Forms of Expression: An Interview with Artist Jocelyn Tsaih

There’s a good chance you’ve seen artist Jocelyn Tsaih’s work already– her signature cloud-like, amorphous, faceless figurines have been seen as article illustrations for the New York Times, on the cover of slant’d Magazine, and as murals in Hollywood, SF MoMA, and NYC’s Spotify office. If you’ve ever eaten at Mama Liang’s in the SF/Bay area, you may have noticed her subtle illustrations on their Taiwanese noodles-to-go packaging!

After I discovered Tsaih’s work, I began immersing myself in her collection of art and illustrations. I found myself drawn to her formless iconic character and perusing one piece after another as if following the storyline of a familiar character. Though simple in form, each image–in vibrant color or lack of, in motion or frozen in contemplation–seemed to reveal so much feeling, a poignant message, or a moment of humanity. Look long enough, and the character is you, floating through the world and reflecting on everyday interactions and contemplations.

I recently met up with Jocelyn Tsaih when she traveled from New York City to San Francisco for an art exhibit. I’m pleased to share a brief interview about her artistic path.  

Hi Jocelyn! I’m so pleased to finally meet you in person. Can you tell us a little about your background and your path into art & painting?

Hi Ho Chie, it’s so nice to meet you too and to be connected! 

I’m an illustrator and artist currently based in New York. I’m originally from Taiwan, but my family and I moved to Shanghai when I was two years old. I attended international school in Shanghai until I graduated high school and moved to New York in 2011 to attend School of Visual Arts.

I had always been interested in creative subjects but for the longest time I didn’t think it was a feasible path for a career. At the time, pursuing a career in the arts was deemed impractical. I was lucky that my parents recognized my interest in art as something worth exploring. They were supportive in my decision to attend some summer art programs in the US, which helped me understand if art was something I was truly passionate about. After meeting like-minded peers and realizing that there are places for people like me, I decided to apply to art schools. Attending SVA was the beginning of it all! 

It’s impressive that you’ve been able to shape a career fully immersed in the arts. Has it been a challenge?

Like anything else, there are definitely challenges that come with what I do. It’s been a long journey but I’m so grateful to be where I am. The first challenge was deciding to seriously pursue art in the first place. I knew it would be daunting and that there was no guarantee of a “successful” outcome. Because of this, I picked Graphic Design as my major at SVA since it was known to be a lucrative field. Truthfully though, I didn’t fully understand what Graphic Design was, and eventually I realized what I really enjoyed was drawing and storytelling. 

Since graduating from SVA, I’ve shifted my focus from design to illustration. I took a leap of faith to become a full time freelance artist in 2019. This has provided a lot more freedom but also requires me to wear different hats. Sometimes I just want to make art, but the reality is that I have to make a living. It can be all-consuming to have a career fully immersed in the arts, but I think it’s worth it if I get to do what I love everyday. 

Do you still have any family ties in Taiwan? Have you been back to visit in recent years?

Both sides of my family are from Taiwan and most of my dad’s side is still based there. In the pre-pandemic days I would typically go back to Taiwan once or twice a year, but the last time I visited was in 2019. I’m actually planning a trip to return this coming September, which I’m really excited about!

I’m drawn to your recent stylistic images of colorful amorphic figures in motion and often evoking emotion. Once someone sees your work, it almost becomes instantly recognizable–in paintings, on murals, as article illustrations–even on my Mama Liang’s noodle packaging! Can you share how the seed of these figures originally came about?

I started doodling these figures in my sketchbook during my college years mainly as a way to work through certain emotions that I had a hard time articulating. It was a form of therapy for me. It wasn’t my intention to build a style around these figures at all, but it became something that I loved drawing the most. Since the figure became a vessel for me to express a lot of my thoughts, it also presented a lot of possibilities for me. The figures have evolved a lot throughout the years, and I still find that there are even more ways for me to experiment the way I include them in my work. 

I wonder if you’ve felt if the quality of your “characters” have changed at all over these years, perhaps as a result of your own growth or any change you’ve experienced? 

Oh absolutely! The figures were very stick figure-esque when I first started drawing them. I was primarily drawing with pen and paper so they were mostly black-and-white line drawings. I used to be very timid with color usage and simultaneously enjoyed the simplicity of having a limited color palette, partially because of my design background. At the time, I was also generally self-conscious about voicing the things I wanted to voice within my work. This led to a higher level of ambiguity within my drawings and illustrations because I kind of wanted to hide behind them and wanted to avoid explaining certain things.

As I’ve grown as a person and artist, I’ve come to recognize that being vulnerable through my work is a positive thing. Instead of trying to say as little as possible, I’m now comfortable being more direct through my work, which means I’m using all the tools I have – color, composition, body language – to convey specific emotions, moods, and moments. 

What is the typical process for you in creating and perfecting an art piece of your own design?

I typically sketch out my ideas quickly in my sketchbook and think about what medium I want to render it in. I like working with different mediums so sometimes an idea can actualize as a painting, a digital illustration, or a ceramic piece. Each medium involves a different process, which is something I really enjoy.

I’ve seen your pieces accompanying several articles from print publications and notable news media–and frequently in The New York Times. What’s your typical process for creating a contracted illustration?

If I’m commissioned to create an editorial illustration for an article or publication, I typically try to simplify the story and get to the root of it. I’ll jot down a bunch of key words that I think are important to the piece and then brainstorm visuals that could be associated with the key words. If the piece is meant to evoke a certain mood, then I’d focus more on the colors and composition of the illustration. If the piece is meant to be more straightforward and communicate a very specific subject matter, then I’d focus on the symbolism within the illustration. The process always starts with a sketch and goes into color explorations before we pick a final version. 

I’m really impressed that you were invited to put your artistic stamp on the walls of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and on some of their advertisement banners. How did this collaboration come about? 

Thank you! The collaboration with SFMOMA is an exciting one for me. When they first reached out to me, I sent over a proposal so that we could see if I’d potentially be a good fit for the project. My concept was based on the idea of the museum acting as a portal into different worlds, because that’s very much what experiencing art is like for a lot of us. They notified me that they’d love to work with me so we started working on expanding the portal idea by utilizing the doorways, using inviting colors, and strategically configuring the figures to signal where to enter the space. 

Is there a particular painting or art piece that has been most meaningful to you? And, how so?

This is a tough one! I had my first solo show, Nowhere Else To Go But Within, in 2021 at Glass Rice and those pieces were very meaningful to me. I painted them during the pandemic and they were reflective of the internal struggles I was going through at the time. I think that was the first time I really pushed myself to be vulnerable through painting, so it felt like a breakthrough of sorts.

Where else can we see some of your public murals or artwork?

I have a few murals sprinkled around the Bay Area. In the East Bay: Huangcheng Noodle House, lululemon, the bathroom of Snail Bar (a teeny piece), the Madewell in Walnut Creek, and outside of Modern Animal in Berkeley. In LA I have murals at Hollywood Park and a library in Long Beach. In NY, I painted murals in the Spotify office at the World Trade Center!

Some of your most recent work has been created in collaboration with artist Bryon Christman whose work has a strikingly edgier, abstractly layered, and multi-dimensional feel to his work. In some ways, it very much contrasts with your softer, intensely vibrant, mostly two-dimensional style, in my opinion.

Tell me more about this collaboration and what it’s meant to you.

This collaboration with my partner Bryon came about when Cecilia, the owner of Glass Rice, came by to do a studio visit. At the time, Bryon and I were sharing a studio in Oakland. She saw our paintings in the same space and proposed the idea of having a duo show together. We created a couple of collaborative paintings which was a fun but challenging process. We had to talk through our ideas thoroughly and hold a lot of trust for each other. Our styles are very different but I think it creates a balance when viewed together. It was a really gratifying experience and it means a lot to me that we got to make work together and show our individual work as well. 

Do you have any advice for new artists out there?

My advice for new artists is: don’t get stuck on the idea of trying to find a style before figuring out what it is that you want to say with your work. Experiment and make a lot of different things. The style will figure itself out. 

Do you have any future projects we should stay tuned for?

I’m really excited to be having my first solo show in Asia next year at Gallery Kabinett in Seoul. I’m also working on some larger scale 3D works that should be on display for a festival at the end of this year! 

Favorite Taiwanese food?

Taiwanese breakfast and beef noodle soup.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us! I can sense that your style will become an iconic representation of your art and growth through the years to come. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes you into the future! 

Thanks so much for having me and for supporting my work! 

Explore Jocelyn Tsaih’s work here:

Instagram: @jocelyntsaih


At time of publishing, Jocelyn Tsaih has prints of her original artwork available. Shop here:

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