Arts & Culture

Artist’s inaugural picture book encourages creativity

By Hannah Scott

Published 2:27 PDT, Fri June 24, 2022

Last Updated: 4:11 PDT, Mon July 11, 2022

Richmond artist Jeni Chen is embarking on a new adventure: she’s just published her first picture book, Emet’s Box. 

“I’ve always liked to draw. When I was a kid I would do comics and read manga and copy them; I would also copy Garfield, Peanuts, drawing random things or drawing my text- books,” says Chen.

But focusing on academics during her schooling—in Taiwan, then in Richmond after moving at age 14—took Chen away from art. Her family didn’t see art as a career choice, so she studied science at the University of B.C. She started working in research, but developed an allergy to the chemicals and had to switch her career path.

“Then I had a son, my first child, so I was home for a while,” says Chen. “When he was growing up I (thought), ‘Oh my God, he’s so energetic,’ he woke up so excited and then at night didn’t want to go to bed. It made me think about what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

She was further spurred on by reading a Joseph Campbell book about not looking for the meaning of life, but the feeling of being alive. Realizing art was her passion, Chen started taking art classes in 2013. In 2018 she took a picture book class at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Emet’s Box is about a boy who loves to paint. It was inspired by both Chen’s son, who likes to colour, and Chen herself. Chen found her publisher (Little Press) in 2020 through a Twitter picture book pitch event.

During the pandemic, she found inspiration in books she was re-reading, letting them lead the way in her creative process. But the last two years haven’t come without their challenges: in February, her son got COVID. His friend’s sister, age 10, developed diabetes after having COVID. Initially, Chen felt angry.

“Then I thought, you know what, maybe that’s what they have to go through to develop compassion for other people,” she says. “Our generation, we want to be independent, we want freedom. The newer generation, it’s not just about them anymore, it’s about everyone as a whole. That’s why they went through something, so that when they’re older they have a deeper understanding.”

In addition to her recent book, Chen has also worked on several public art projects for the city. She’s compiled over 100 comic strips based on funny things her son said as he was learning to talk. And she’s currently part of the CreateSpace Public Art Residency—a nationwide program for BIPOC artists—which has inspired her to try sound and more experiential public art. 

“I wanted to join because I can meet other artists and know what their experiences are creating public art,” says Chen. “(We) also have different mentors that we can contact and ask questions.”

The collaborative aspect of the residency has been beneficial for Chen, who says she loves to throw ideas around with artist peers. Her culminating project will take place during BC Culture Days this fall.

“My idea was to have people record their deepest fears, or any fears. Then I would make a dark cave people can walk through with sound coming out. When they open the blinds and walk out and see all these trees and expansive sky, I hope they will have a different kind of perception.”

People can write their hopes, wishes, and dreams on ribbons that will be hung on trees and left for a little while. Then Chen will take the ribbons down and weave them into a tapestry.

She wants to remind others, especially kids, to trust and remember their own creativity and spark.

“I was volunteering at Richmond Art Gallery, (seeing) kids who are so creative and know what they want,” she says. “Sometimes I see parents tell kids they shouldn’t draw things the way they want to (and should) do it another way, (and) I can feel the light kind of go out of the kid. I want to remind kids that they have this spark inside, and never forget it. I don’t want my son to ever forget what he has—the energy, the passion for life and for stuff that he loves.”

To read more about Chen and Emet’s Box, visit jenichen.com

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