Culture is My Home: Interview with Leon Sun, Artist and Photographer
By Eddie Wong. Posted December 21, 2022.
Intro: Leon Sun’s exhibit “Back to the Culture: A Silkscreen Print Exhibit” concludes on Dec. 31, 2022 at the National Japanese American Historical Society, 1684 Post St , San Francisco. Sun, a longtime activist and community-based artist, shares his views on artwork and politics in this interview with East Wind ezine, conducted on Dec. 15, 2022 and edited by Leon Sun on Dec. 20, 2022.
Eddie Wong: Could you talk a little bit about what drew you to become a movement artist?
Leon Sun: I was influenced and affected by all that was going on around me at the time: the anti- Vietnam War protests and the Black Liberation Movement and I was responding to the racism I experienced myself. So, it all kind of fell in place when there was an Asian American Movement, and my generation was realizing the importance of self-determining our identity. I was looking for people to connect with because I came here as a foreign student in the late 60s. I had no idea of what America really was like other than the image that’s been portrayed across the ocean to us. But I found out that a lot of things were really different.
Eddie Wong: You first immigrated to Michigan. What was that like?
Leon Sun: Horrible. (laughs) Besides the culture shock, I had no idea what racism American style was like because I grew up partly in Hong Kong and under a colonial system. We were treated as second class people but day-to-day Hong Kong society functioned pretty well. Chinese had our own world and the British had theirs. I went to an elite British school and encountered some racism, but it was nothing like the raw, violent, and dangerous racism here. In Michigan, almost from day one, I was harassed with racist stuff like the “Ching Chong Chinaman” thing or “go back where you came from.” I was shocked at the level of ignorance and fear and hatred that existed among everyday people.
It affected me a lot. The people that I hung out with were a few white kids who were nice to me and who were on the “outs” who did poorly in school. I was so messed up and unhappy. One summer I came out here and fell in love with San Francisco right away because of its cosmopolitan nature. People didn’t stare at me when I walked down the street. I felt so good here. I walked around the City a lot and one day I stumbled across Chinatown. I said to myself, “Oh man, this is it. I’m stayin’ here!” and I sent for my books and belongings and never looked back. I got a job bussing tables to make some money so my parents didn’t have to pay for everything. My grades were so bad in Michigan, but I had to find a school because I was on a student visa. I first went to Heald College and I didn’t like. I had wanted to study architecture, but I got more attracted to art and photography because that seemed more relevant at the time. I then enrolled at the Academy of Art and majored in photography. Frankly, they weren’t a very a good school. I learned the basics of photography, but I never stayed much with the classes. I just went out in the streets and took pictures on my own. I had no interest in commercial photography. I wanted my art to be socially relevant and make some kind of contribution to changing people’s minds and attitudes.
It was at the anti-war demonstrations that I first saw an Asian contingent and people from I Wor Kuen (IWK), a revolutionary Asian American group. I saw their banners and I thought their slogans were the best. It wasn’t just like all about peace and loving your brother, but their signs said, “US imperialism Out of Southeast Asia” and coming from Asia I was very aware of imperialism. Some of the things Asian Americans were concerned about – like finding their roots – didn’t concern me too much because I was always pretty confident about my Chinese identity and Chinese culture.
At the time I was wandering about in life, seeking and looking for something to give me direction. I read a lot – everything from Buddhism to writings by J. Krishnamurti – on the spiritual side – and books like Soul On Ice,the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth on the political side. Those books really opened my eyes. I tried to draw from both sides – spirituality or revolution. Being an angry young man at the time, I went with Marx and Mao. Some years later, when I was a student at the University of Washington, I went to the Tule Lake Pilgrimage and met a lot of IWK people. I was on my way to moving back to San Francisco, and they told me about CANE (Committee on Nihonmachi Evictions) and CPA (Chinese Progressive Association) and so I looked them up when I got here. I also went to the JAM (Japantown Art Media) Workshop. And that’s where I felt most at home because there were all kinds of cool Asians doing Asian American art and serving the community. “Serve the People” was a big thing back then and I wanted to be part of that.
Eddie Wong: That’s where you started studying silk screening, right?
Leon Sun: Yeah, they were making something posters for the community. They also taught the community organizations how to make their own posters. At the same time, I got hooked up with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and later I worked on Unity, a revolutionary newspaper. That’s where my photography and art really took off because that was just what I wanted to do as an artist.
Eddie Wong: But let’s go back and talk about silk screening a little bit. People don’t realize that in silk screening you create the work as a negative image. How do you process that in your head?
Leon Sun: Usually you draw a sketch of the image, color it in with color pencils or use Photoshop to see what you want it to look like. Then you translate each color into a separate run. You then burn the image onto the screen which is coated with a photo sensitive emulsion. You process it by washing it so the screen itself becomes a negative. And then you put the ink into the screen, and you force the ink through the open spaces with a squeegee, so it once again becomes a positive image on the paper print. The hard part is each color is made with a separate run and you have to register them, so they’re all lined up properly.
Eddie Wong: Let’s talk about some of the current new work that you have on display. You have as the title “Back to the Culture.” It’s not just a physical home, but it’s your spiritual, mental home. Can you talk more about that?
Leon Sun: Because of racism I needed to have a cultural home for myself and my mental well-being. I’ve always been able to go to Chinese culture for strength and for understanding the world. We Chinese tend to be more collectivist, more social, less individualistic. I feel that we have so much to offer in our culture that it’s not appreciated here. I wanted to showcase our culture, which is what makes us strong.
Eddie Wong: You have woven in Daoist and Buddhist principles into your practice. How does that come out in the work?
Leon Sun: Well, for example, there’s a print of a caterpillar on an abstracted image of leaves. In the Daoist culture, there’s the idea that little things are just as important as big, complicated things. Daoism speaks about the flow of chiand being aligned with it and living in balance – that’s very different and almost the opposite of Western rationalism and the cult of the individual. I feel that those kinds of outlook are very valuable, especially in terms of looking at the environment and the social situation we find ourselves in. Daoism and Zen Buddhism have a lot to offer. And as I learned more about Native American cultures, I saw a confluence of values and outlooks that people should pay more attention to and learn from. So, I take what I personally feel about Native American cultures and art and try to combine them with Chinese art and culture.
The process of printmaking itself is very meditative. It’s such a long process and at each stage you need to give it full attention, do it right and be mindful of the karma that leads to the final print. It’s kind of a struggle with myself too because I tend to be impatient. I just want to get things done and a lot of times I see things that could be a problem and I say, “Oh, it’ll be alright.” And, of course, later on, I find it’s not alright. So, over the years, I’ve learned to be very careful and pay attention to what I’m doing at the moment and then things will fall in place. That’s kind of a metaphor for life.
Eddie Wong: One of the striking images in the show is the one with the sutra. What inspired you to make that image?
Leon Sun: The calligraphy was written by a friend of mine, who knew that I was really interested in Chinese calligraphy and Buddhism. She just took it upon herself to write the heart suture, which is a very popular sutra among Chinese Buddhists. It’s about the self and the idea of no-self. Aesthetically, I love calligraphy. My friend met up with me at a demonstration in Chinatown about anti-Asian violence, and she pulled out a roll of paper and said, “Oh, I did this for you.” Being typically Chinese and humble, she said, “It’s not very good. I’ll do a better one for you next time.” I looked at it and said, “Wow, what do you mean not very good? This is beautiful! I’m going to put this on a silk screen print!” I looked through my files and I found a picture I took of a huge Buddhist statue in Bhutan. Because it’s a spiritual image, I didn’t want to make it representational, so it’s just reduced to the eye and part of the nose to make it a very spartan image, keeping to the Zen love of simplicity.
Eddie Wong: Right, it’s very striking. The show is very varied. I mean you have another image that’s of Benkyodo (a diner and manju shop in San Francisco Japantown, now closed). What inspired you to do that?
Leon Sun: Yeah, that was from an earlier exhibit. An old JAM Workshop friend, Richard Tokeshi came up with the idea of doing a show called “J-Town Forever” because that was the time when the Kintetsu Mall was sold to outside developers and everybody was afraid. They thought, here we go again, just like redevelopment – we’re gonna lose a chunk of our community again! So, the idea was to do a show that boosts morale and lifts people’s spirits and show the resiliency of the community. I’m not from J-Town; I’m basically an outsider, so how should I do this? Then I thought the common thread of love of community comes out through the most basic, simple things… everyday things like my mom taking me with her to go shopping for groceries or something like that. All these simple little things that you don’t notice much at the time, but when you look back, they were actually the most endearing. And I thought, well, what would that be in J-Town? I noticed how folks hung out at Benkyodo a lot. This was your proverbial local lunch counter where you can sit all day, drink coffee and talk story and where people come from all over to get their wonderful manju. So, I went there and asked owner Bobby Okamura if I can take pictures. He said, “Sure go ahead. “I printed it, and Bobby hung it in the shop. He really liked it and I felt so touched knowing how the community accepted me and my art, because all I wanted was to be a community artist.
Eddie Wong: Another really striking image is the couple cutting cane.
Leon Sun: That was in East Wind magazine from a poem by Juliet Kono from Hawaii. I was asked to illustrate that poem and the image came to me right away because it was so sharply described in the poem. It was almost no work on my part to come up with ideas. At the same time, the moon always figured a lot in my images because I really love the moon as an art motif; it has many sentimental values attached to it. So, I just imagined seeing this couple go into the fields early in the morning when the moon was still up. I wanted to show Asian American art from a working-class perspective. And the poem describes the couple and their lifetime of working together. It was so different from white, romantic love. They really supported each other in chopping cane and working in rhythm. So, I illustrated that with machetes raised against the dawn sky and cane field in the background. The moon was exaggerated in size and color to give an emotive feel to it.
Eddie Wong: Great work. I also was drawn to the Native American aspects of the Raven and the Buddha print. It looks Haida influenced.
Leon Sun: Yes, very much so. We were in the Pacific Northwest region a number of times because my wife has relatives up in Vancouver. We saw people carving totem poles, and I felt a resonance with the many silkscreened prints by Haida artists. It was Native American art, but I felt an Asian kind of feel to it, which I couldn’t quite describe intellectually, but it came out visually. I felt intuitively some kind of common thread in our histories.
With that particular print I made up a little story about it. The Raven figures so much in several Native cultures. I wondered if I could combine the Raven and the Buddha in a way that’s respectful… something that comes out of a cross-fertilization of cultures. The story I made up was that the Raven was cruising the skies one day and saw this young man sitting under a tree. There was something special about the young man and the Raven took it upon himself to protect and nurture him. This went on for a long time and, over the years, the young man became the Buddha. So, it was my way of combining two cultures through story-telling. I used a motif that came out of an abstracted version of a Chinese calligraphy brushstroke and repeated it to form the whole image. I only allowed myself a couple of other shapes, like, to form the shapes of the head and chest and one little red dot for the ball of wisdom that’s in the Buddha’s lap – something that appears in a lot of statues of the Buddha. It also added a little bit of color to an otherwise monochromatic image. That’s how that came about.
Eddie Wong: It’s wonderful. Are you continuing to do work every day? What is your process?
Leon Sun: I’ve been printing anywhere from 5 to 10 big prints a year. Each one takes about two or three weeks to complete from beginning to end, sometimes longer. My inspiration comes from things happening in life… in my life, be it anxiety about the environment or a pretty bird in my backyard. My life now is given to printing; it gives me so much satisfaction and sense of self-worth – especially during this last period of the pandemic and Trump. It’s my source of strength… plus, I do it just for fun. In these times of so much stress and negativity, it’s important that there are things of beauty that can make people feel better. When I was doing that caterpillar print it was late in the night when the news came out that Trump had won the election. I was so bummed and I asked myself, “What are you doing making pretty pictures in a time like this?” But I quickly recovered. I thought it’s important to assert our narrative and not let Trump push his racist narrative on us. For every ugly thing he says, I’m going to counter it with a piece of beauty for people to enjoy and spiritually strengthen them. And once people feel better, they can do better and that’s sort of my contribution to the movement. It’s no longer specifically political art, but on a spiritual level, it does still help.
I still do photography every day. I go out for walks with my wife or friends and photograph nature and about how good it feels to be alive. I post it freely on Facebook and I never bother to put my watermark on the photos. I don’t care if people steal the images and use them. I just want to share with people… and remind them that there’s beauty all around you and you must find strength in yourself. When I first heard the Dalai Lama say, “Happiness is the real meaning of life,” I was like, yeah, right! I thought it sounded like a New Age cliché, but I’ve come to realize how true that is. The oppression is so deep and widespread in this country; there’re so much emotional dysfunction that people are shooting each other and feeling bad about themselves. That is a form of oppression. Native poet John Trudell (Santee Sioux) talked about how depression is a form of oppression, and I thought that was so spot-on. It’s important to have mental and spiritual health to fight the good fight. So, I do what I can. I was a terrible “organizer,” but I do what I do best – and that’s to make art. Art is organizing.
Eddie Wong: That’s a beautiful way to end the interview. Do you have any other comments?
Leon Sun: That kind of covers everything.
Interviewer’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He is a longtime activist in the political and cultural realms of the Asian American Movement.