From fashion to traditional Taiwanese weaving, Jennifer Huang walks us through her academics and achievements along the way.
We were able to catch up with our friend, Jennifer Huang, who has a very unique and achievement-filled story that had to be shared. From her time at UC Berkeley to her Fellowship experience in Taiwan to how she got into traditional Taiwanese weaving, the fiber artist describes to us in great detail about her inspirations and how it all ties back to her Taiwanese background.
Can you briefly describe your academic path and achievements through your craft?
Sure, I attended a public charter arts high school, which probably influenced my decision to study art and art history, in addition to Asian American Studies, at UC Berkeley. In college, I worked with incredible artists and art historians as an undergraduate fellow at the Arts Research Center, while also working part-time at the Art History/Classics library on campus. Both in high school and in undergrad, I was heavily involved with student fashion shows. As a high school senior, I remember being very excited to share my work in Teen Vogue after being awarded a CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) scholarship — which I then forfeited to continue my education at Berkeley as opposed to an art and design school. I’ve always held an interest in textiles and performance, and fashion seemed to intertwine these two worlds of art and design, but I was also wary of the commercial pressure involved with working in the industry. I think even as a teenager, I didn’t want to participate in fast fashion, which led me to Berkeley, a couple years working odd jobs as a tea barista and a special needs teacher, and eventually to an MFA program in Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which felt to me, like a perfect synthesis of all my passions. In my last year of grad school, I applied for a Fulbright Research Fellowship to study indigenous weaving in Taiwan and was blessed with the opportunity to pursue my research upon graduation. I returned nearly two years ago and have resettled in Chicago, participating in a few residencies and exhibitions around the city.
What did the Fulbright Fellowship experience consist of?
My Fulbright Fellowship can be divided into two periods. In the fall of 2017, I was hosted by the Ethnology department at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Through the university, I was introduced to many indigenous Atayal and Seediq weavers, and I started working more closely and apprenticing with an Atayal woman named Sayun. From her, I learned how to weave complex patterns on the indigenous Taiwanese backstrap loom. During this period, I was also taking Chinese classes as well as Anthropology and Linguistic courses at the university to learn more about the diverse indigenous cultures of Taiwan. My time in Taipei ended with a solo exhibition at the Haiton Art Center, where I showed traditional Atayal textiles that I had learned how to weave with Sayun, as well as drawings and frame loom weavings, that were more sketches of my research thus far.
In the spring of 2018, I moved down to Tainan, where I was a Visiting Artist at Tainan National University of the Arts. During this time, I developed a project to hand-weave coded fabric that was embedded with quotes from the indigenous women that I had worked with. My time in Tainan also culminated in an exhibition at the university of my weavings and material experiments. During this year in Taiwan, I also got to know my extended family a lot better, which was an invaluable experience as well.
What is your most memorable experience as an artist?
This was before I could make any claims to being an artist, but this question makes me think of a high school summer program, CSSSA – California State Summer School for the Arts. This experience showed me the potential of what art could be — for example, it was there that I first saw a performance of John Cage’s 4’33” and it was all so novel and genre-bending for me as a teenager. It was there that I also realized that being an artist was a profession that people could purse. Up to that point, I had mostly assumed art was a hobby one entertains after a day of cubicle work; I thought artists were only white men who were long dead, e.g., Rembrandt, Cézanne, Van Gogh, the Ninja Turtles. I don’t think I realized there were practicing contemporary artists until I found myself at CSSSA. I am also immensely thankful to have met some of my best friends from the experience.
What/who inspired you to get into traditional weaving?
My mom has always been an avid cross-stitcher, and she was also the one who taught me how to knit and crochet. I remember also learning to use a sewing machine during a Home Economics class in middle school, so perhaps all those experiences cultivated an early interest in textile work for me. I didn’t actually learn how to weave on more complicated, multi-harness looms until graduate school, but I was always interested in slow cloth production and this ancient technology that cultures from all over the world share. I was introduced to indigenous Taiwanese weaving from my childhood trips to Taiwan and specifically a history museum in Tainan, where I saw images of this indigenous weaving tradition. In grad school, I found myself thinking of my roots and wanting to make sense of the family stories that I’ve been told. That desire led me to research this tradition of indigenous Atayal and/or Seediq weaving and pursue this fellowship that would also allow me to spend an extended period of time on this island that has been home to my family for many generations.
When you’re not feeling creative or motivated, what usually gets your juices flowing?
Reading helps a lot as well as going for walks, and when the weather permits, lying in the sun. Taking breaks to cook and make a nice meal is also helpful, because the fruits of your labor can be immediately experienced and enjoyed, unlike a creative project that can lead to frustration first before fulfillment.
Do you have any upcoming projects or anything you are looking forward to?
I’m currently a part of a project called ART-IN-PLACE, where artists are exhibiting works in their windows and front yards, to try and cultivate a sense of hope and connectivity during this unprecedented moment of isolation. It may be too early to share, but there are some other projects in incubation that I am excited about, including a collaborative project with a writer and a scientist on the theme of water, as well as a more overtly critical work for Daily Trumpet.