By: Megan Yuri Young
Photography: Max Power
For ceramist Sami Tsang — whose work will be at Art Toronto — art is an outlet to process internal questions and traumas created by an oscillation between the two cultures in which she grew up.
When she was just 12-years-old, Sami Tsang took her artistic aspirations into her own hands. While the Windsor, Ont.-born ceramist studied traditional Chinese painting for seven years in Hong Kong, she found herself craving artistic freedom. Her solution? Sami petitioned her mom to allow her to move back to Canada.
The move set off a unique journey of self-discovery. It includes a Bachelor of Arts in Craft and Design from Sheridan College; a Master of Fine Art in Ceramic Art Alfred University in New York state; solo and group exhibitions in the United States and Canada; the 2019 Gardiner Museum Prize, which led to Sami’s 2021 solo exhibition at the ceramics museum; an artist-in-residence at the Harbourfront Centre; and most recently, an upcoming showing at Art Toronto.
As Sami moved along her path, her art became an outlet to process cultural experiences and private narratives — such as resisting her traditional role as a child of a conservative Hong Kong family. Using clay, resin, rice paper, and ballpoint pens, Sami finds the relationship between the stories and the materials to produce imagery steeped in raw, and relatable, emotions.
Meghan Yuri Young: Sami, thank you so much for having us in your studio. I have never been in Harbourfront Centre’s studio spaces. This is such a treat! Can you share some of your journey getting here?
Sami Tsang: A lot of my work is influenced by my life and journey. I was born in Canada but grew up in Hong Kong. I found that, I don’t know, my artistic freedom was very restricted in Hong Kong. I’ve always known that I wanted to pursue art, even from such a young age, but in Hong Kong we were taught techniques more than exploring the intention behind the work. They never asked what I wanted to say. I was 12 and I felt trapped! I had so much I wanted to say about my family, about my feelings.
So, I told my mom that I wanted to move back to Canada. It was easier for me than my friends because, like I said, I was born here and had a citizenship, and my brother was here already. Before I knew it, I was here, going to high school.
MYY: It’s incredible that you had that type of agency over your life at such a young age and that you knew what you wanted. How did your parents react to you wanting to move?
ST: I always get this comment from my peers. I just knew what I wanted and I never regret my decision. I know what I want and I go for it. It took me two weeks to move from Hong Kong to Canada! It was summertime and then I was, what do I say, I was fast enough to reach Canada before school started. My mom flew with me to help me settle down. I lived with my aunt and uncle in London, Ont. for two years before my parents [also] decided to move to Canada.
MYY: How did you adjust to school in a new country?
ST: You know, in Hong Kong, there’s school in the morning until 3 p.m. and then tutor school until 8 p.m. and then have dinner at home. Only after that, 9 [p.m.] until whatever time, is when I had art classes. That was my favourite time of the day.
Here, I had regular classes during the first half of the day and the second half was all art. I was really able to focus on what I wanted to do. I also remember, one of my teachers, he asked me a lot about what I wanted to say in my work, like, “Why are you making this dog?” or “Why are you doing this vase?” He always wanted to know the meaning for me. At that time, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say specifically.
At first, I also did struggle with being able to explore more. Going from doing realistic drawings to maybe something more cartoon-like and simple, I thought maybe I was giving up techniques. I went to doing simple line faces.
MYY: Why do you think that was?
ST: I was really interested in people and culture, and I was really intrigued by different cultures. So, I did a lot of faces, which evolved as I combined what I learned in Hong Kong with the style I was still building here. Also, going to college here, the professors really encouraged me to talk about my work more. I started to feel really naked and exposed; maybe sharing too much and not knowing what’s the limit.
Now, I have a better idea of what I can deal with. I can recognize when I’m still processing and not ready to talk about my trauma [or] family conflicts. I mean, in Chinese culture, you’re brought up to never share anything negative or shameful in the family. So, this whole practice of trying to figure out, “Okay, I do want to talk about family, but everything has to be mindful to not bring shame to the family” is something I’m still navigating as I continue to find my voice.
MYY: Earlier, you mentioned that having a voice was something you craved when you were younger. Did it turn out that this encouragement of expression was what you were craving?
ST: Actually, no. I’ve always been an introvert and I don’t love sharing my feelings that much. I like to keep things to myself. So, making art was always just for my eyes, for my mind. I wanted to let things out on the paper, close the sketchbook, and know that it doesn’t have to be seen. It was like a diary for me.
So, it was really hard in college. I was trying to think of how I could make something so personal, universal. How do I talk about something that doesn’t involve other people? Or do I need to do that? Maybe my art can be for me, but then I’m letting others get a glimpse of my personal life. There’s so many options, and there’s no right or wrong when it comes to how you want to share. Am I making for other people so they can relate to me, or am I making art just for my own benefit? It’s still a question I ask myself every day in the studio.
MYY: Do you find expressing yourself through visual arts rather than words alleviates any of those concerns you just shared?
ST: Yes, in a way. Also, when I make a piece, I don’t always know what [I’m going to say]. I know I’m bothered or there’s something I want to say, but I don’t know exactly what it is.
“Most of the time, as I’m making the piece, adding more elements to the work, the language is coming to me, the message is coming to me.”
[For example,] how I feel about this person, or this past memory that I want to address or I feel like that was not right, and I want to say it but not say it. So, I say it in my work.
MYY: Shifting the conversation slightly, I’m as fascinated with your physical journey as your artistic one. You moved to New York for your graduate studies. What made you come back to Toronto?
ST: I was [in the small town of Alfred, N.Y.] when the Asian hate [during COVID-19] was happening. I was suddenly nervous living alone. I didn’t feel safe leaving my school at all, even to get groceries. I wasn’t even afraid of being attacked. I was more afraid of people screaming at me. Thankfully, my peers were so nice and they offered to help me a lot. But I still saw the importance of living in a space where I felt safe. I want to see people of colour. I want to see all of that culture. I never realized how important that was for me until I lived in a place like [Alfred].
When I applied at the Harbourfront Residency program … I [had] never tried to make money as an artist — at least not full-time. But I just went for it, knowing that I really wanted to live in a city where there’s…everyone; so many cultures, food.
MYY: Fast-forward, and we’re here because Art Toronto is around the corner. Your work will be on display. Tell us how that happened.
ST: When I first moved to Toronto, I didn’t have this studio yet because this space wasn’t ready until January and I moved three months before. But I met Nurielle Stern, who I consider to be my mentor now. She was working at the Distillery, which is now closed, but she let me use her studio for the months I didn’t have one. And she suggested things for me to do, like, “Send your portfolio to galleries even though they say, ‘Don’t send your portfolio’ on their websites!”
So, I figured out how to send an email that was short enough and not too pushy, and someone actually replied! Cooper Cole Gallery. They said they’ve never accepted artists through email, but they invited me to be in a group show. I shared a piece that was very personal and different than the rest of my work. They were super helpful and really kind. I continued to ask questions to get insight into collectors and more shows. That’s when they invited me to be part of their Art Toronto booth.
MYY: That’s amazing. What are you looking forward to at Art Toronto outside of having your art there?
ST: I’ll try to introduce myself to different galleries, see if any opportunities come up. I’m not good at doing that!
“I’m just grateful for the chance to get more visibility in general and make connections with people, which is one of the biggest reasons why I do art.”
MYY: It sounds like you’re finding your footing and your community here, and you’re deep in your art practice. Where in the city do you go to feel inspired?
ST: Honestly, just living in Toronto inspires me. My fellow ceramists … inspire me. I feel safe with them, and when I feel safe, I can make art. When I was in Alfred, N.Y., I didn’t. Making art was a struggle. Showing up was a struggle. That’s not the case here.
MYY: What can we look forward to in the future for yourself?
ST: I’m definitely going to have a solo show next year. There’s actually a few exciting things happening, but I can’t talk about it yet.
Experience Sami’s art by visiting the Cooper Cole Gallery booth during Art Toronto. The art fair takes place from Oct. 27 to 30 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s North Building.