Beth Lo grew up in Indiana with only an inkling of her Chinese heritage. She and her sister spent a couple of weeks each summer at “Chinese family camp,” learning about Chinese culture with other families of similar descent. Sometimes her parents drove them north to Chicago, where they’d meet up with eight Chinese immigrant families to play games and dance. At the time, Lo saw it as a corny affair — one of those traditions children half-enjoy, half-rebuff and later recall with fondness.
Chinese culture was mostly peripheral to Lo. She was engaged in the kind of social activities most American kids are, not particularly interested in her parents’ past or a culture she hadn’t grown up in. She heard snippets here and there about her parents upbringing in China, and as a student at the University of Michigan, she joined the Chinese Student Club while working on a general bachelor’s degree and taking art classes. But it wasn’t until she had a son — after she’d moved to Montana and become a ceramicist — that she really began to explore the country to which she could trace her DNA.
“I’d always done sculpture and vessels,” Lo says. “But when Ty was born I started being more literal with my work. More narrative. The work was about my nuclear family and that grew into work about my parents and their immigration story. And from there I started looking at the blend of east-meets-west.”
Lo has a storied artistic history in Montana, not only as a ceramicist but as the founding bassist of longtime Missoula band the Big Sky Mudflaps and co-founder of Hamilton’s co-op gallery, Art City. Her current ceramic works are part of Shape/Shift, a group exhibit at Missoula’s Radius Gallery that also features Pamela Caughey and Sean O’Connell, as well as some Chinese brush paintings by Lo’s mother, Kiahsuang Shen Lo. It’s the perfect venue in which to see the artist’s honed work, which she has developed since studying under Rudy Autio at the University of Montana in 1974 and becoming an arts professor at UM in 1985. It’s an exhibit that also offers a window into the kind of socio-political content she’s immersed herself in.
One piece, “Do Not Enter,” features a set of five small ceramic child figures. The figures, painted in what Lo describes as “unhappy gray,” hang on the wall accompanied by ceramic speech bubbles that appear to float above their heads.
“The nice thing about speech bubbles,” Lo says, “is you can use them as a platform to say something more specific.”
In past works, Lo has created similar speech bubbles, via slip casting, and written words inside them to provide an extra layer of storytelling. But “Do Not Enter” is all imagery. Inside each speech bubble is a map of the United States rendered in a range of flesh tones, from dark to light. To the left of the gray children, a sixth child — dressed in red, white and blue — holds a flag with a Do Not Enter sign on it.
“The idea is that each of these characters is from a different country trying to get into the United States, but the current administration won’t allow that to happen,” Lo says. “This country was built on immigrants and immigration. The whole concept of a melting pot is so important to our culture — and it’s important to my personal history. It’s my protest piece.”
In another piece, Lo has created two terracotta figures that seem to be growing out of landforms. Look closely and you’ll notice that one character is standing in China and the other in the United States.
“It’s about how your personality or being could be formed by the country you live in,” Lo says. “Like my own personal blend of being half and half: I’m culturally more American, but I’m biologically close to 100 percent Chinese. I like to explore the idea of nature versus nurture and the factors that cause a person to become what they are. Cultural differences and perception, racism and subtle racism and stereotyping all go way back for me to junior high. Those were things I struggled with growing up in the United States, feeling like I was a minority and knowing that my parents thought of themselves as minorities who had to prove themselves.”
Lo says her parents aren’t really storytellers. They raised Lo and her sister to look forward rather than back on the past. She’s learned a lot more about their lives before they came to the U.S., mostly thanks to her sister, who has done a lot of digging into the family history and reconnected with family still living in China.
“My parents’ immigration story is kind of sad,” Lo says. “A lot of that generation were pretty intelligent and ambitious, and they got out before the Communist era. They made a choice to leave. My dad did it for education. They were married in China, and it took a year for my mother to get out.”
War conditions forced her parents to cross into India over the Himalayas. Lo’s mother waited a long time to get a Swedish boat to take her to the U.S.
“There was a short period in the 1950s where they could have gone back, and they chose to stay, knowing that they probably would never see their parents again,” Lo says. “They stayed in the United States and they were adventurous.”
Lo’s father got occasional summertime consulting work on the west coast and would drive the family there. “We always went through the mountains and I just loved it,” she says. It’s one of the reasons she ended up in Montana, making art that blends the personal and the political, both aesthetically pleasing and steeped in tension.
“I’m drawn to the blend where East meets West,” she says. “Western culture may not always be dominant politically, but it still seems to be dominant culturally. It’s the lowest and the highest form of culture, but it’s the most free — and maybe that’s why it feels both so interesting and frightening.”
Shape/Shift continues at the Radius Gallery through the end of February.