We had the good fortune of connecting with Erica Cheung and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Erica, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
Growing up, my relationship with the arts was always a little non-committal. While I dabbled in photography, creative writing, and the like, I initially thought that I was destined to pursue a career path in a field colloquially deemed as more lucrative and stable in the long run—i.e. medicine, law, finance, etc (which is not to say that artistry and creativity do not exist in those realms—I think they just manifest themselves differently). Eventually, however, I realized that I genuinely love making things, and that doing so has helped me be vulnerable and connect with others in ways that I find difficult otherwise (as a painfully shy person, small talk and public speaking are not my fortes). As someone who both creates and is drawn to helping others create, my choice to pursue an artistic/creative career is born out of a desire to make art accessible, and to give life to art’s nuanced capacity to foster empathy and serve as an educational force. While I’m early on in my trajectory as a curator/writer/archivist/photographer-in training (wearing many hats is a facet of the art world that I have learned to negotiate), I hope to continue finding opportunities that allows me to make the world more hospitable, sustainable and inhabitable for those around me through artistic ventures.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m currently involved in a couple of different initiatives, including curatorial and administrative work for the contemporary fine art photography gallery Foto Relevance (located in the Museum District at 4411 Montrose Boulevard), archiving work for FotoFest founders Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin on behalf of UT Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and editorial work for the online photographic arts platform Lenscratch. On the side, I’m also a maker of my own, with a poetry and photography practice that revolves around Asian American identities and the tensions that arise through these identities’ various intersections with popular culture and media, traditional immigrant family values, the environment, and race relations in America.
Each of these aforementioned opportunities has allowed me to explore different parts of the art world, from the commercial to the non-profit to the educational. I’ve landed where I am with the help of professors and friends who have advocated for me from the very beginning—and for their efforts, I am ever grateful. Because of this support, I was able to get a foot in the door of the Houston art world relatively easily. At the same time, I think getting acclimated to the professional art world was, and continues to be, another task; there are days when the imposter syndrome kicks in and my brain is overrun with anxieties about whether or not I have the ‘right’ educational pedigree, the ‘right’ conversational jargon and mannerisms, and the ‘right’ connections to succeed. This, coupled with the fact that much of the art world remains notoriously homogenous in terms of its racial and socioeconomic composition, has sometimes left me questioning the longevity and legitimacy of my seat at the art table. More bluntly stated: the fact that I am often one of the only people of color in certain art spaces can be quite uncomfortable, and I am still figuring out how to navigate these rooms—both literal and metaphorical—when my presence in them feels conditional.
All of this to say: I look forward to the day when overlooked and marginalized communities are supported (both emotionally and compensatorily) by the creative world. One of my biggest professional goals is to continue pushing for diverse representation among artists, curators, educators, art viewers, publication contributors, fair organizers, designers, trustees, board members, donors, and the like. This guiding hope is what informs my approach to everything that I do. Thus far, I’ve learned that if I want to agitate for change in the worlds that I’m a part of, I have to be a little louder and a little braver than I’m used to. Which is not to say that I’ve had to completely reinvent myself; in fact, I think it’s just been a matter of pivoting and putting the tools already available in my tool kit—the education I’ve been so privileged to have, the networks I’m a part of, the commitment to empathy and justice I try to preserve and nurture—to work. Doing so has recently materialized concretely as a curated exhibition at Foto Relevance highlighting six Asian American artists (entitled Now You See Me, up through November 13th, 2020), as well as a series of interviews with each of the six artists published on Lenscratch (during the week of October 26th, 2020). I like to think that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
As a transplant from the northeast, coming to live in Houston was a bit of a culture shock for me—but I adore this city, and I feel so fortunate to have established roots here. Under non-pandemic circumstances, I’d enlist my friend on a wonderfully gluttonous adventure through restaurants like Mala Sichuan, Korean Noodle House, Jinya, Green Seed Vegan, Les Givral’s, Star Pizza, and Local Foods. For coffee, I’d pick Black Hole, and for pastries, Common Bond. For beer, I’d go with Axelrad; for wine, Bacco; for cocktails, Better Luck Tomorrow. Beyond food, I’m partial to the arts institutions around town: the Station Museum, the MFAH, Art League Houston, the Menil Collection, the Blaffer, and the 4411 Montrose galleries. For more outdoorsy activities, I love the recently-opened Eastern Glades area of Memorial Park, and I have a special place in my heart for Hermann Park (especially during the hours when people walk their dogs). Lastly, some of the activities I miss the most are attending Inprint and Poison Pen readings, browsing around Brazos Bookstore, and emo nights and 80’s nights at Barbarella.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
To my family, my friends, and my educators—who have been, and continue to be, my cheerleaders every step of the way. Thank you for being by my side (albeit virtually, for now). To Bryn Larsen, Geoffrey Koslov, and Suzanne Zeller at Foto Relevance—thank you for your patience, kindness, and generosity. To a whole host of talented writers—Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, Li-Young Lee, Mira Jacob, Natalie Diaz, C Pam Zhang, Hanif Abdurraqib—who have taught me how to stand my ground and stake my claim in the things that I care about.