In Her Own Words: Ping Khaw Explores Compex Identities Through Art

Ping Khaw has been creating and exhibiting art in Oregon for a number of years, following her completion of her BFA degree from the Pacific Northwest College of Art.

A prolific artist, Khaw has created watercolors, mixed media works, and murals, and exhibited her works at various juried shows.

As a young girl growing up in Malaysia, Khaw started drawing when she was six years old. By the time she was 11, she began competing internationally with young artists from India, Taiwan, and other countries.

She is a rostered artist for the Oregon Regional Arts and Cultural Council Neighborhood Arts Program, and a board member at MediaRites Productions. She provided graphic services and outreach work for the acclaimed “Crossing East” radio series heard on Oregon Public Radio.

In addition she serves as event chairperson for the Asian American Business Alliance Committee and member of the Program Committee for the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.

In Her Own Words, Ping talks about how the evolution of her art mirrors her collective experiences as an artist.

Why is art important? It’s not important to anybody unless you take it seriously. People see a beautiful painting, and think it’s cool. But does it carry a deeper meaning?

There’s a perception that all Asian artists are the same. What I express through my art are the experiences and vision of a person with a complex identity. I’m a third-generation Chinese who grew up in Malaysia. I lived in Malaysia until I was 23, before moving to the U.S.

My great-grandfather immigrated from China to Malaysia. The Chinese brought their own culture wherever they settled in Asia, then absorbed the local culture to form a double identity. Coming to the United States requires a new identity.

Some people may think, what’s the big deal? For me, it is a big deal. It means we’re constantly asking ourselves: where do we fit? In Malaysia, I asked myself: I was born here. I grew up here. Why don’t I get the same treatment?

Here in the U.S., you get treated the same as everyone else. But in some way, you still feel and know you’re different. Sometimes, things that have to do with social and moral issues come up. And you ask yourself: what version of morality or social value do I apply?

Early work

As a child, I was very active, but more introverted. I liked to think and observe. I heard and absorbed what people told me. I was considered very serious by other kids.

My Mom was a schoolteacher, so we always had lots of paper in the house. It was easy for me to pick up a piece of paper and start drawing. Art became a natural way for me to transfer everything I’m absorbing in my environment.

The first competition I won was in first grade. It was a schoolwide art competition. My art teacher convinced my Mom to hire an art tutor for me – so she did. To this day, one of my strongest influences was my first art instructor. He did not ask any of his students to do art his way, his style. He really identified each child’s potential, and let us be ourselves.

My father was an accountant, but my Mom was always into music and art. In high school, I was a science major. I loved art but I decided to study business and accounting in college. No matter what profession you’re in, one thing you need to make sure of is how not to lose money. Even in business school, I kept doing art, and was even teaching art.

In the beginning, I was learning about everything. I was always competing in art contests. My work was always being judged. I won most of the time. At competitions, I was focused on winning, and who’s going to judge the work, and how to get the best score to win. It was a game. I started to realize that I no longer wanted to be judged. Look at my art – like it or dislike it. I don’t need a big ribbon on my painting.

That’s when I started incorporating the whole idea of thinking into my art.

Pursuing the passion

After business school, I won a scholarship for an art school in Kuala Lumpur that allowed the transfer of credits to art schools in the United States. I convinced my Mother to allow me to go to art school. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, and there were lots of restrictions on freedom of speech. There were lots of issues with religion too. I was a young, “uncontrollable” Chinese chick, and I believed that art has to be a true expression of one’s self. How can you really express yourself if there are so many restrictions? At that point, I wanted to go to a country where I can experience what art is really all about. Of course, the first thing is to convince my Mother to allow me to go.

My first two years at PNCA, I was experimenting with different mediums and ideas, trying out new things. I was exploring how I fit in, how my art fits in. I was trying to understand my new environment and understand my own identity.

I came to go to school here, and I didn’t have my family with me. I came here with two pieces of luggage, and basically started from scratch. At first I tried to fit in to the culture by trying to avoid everything that classified, that stereotypically cast me as an Asian artist. The more I ran away, the more I realized that I’m trying too hard to run away. I’m too fake. Later on, I started embracing the Asian roots of my art. My most recent works show this.

My last year at PNCA, I began to find ways to be peaceful. When I did art that dealt with social issues, I would get so angry and depressed. I realized that I was only one person, trying to figure out the problems of millions of people. I can only do so much. I realized that finding balance in life was important. It was a hard battle. It caused me to constantly evaluate myself and my art.

Embracing a complex identity

It happens to all of us – going through different phases in our lives. When we’re young, the tendency is that we all want to be different, to be unique. As I got older, I became more comfortable with who I am and my complicated multicultural Asian identity. I no longer feel that I have to be only Chinese, or only Malaysian. I am both Chinese and Malaysian.

I’m really enjoying my process more. There was a time when I would spend so much time on the thought process of creating work, that I have forgotten how to have fun. I was so worried about my topic, my research, whether I would offend people.

When I did the “Exits and Exist” series, that’s when it came to me. I can just leave something behind, close the door and move on. It’s all about choices: I can carry a heavy burden, or carry a good memory.

Creative process

I’m involved with Media Rites Production, Asian American Business Alliance, and the Northwest China Council. Volunteering in these organizations allows me to go out and meet people. I can’t just isolate myself and create art. Over the years, I’ve met many great people who have helped me in many ways.

Everyday living is my creative process. Living moment by moment, observing, taking information in. Eventually, all of it starts to make sense and I get a clear vision. I get an idea or a feeling about a painting, and I’m constantly questioning myself about what I want to accomplish. Sometimes I start a painting, then I allow the idea to sit and brood. When the ideas come back, that’s when I know to go for it.

As a person, I’m proud that I have been able to survive and find my way. I have lots of great friends, and I’m happy. With every year that goes by, I feel like a new person again. Whatever I accomplished last year is so last year. I’m always working toward new accomplishments.

I have one goal when I wake up every morning: to have a good day. It sounds simple, but that’s where it all starts. What does it mean to have a good day? If I can accomplish tasks, and at the end of the day, I’m still happy: that’s what makes a good day.

Spring 2008 Colors of Influence

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