Imin Yeh

I think more and more I am making work that is humorous and playful at the forefront. It is a much more generative way to discuss larger, heavier issues that are present in the work.

Imin invited us to visit her at both her studio space and at Mission Grafica, a community printmaking shop within the Mission Cultural Center, where we were able to watch her in action. At the time of our visit, Imin’s studio was in a converted garage beneath a Victorian flat in the Mission District. The garage was deep and wide, efficiently accommodating Imin and the other artists she shared the space with. Upon arriving, the first thing I noticed was a painted heart above the garage’s entrance. It was a spot of brightness on the otherwise nondescript building, popping out against the wash of gray paint and the day’s dull, smoke-colored sky. Imin greeted us warmly, and took us in to poke around as we pleased. It was messy, with lots of half-filled storage containers haphazardly lying about, and papers strewn all over her desk. But she moved about her things with certainty. Knowing exactly where everything was, she pulled examples of prints from drawers and boxes, neatly placing them out on the concrete floor to show us. Imin is a talker and during our visit she told lots of anecdotal stories, funny ones but also rich in thoughtfulness and inquiry. As she talked about her interest in commodification and its cultural impact, she brought out a plastic bag stuffed with big-bellied Buddha keychains and told us they were made in Mexico. Delighting in this irony, she gave us each a keychain to keep. Imin comes across as a prankster— keen on tricks, games, jokes and riddles, she seems to find humor everywhere, but beneath her playfulness something more serious is definitely hard at work.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I am at a point now where I can pretty confidently say I am an Artist. I have had a great year where a good majority of my income has been from art grants, commissions, sales, and teaching gigs. Sometimes I do not feel so confident, so I will exemplify that I teach, that I do design work, or that I work part time at the Asian Art Museum. When people ask me what kind of art I do, I now say that I work mostly in printmaking (woodcuts and screenprints) but the projects often take the form of large-scale installation and sculptures and are often conceptually interactive. Most people just have a blank stare after I say that.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I work at the Asian Art Museum in the Retail Department. It is a job I started during grad school and continued because it is flexible and provides health insurance. The people I work with are very open and supportive of my art-related work. I have been very fortunate to have a part-time job that provides a foundational financial structure so that I do not have to rely on the sales of my work to pay rent/ buy health insurance/ buy food. Especially since our culture and government does not support artists or health insurance (insert subtle political commentary here…). Also, since I work at the Asian Art Museum Store, it has made a huge influence on my work. I was always interested in how shopping/tourism/souvenirs influence what we know about another culture. At my job, I am at the front lines of this kind of interaction. Everyday is a little bit of an anthropological examination on how people consume cultures and the subtle line between appreciation and exploitation.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work mostly in print media. I think this is a conceptual expansion on printmaking. Print media is any medium that is interested in ephemera, graphics, reproducibility, and information sharing. It’s very process-based and because of that, I believe it is a great medium to talk about the subject matter of “labor”. Subject matter and themes in my work are about labor, shopping, cultural commodification, and play.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It is so important to have a physical space to make art. Unfortunately, it is very, very expensive to have a studio space here in the city. I am much more productive with a dedicated studio space, but unfortunately it means working more hours to afford the space, and therefore less time to be in that space making work. It is a total conundrum. I am in the process of moving out of my studio and back to working in my apartment, which will be a challenge. But I do have access to Mission Grafica at the Mission Cultural Center to use their print shop. So I am hoping that makes for an affordable option to continue with the level and amount of work I have been making the last few years.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I think more and more I am making work that is humorous and playful at the forefront. It is a much more generative way to discuss larger, heavier issues that are present in the work. Basically now, I just try to keep up with all of the crazy ideas I have, and I attribute a lot of that energy to introducing running into my day-to-day life. I think after the intensity of grad school, the only thing that could fill that void was some serious strenuous activity so running has fit the bill. There are a lot of correlations between the mentality between long distance running and creativity. Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about When I Talk About Running is a pretty good book discussing the relationship between the discipline behind running and writing.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I recently received an Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission. The funding is for a year-long project involving a pop up contemporary art space in the Asian Art Museum that basically is hacking into a privileged space within a public collection that is dedicated to only high donors of the museum.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
The biggest physical challenge to creating art is money and space. I guess I have dealt with that by working all the time and trying to “cull the herd” and get rid of stuff that doesn’t work. Space is money, and I cannot afford to keep a studio and a storage space. This last year has been a wonderful year for me art wise. But even with the added income from grants, commissions, shows, and sales I still am very anxious about navigating further down the rabbit hole that is the art world. The trickiest part is that even when the art world is welcoming, you become busier and more in demand, but not necessarily more financial solvent. It is very stressful because I am very pragmatic. Is there nothing worse than a pragmatic artist?

What are you most proud of?
I don’t know if I am really proud of anything. I am pretty proud that I can run over four miles. That’s something I never thought I’d do.

What do you want your work to do?
I want the work to make someone laugh and to start conversations and discussion. The hard part about that is facilitating all of these conversations! I never factored in how physically and emotionally demanding interactive projects might be. I can’t help but take it very personally every comment that is hurled my way during an interactive piece. I long to begin some pieces which are more aesthetic and technically based just to clear my mind.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I probably will not know until I have way passed arriving ☺ I’m not sure where this wild ride will take me but I do know that art has opened up so many amazing opportunities to create, to teach and to influence others. Above all, art has changed the way I process the world and what kind of possibilities/choices (all creative and hilarious) I have in reaction to the world we live in.

To see more of Imin’s work: