“I like to think that my work is a mirror that could reflect the viewer’s inner world . . .” —Lavennz Ooi

When you think of this season’s theme, Kristin Chang’s poem “Etymology of Butch,” what elements strike you? How does your work for this season relate to these ideas?

What I see from the poem is the pain, struggle, and happiness of a lesbian who grew up in a traditional Asian family and her journey of accepting her identity. It is inspiring me to create a painting of two women embracing each other with a body full of scars, who look strong and empathetic even though they’ve been through a lot. They’re the loved one, the strength, and the support to each other. They have been through all the difficulties and finally got to be who they are, despite all the scars they got from the past. They’re now stronger and happy.

On your website you share that your recent paintings draw on the traditional Gongbi technique—Chinese fine line realism painting. How did you become interested in this technique? How does exploring this traditional technique connect you to history and lineage?

When I first discovered Gongbi art, I was fascinated by the unrestrained freedom of Gongbi painting, or Chinese art in general, where you could care less about perspective, texture, and logic while still keeping the painting realism. It’s a kind of art that falls in between 2-D and 3-D mindsets. I was curious about how it would turn out by combining Gongbi with oil painting. That’s when I started my recent body of work. Through exploring this traditional technique, it motivates me to learn more about Chinese art and culture; at the same time, I stepped out of my comfort zone of painting on wood panels to painting on Xuan Paper—paper used since ancient China, which is soft, fine, and thin.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Renowned still life artist, Sadie Valeri, has had the greatest influence on my work. I took a year of online study under her to learn 19th century master artists’ techniques.

Gongbi artist and associate professor of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, HanLei Luo, is the artist that gave me an in-depth understanding about Gongbi process and thinking through her book and works. I also find the works of master artists like Wang Ximeng, Istvan Sandorfi, and living artists like Zhao Guojing & Wang Meifang, Jeremy Lipking, Brad Kunkle, and Jeremy Geddes to be very inspiring.

Describe your workspace. What essential tools do you need before you begin your work?

I work best in clutter-free workspace where I have big table space, as well as plenty of space on the floor because I like to move around when working. Of course, I need my easel when doing oil painting, especially when I’m working on the fine detail. Letting the painting stand upright, parallel to my eyes, allows me to see any misproportion or mistake.

What are you listening to when painting?

I have a wide range of taste in music. It depends on what kind of mood and atmosphere I want when working. Recently, I’ve been listening to Metta Chanting by Imee Ooi when doing line drawing. When painting in oil, I prefer indie or rock music.

What are your latest obsessions?

This probably sounds nerdy, but my latest obsession is drawing the thin and complicated lines of flowy hair. I could spend hours just drawing those lines. It is becoming my new way of meditation.

This probably sounds nerdy, but my latest obsession is drawing the thin and complicated lines of flowy hair. I could spend hours just drawing those lines. It is becoming my new way of meditation.

How do you generally spend your days?

My ideal kind of painting day always starts with coffee and breakfast after I wake up. Then, going into my studio with another cup of coffee or tea. I like Earl Grey or Oolong tea. In the studio, I look at my planner, write a little in my journal, check my emails, and select the right music or show on Netflix before I started painting or drawing. I enjoy starting my day early, because it’s quiet and I prefer working in daylight; however, I work after sunset most of the time since I have a part-time job in the day.

Do you have any creative routines or rituals?

I usually spent an adequate amount of time on composition sketching, figure/portrait drawing, or color study. Once I’m satisfied with the concept, I enlarge the drawing to painting size and trace it onto sized Xuan paper. I tone down the paper with several washes of a mixture of diluted ink and coffee because I don’t like to work on white background and this process makes the paper looks like antique paper. After the paper has dried completely, I work on the line drawing carefully with small red bean brush and Chinese Ink, because most of these lines will be shown through in the final painting. In order to make the paper suitable for oil painting, I apply multiple layers of acrylic matte medium to prime the paper before starting my oil painting process with thinned oil paints, building the delicate detail layer by layer while keeping the surface eggshell smooth.

What do you want the audience to take away from your paintings?

I want to offer my work as a way to introduce people to Chinese art and culture and to appreciate it gently, like Gongbi technique and Chinese traditional costume, Hanfu. Despite all the intentions and messages I carefully place in the composition, I like to think that my work is a mirror that could reflect the viewer’s inner world, helping the viewers see the thoughts and feelings that are hidden in their subconscious. ■


Lavennz Ooi was born on Penang island, northwest state of Malaysia. She grew up moving a lot within the island before she went south to Kuala Lumpur for her degree study, spent a few months in Malacca, stay another three years back in Penang and finally took a 8000 miles of flight to Maine, the pine tree state she’s called home since fall of 2013. Art has always been her favorite subject since her first year in school, which inspired her to draw from an early age. Regrettably, her relationship with painting was interrupted intermittently by all kinds hobbies as she grew up. Not until she was doing the last year of her engineering study, did she reconnect with her artist’s dream. Her works have appeared in various shows, in Greater Portland, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. In 2018, she had her first solo show in Portland, Maine. Other than art, she lives for coffee, early morning, grey sky, snows, and rains.

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