Wen-hao Tien on "Weed Out": Wanted vs. Unwanted, an Artistic Experiment

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About Our Guest

Wen-hao Tien is a visual artist, educator, and Assistant Director of Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies, Regional Studies.

Between 9/22-10/19. 2017 at the New Art Center in Newton, MA, Wen-Hao is showcasing a new collection called Weed Out.

I had the pleasure to visit her studio in Cambridge, where she transferred these wild weeds from random locations into a home garden. Along the way, she took pictures of these plants before they found their new home, and pictures of herself and people she encountered. 

First I was puzzled by this, but very quickly through our conversation, I understood the act and intention behind it. On my way home that day, I began to notice things. 

"Throughout the process of looking even more brought very deep thoughts and contemplation to my consciousness."

Wen-hao grew-up in Taiwan and later moved to the United States to pursue graduate studies.  She began her academic pursues in biomedical sciences, and then to social studies and visual art.  Her studio artwork focuses on language and translation, and explores culture and identity through a unique cross-cultural lens. She is also known for her contemporary Chinese calligraphy and painting.

"Artists have to make a living. There are things they make to sell, and things they make to advance themselves."

In addition to Wen-hao's new collection "Weed Out", you will also discover her journey in becoming an artist. How does someone learn to be an artist? Where does it begin? Are there any shortcuts? Wen-hao couldn't be more honest and transparent from her early years as a student living not far from New York City, to attending workshops at a local studio that became a turning point for her as an artist.

To learn more about Wen-hao Tien, please visit her website https://www.wenhaotien.com/

Show Notes

  • [06:30] What’s the "Weed Out" exhibition about?

  • [08:00] How do you capture plants into art?

  • [09:00] What do you think about people taking care of their garden based on new trends and fashion?

  • [10:00] How did you do to get where you are today? What was your journey like as an independent artist?

  • [13:00] What have you noticed when you slow down and to observe more?

  • [17:00] Can you share a bit of what you do outside your own studio?

  • [19:00] You were a very talented scientist, but you transitioned to an artist. How was that like?

  • [20:00] What was it like to live near NYC (as an artist) - opportunities or setbacks?

  • [24:00] What are some of your advice to young artists?

  • [27:00] As an artist, how do you know you’ve found a good environment to work with?

  • [30:00] Fei and Wenhao discussing about originality vs inspiring from other artists to both make a living and also advanced themselves.

  • [36:00] How do you organize yourself, and get access to galleries and expositions? Do you have a social media manager?

  • [38:00] How do you see traditinal arts vs modern works? How’s the process different/similar?

Favorite Quotes 

[11:00] This process is not unlike the process of a painter, and I enjoy preparing the material from the ground up, laying the field, preparing the paper …

[12:00] I learned that the subject, weed, most people have personal stories they could share, so it’s a very fundamental element of everyone’s life….

[14:00] This is a fundamental need for me, to observe and to look. Throughout the process  of looking even more brought very deep thoughts and contemplation to my consciousness.

[20:00] NYC gave the permission, and a route to become and artist. It was long coming, it took a long time, but steadily i worked very hard to be able to have a voice.

[31:00] Artists have to make a living. There are things they make to sell, and things they make to advance themselves. This is a big challenge for most of us.



The transcript below was provided by machine transcription with light human edits. The general quality is shown below. 

  • Very confident: 5054 words, 86.79%

  • Fairly confident: 651 words, 11.18%

  • Slightly confident: 118 words, 2.03%


Fei Wu: [00:05:37] So. Thank you so much for inviting me to your home and also your studio to talk about your artworks and also your new exhibition called weed out. Yes so could you tell us a bit about. I mean it's upcoming. When or where is it going to be in case of my listeners. Massachusetts can probably make their way there.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:05:59] That would be wonderful. I'm very excited about this exhibition so I would love to see you are so it's Weed Out. And do our center Newton 64 Washington Park.

Fei Wu: [00:06:12] So what's "Weed Out"? When I first heard the name. There are a lot of different thoughts in my mind as you can imagine. As marijuana was just legalized and all that jazz... give us an idea of what what is this about. I mean what are some of the materials.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:06:29] Yes. So you're right in this and I want to really honor the most important elements in the making and the process of this body of work. So I'm using plants and to make a living sculpture inside the gallery. These plants are things that if you live in an urban environment and have a garden and care about your garden these are the things you most likely will pull out. Put them out when you notice them. So these plants are only OK when they are noticed but when you notice they're being pull out. That's the criteria that worked for my definition.

Fei Wu: [00:07:13] We we as an outpost and people typically pull them out and I remember that when I was a little girl washing my parents my grandparents plant on different flowers. And when they see these wild grass or weed they just pull them out as they are absorbing nutrition from the plants we are trying to actually plant out if you are observing them and making them into artworks and capturing them on purpose.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:07:41] Yes because I am a very enthusiastic gardener I have had my own garden since 1986 and I spent a lot of time in the garden and to a degree I got really bored in my garden. Every body else's garden and I realize for the most part we are visual consumption is kept is based on what's being sold in the store. I got bored and I was looking for for the real deal in the age of our city and things that people pull out.

Fei Wu: [00:08:18] It's interesting you reminded me of the fall of beauty when we open up a magazine in which we wear some clothes because we are familiar with them or you know I live close enough to Russo's where I see a ton of people going there every day to know these preplanned flowers and a little pot. That people who buy 15 or 20 at the time they look beautiful you know what is your idea. What are your thoughts on why people go after that and then somehow you're going the other way.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:08:51] I think more like a fashion and it means being an experienced gardener in this area. I will be looking at the plants they hold down. Now that is new only came out last years and you hybridized version I want to get at myself because it's exotic looking people don't see that lot in everybody's garden but it's like old fashioned new new clothes and of course not everybody's garden is up to date. But I think it's a consumption and you continued producing refreshing new look. And so people are attracted by them.

Fei Wu: [00:09:30] So I saw some pictures I had the privilege to kind of follow you around the house and get to see your website. But what intrigued me is the fact that there are pictures of you walking around where we are right now around the Cambridge area of Massachusetts and pictures of you dragging the cards and you pictures of you bending down you know next to a gigantic tree and pulling the weed out to be able to take them with you. So tell me about that journey where have you been. Do you mark your territory.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:10:03] So in the beginning was was a very pure visual attraction of this sort are less noticeable plants in our environment. And when I notice them every single time and feels like a new discovery. And alongside that discovery I discover a lot of other things that you normally don't see when you walk around an urban area. And now I pay attention to them. So this process is not unlike a process as a painter and I enjoy preparing my material from the ground up. Laying the field, preparing the paper I'm a paper person so I can't tell you that I prepared a canvas thatmaterial and I feel this journey of dragging a weed mobile buggy around. Is part of preparing laying out a field of my thoughts and is a big part of the process that I encounter curiosities. Some people would talk to you some someone and although observe some people taking weeds just like me. So I asked them questions what do you want. What are you doing with these weeds and I learned quite a lot of species that you can put as part of your dish or we have a lot of food you can use in them learning Chinese people. I also learned that the subject weed, most people have some personal stories they can tell and to share. So it is a very fundamental elements in everyone's life.

Fei Wu: [00:11:46] It's interesting that there's so much of our lives that we overlook because we are in a hurry because we're under stress or because we are so conditioned to do certain things such as things on my list, a list of todo today going to meetings and follow ups. But when I slow down as I have paid attention to my lifestyle change significantly two years ago when I pursued my per year as a freelancer now so I don't work full time for anybody. I notice the freedom I gained and all the observations I had and things that I wouldn't have done. One example would be I live in Newton and I was driving towards Needham and I was going to see another friend of mine in between Needham where I was going to be and I ended up being this like a very mysterious place and I think my name (Dover, MA)... It's a very wealthy town with a lot of horses and all that. I remember wanting to pull over and pay attention to the scenery for the first time possibly like 5 to 10 years of driving in Massachusetts because I feel like I don't need to pay attention I live here. I've seen everything I know everything there. There you are kind of said what if we just look down where my feet are right here. And to discover some of that what have you noticed like that those inner thoughts I guess the conversation you've had with yourself in this process.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:13:10] I am only here and I think I have spent too much time looking around where was around me I gaze in not daydream but I gaze and say this is a fundamental need for me is to observe and to look inside. But throughout this project just the privilege of looking even more broad very deep thoughts in contemplation in my consciousness by giving myself permission a legitimate reason to even looking and idle or searching scavenger hunt and brought me to an area of thoughts. I never was able to reach so some values for example who want it and what is wanted, unwanted, why and control people's desire to control for example control what's growing in your garden and pulling out the weeds and letting go letting go of that impulse because when when something appear in your garden you didn't put in there. It takes a lot to get used to. So instead of trying to get used to letting go something live is easier just to pull them out. And I also observed a lot of issues pertaining to immigration that we are confronted by today in our society.

Fei Wu: [00:14:37] The idea that he brought up native earth or not I thought there was such an interesting concept that was native to us. I mean growing up in Beijing back in the 1980s there weren't nearly as many faces that weren't familiar to us. And then very quickly in the early 90s you see people from all around the world Caucasians Africa I mean just really incredible. During our conversation just now you know the use of the word native became a kind of a focal point that what is considered native. I mean neither you nor I were born and raised in this country. But now looking around nearly all my friends knew their grandparents great grandparents were not from this country. And then we can keep going backwards. I think the answer is very clear. Who were the original leaders and nobody living in this country united is.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:15:39] I agree with you. I didn't grow up here but I spent almost 30 years in the New England area and I feel I'm a native. Many many many of my neighbors and sometimes I do my I make a mistake or assume who is native who is not native. And I surprised myself sometimes by the look I thought to this person's native. And I after talking to this person and you know you never know. You really never know. And the world has been open for such a long time. I think. Most of us are hybridized version of some heritage.

Fei Wu: [00:16:40] That's what makes your work stand out in ways that I've I have discovered since we're trying to schedule this interview back in April and back then they start looking at your Web site. And more recently just now you know we sat down and looked at some of the projects you have been working on in Boston University and prior to that on Harvard. And I noticed that integration and incorporation that not single out just Asian were Chinese art in particular but your empowering and also mixing it in a good way of other Arts out there. So could you tell us a bit about your work perhaps outside of your own studio here at home but what you do. I feel

Wen-hao Tien: [00:17:25] I feel they are very similar and at least on my part. The difference is this my studio work I drive the idea nowadays even my studio work I incorporate other people's efforts and I am a big fan of working collectively. So my work at Harvard and BU for the most part would work as a group with brainstorm idea and my role in these organization is to detect interesting ideas and project and brainstorm and build a community of interest. More inclusive is more interesting generally speaking and the time has changed. When I started working at Harvard in 1986 in compare to what we do now in Asia is that even a loan is different and it was even more integrative.

Fei Wu: [00:18:23] Your background growing up I mean for the first maybe 20 or so years of your life in Taiwan is it very interesting to me for there are many reasons why you were a scientist really. You were almost born as a scientist that that's something that came easy to you and only talk a little bit about that because you work for not Native artist but you were a very talented scientist and you kind of made a shift and transition.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:18:56] Tell me a little bit more about that. Well I think my academic pursue is Was a very long one in this started. I was selected as a biological science student quite young. I have shown signs and the same people forcing me to do that. I think I was very little that I have shown very strong signs and being very curious about living living objects so that was that was my basic fundamental academic training until school and I made a shift to social studies through study and school public health At Columbia University and when my affiliation at Harvard University and Boston University I continued taking courses to fill in any part of knowledge that I need. But hasn't been acquired all alone. I had a practice in making art more intensively since I arrived in the United States in 1988. So I would say New York City gave me the permission and the route to become an artist. It was slow coming. It took me a long time but steady I worked very hard to be able to have a voice from the media. And I'm choosing to work with.

Fei Wu: [00:20:31] What was that transition like knowing that Columbia is going to close to New York City for some of the international listeners who may not know the kind of geographical location of Columbia. So what was it like for you to transition. We're really utilize your resources in New York.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:20:50] I became very freeing. I'm not living with my parents. So I became very free and New York city has a lot of different people. I heard from a former ambassador that there are 2000 different kind of people in New York city. That blew me away and I don't really know what the two thousand different kinds of people are but I I've met a lot of different people. So I feel I'm one of them. And I feel very free. And Columbia University is in Manhattan in New York City and in the lower lower West Side. There are many studios in galleries and roam around. And I also take a lot of classes and I joined a studio and had some intense productive years at the studio. It is a clay studio. So we use clay as a building material and found objects all kinds of pigment and stuff you can use for paint. It was really really eye opening experience. And from there I became my artistic practice in start to know what works and what not works is another experiment outside my outside of my laboratory

Fei Wu: [00:22:19] Part of what I love discovering as this podcast through people I call unsung heroes and self-made artists you know like you you fall under my tagline precisely well is the journey before you get to where you are today and so much of that just like weed out were ignored neglected never talked about again. So recently I listened to Jerry Seinfeld the very world famous comedian and interview of him with Terry from fresh air from 87 1987. That's two years before he signed a contract to have the TV show Seinfeld. And to hear Jerry Seinfeld to talk about he's making of himself just like the way you talk about the studio. To me that's priceless because oftentimes as we both know artists these days seem successful or incredibly commercialized when I see them kind of reaching that stage on one hand I'm happy that. They don't have to be starving artists anymore. And also if they could enable our young artist by providing them with the resources and the tools would be great. But on the other hand I feel like they start to lose a real sense of what the purpose of art really is in something you said about kind of your genre is to notice something that's usually not noticeable by the majority of the people and turning that into art. But how do you process how do you interpret or I'm sure that maybe other young artists coming to you these days to say how do we navigate my own career. How have you done that for yourself?

Wen-hao Tien: [00:24:06] I think that a shout out here is so from that clay studio studios and studio experience 1992 to today's been a long time so I've gone through many journeys and in between I focused on traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting in a from there. Move on to the experimental but Chinese ink work ink art. And so there's one journey and then throughout that journey they were state Massachusetts state sponsored grants and opportunities which I want to endorse them. And so Massachusetts Cultural Council but moving away from that I needed to find a community of community practitioners similar to my experience and greenwich house pottery. I need to find a community of practitioners there. Into what. I wanted to do with art. And I found Lesley University College of Arts and Design. So I'm wrong. There is a master of fine art student. So it's a fantastic group and I fit right in. So I'm repeating my experience in the early 1980s and feeling really productive. So I think. Finding your community is very important.

Fei Wu: [00:25:37] How did you find out about Lesley?

Wen-hao Tien: [00:25:40] A fluke but but in the very beginning it was a fluke. But no there were doubts because I work and have a family and I produce art. And now going to school that's really big deal. So I kept my doubts. But again I'm going in. I understand what was missing from my practice before going in. So continuing this process of learning with them I feel it was the right thing and I just keep going and in the middle of them I'm half halfway but I already feel it was the right relationship.

Fei Wu: [00:26:27] How do you know that it's the right relationship. So for an artist of any kind whether you're a fine artist and experimenting something your photographer or your podcaster. How do you know you've found the right environment. Because I think what you do becomes obvious. It's hard to translate well that is so could you give that a shot?

Wen-hao Tien: [00:26:53] So I hear. You saying honesty and honesty I think I think you just really have to be honest to yourself In every sense you have as an artist and I that throughout the process of the schooling in the studio practice. I kept going into the direction of catching myself. Catching my thoughts catching one doing observing and going this way and I catch it and I say oh maybe I'll do a different way and do it the other way and I explore. So. As I explore I kept catching myself and I'm going this way again. And let me go that way. And when I presented to. My community what I have done. When people can detect people who Supported me with that journey and detect it the value and gave me very valuable suggestions. And then you compare my work to some other to other artists they know I think that was that was my journey. And so far then I could be extremely honest with with the process and with support from my community and none of my origin was suppressed. And so far so good. And I feel like I'm lending landing on projects and work that has legs that evolve itself on one project and evolve to the next up to the next almost simultaneously. So I'm grateful for my community practitioners.

Fei Wu: [00:28:43] There's something parallel to what you said reminds me of if anybody out there has had a shrink or a psychologist before I know. And fortunately many of the people who have not had that experience. What I learned is when they ask the right questions and start answering them for you so you should do this. You should do that. That's usually a sign of not a very good psychologist you know. Rather they ask you the right question they listen carefully and respond with something that provides you with possibilities and that space for you to think about. You know you can do a what I think. You can also do B or C and the sounds like that community is giving you that leverage almost to truly support you so that you can still think independently. And I couldn't emphasize that enough as an artist who actually needs to think independently. Otherwise it's so easy for a bad community for example where people come together and they literally produce the exact same artwork. Right. So we've all seen that happen as well. So whoever whether the person in charge or there is a sales person is you know you're basically aligning yourself to what sells and you know what's seen as popular. I think at that point probably we're a lot more likely to fail. Like you said catching myself and and also observe what everybody's doing. Maybe I'll go onto something else.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:30:13] I think I think it's intense questioning. I'm doing A and while I'm doing A, and in this A there's there are components one two three four five six seven eight nine ten. Why are you doing that one two three four five six seven eight ten. I have to look at all these questions and I'm not defending myself. But throughout the process and find the reason why am I doing this. And the reason is is from trying something else. So artists does have to make a living. There are things that make to sell and there are things they make to advance themselves. So this may be a big challenge for most of us. So what do you do to sell what you do to advance turn against yourself is a big question.

Fei Wu: [00:31:10] We should definitely explore that. I think this is an area where I've interviewed several artists on the show and everybody has a different way of approaching it and sometimes doing things that sell sounds like a sacrifice. In some cases I know I have to do that to pay rent pay this.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:31:27] But I think that I had a period of time that I painted painted and I had exhibition and sold work and to be honest with you the best work I got picked out first. So it's kind of gratifying because if your best work people know there's good work so you can be gratified. So I would say just in my own experiences don't under estimate your view the viewers the consumers and you will find you do good work and you will be picked out.

Fei Wu: [00:32:22] You know a slightly opposite experience and I found it fascinating as well where my mom, last year I joined Red Cross and basically donated all her paintings. And so that they're sold to the public. And she and I worked together selecting the pieces. They're about 30 or so quite a number of them. And we both knew which one was going to sell first and the colorful. I mean this is very specific to an area of China. And also with one exception and that one exception is a very faded rice paper kind of all this traditional with very light ink outline gongbi meticulous painting now and so quiet and sophisticated. But we're still very happy about that. You know and I think we weren't turned down by it either. You know certainly we love all the other works but sometimes there's something unique about it that's left behind and we were OK.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:33:22] Yeah yeah there all. They kept it because you will miss it. But that also means if this thing a different environment that peace will be the only one that is sold right.

Fei Wu: [00:33:36] Exactly is a different exhibition. This one in particular we're not open to artists more for the general public. It's interesting I think you were we're basically talking about the same thing. Like you said what category is what sells versus what will advance you. So do you think it's important for artists to make balanced as their growth. You know look at whether it's a six month a year plan to say I'm coming from a project management perspective to say maybe I shouldn't spend 40 80 hours a week focusing only on things that sell maybe I need to be aware of that and dedicate some sufficient time for me to explore things that were challenging out there for what would advance me.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:34:19] So I personally am driven by driven by a high height very high goal of what really satisfies me emotionally intellectually through my work through my art. I think that's why I hold a job I'll say because I that's my tough goal is to. How does this practice satisfy my curiosity. So I didn't choose to do make and sell but I felt I could balance. I could. Create a balance by going for that go but at a crossroad when some pieces can't be generated for consumption. I could put aside time to generate those pieces to be so. But I still you know. The project the art. Was going. But when you are at certain junctions I could produce things and then those items can be seen as a product too. I don't mind that it just I don't have enough time right now. But maybe the time will come.

Fei Wu: [00:35:33] And also we're talking a little bit about marketing promoting an artist some of that effort a lot of that type of effort is a linear and super straightforward and using your weed out installation as an example. It doesn't sound like you were pulling selling these parts of plant right. But it's more of leaving people with an impression that won't be forgotten very soon. Right. Make them think about their own lives and therefore become your own brand of who you are and how you differentiate yourself from a vast of other artists out there. So we talked about creating a collection or thought pattern for how do you go about finding the location with the people you want to connect with and say hey let's let's do this together. Do you have an agent? Do you go about doing this yourself?

Wen-hao Tien: [00:36:26] Well I did it and again I have a heavy intense you know demanding job and I am an artist and I'm a I'm a I am a family so I I go with my community that cultivate in the maintained relationship with. So for example In Newton and in Cambridge. So I know it's very important for artists to maintain the social media presence to broaden our engagement in and I am in the process of doing that as well. So for example Week Out project can be seen as a beginning and I. am very hoping to do. Doesn't have to be exact project a similar project in a different community.

Fei Wu: [00:37:14] So I think you were set up and your background in modern art and whereas you know I've been conditioned by my family coming from a very traditional background. My mom spent 40 years at a forbidden city tracing artworks and. So but I also see her transitioning into kind of this emerging into this new world because it's necessary. What's your vision in terms of you know traditional I mean there's so many definitions for traditional that even just within Chinese art itself. But how do you kind of see the two worlds emerge versus separated?

Wen-hao Tien: [00:37:55] I think traditional arts are beautiful. I myself spent a number of years wanted to be good at it. So I think the process my process of learning the tradition of art namely Chinese calligraphy and brush painting rice paper and all that was an intense journey. You know training learning how to embody some essence in some kind of essence that doesn't exist in. The current world. But you saw the beauty and the essence you wanna be able to make it and show to the world. But. I needed to energize the media in order to show the world and have people understand what I'm showing here. He kept the same way. I'm not sure how successful I am to communicate the beauty and essence I saw from the integrity so even as I was Preparing this project I have some very clear direction. Of how I make this living sculpture speak an artist at least I have to make it beautiful beautiful in my own terms so how do I bring out the beauty I see that the type of beauty I see. And it went back to my the things I saw one integrity. Some of those probably enough are a garden center but it is fun some some essence I saw through my practice as an artist in traditional art.

Fei Wu: [00:39:41] This is fascinating because I notice a lot of your work is triggering thoughts and also make art Less intimidating. It's there. You mentioned there's a there's a collection that you showed me with your all the sticks of your son when he was younger and how you re-arrange them using them as strokes of Chinese characters. I haven't thought about that for now if I look back to when I was a little kid of course we did that we wrote with the sticks on the ground in the dirt and we arrange them. But I feel like it was when I saw that I felt like I could connect with myself from 25 years ago which is kind of magical. I'm so glad you're doing this because your you're in a way not simplifying but making it much easier or impossible to communicate where you're coming from. And so that people can take those first few steps and they want to keep looking further into who you are as an artist and hopefully even beyond yourself into what traditional art is about. Maybe that's Chinese art or maybe that's Malaysian are its traditional American art. And you know I'm trying to look for the word but I become you help kind of translate and becomes an intermediary person to make that happen. What I have seen for many years 30 50 years that hasn't really been possible. So I think through your collections you're doing just that.

Wen-hao Tien: [00:41:15] Thank you. The reason why pick out certain pictures is indeed signified to Chinese characters. And I think the viewer appreciated it. I don't label them as Chinese characters but they feel this is this is the language. So. It will be part of my journey is to interpret language in translation language in translation in or out. The week out project has a component of picking up foreign air born wars in the like in your En glish language you are speaking every day. So I'm very excited about and I hope a lot of you will have a chance to visit.

Fei Wu: [00:42:00] It's awesome. Thank you so much. How are you. Thanks for joining. I'm back for a few words at the end of the show. I hope you enjoy what you heard. You can visit us online at Feisworld.com or social channels such as Facebook Twitter and Instagram. Also under Feisworld to keep things simple I personally review and respond to all the messages. Love to hear from you. Thank you. And lots of hugs. See you next week.



I Remember You - Jonny Easton // Music License: Creative Commons


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