Flo Oy Wong
It may not be traditional for an artist to start her career at the age of 40, but Flo Oy Wong is anything but a traditional artist. She is a storyteller, a historian, and anthropologist, and she chooses to express herself with everything from rice sacks to suitcases.
Now, at the age of 72, Mrs. Wong believes strongly in actively maintaining one’s health. To stay physically fit, she climbs the stairs ten times a day. To stay mentally sharp, she listens to music and does yoga twice a week. Meditation is important to Mrs. Wong, who agrees with David Lynch when he said, “If you are quiet for 30 minutes, all your ideas come out.” But as important as a healthy mind and body might be to Mrs. Wong, nothing compares to the importance she places on the human spirit.
Mrs. Wong began truly discovering her spirit when she realized she would have little to do when her children left the house for good and her husband continued working. Knowing that there had to be something for her to be passionate about, began drawing and painting. Later, she began to embroider cloth rice bags. Although she did not know it then, Mrs. Wong’s rice bags were the beginning of her search into her cultural heritage. They were also the foundation for a career that would cover the globe from Hong Kong to Copenhagen with wonderfully unique art and stories.
The purpose of Mrs. Wong’s art is not only to strengthen her own spirit, but to unleash the spirit of others. In her masterpiece exhibition 1942: Luggage From Home to Camp, commissioned by the Japanese American Museum, she created a replica of a Japanese internment barrack, which many attendees were moved to tears by the memories evoked. Using items arranged in suitcases actually from the internment, she told the stories of six individuals who had lived in the camps. While being interviewed, one of the individuals admitted, “I never intended to revisit these memories, and here you are asking these questions!” And the relief that it brought this man to unburden himself of his long-held story, and others like him, made the laborious exhibition all the more special to Mrs. Wong. In addition to this chapter of Japanese-American history, Mrs. Wong has explored Chinese-American and African-American contributions to American culture. Truly a cultural historian, her works are known for capturing the insider’s perspective of a group at a given time.
Not that Mrs. Wong is much concerned with time: Although growing older has caused her to forsake larger exhibitions which require a lot of physical energy, she puts equal amount of mental energy into smaller, more detailed projects. While explaining her current project, an exhibition in which she is attaching words cut out of a newspaper or magazine to pebbles, it became increasingly apparent that her creative energy is not on any abating trend. There is no doubt Mrs. Wong will carry out her plan to keep working as long as she is able to do so.
And she relishes the challenge. In fact, to her, the daily struggle of life is what makes life so beautiful. After a friend told her the Chinese phrase, “slin floo how hem” (“first bitter, then sweet”), Mrs. Wong became struck by the universal truth behind it. To say there were bitter times in the pasts she has explored would be an understatement, but there is no denying the joy Mrs. Wong brings with her in the way she tells their stories. With this outlook on life, Mrs. Wong cannot fail to enjoy the sweetness that is later life.
All photos credited to Bob Hsiang.
For more information on Flo Oy Wong, please visit her website.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 09:39AM
Written by: Adam Gallagher