Lenore Chinn: Narrative Chronology


Quotes, unless identified otherwise, are taken from a video interview Rudy Lemcke did with Lenore Chinn in her San Francisco apartment on February 1, 2001, part of Lemcke’s Queer Cultural Center TV series of interviews with gays and lesbians for the QCC website (Lemcke is the designer and curator of this website).

June 20, 1949
Lenore Chinn is born at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in the edge of the Tenderloin, raised until the age of two at 20 Allen Street on the outskirts of Russian Hill near Filbert and Hyde in San Francisco. Her father, born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is a mathematician. Her mother was born and raised in Oakland’s Chinatown. Chinn has a younger brother.

In 1951 the Chinn family is the first family of Chinese American descent to move into San Francisco’s outer Richmond District — at that time, an all-white, middle-class neighborhood.

“My parents’ decision to leave the safety and familiarity of Chinatown led to experiences which were almost unprecedented for that era, and certainly were rare for Asian Americans. This path, forged by my father in pursuit of his professional goals as an educator and mathematician, opened the door to a new way of life. My younger brother and I grew up with a family model, which offered simultaneously a traditional Chinese cultural framework of community and family, along with the opportunity to embrace non-traditional and non-Asian ideas. In short, my life’s journey became a cross-pollination of other world views.”

“Unaware of prevailing attitudes (realtors were not inclined to offer bidding to non-whites outside their own racially-designated areas), I accepted the fact that there were only a handful of Japanese and a sprinkling of Chinese in my early visual landscape and there were no Hispanics or African Americans, and very few families of mixed heritage…”

“The monochromatic palette, which initially obscured my view of the world, was broadened only by sporadic introductions to new friends outside my immediate family. Over the years, the Richmond District’s sea of white inhabitants met with an influx of new tongues, cultures, ethnicities, races, and religions. This triggered a life-long curiosity in me, together with a cultural challenge for my family, who was struggling to maintain its Chinese identity. It set the stage for a complex layering of cultural encounters and a personal odyssey which defied many of the labels, mores and social limitations imposed on the ‘cultural others’ of my post-war, baby-boom generation. These early explorations gave me the foundation for a more global perspective: I identified with others, prompting an insatiable appetite for understanding the rituals and traditions of people from very diverse backgrounds. Ultimately, this also became a part of my growth and development as a visual artist…”

“…as a very young child I always had an interest in drawing and painting, and experimented with different media to make things for my own entertainment. I have fond memories of my father taking me to the public library, where I was fascinated with books on drawing and constructing functional toys. Despite conflicting family expectations about the appropriateness of this interest extending beyond my earlier years, I continued to pursue these artistic inclinations.” (www.sla.purdue.edu/academic/vpa/ad/waaw/AsianAmerican/ArtistsCN.html)

Earns an A.A. degree in Advertising and Design, City College of San Francisco.
Attends San Francisco State College and in 1971 is on the Dean’s List. 1972 Earns a B.A. in Sociology.

“Since entering the public school system, my art education was pretty much based on a Western European art tradition and methodology. Much of my work has been highly realistic from the beginning, and meticulously detailed drawings have led to the way I approach my painting.”

“In my junior college years, in the mid to late 1960s during the Vietnam war, there was a lot of student unrest and activity in response to it. This continued when I went to San Francisco State College (which was not a university at the time). During this period, the campus was a hotbed of all kinds of political activity — it was the time of Kent State, and it was not uncommon to see the TAC Squad, Mounted Police, and other forces on campus. I still have photos of that era.”

“So this was the backdrop that shaped from hereon my political thinking in terms of humanitarian issues, civil rights, and social justice issues. My major was sociology, and, although I didn’t pursue this as a career, I think it led to a certain type of philosophical and sociological thinking that has influenced my work.”

“My work is based on ideas and ideologies that are, in my view, relevant to my personal life. I’ve taken a track away from commercialism, per se. I did spend time in advertising art and design and I did art production. Some of these early skills that I learned way back then, such as printmaking and photography, I still use. A lot of that has changed over the years, and my art work has changed with the new technologies. Now I do some digital work and incorporate scanning and things like that along with my painting. All of these things are in the mix in terms of how I approach my art and art making.”

Participates for the first time in the 31st annual San Francisco Arts Festival and is awarded the Purchase Award for the San Francisco International Airport Competition.

Paints A Matter of Time (40″ x 60″), Time Passing (54″ x 36″), and Son Cuates (36″ x 48″).

First solo exhibition, Lucien Labaudt Art Gallery, San Francisco.

First group exhibitions: San Francisco Art Commission’s Gallery and Richmond Arts Center.

Chinn is awarded the Ligoa Duncan Award from the Musee de Duncan, Paris.

Paints Scaling Fish (52″ x 40″) and Satin Finish (36″ x 58″).

Chinn is in three group exhibitions: San Francisco Arts Festival, Haywood Area Forum for the Arts, and Allied Artists of America (put on by the National Arts Club, New York, NY).

Receives awards from Art in the Park, San Francisco, and Westwood Center for the Arts, Los Angeles.

Moves into the Castro District of San Francisco.

“… I came here with my first lover and we lived over on Caselli, off Douglass Street. I’ve talked to other people about the rarity of finding native San Franciscans these days (there are so many transplants); I didn’t really do anything except change zip codes! This of course was a big step because I became entrenched in community activities, and my art evolved along with that.”

“… I became acquainted with some of the folks that were setting up ironing boards and what have you on the corner of 18th and Castro. Some of them were political activists from the then Harvey Milk Club. I became acquainted with the activities and the issues that were happening at the time, and jumped in around 1980. This predated the AIDS epidemic as we know it, but in those early years I joined the Harvey Milk Club and became interested in some of the things that were going on there. Eventually at the beginning of the eighties I remember hearing speakers like Marcus Conant, and Paul Volberding. AIDS was an issue that crept into the community in the sense that we didn’t realize what was going on at the time. We started reading articles about a cancer of unknown origins, KS as we later came to euphemistically refer to it, and the other kinds of things for which nobody seemed to know what was happening, but we had some suspicions. Then we started seeing more articles in the national newspapers and the national magazines. Some of them included members or friends in the community. We remember Bobby Campbell, who became known as the poster child one year. And then it led to other issues of º ‘Okay’ we are dealing with some sort of a health crisis, but we don’t know exactly what the causes are. There were a lot of discussions among the different political groups at the time. Some of these groups were the Alice B. Toklas Club, Stonewall, and others that I remember from the early period.”

Paints Black Cat (48″ x 32″).
Participates in two group exhibitions: 72nd American Exhibition at Newport, in Newport, Rhode Island and Women in Design International, Second Annual Compendium, held in Ross, California.

“…I was painting people in my general network of friends. I would say that I had been painting them pretty much since the late seventies and I was doing my political activism simultaneously. I was doing electoral politics, and I was out there on the street corner handing out information about different political candidates.”

“… My signature paintings, with their super realistic, crisply rendered compositions convey a subtle message of visibility for the socially and politically disenfranchised peoples in my personal social landscape — people of color, women, lesbians, and gay men. In my oversized acrylics on canvas I explore a genre that is largely invisible in the fine arts. Through character studies in contemporary themes I restore cultural difference to center stage, creating a presence which resonates in its luminosity, texture, color, and light. While enticing the viewer with a non-confrontational aesthetic, these narratives simultaneously challenge old world views and compel a rethinking of how we define society’s others.” (www.sla.purdue.edu/academic/vpa/ad/waaw/AsianAmerican/ArtistsCN.html)

One person exhibition, University of California Extension Gallery, San Francisco.

Paints Walt Whitman’s Recital (42″ x 60″) and Departure (32″ x 48″).
Group exhibition: La Grange National IX, Chatahoochee Valley Art Association, La Grange, Georgia.

Is a guest speaker at Galeria de La Raza, as a part of the San Francisco women’s theater group, Brava!.

Paints Between Moonlight and Fog (40″ x 54″).

Group exhibition: Beyond Power: A Celebration, organized by Women’s Caucus for Art and Southern Exposure, Belmont and Redwood City, California. Also in group exhibition, Images: A Gallery, San Francisco.

Paints Dinner for Two (54″ x 36″).

In two group exhibitions: Mom … Guess What! Art Search, Newspaper Sacramento, California and Artists Against AIDS — Phase IV, San Francisco.

Paints Domestic Partners (40″ x 36″) and American Radiator (30″ x 40″).

Paints Visible Difference (52″ x 36″) and Composition in Color and Light (40″ x 30″).

Co-curates, with Dori Friend and Richard Bolingbroke (and also shows in) The Lesbian and Gay Fine Art Exhibit, City Hall Rotunda, San Francisco; and Artists Equity Exhibition at South of Market Cultural Center, (Northern California Chapter), San Francisco.

Participates in first annual Open Studios of San Francisco, as well as Women’s Building Arts and Crafts Fair, Fort Mason, San Francisco.

Is a panelist on “Forum: Talking about Lesbian and Gay Issues,” KQED television, San Francisco.

Paints The Family (36″ x 54″).

Two solo exhibitions: The Michael Himovitz Gallery, Sacramento, California, and Rasmussen Gallery, Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.

Is in three group exhibitions: Visible for a Change, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Open Studios of San Francisco, and Pro-Arts Gallery, Oakland; co-sponsored by Guerrilla Girls West.

Panelist at Outwrite Writers Conference, (on Artists and Media), San Francisco.

Group exhibition Artists Equity (Northern California Chapter), San Francisco State University.

Panelist at Annual Conference of the College Art Association, Chicago, Illinois.

Appears on Suzie’s Cue, Pacifica Community Television, Incorporated.

Is a guest speaker Sunday’s Child Salon, The Eye Gallery, San Francisco.

Paints Butler’s View (30″ x 36″).

Exhibits in three group exhibitions: Gallery Route One, Pt. Reyes Station, California; Levi Strauss and Co.,

San Francisco, and HIV Healing Arts Project, Project Open Hand, South of Market Cultural Center, San Francisco.

Is a guest speaker, Queer in Your Ear: Hobnail Boots to Stilleto Heels: Lesbian Sensibilities, KPFA radio, Berkeley, California.

Panelist Lesbian Visual Artists: Counting Your Art Market, The Eye Gallery, San Francisco.

Receives Bronze Award for Contemporary Painting, Arts of California, Discovery 1993 Awards, Napa, California.

Paints Break from Pulp (50″ x 60″).

Exhibits with Asian American Women Artists Association, South of Market Cultural Center, San Francisco.

Co-curates with Steven Compton (and also shows in) Family Album, The Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco.

Co-juries with Adrienne Fuzee and Billy Lynn: Public/ Private: Lesbian Visual Artists, South of Market Cultural Center, San Francisco.

Speaks at KNBR Community Forum Family Album, San Francisco.

Chinn co-juries with Laurie Lazer, Rene Yanez, and Carlos Villa Fourth Annual Juried, The Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco.

Exhibits at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, San Antonio, Texas, and No More Scapegoats, Corte Madera, California.

Is a panelist on Forum: Voice of the Voter, KQED.

Paints Fin de Siecle (36″ x 48″).

Exhibits in Family Matters: Traditional and Contemporary Depictions of Home Life (also acts as a docent),

Bedford Gallery/ Regional Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California, The Wall of Restitution, Thomasina De Maio Gallery, Guerneville, California, and Families: Rebuilding, Reinventing, Recreating, Euphrat Museum of Art, De Anza College, Cupertino, California.

Speaks at Lesbian Visual Artists Artist Salon, The San Francisco Women’s Building.
Appears in Curators Collection CD, ACI Art Communication International (a CD-ROM collection).

Paints Affirmations (36″ x 48″).
Exhibits in: Sargent Johnson Gallery, Center for African and African-American Art and Culture, San Francisco, California, and Home is Where the Heart is — Our Family Values, White Columns, New York, New York.

Speaks at 3 x 2: An International Dialogue Between Asian American Women Artists, National Women’s Caucus for Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Inside City Limits, TCI San Francisco, Cable TV Channel 35 and Bay TV, San Francisco.

Exhibits in Of Our Own Voice, (Asian American Women Artists Association) Center for the Visual Arts Oakland, California, Stanford Art Spaces, Stanford University, and Anne Frank and the World Today, Nourse Auditorium, San Francisco Unified School District.

Appears on Women Artists of the American West, a web site for Purdue and Pennylvania State Universities.
Co-curates with Rudy Lemcke Face: Queer Expression through Self-Portraiture (Queer Cultural Center), South of Market Cultural Center, San Francisco, California.

Awarded Serpent Source Grant, San Francisco, California.

Paints Symphonic Light (38″ x 48″).

Exhibits in Active Edge, Lesbians in the Visual Arts, Mission Cultural Center, San Francisco, California.

Co-curates with Flo Oy Wong, Moira Roth, and Kim Anno: They Hold up Half the Sky æ Bernice Bing: A Memorial Tribute and Retrospective, for the Queer Cultural Center at the South of Market Cultural Center, San Francisco, California.

Paints Before the Wedding (66″ x 44″), a portrait of Kim Anno and Ellen Meyers.

Paints Bing (48″ x 64″).

Prepares for her retrospective in Spring/Summer 2001, South of Market Cultural Center, San Francisco.

“Some time ago in the last couple of years, when a core group of us were working on putting the Bernice Bing retrospective together, I had gotten to chatting with Carlos Loarca, the gallery director down at SOMARTS. We had discussed putting a show together. He asked me, would I ever consider having a show there if they had an opening? I said, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ Meanwhile I kind of parked it. I had talked to other people about the idea, and we had decided that it really was time to create some kind of mini-retrospective of my work, spanning over two decades. So these were little ideas, little seeds in the back of my mind. And then one day I thought, I’ll just go ahead and call Carlos and see if we could start to plan, maybe a year or so in advance — perhaps in the year 2001 or so. He agreed, so we tentatively penciled in a fall show.”

“Then I started thinking about what kind of show would this look like. What kind of images do I want to include? Do I want to have everything? Do I want to concentrate on something thematic? I’m of the mind that less is more and felt I should be selective about picking my strongest works over this period of time, and — even though the big gallery in the front of SOMARTS is very cavernous — I have very large paintings. They tend to be a good four or five to six feet in length and height, so if I did it in a gallery or museum style, eight to ten paintings could already fill up the space.”

“I’m still toying with how I want to design the installation. I might opt for a Louvre-stacking kind of thing; I’m still thinking creatively about how to break it up. I have ideas in mind of about how I want to anchor certain pieces, for instance the Bing painting.”

“I decided that I wanted to do some sort of homage to Bernice Bing (who was a good friend of mine and a founding member of the Asian American Women Artists Association), using some of the ideas that she had in her journals, and incorporating images that make references to her life and work. I had this in mind to be on one of the walls as a centerpiece, and then I had another piece, which is called Before the Wedding of Kim Anno and her lover, Ellen Meyers, and this would be another anchor piece. That led me to thinking, well, rather than throwing in the whole kitchen sink and all of that, I would concentrate on the evolution of the queer community as I have documented it over the years. With this idea in mind, I thought I should start calling collectors. I called about half a dozen in the area, so that I could basically get my little babies back! The collectors were quite willing…”

“… I painted some (friends) before the onset of the AIDS epidemic, so there will actually be a number of paintings in the show depicting either friends or people within my network, as well as people who commissioned me to do work, who are no longer here. In calling my collectors, one of them was a favorite piece of mine depicting Mike Housh and Rick Pacurar.”

“Both had been very active in the Harvey Milk Club and that’s how I came to know them. Around the late 1980s, I was commissioned to do a piece commemorating their ten-year anniversary. Recently I got a call back from Mike asking me to confirm the time that I was supposed to collect the painting for the show. He also had said on this message ‘by the way, the service for Rick is happening on January 19th at City Hall. Could you let people know on your e-mail network?’ This was the first time I had heard that Rick had died, because I didn’t see the obituary in the newspaper.”

“Later I find out the news from a friend of mine at a dinner party the night of the service, who said, ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off of your painting.’ I thought she was referring to a painting that she had borrowed that’s in her home right now, but it turned out that Mike had used that painting of the two of them (which I happily had restored last year) for the service, and also he had apparently used the image for the memorial program. I was really very moved that he had chosen to do that, and I realized that that was the reason he had called to make sure that it would be available to him for that public event. He had told me that that was the smartest thing Rick did, when he had me commemorate the two of them on canvas.”

“That was the second or third time something like that has happened, although it is not like I plan this when I paint a canvas. Rick had been ill for quite a number of years, but many of us thought he would be one of the long-term survivors. In the portfolio of images that I have selected over a period of time, it has turned out that quite a few of the subjects I had painted later developed a variety of AIDS-related symptoms and illnesses, and they are no longer around. So my work is a documentation of an era, as well as documenting the people in my sociopolitical network.”

“… I anticipate that I will have approximately 20 paintings with this focus in the SOMARTS exhibition, whose date was changed over the past several months. As I talked it over with various friends within my art network, including friends and board members from QCC and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, as well as SOMARTS, we decided that to capture a wider audience. We would nest this exhibition within the United States of Asian America Festival being presented by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, which goes on in May. So I switched the opening month of this exhibit and, with that it mind, had to jam on finishing this Bing painting in time because I wanted to have the opportunity for premiering it in my exhibition.”

“Meanwhile, after more discussions, we had the idea of starting this exhibition under the Asian Festival, and letting it bleed into the beginning of the Queer Cultural Festival as well. This way we can capture a wider audience of lesbians, gays, bis, transgenders, and other communities, along with the Asian community during that time frame.”