Over the past year, many have chosen to temporarily make their parents' homes, their homes. San Francisco–based artist Martin Hsu is one such person. For the last 15 years, the illustrator and painter, who describes his work as New Traditional Asian Art, has traveled to Taiwan, the island of his birth, to spend Chinese New Year with extended family and his parents, who retired to their homeland after living in Southern California for many years. The year 2020 would not be an exception.
Donning PPE, Hsu boarded a 14-hour flight to Taiwan in early December, and upon landing, spent 14 days in quarantine at his parents' apartment, while they stayed a 5-minute-walk away in his grandparents' house. Isolated from the outside world, he quickly set up a temporary studio in their home and poured himself into his work, producing uplifting paintings of flower-bedecked girls and pensive, irresistible animals — Hsu's belief in the "power of cute," on full display — for his solo show "Q," which opened at Taipei's CC Gallery January 7, and runs through February 27. The artist gave us a virtual tour of his workspace as he shared what being home means while abroad.
Hunker: Where is that space, or spot, in your (parents') home that is uniquely your own … where you feel you're most you? And what do you do there?
Martin Hsu: This room, which served as my mom's mahjong room before the pandemic, with doors that open to the living room. Here, I really focus. I just got a really simple IKEA table to put by the window where I paint. And I used all the cardboard boxes my parents hoarded and built storage units. I tape all my drawings on the back wall to view, and place my paintings, whether finished or not, sitting upright in front of me, along my parents' built-in cabinet.
Hunker: Why does this particular space have meaning for you?
MH: One of the best things about being in this room is this wall of all the family photos. I'm literally staring at photos of my grandparents and everyone I love while I paint. How amazing is that? I never lived in this apartment, but we spent one year in an apartment in this same complex but different building before we left for the States in 1991. That was almost 30 years ago, so it's weird to think about.
I basically spent all of quarantine and the following weeks painting here, up until the opening. It's been a really great experience to know exactly what I need to be able to create art on the spot. I mean it took me like 15 years to know how long it takes to finish a painting. My suitcases were pretty much filled with wood panels and paint supplies — and like two T-shirts. And it's nice to have my parents right outside these doors. It's been the most luxurious "artist-in-residence" experience, with lodging and food catered by them.
Hunker: What is something you like to do in that space that might surprise people?
Hsu: I take a Zoom call with my nerdy Comic-Con friends every Sunday. That's kept me sane. They're people I've met from all over the world at Comic-con. I'll also do a little wandering and browsing. It's hard not to walk by this wall and stop and look at the old photos. I don't have them with me back in San Francisco.
Hunker: What do you like to surround yourself with in this space? And why is it important?
MH: In addition to my parents' photos and my art supplies, I brought these Kokeshi dolls I got back in 2014 in Japan. I went to the flea market in Ginza for the first time and I went nuts. I bought the ones that were a little more weathered. My intention was to give them new life. I also brought a few of my favorite art books to surround myself with on this trip: Works by my favorite artist Itō Jakuchū, Akira Yamaguchi, and a small book in Japanese of adorable goldfish as reference for my mermaids.
Hunker: What are three things in your (parents') home that hold the most value to you? (Excluding people or creatures, because of course!)
MH: It's hard to pick just three things of value when there's a wall of family photos in front of me. First thing: My camera (Lumix) is of value and important for the residence to document every step for the solo show. It makes all the difference in the world to share the entire last month-and-a-half, the whole experience, on social media with my fans, reacting to my work and understanding how under the circumstances I was able to make the art I wanted to make within limitations.
Second thing: A specific photo of my grandparents with my Chow Chow, Shaohei, relaxing in the background of my U.S. house. It was the only time my grandparents got to visit us in California. It holds tremendous value as it captures three of my favorite beings in one photo.
Third thing: The pair of Dragon Boy and Dragon Dog figures, which stand in front of a photo of me and my parents — a reminder of where I come from and who I've become.
Hunker: Finish this sentence, "Home is where …"
MH: Home is truly where family is.
Author and book editor Teena Apeles is a collector of vintage pieces and untold stories. She writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. She is the founder of the women-led creative collective Narrated Objects, which released the anthology Dear Seller: Real Estate Love Letters from Los Angeles, a unique exploration of the lives and homes of Angelenos, and We Heart L.A. Parks, an artful and education guide to the city that reminds us how safe and accessible public parks strengthen communities.