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Q&A with Paddy Leung

December 13, 2016

Curated by Kalpna Patel
December 2016–February, 2017

The Theatre Centre is excited to present Dancing With Dragons by Paddy Leung, as part of SIDE STREETS, a year-round series of hanging installations in The Theatre Centre Café/Bar, curated by Kalpna Patel and created by the talented and local artists of City of Craft.

Sarah Febbraro, Nicole Collins, and Myung-Sun Kim sat down with Paddy to chat about her work, family, influences, and community.

Myung-Sun Kim (MSK): You do so many different things—awesome haircuts, drawings, workshops, and playful fun installations. When and how did this all begin? And where/how did you learn to do all those things? Was this something that you were doing as a kid growing up?

PL: Haircutting is a more recent thing for me, but installation and making art has been a part of my life since I was a kid. When I was a 9, I hosted a puppet show for my sister Jamie’s 7th birthday. It was a collaborative idea. My sister and I wanted to create something beautiful for the neighbourhood. My family didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so we had to be creative with our birthday parties. We basically improvised the whole thing. I think that moment taught me that art could be used as a way to bring people together and it changed my relationship with art.

Haircutting came much later. I was having a hard time feeling comfortable at salons and barber shops, so I started cutting my own hair. Soon I was cutting for my friends, and friends of friends, and it grew from there.

I began doing workshops because I wanted to create a safe space for my friends and the community, and I continue for the same reasons. Recently, I’ve been involved in more programs with youth and children. I hope I can continue this kind of work. I think that people of all ages deserve to have a space where they feel safe to explore their creativity.

MSK: Why the dragons? Could you share your story about coming out, how art played a role in building new relationships and your extended community?

3 dragon heads on a table and a fish sculpture suspended above the table with a door on the left and a draped window on the right.
Work in progress for “Dancing With Dragons” in Paddy’s home – studio, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist

PL: This summer I had the pleasure to be part of THAT’S SO GAY exhibition curated by Syrus Marcus Ware. It was such an honour and truly a blessing to show with Syrus and amongst so many amazing artists. I knew I wanted to create a piece that was self-reflective, ultimately a self portrait. I’m born in the year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese calendar. I chose to make 3 dragons because 3 is a lucky number in Chinese culture. The number 3 represents qualities that I hope to obtain such as mystical abilities, powerful creativity, and greater appreciation of the beauty of life. In this piece I was seeking to connect with heaven and spirit and I felt that a portrait of dragons in flight was a perfect symbol to portray this.The dominant colours each have different meanings: WHITE—brightness, purity, fulfillment; RED—good luck, prosperity; YELLOW—yin yang, balance; BLACK—the color of heaven; GREEN—good health.

Coming out for me was more like coming into a realization of myself. It was hard for my parents initially, I think because they thought my life would be harder in some ways and obviously didn’t want me to struggle because of it. It took many years to get to the point where I am completely comfortable being myself with my family. It was a difficult time, but I think that it has made us closer in the end.

My art family (my chosen family) came into my life around this time also. I had dropped out of art school and my Dad was very sick. I was so depressed and lost that I stopped making art for two years. But I met some amazing new people, who really became an extended family. They helped me to fall in love with art again.


MSK: Could you share your story about Coupe de Coeur project, what/ how did things change for you? (re: Coupe de Coeur: an art fundraiser campaign that provides stylish, clean, gangster, bad bitch, handsome, pretty, pixie $5 haircuts by Paddy Leung.) Over 3-4 months, you raised $3000, way over your goal of $500. Who came to see you? What did it mean for you to throw this workshop party for all these people?

A top view of a stool with hair clippers and combs, with monstera and aloe plants on a table nearby.

PL: When Coupe de Coeur started I was mainly just cutting hair for friends. But one summer I wanted to host a tie-dye party for all my friends. I didn’t have enough money though, so I decided to fundraise by cutting hair. Word spread really quickly and so many people came out to support. Many Coupe de Coeur patrons were also coming out to my events, so being able to share with them something that they helped to create was a magical experience. A lot people that I have met over the years, I probably never would have met if not for Coupe de Coeur. In retrospect, it has inspired a lot of my community work. I think people don’t talk enough about the need for creating safe spaces in our communities. I welcome people into my home because I want them to feel that they are welcome. I can only hope that this feeling has carried over into my workshops as well.

A group photo of artists wearing masks in a parking lot in the dark with trees in the background.

MSK: Can you talk about the first series of workshops? Where did you hold it and how many people attended? What did you do?

PL: The first series included mask party, tie-dye, and sticker workshops. The mask party was a special invite to my (chosen) family to come out and celebrate life with me. I gave everyone a month to construct a mask of their choice and we all came together in the park at dusk. It was a way to say thank you to the people who had been so supportive and cared for me over the years.

The mask party led to other ideas. I wanted to do a tie dye party so I started raising funds with Coupe de Coeur. I was able to raise about $3000 in 4 months. We hosted it in a very small studio, but somehow managed to squeeze in around 200 people.

MSK: Can you talk about why you make masks?

PL: As a kid I loved the idea of wearing a mask. I like the idea that when you put on a mask, it allows you to alter yourself in some way. It’s you, but it’s not you, and there’s a certain freedom in that.

Sarah Febbraro (SF): How does contextualizing “sticker parties” as Art change the definition of art itself?

PL: Art is so many different things. When we’re kids, art is really just the embodiment of the joy of creating. We often lose this along the way, especially through formalized art education. After leaving art school, I took some time to really think about what art meant to me. I wanted to return to the space where there are no boundaries, just freedom of expression, and fun.

Free After Three Youth Program: Tie Dye Party, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015 Image credit: Gabriel Li

MSK: Did you imagine that you would be holding workshops at major institutions like the AGO? How has that changed for you?

PL: No, not at all. I never saw myself as being a part of a major institution like the AGO. Being Asian and queer, I sort of expected to do my own thing, but it gave me a place to continue my work and engage with new communities. It really allowed my practice to grow.

SF: What are the differences between renting your own space to run a program and working within a cultural institution?

PL: There is a huge difference. First and foremost, the size of the space. Accessibility in the city can be hard to find, but large institutions can provide this. With your own space, you might have more freedom, but this can also mean more chaos. Whereas with a larger institution, there is already a system in place, so you follow the guidelines and work within them. They both have their pros and cons.

Free After Three Youth Program: Tie Dye Party, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015 Image credit: Gabriel Li

SF: What does your apartment look like?

PL: My apartment is filled with things that hold some sentimental value. I keep broken toys, objects that make me laugh, or bring me joy. I have a lot of art from artists that I admire, photos (of myself)—self-reflection is key. My home also doubles as my studio, so there are boxes of materials everywhere. It’s like an art supply store.

Storefront with the sign "KOLKID" with a bird and flowers hanging in the window display
Kol Kid’s Valentine’s Day Window, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist

MSK: You also do regular install at Kol Kid—how long have you been doing this?

PL: I’ve been doing Kol Kid’s window for the last 5 years. I quit my job working for a visual merchandising company. When I quit, I knew I wanted to start my own (smaller) version of this. Kol Kid seemed like a perfect location. I used this as my canvas and it started to get a lot of attention. I’ve been doing the window for the past 5 years. It helped me to develop my portfolio and allow my work to be seen. I feel so blessed to have been trusted with such an invaluable opportunity to install Kol Kid’s window displays. I truly am thankful for Lisa Miyasaki for believing in me from the very beginning.

Scissors and white, weathered wings on a green cutting mat
Kol Kid’s Valentine’s Day Window, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist

Nicole Collins (NC): What happens to all the materials when the installation is disassembled?

PL: I keep it and reuse it. Sometimes people love my pieces and want to take them home, which makes me so happy. But I’m also happy to repurpose the materials. It’s nice to give new life to my work in that way.

SF: Is your work executed alone as important as your collaborative work if the results are the same? Why or why not?

PL: The process is obviously much different. I actually prefer working with people. With larger projects, I often seek help from friends or family, or people that I have met through my workshops. In the end, the results are quite different. Each person has a different technique and that is definitely reflected in the work. The final product contains a bit of each person that contributed, which is really beautiful.

Two colourful dragons hanging from the ceiling and a person jumping off the floor in front of a window
That’s So Gay: Dancing With Dragons, The Gladstone Hotel, 2016 Image courtesy of the artist

NC: What is your favourite film and why?

PL: “Science of Sleep” by Michel Gondry. Everything is made out of found materials and I admire his skill in putting it all together and making it all move so magically. There’s a scene where he’s swimming in his dreams and it’s all made out of cardboard. I love the playful, nostalgic, DIY, qualities to his work. I consider that to be high art.

MSK: How has your relationships with your family changed?

PL: I have learned that I have to try and continue showing what it means to be me. Art has taught me how to love, and has given me the hope and strength to love stronger and better. It has inspired me to love my family stronger.

Myung-Sun Kim (MSK) is an artist and the Manager of Artist & Community Activation at The Theatre Centre.

Sarah Febbraro (SF) is an artist, an arts educator, and the Youth Program Facilitator at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Nicole Collins (NC) is an artist and an Assistant Professor in the Drawing & Painting program at the OCAD University.