Sammy Chong’s pants were covered in blotches of paint. He is, after all, a working artist in a messy world, one in which he tries to have an impact.
In conjunction with an exhibit of his work in the Sue and Eugene Mercy Jr. Gallery, Mr. Chong is on the Island this week as part of the Adolf and Virginia Dehn Visiting Artist program. During his stay, he is working on new pieces and interacting with students.
On Wednesday, April 5, Mr. Chong took a break from painting to walk through the gallery displaying his finished work, pieces he hopes bring about a more caring world.
As he says, his goal is to make art that is not in a bubble, art that deals with issues affecting all of us.
“I like my work to be a catalyst for conversation,” Mr. Chong said. “I try to make paintings and drawings that are easy to access, easy to read, very figurative. I just don’t want any ambiguity in the dialogue I want to have with the viewers, and therefore my work is socially oriented. I believe artists have something to say, and we are engaged with the world. We might not write books or essays or papers, but we can create visuals that hopefully trigger the imagination and dialogue.”
And elicit one more response.
“A sense of urgency,” Mr. Chong said. “At least for this body of work, we cannot delay anymore the issues at hand.”
Some of the issues Mr. Chong approaches in his artwork are immigration, global warming, and endangered species.
“I want viewers to be motivated, to talk, to engage. … We are not isolated human beings,” Mr. Chong said.
Mr. Chong is an Ecuadorian immigrant of Chinese descent. His emergence in the art world took a while. He has theology and art degrees.
“When I was your age, I did not know anything about art or theology. I was supposed to be an engineer, following my parents’ advice,” Mr. Chong told students gathered in the gallery on Thursday morning, April 6. “And yet, after high school I was in a terrible car accident. I was asleep in the passenger seat when it happened. I woke up with a cut on my forehead. I survived, but the rest of the passengers did not. Six people lost their lives that day.
“That tragic event shook my world. Questions about the meaning of life and human suffering were at the forefront of my mind all the time. I was determined to find answers, so I gave up the engineering path and decided to study theology instead.”
He earned a master’s degree in theology from Javeriana University in Bogota, Colombia. While there he started reading art books and painting, which became a vehicle through which he could explore theology. He taught theology for a number of years, developing his art on the weekends. Gradually painting became much more than a side passion.
He went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in 2012 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Mr. Chong currently is an assistant art professor at Boston College.
His work makes you think. Such was the case Thursday when a student noted that, in some of his pieces, the hands are various colors. He smiled at what he felt was a great observation. He spoke of immigrants doing jobs that are needed, yet society fails to see the person. The person becomes the job, such as the piece showing a woman painting fingernails. The woman’s hands are red, the color of a nail polish. The woman becomes the job.
“My goal is to make visible those who are invisible,” he said of his pieces that focused on immigrants.
His work on endangered species turns the tables on the human species. Animals take human shape and are empowered as the dominant species in a hierarchical fictional reality.
“Truth be told,” Sammy told the students, “I wish these scenes were real. But even if animals were capable of rising up against us, I do not think they would do to us what we do to them. Animals do not inflict pain or harm other creatures out of pleasure like humans do. And yet we are the ‘rational animals.’”
To view a video of Sammy Chong: https://loomis.wistia.com/medias/lx7xe60ipn
His exhibit, Sammy Chong: Removed, which opened on February 9, was on display until April 11 in the Mercy Gallery.