When visual artist Diem Chau and her family first came to the United States—she was born in Saigon—her mother wanted her to have curly hair, and bought a kit from the grocery store that promised to perm hair. But she left it in her daughter’s hair for too long.
“It looked horrible!” Chau recalls, laughing.
Years later, Chau did research into folk art that was done when people didn’t have a lot of money, and had to create art out of the everyday household materials that they had. She decided to create a series of carvings out of crayons, which she had lying around the house. One of the carvings she did was of herself with permed hair. She also did other images of herself—and others—from her childhood, and from childhoods that she imagined.
The carvings eventually became a piece entitled “Storytelling.”
“Stories enable us to live a more vivid life,” Chau says. “I consider myself an artist whose medium is stories. Especially those that are primarily passed on orally. Coming from a nomadic childhood, what few possessions my family had were necessities. The things of greatest value to us were stories contributed by friends and family. Embedded in these stories are connections to the past, our culture and an occasional escape from reality.”
“My grandmother told some of the best tales,” she says. “She had a wonderful way of spicing up the traditional fable. According to her, Cinderella was kept from the Prince’s ball by having to sort a jumble of mung beans, red beans and soybeans. Snow White went on many dates with Prince Charming before they got married, their first date being a picnic in the park with sandwiches and sliced melons.”
“These small deviations are what fascinate me with oral traditions. Each story is a journey that gives us greater understanding of our past and our culture. Each story is a thread that connects us to each other, the storyteller holding one end and the audience the other.”
Chau has always loved working with ready-made materials, things that are around every day, that have a story behind them.
“I like using what’s already there,” she says. “Writers compose with the words that already exist, that already have meaning. But they put it together in a way that means something. As a visual artist I do the same thing—but I compose with objects, instead of words.”