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SMW Guest: Janice Li

Janice Li is currently an incoming freshman at Stanford University. She received her Advanced Studies diploma at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA. Her interest in building a community that encourages youth engagement with the interdisciplinary implications of art led her to create YouthArtifex: a non-profit organization inspiring research and curiosity about how art illuminates various disciplines.

She has completed research projects on Murals as Empowerment: Painting Positive Visuality for Girls of Color and Gentrification and Street Art as Artifex: The Value of Preserving Cultural Memory. Janice was invited as a keynote speaker at the Global Digital Health Initiative Young Women’s Health Conference to talk about art’s role in mental health.

She is a passionate advocate for bridging the gap between art and technology, hoping to harness technology to build empathy, deepening connections through the accessibility of tech that art sometimes lacks. She has done research in using Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning to create convolutional neural networks that transfer artistic styles.

Interview with artist and founder of YouthArtifex, Janice Li

Introductions

    "I’m Janice. I’m half-Korean half-Chinese. I grew up in Virginia all my life like I’m really close to DC. I attended Thomas Jefferson High School, and I’m an incoming freshman at Stanford University. I really enjoy writing which is really cool, but I’ve done a lot of my work in the arts. I’m especially passionate about using art as a means of political activism or something that can build confidence in identity, and I work with how murals can fight against gentrification and as a means of showing positive individuality to girls of color. That’s just the stuff I am interested in. I also did a little bit of work with artificial intelligence with like computer science and how I can blend STEM and the arts together since STEM is something that is usually more widely known than STEAM which includes the arts. I’m a really big advocate of blending those two together because there are so many implications that art can have on STEM and vise versa in how STEM can, in a way, bring another dimension to art."

How did you get involved in art? Was it always a passion of yours? Why do you do what you do?

    "When I was younger, I thought of art as something more of a pastime. I just doodled on pieces of paper but as I grew up in middle school and high school, I started looking at art in a different way. I love how art can be so unique to each individual person since everyone interprets art in a different way. I love how art can break down barriers in terms of communication and opening up conversations about some topics that are more sensitive than others. Especially 21st-century problems, in particular now, as you can see all the problems we are dealing with like racial disparities, and a lot of stuff people are sensitive to I feel that art can bring conversation, give that extra depth, and break down polarized boundaries. So I really like that compelling aspect of art, how I didn’t find that in a lot of different other disciplines. I think it gives a very nice way for people to find themselves as I found it’s where a lot of people are the most vulnerable. Words or how someone acts may not be able to portray a lot of the feelings you actually develop, but I feel art can unravel that deeper layer of meaning. And so I really like that portion of art, I just think that the implications art has on other subjects is really compelling. It has so much potential, and I think that’s why I really enjoy art." 

What do you think is integral to the work of an artist? What role does art and its artist have in society?

    "I think art gives a different perspective on society where some people are near-sighted and only have a tunnel vision of what they want to see, but art kind of opens up those perspectives and gives viewers another way to interpret something. With a lot of artists, it comes with how they view the world and what passions they have. There’s this one art piece inspired by how my perspective on art is wanting to portray the things that are often overlooked, so those fleeting moments that people often disregard as important or just say “Oh, that doesn’t contribute to the whole picture,” but I think it’s the little things that make all the difference. It’s like a lightbulb with fireflies and a hand just unscrewing the lightbulb is kind of like you want to capture those moments that are very minuscule to some people but might be empowering and compelling to others."

Are there certain themes you particularly pursue in your artwork? And what influences your art?

    "I usually stay away from more like landscape places, and that was something I had done as a training for my technical skills growing up. But in high school, I leaned towards building more narrative pieces, so pieces that showed a story, that showed emotions. Some pieces I have done are commentary on how I view society and some social issues. I think those are really important because there are a lot of those issues that people won’t be comfortable speaking up about, but if they see someone else who also struggles in those issues of identity, I think it’s something that can connect with other people who are feeling this way and make them feel like “Oh, I’m not the only that feels this way.” SO I think that those were the main concepts that I stuck to with my art. I also think that using multimedia artwork is very interesting in a way that you aren’t really sticking to the traditional 2D dimension of art but rather are expanding your art in a more interactive kind of feel. I know that for example, there’s this one mural that I really enjoyed. It was called, “Narratives of Displacement,” and it is in the Mission District in California, and it has 8 portraits of people who were misplaced or displaced by gentrification. There’s a number that you can dial, and you can actually listen to their stories, and so that was really compelling and made me empathize with their situations despite the fact that I never had to deal with those myself. It’s that kind of interaction between the traditional artwork, and with technology that makes a new dimension reform and many new perspectives to be added."

I understand that you have always created your own website Youth Artifex, what was your thought process and reasoning behind that? 

    "In my school, it was more of a magnet technology school, so while it’s mission statement was to celebrate discovery and innovation, I felt that innovation and discovery beyond STEM were  seldomly celebrated. I kind of had a struggle with that tension in where my interests lied more in the humanities and interaction between STEM and the arts, but it seemed like whenever I would bring up conversation about murals, gentrification, and the different artworks I felt really inspired by, it would be often overlooked. Even when I was doing my senior research project, so in our school, all the seniors have to partake in a senior research lab and so I chose DS. And so I proposed my project as like AI’s relationship with transforming artistic styles, but my lab director originally said: “Why don’t you choose something more applicable?” And then by that, I was thinking “Oh, so you think art is not applicable?” That was what my thought process was, and I had to take so much time to persuade the director that “This project is essential, and it’s not just the heavily STEM ones that can greatly impact the world.” So that took a bit of convincing, so that worked in the end but it was more of finding a community that I could discover more in the arts and just discoveries beyond STEM and intercorrelations with STEM. So I wanted to find that community, but I knew I wouldn’t find that at my school. I did some independent work with some professors, and I also read a lot of books. One was “Disidentification” by José Esteban Muñoz. And it basically talks about how disidentification requires strong identification, and that means you have to challenge the very institutions that you love. That was my approach to my school in a way, I kind of needed to venture out and it’s okay to not identify strongly with the interests my other classmates had in STEM. That’s why I created Youth Artifex, as a community where not only me but also everyone else can find their own interests in art as well."

How do you think that your own identity relates to your artwork?

    "As a person of color, I definitely think that there are a lot of issues that most people of color experience, and it’s something that is very highly debated and sensitive. You can also tell that by the time we are in now, with all the protests. That was a topic that I felt compelled to create art about. To share the idea that just because you are a person of color, that doesn’t mean you are in any way less than anyone else. I definitely think it added more perspective to my artwork, and it’s something that I feel needs to be discussed more and that art can be a medium for it."

Being a woman of Asian descent, has it ever been difficult to pursue your passions given the many pressures and stereotypes that society imposes on you?

    "As like the model minority, that’s like the cliche label that Asian-Americans have. It was definitely pressuring as my sister was in the STEM field as well and all my classmates went into the STEM field. Especially being in an environment like my own school that breeds STEM and hardcore math, science, bio, like all of that stuff, it’s definitely hard in a way that people kind of don’t really get the stuff that you’re passionate about, and conversation is more steered towards STEM and STEM innovation. I definitely felt pressure to follow that path of pursuing my interests in STEM, but after growing up and learning about misidentification and all that, I realized that it’s better to take the path not taken even though it might seem hard. It’s not taught to many people since the stereotypes are very strong, so I think it’s something that people need to work towards, breaking those boundaries down."

How has your art and work changed over the years?

    "In middle school, I mostly did color pencil since it was an easier medium and easily correctable if you make mistakes. But throughout high school, my favorite medium now is definitely watercolor which is known as one of the harder mediums because if you make mistakes, it’s like you can’t come back from that. It’s definitely more of a risky medium, so I think through art, I became more creative and less confined and more willing to take risks. I expanded to multi mediums, so I started using technology, I started using wires, different 3D sculptures, and I feel that something more interactive, so I went from a 2D flat to something more interactive as I progressed throughout school."

Do you plan to continue pursuing art in the future?

    "I definitely have plans to continue whether it be through clubs, classes, or working for another non-profit that works towards a lot of art activism. It’s definitely something that I for sure want to continue in the upcoming years. I’m not sure what forms I would take, but I definitely would want to!"

Do you have a message for Asian Americans and young women interested in art?

    "I would say don’t be afraid to experiment beyond what you may think is acceptable. Art is a very wide field where creativity flourishes. Being stagnant in your art and only showing one dimension, you will not feel the benefits of art as much as when you explore into more dimensions. Don’t be afraid to include technology or other types of concepts that you haven’t seen before because through that, you learn so much not only about yourself but also about passions you can bring to help others."

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