2008 Spotlight Award: Diem Chau

Diem Chau uses ordinary objects to create extraordinary art.
By: Brangien Davis | Posted July 21, 2011

When Diem Chau wanders through thrift stores, she hears a cacophony of voices: A ceramic rice bowl whispers of family dinners, a porcelain teacup betrays shared confidences, a sturdy mug evokes memories of staying home sick and sipping Campbell’s soup.

“I love more traditional techniques and mediums, but at some point I just found that they don’t talk back to me as much as an everyday object would,” says the 29-year-old Ballard-based artist, who uses found objects to create her arresting, small-scale works.

Chau’s intricately carved Crayola crayons and hand-embroidered portraits mounted on antique dishes also speak volumes—and are hardly falling on deaf ears. In the past two years, the Cornish graduate has earned a national reputation, with her work turning up everywhere from Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian Museum to actress Whoopi Goldberg’s personal collection to the pages of T, the New York Times’ style magazine. This fall, she’ll continue to reach wider audiences with a feature in Fiber Arts magazine and solo exhibitions at Portland’s Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery and San Francisco’s Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art gallery.

Chau’s work is, at least in part, about the ephemeral nature of memories. For this daughter of a Vietnamese mother and Chinese father (the family fled Saigon for Seattle when she was 7 years old), it’s also a way to forge connections with the past. Much of Chau’s early work consisted of portraits of her father, whose death when she was a teenager was a watershed moment in her decision to pursue a career in art.

“It woke me up in a way,” she says. “I just felt he had so much that he wanted to do and not enough time to do it.”

For her latest series, Shadow Figures, Chau worked from photos of her extended family, many of whom are strangers to her, rendering them as hazy, hand-embroidered silhouettes that appear to float atop vintage dishware. The “embroidered porcelain” images—a woman’s head with a three-dimensional braid, a pair of hands connected by a red thread—speak to the power of a single gesture. Just as with her first piece commissioned for a public collection—stacks of 52 rice bowls installed in the Wing Luke last April—the result is intensely personal yet universal, thought provoking yet unpretentious.

Chau’s success partly lies in her ability to be at once an insider and an outsider in the art world. She was formally trained at Cornish and is represented by Pulliam Deffenbaugh, but her work has been enthusiastically embraced by the blogosphere (including design blog Design Sponge). “I think it’s because they’re sharing a part of themselves,” she says. “And that’s what my art is about.”