What We Keep: The Objects of Immigrants to America – Interview with artist, Jane Chu

Shortly after the opening week of the Hawn Gallery exhibition, What We Keep: The Objects of Immigrants to America, Beverly Mitchell, Gallery Curator, talked with Jane Chu about the installation and her work. The exhibition of fifteen drawings by Chu center upon her mother’s perilous journey out of China during the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Sponsored by SMU Libraries, Friends of SMU Libraries, and Meadows School of the Arts, What We Keep continues to December 15.

Jane Chu speaking at exhibition opening reception

Your drawings, as I have mentioned, are like jewels. The intricacy of each one draws the viewer into your subject to look at the details. For our readers who have yet to see them, what do you hope they might discover in your work?

I want my art to reflect how we can embrace multiple perspectives at the same time. The 3-D objects are rendered in colored pencil atop the black-and-white ink drawings, giving a sense that there are multiple dimensions, all on a 2-D piece of paper. I feel a personal connection to this approach. Although my parents were born in China, I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Arkansas, 11,000 miles away from my parents’ country of origin. Sometimes, society pressures us to fit into one framework at the expense of another. But in reality, it is totally possible to incorporate disparate mindsets simultaneously, and this is reflected in the style of my drawings.

Additionally, I want these drawings to tell the story of my mother’s journey from her birth country of beautiful China as a teenager. She gave up a lot and never saw her parents again, restarting her life from scratch in the United States. In this exhibition, every drawing contains a colored 3-D object related to that aspect of her story.


It’s clear from this exhibition, What We Keep: The Objects of Immigrants to America, and the stories you have written and illustrated about immigrants and their struggle in coming to the United States in Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, that you draw inspiration from them. What else keeps you motivated?

I am inspired when people follow their dreams. While I understand and want for myself a secure and consistent lifestyle, I do not understand when people give up their life dreams, if it involves taking risks. I am inspired when I see others getting out of their box to try something new that they wanted to do all along, in order to have a meaningful life. My art allows me to do just that. I have experienced that when I pursue my own dreams, the resources appear right on time.


What is your next project? 

I continue to create a collection of short stories about individuals who immigrated to the U.S. A few of these stories have also expanded to become illustrated picture books, on which I am currently working.

What We Keep continues to December 15 at the Hawn Gallery, Hamon Arts Library, SMU.
More information: hours, campus map, and parking.
Email: hawngallery@smu.edu | Phone: 214-768-3813.

Jane Chu is a visual artist, living in New York, and served as the eleventh chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts (2014-2018). She is a graduate of the SMU Meadows School of the Arts.

Beverly Mitchell, Assistant Director, Hamon Arts Library, and Curator, Hawn Gallery