Featured Expat Artist: Joey Foster Ellis

1. Why and how did you choose to move your creative practice to China?

I ended up here by fate in some sense. There is definitely a unique perspective we can all get from being in a new place. I found a lot of inspiration for my work in the delicate balance between being an insider and an outsider during my time as a student at the Central Academy of Fine Art. It became apparent to me that no matter what I did, I would never be coming from the same background as my Chinese classmates. I came to Beijing when I was twenty years old, seven years ago, and my experiences here have shaped both me and my work. The hardships I faced as an outsider at the Academy caused me to ask a lot questions about who I was which can be seen in my creative practice. Beijing was a place where I not only learned about skill but also a language and culture. To me the creative growth of college wasn’t limited to my hours at the Academy because Beijing had become my classroom.

2. How does being a foreigner affect the themes of your work?

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of my work deals with me being the outsider or different in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s cliché in a way, but I see every experience I have as based on perspectives from my previous experiences. For example, the first time I saw an elephant, the only relation I had to it was a pair of pajamas I had growing up that had elephants printed on them. So these new experiences I have in Beijing have been related back to my old experiences in America, and now they are related back to my experiences all over the world. The correlation between these two contexts of understanding is from where a lot my artistic ideas stem.

I like to engage projects with a bit of unknown, so I don’t always know how they will evolve. Because of who I am, I like to let the process dictate the design. In other words, I welcome the uncontrolled variables in a project, and I let my interaction with the materials and the concept develop its direction.

3. What are some of the differences between what you experienced studying art in China in contrast with the art school education in the USA?

America taught me how to think, but China taught me how to make. In America, during art education I felt like there was a lot of handholding, they didn’t want you to fail. There are parent teacher conferences and a lot of attention spent focusing on student success. During my time at the Academy here in China, that wasn’t the case. Because of the communist system that the schooling was developed from, no one could fail, and as a result we could really do whatever we wanted. We had the option of using our education or doing nothing with it. I found it very empowering not to have someone make my decisions for me. There were also a lot less guidelines to our assignments which was both beneficial in the sense that it left a lot of opportunity but could also be terrifying because there were just so many directions one could choose.

4. Talk to us more about the role of activism in your artistic practice.

My work isn’t so much about activism, but more about function. However, I do want my work to play a role in society. I started out my artistic process as a potter and my career as a chef. I was all about making things that people could use – pots and plates for people to eat from. Slowly my work has circled back around to again focus on functionality. The sculpture projects I do underwater recreates a coral reef, the work I’m doing in Beijing right now with Taxi drivers connects a community by showing that even people from lower class systems have creative problem-solving minds even without the same education.

To me an artist is a scientist, a researcher, a builder, and an anthropologist. They are doctors, public servants, and change agents. I want to be of use and I want my work to do something that any other person can do. I don’t feel as if an artist should be apart from society, but more that they are given to society.

For my artistic practice, I crave data to work with, and I feel at times like my role is that of a private detective, gathering clues and figuring out how to categorize and reorder them into something meaningful. The act of researching and understanding a culture in every way is essential to the projects that I do. As an artist I am always collecting data whether it be relevant or non relevant data. I need it to play with, to touch it and explore how it works, to see it. In the end I imagine what I could make from it, then I do it, construct it, bringing it from dream to reality. I’m a sculptor in the sense that I put things together. Sometimes that looks like paint and canvas, sometimes clay and glaze, metal and metal, and other times they are non-physical materials like with my social projects.

5. Tell us about an artist or body of work being done in China that you find exciting and why.

Wang Shu, who won the Pritzker prize for architecture this year, is an incredible artist that is really looking at how to use local materials and how those materials can create new forms of architecture while still relating back to China’s past. I find his work fascinating and urge you to check it out to see for yourself why it’s exciting.

6. What is your favorite Chinese dish or treat?

臭豆腐, “Chou dofu”. I love Chou dofu. Why do I love chou dofu? Because its name means stinky tofu. It’s just a great word to say, it’s one of those words like “pompous” that you can understand without even knowing what it actually is. When anyone says it, you can totally already tell that its going to be stinky tofu.