by Samira George
(This article was originally published by Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Since the beginning of Louis Chinn’s art career, he has felt called to make art accessible and free for people from all social standings. It’s one of the philosophies that helps guide him to any new project.
So when an opportunity to install a stainless steel sculpture in front of the entrance of a Plymouth Housing building for folks experiencing long-term homelessness in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District arose, it was an easy decision for Chinn.
“I don’t think art should be something that is only for an elite social group,” Chinn said. “I was very much inspired by the fact that this was going to be a piece that was in a building for homeless people.”
Chinn is a multimedia artist. His specialties are community murals, steel sculptures, and a variety of digital mediums he incorporates with each other. In many of his art pieces, Chinn ties in themes about culture, identity, and migration.
In his piece for Plymouth Housing, named Returning Home, the story and theme behind the piece is about migration and belonging. The work features a steel wind-powered sculpture that took 500 pounds of stainless steel and aluminum to build. Attached are 20 metal, origami-style red-crowned cranes that ascend and descend to a nest in a continual cycle around the sculpture’s frame.
“It’s really about coming and going from this nest and finding home. That was a metaphor for the people who were previously homeless that now finally have a home at this apartment,” Chinn said. “Everybody who is there has got their own unique story of migration and belonging as well.”
Chinn said he picked red-crowned cranes to commemorate the local Japanese business that once operated at the building’s site, but also because cranes are international travelers, with migration patterns that span epic distances. He saw the same resilience in those delicate but fierce birds that he sees within the unhoused community that has to rise above adversity everyday.
Layers of an Idea
Most of Chinn’s installations tell deep narratives and aren’t just something pretty to look at. For Chinn, the art he creates must resonate with the local culture and the people who will experience it. Many of Chinn’s art pieces are outdoors, like his mural on Delridge Way in West Seattle that at-risk youth conceived with Chinn and helped him paint. The idea is that a passerby will see a mural depicting portraits of children from different ethnicities along with jumping salmon, sun rays, and totem poles.
“They (the youth) wanted to tell a story about acknowledging the local history and that had to do with the Duwamish Tribe … and then the youth also wanted to show kind of a future of where the neighborhood is headed … by showing these hands, cleaning up pollution out of the river and then showing the youth kind of looking towards the sun as a nod of hope for the future,” Chinn said.
Chinn attributes the desire to draw out more profound messages because of his childhood. Chinn grew up in rural Alaska in a multicultural household with an Irish American mother and a father of Chinese descent. “The first town I lived in had 500 people, and I lived in predominantly Alaskan native villages growing up, and so that was a big influence on me,” he said.
These experiences made Chinn want to create art that explored concepts like the diaspora of people in the United States and multiculturalism, and he believes art is a good way to capture ideas that reinforce a positive outlook.
“I think it’s important for art to kind of make the statement that we want to be welcoming and we want to help create a sense of belonging for all people that want to call this place home,” he said.
Importance of Public Art
In the last 10 years, Chinn has noticed an explosion in the popularity of murals and street art. Chinn likes how murals give character and identity to a place and can tell a unique story that speaks to that specific environment.
“Of course, artists are always telling a story,” Chinn said. “But a lot of art, when it’s trapped inside of a gallery, people either don’t have the financial means to go to those places to experience it or they might not have the education or the cultural background to want to go.”
What excites Chinn a lot is that he’s seen a shift in what people are deciding to paint. To Chinn, public art is an opportunity to make a statement, whether it is political, social, or cultural commentary on society.
“As we’ve seen, a lot of public art told a very singular and kind of one-dimensional history of our country, and typically that was a very Western dominant, white male dominant perspective,” Chinn said. “Now we’re starting to see this multiplicity of voices and stories that are less commonly told.”
Samira George is a reporter for Real Change. Samira is driven by a passion for community journalism. She enjoys writing on subjects her community members feel strongly about and helping to elevate those voices. In her free time, you might find Samira hanging from a rock or backcountry skiing.
📸 Featured Image: Louis Chinn assembling the origami-style cranes for his piece “Returning Home.” Photo courtesy of Real Change News.
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