Sara Chao is working on her first solo show in a small, shared space near the bustle of downtown’s Piñata District. There are pages of a Thomas Guide pieced together on one wall. On another wall is a collage that merges the grocery store iconography of Jon’s and Super King.
Her studio is filled with unexpected mementos of the city that will become part of A Hometown Souvenir, which opens at Leiminspace in Chinatown on May 12.
“I have this practice of collecting paper and souvenirs from my daily experiences in Los Angeles,” says Chao, who was raised in La Crescenta and currently lives in Pasadena.
“I was asking myself this question, why do I feel like doing that when I live here? People usually take souvenirs when they’re in a new place, but I was thinking of turning the idea of the souvenir on its head and making it about these little details that people will overlook, rather than bigger landmarks, like the Hollywood sign or something like that.”
Save for her four years at Westmont College in Montecito, Chao has lived in the L.A. area. Her show draws not only from her own life, but from her family members’ as well.
She makes use of sour grass, an edible weed that grew in her old La Crescenta backyard. There’s confetti leftover from a party she threw in Verdugo Park a few years ago. There are nods to her maternal grandfather, who died before Chao was born. He migrated to Los Angeles from Philippines where he worked and sent money home to the family for 14 years before Chao’s grandmother and mother were able to join him.
“Echo Park Lake, he used to play tennis there every weekend,” says Chao. “I conversely would go running at Echo Park Lake every weekend for a while. He actually died on those tennis courts. Every time I go there, I think that this is a place that’s mine, but this is also a place that’s his, but I never knew him and I never met him. I think about that driving around Los Angeles a lot and that’s what prompted me to make this work.”
“She has dug so deep,” says Schelsey Mahammadie-Sabet, owner and curator of Leiminspace. “It’s almost archaeological, the way that she works and amasses things.”
Like Chao, Mahammadie-Sabet is a local artist; she grew up in Northridge. Almost three years ago, she opened Leiminspace in Chinatown’s Central Plaza. Inside a narrow, two-story gallery on a pedestrian road less traveled by the art crowd, she puts the spotlight on fresh voices, mostly women, of diverse backgrounds, who speak of the issues that are defining today, from social media to feminism to identity.
“There tends to be often a rawness about the type of work that she’ll show,” says Chao. “It’s usually not too perfect, so to speak.”
Chao first entered Leiminspace to check out a solo show from one of her friends. Mahammadie-Sabet recalls noticing Chao’s taste in fashion and accessories. “Every time I saw her, she would have these tiny, but intricate decorations on herself, like rings or necklaces, even her clothing would have tiny details in it and I saw that and was like, I bet this person has cool art,” she says. “I was seeing a really specific way of thinking.”
Eventually, Mahammadie-Sabet made a studio visit and was impressed with Chao’s work. She liked that Chao could make large pieces with very small details.
She was also intrigued by the themes in the artist’s work. “She doesn’t seem to have reservations about being ultra-personal,” says Mahammadie-Sabet.
That’s something the gallerist looks for in artists to show at Leiminspace. She adds, “I think people have to be really personal because when you’re really personal, you get really honest and when you’re really honest, people are inevitably going to be drawn and relate to your work even more.”
The two also bonded over a similarity in their backgrounds; both the artist and the gallerist are of mixed ethnicity. Chao is of Chinese and Filipino heritage, while Mahammadie-Sabet’s heritage is Iranian and Nicaraguan.
“We talked about how often when you meet other people who are mixed, there’s an understanding of what it means to be two things or multiple things at once and not feel like you completely belong to one thing or the other, or you’re never enough of one or the other,” says Chao. “That identification with other mixed people can sometimes even feel more appropriate to your existence than someone who is full Chinese or full Filipino.
With that in mind, they co-curated The Mix Show last year. The one-night event featured artists found through an open call, who were instructed to make art about the mixtures that exist in identity, anything from ethnicity to gender to blended families. “We got so many people coming to us later, young people who were like, this is the first time I’ve had my art in a gallery and it meant the whole world to them. That meant the world to us. That was so amazing,” says Mahammadie-Sabet.
Inside her studio, Chao shows off a few souvenirs that will be on sale during the course of her show. They’re keychains and buttons but they’re a far cry from what you’ll find on Hollywood Boulevard. Instead, they speak to the Los Angeles that locals know.
“This is the most me topic I could have done. It’s something that I think about when I’m driving, just in my life,” says Chao.
But, in sharing her own very personal L.A. history, Chao is essentially encouraging others to think about their own connections to the city.
“I want my art to be a space that reminds people of a certain time in their lives because that’s why I make my art,” she says. “I’m really hoping that people will come back and find something about it that they see in themselves.”
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