Artist You Should Know: THAILAN WHEN
The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights Bay Area artists who are doing incredible work, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place.
If you’ve ever enjoyed coffee or a bike repair at Luckyduck Bicycle Cafe, you’ve probably noticed a mural of animal shadows. A few weeks ago, I found myself looking up from my laptop to sneak gazes at the painting, studying each individual creature. Far from peaceful, these animals were painted in unnatural positions, as if they were suspended in midair during a fall. Underneath an upside-down giraffe, I noticed the artist’s name written in small block letters:THAILAN WHEN. Curious about the mural’s intention and inspiration, I looked her up immediately.
“Though they’re in a circular formation to represent the circle of life,” When said, “this is their last descent before the unknown.”
Most mural viewers will recognize the theme of nature’s interconnectedness in the work, titled Divided We Fall. However, there’s another dimension to the painting that goes beyond our relationship with other species and reaches the one we have with other people.
“I love working with animals because they’re unifying,” the artist said. “They’re pure. They don’t have bad intentions, they just do what they do.” When explained that people would potentially see or attach themselves to different animals in the mural. Conversely, viewing art of other human beings can often emphasize our differences rather than our similarities. If viewers can’t relate to human subjects on a personal level, they won’t be as connected or engaged with the piece.
You can find another one of When’s murals “Arrangements of Power” on Telegraph Ave. by W Macarthur Boulevard. Despite the mismatch of mural work to her introverted temperament, large, public art projects have been some of her most gratifying pieces.
“I’m much more interested in having my work for everyone to see,” she explained. “I don’t want people to have to be in the stuffy gallery space to connect with it.”
Though her murals are accessible for those of us in or near Oakland, When also has a large body of work highlighted on her website. When’s non-mural work covers a variety of subjects, from humans to landscapes to, of course, animals. A common denominator is a whimsical, surreal quality: it suggests there’s more that you, the viewer, will never know, and that’s part of what makes it magical.
Artists like Dalì and Maigritte have museum labels and scholars to interpret the odd scenes and symbols in their work. Even if nobody agrees why the clocks are melting, you won’t have to go very far for an explanation. Without gallery placards or brochures, most surrealists are confined to conveying big ideas in very little space and time.
Such were my thoughts when When spoke to me about another one of her works, Coming Home. Though the image sparks wonder and emotion on its own, I could tell that there was some symbolism and meaning that went over my head.
“The crouching woman in gray represents my mother, my grandmother—all the women who influenced me” the artist explained. She went on to detail that the woman facing danger and despair was painted in monochrome to contrast the rainbow surrounding a child who looks up at a hawk.
“The hawk is kind of dangling this brighter future“ When said, referring to the bright red fish grasped in its talons. The artist painted herself as the little girl, as the hope for the women who came before her. Though the child is bisected by a ray of colors, she is still painted in monochrome.
“Am I still resigned to be like her?” When asked rhetorically. “It ended up working out for me, but you don’t know that just by looking at the painting.”
Though viewers of When’s art appreciate its beauty and creativity, an explanation would add new dimensions to the works. The context behind Divided We Fall and Coming Home added to my sense of wonder and appreciation for these paintings.
“With art, I have to expend a lot more energy to tell a much shorter story” When explained, reflecting on the thematic layers imbued in her work. Trained as a journalist, When wants to combine her visual practice with narrative storytelling. She is now working on a book to combine images with stories from her childhood.
Growing up, When heard countless stories from her mother about her family’s journey to America after the Vietnam War. These tales were riddled with mysteries, which When likened to doors her mother initially refused to open.
“As she’s grown and moved through life, my mother gained the strength to open these doors,” When explained. “And things were revealed to me about our past that I never thought would be.” Hearing countless stories from a time when When was too young to remember made history come alive in her imagination.
“The past feels alive and rich in my life—it always has,” said When, “Like, I will daydream about the past, which is a detriment to me at times, because I’m lost in something unchangeable.”
Though these stories about the past fueled her imagination, When recalled that her family saw imagination as a waste of time. Fantasy was a distraction from productivity, she added. For a creative, imaginative child, that’s tough. Art gave When freedom to be creative, indulge her imaginative side, and deepen her self-knowledge.
“Art helps me define myself. Whatever form my art is taking, it’s constantly having me look inward,” When explained. “Though it looks like outward expression, it’s mostly about the relationship you have with yourself”
Art, which offers potential introspection, self-discovery, and self-creation, isn’t just reserved for professional artists. it doesn’t have to be good to be healing, and it doesn’t have to be sold—or even seen—to have a purpose.
“Sometimes I meet people who like my art and they’re like ‘oh, I really wish I could do that,’” recalled When. “They say they don’t know how to get started, or they’re too old, or they’re too afraid.” We tell children to create because it’s fun. Adults should be encouraged to do the same, especially those of us who look at art and think: wow, I’d sure like to be able to do that.
“There’s ways you can take that first step,” When concluded. “And it’s a really important journey to take.”
Find Thailan When’s shop here.