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Artist’s solo exhibition closing at Anchorage Museum

Jan 17, 2019

The painting "2 Mothers" by Thomas Chung. (Photo courtesy Thomas Chung)

An Anchorage-based artist wants his message to scream.

"The same words if you whisper them mean something completely different if you scream them," said Thomas Chung, an assistant professor of art and painting at the University of Alaska Anchorage. “My work, the things I'm trying to say, they need to be screamed, or else it's not the same message.” 

Chung’s solo art exhibit, “Everything is Sacred,” at the Anchorage Museum closes Sunday, Jan. 20th. His life-sized paintings incorporate multiple levels of montaged imagery.

Thomas Chung (Photo courtesy University of Alaska Anchorage)

“Underlying the paintings is my interest in storytelling,” Chung said. “There's always representational elements, recognizable elements, usually figures, because the paintings in my mind are stories. The power of painting (is) for a single image to tell an entire story for the viewer to reflect.” 

The artist grew up in places like New York City and Hong Kong, but says Alaska is his “favorite place in the entire world.”

“When I first moved to Anchorage over five years ago, my first friends that I made were a Yupik family, and my first paintings that I made here were illustrating their stories that they told me,” Chung said. “There was something really profound and powerful about the stories that I was being told, and it was really beautiful having it be this collaboration.”

That collaboration would earn the artist a Rasmuson Foundation grant in 2016.

“The idea with my Rasmuson grant was that I would travel to places in the North Slope and harder to reach places in Alaska in order to kind of hear stories and kind of witness what was happening at the intersection of the modern and the traditional in Alaska,” Chung said. “Alaska is a really special place because we have a lot Alaska Native traditions, some go back thousands of years. At the same time, there's these processes, these lifestyles are being done with Amazon paper towels. There's this real beauty I think to that intersection of modern (and) traditional.”

But the grant also took him on a different journey.

“I basically the most important besides the extraordinary experiences that you can have in Alaska, you know running from bears, and hoping from glaciers to glaciers, diving into ice caves, things like that, was my interactions with elders,” he said. “None of that was planned, but it happened every time I went somewhere. I got to hear the most life-changing, profound stories from these elders.”

He said hearing these stories reflected something back that he didn't even know was within himself.

“My background is Chinese, but my great-grandparents, and grandparents immigrated here -- they were all refugees from war,” he said. “I'm fourth generation. By the time I was born, little if any actual Chinese culture was handed down to me. We had become fully assimilated up to the point that only being white would have been assimilating more.” 

Chung’s family began researching their own ancestral histories, uncovering the fact his grandfather was Tibetan, and his father was descended from a native minority in China.

“There's some parallels with the indigenous cultures here,” he said. “It's just been really beautiful, and it's through the Rasmussen that planted that seed of connection.” 

Before his exhibition closes, Chung will lead a discussion about one of his paintings during an event 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, at the museum. Visitors will be able to focus on the painting and talk about the work. 

“There's a lot of really intense, extreme imagery because the things that I lay awake thinking about at night are very intense and very extreme,” he said. 

In the end, the artist said his work is a celebration of diversity.

“All the different cultures that have become a part of me, that have been shared with me,” he said. “But it's also the really negative and painful side effects of living in a diverse society that we don't always think about.” 

For more information about Chung, go to tomchung.org.