you couldn’t use your voice.
Absolutely correct. It was a very big challenge when I was in college. It was the beginning of me trying to, like, even figure out what I wanted to say in the work.
I think I’m still working on navigating what I can share with the audience — what I’m comfortable with and what I want to keep to myself. But my job is basically to step into two different cultures, i.e. Western and Chinese. I now live in Canada rather than Hong Kong. I am 25 and I moved back to Canada when I was 12. I’ve been here too long. And I feel like I’m learning about Western culture — how women can speak up and women’s empowerment. I think my work is about it.
I’m assuming you’ve been working with ceramics since you were a teenager, is that correct? Have you started high school?
right I was always into drawing and painting, and I loved it so much that my mom would pay for many art classes. So, since I’m four. I did traditional Chinese painting — you know, oil painting and sketching — for seven years. And then when I was 12, I felt that being an artist in Hong Kong was not very supportive. I didn’t see it as a profession. So I wanted to go to Canada, and I think I can be whatever I want to be in Canada. And so I moved to Canada when I was 12 years old.
What about your family? Did you go on your own?
I went myself. I have my uncle and my aunt here, and I was born in Canada — in Windsor. So I have citizenship. I left my parents there, and it was very difficult. To be honest, I didn’t just want to be an artist because I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents in Hong Kong. I think that was [the age] That’s when I started getting feedback, and my rebellious side was coming out. I wanted to say many things, but I could not tell my family. And so I felt it was time for me to leave. And then in two weeks, I came to Canada. It was a very quick decision, and the best choice I made for myself.
I went to an art-specialized high school [H.B. Beal Secondary School] And half day was art work and half day was normal class. I did ceramics in grade 11 and have never stopped since.
I don’t think many people at 12 would have the freedom and the means or the guts to move around the world like this.
yes Now when I think back I feel the same. I realize how young I was.
With this new work that you’re bringing to Art Toronto, you didn’t have a whole lot of time to put it together—just a few months. What is your process? Your stats are so expressive. Do you start from sketches or how do you start?
When I have an idea I always start at home. I would stay in my apartment at night and I would start sketching. I will think about what I want to talk about.
By going to weekly therapy, I am constantly able to look inward. I like to understand 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] Not always based on real experience; Sometimes it’s imagination. So will play with that too.
[The art’s] Most talk about how every family, including mine, is in trouble. And I’m trying to share it because I think I was brought up to share any problems my family had.
When you are creating something, do you imagine where it will end up – Where will it be when you leave the studio?
Not too much. What’s important to me is creating a piece and getting my voice out – not even to the world. Like, at least it’s out of my system. The next priority is to connect with other people through conversation.
Lots of people will come through your booth at Art Toronto. What kinds of things do you like to talk about related to your work?
I start by talking about my work and then usually 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. Power of listening: This is important to me.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Art Toronto. 27-30 October. Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Toronto. www.arttoronto.ca