For Jeannie Hua, art has always held a redemptive power. In her childhood, it served as an escape from the racism she and her parents experienced as Chinese-American immigrants. Now, the criminal defense attorney turned fine art collagist uses her artistic practice to reinvent her own life and to amend the incomplete historical narratives that undergird racial prejudice and xenophobia in the United States.
Hua and her parents emigrated from Taiwan to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1975, when she was 8 years old. During this time, she says, when daily encounters with racism left her and her parents depressed, art provided Hua with a much-needed refuge. “The only way I could block out the voices of the kids calling me awful names was by drawing—I could be lost in this world I created,” she said. “I was burying my pain. I was burying my parents’ pain. I wouldn’t have survived my childhood had I not had my art.”
Hua left Ohio to attend the University of Chicago, where she received a degree in Art History. While art was her passion, Hua’s parents wanted her to work toward a life of financial security for herself and her family. A career as an artist did not fit this vision. Hua made a deal with her mother: she would spend a year in Taiwan after graduation and return to the U.S. to complete a graduate degree in a more lucrative field. Hua decided to study law, and attended Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s.
Hua relocated to Las Vegas after graduation. After she had worked in various roles, including as a public defender and with well-known Las Vegas defense attorney Bucky Buchanan, she opened her own criminal defense practice. This venture proved professionally and financially freeing, until she fell into a severe depression and began to experience suicidal ideation. “My husband saw what was happening and said ‘You know what, honey? You’ve always wanted to be an artist. Why don’t you return to art?’” Hua said.
After practicing law for 20 years, Hua closed her firm and enrolled in art classes at the College of Southern Nevada. While at CSN, she attended the Chateau Orquevaux artist residency in France, where she learned about low residency MFA programs. Upon return, she was accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduated with an MFA from the Low-Residency program in late 2022.
Around the time Hua closed her law practice to focus on art and her mental health, she attended a collage workshop with her children. “It was really mostly for my kids, but I felt such a pleasure in shredding these ads designed to produce consumerist desire and set unrealistic beauty standards,” she said. “Even though you’re destroying these images, their shreds still retain the trace DNA of their original function, design, and purpose. When you place them in a new context, you complicate their meaning.”
At this challenging stage of her life, art remained a way for Hua to pick up the pieces and make sense of what was happening around her. “It was kind of my way of reconstructing my world, which had fallen apart and into chaos, by reconstructing a world onto paper,” she said. “There was a therapeutic component.”
When the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sparked anti-Asian hate across the country, Hua turned once again to her artistic practice. This time, it proved not only a place of personal refuge, but also a potential site for the amendment of dominant historical narratives.
“When I was getting glares at grocery stores, it made me think of the people demonstrating against the removal of Confederate flags and monuments,” Hua said. “A huge reason for the basis of their claim to being ‘true’ Americans is the fact that they have ancestors who fought in the American Civil War. But African Americans, Asian Americans, and many other people of color fought in the American Civil War, too. So by their own argument, they are also supporting our claim to being true Americans. And that inconvenient truth is powerful.”
These oft-forgotten facts of American history are symptomatic of an established historical narrative that is at best incomplete and more often intentionally exclusionary. Just as the pandemic would prove ongoing, so too would anti-Asian discrimination and violence, events that placed the stakes of historical narratives—even as they unfolded in real time—into stark relief.
“There’s a long history of rebellion and subversion that comes with collage— politically, not just personally,” Hua said, citing the use of the medium in the Modernist movement and in 20th Century African-American art. “When you rip these aspects of society and reanimate them in your own configuration, you’re showing how the world could be construed, instead of the way colonialism and patriarchy has made us perceive ourselves.”
As an artist, Hua recognizes the powerful role that art, and collage in particular, can play in attempts to amend these shortcomings and create a more equitable future. “The contributions of Chinese Americans have often been devalued or omitted,” Hua said. “It makes me think about what we base our knowledge of history on. How legitimate are records made by those in power? They’re not objective. It’s what people record that is passed down. I have no choice but to make tracings out of the traces of history that I glimpse and add them to that record.”
Hua’s first solo gallery exhibition, Traces and Tracings, interrogates these historical limitations through collages of exuberant color and energetic composition. One piece, titled “Did You Know Chinese Americans Fought in the Civil War?”, poses a poignant question, while her series “Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave” considers the way that historical narrative can only ever be a shadow of the past itself.
“I really like the philosophy that everything, everyone has a second chance,” Hua said. “That just because something started out as ephemera— something assigned a purely utilitarian or temporary value, like magazine advertisements— could be turned into something more eternal, into art. Historically, when labor was needed, Chinese immigrants were welcomed into the country. But once our labor was no longer necessary, we were disregarded through xenophobic immigration laws, disregarded like detritus, like ephemera. But there’s value in people and objects beyond mere utility.”
After graduating with her MFA late last year, Hua, who still occasionally practices law, is currently an adjunct professor of art history at the College of Southern Nevada. She will also teach a workshop at Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan this summer. “I hope that when people hear my story they realize that it is never too late for new beginnings,” said Hua. “There’s something very joyful about that.”
Photos courtesy of Jeannie Hua. You can learn more about Jeannie on her website.
Jeannie Hua’s solo exhibition Traces and Tracings is on view at the College of Southern Nevada Artspace Gallery through April 23, with a reception at 6 pm April 19.
This article was funded by a grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.