‘Memoirs of a Banana Girl’: A Conversation with artist Lizzy Choi

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Photos by Josephine Joliff.

Artist Lizzy Choi previously worked for the illustration desk at City on a Hill Press from 2017 to 2018.

Everyone has inner demons, but not everyone is as willing to talk about them as Lizzy Choi.  

On one wall is a painting of a girl bathing in a giant teacup, enjoying the warm liquid alongside a devilish figure. Adjacent to this is a print of several women on skateboards, mid-trick around the word “skateboard” in Hangul. Four sheer curtains with poetry screen printed on them are suspended along the periphery of the room. Visitors contemplate the artwork through the fabric, like looking at a fire through smoke.

For her senior gallery, Choi decided to share an intimate self-reflection through prints and paintings. As a fourth-year student preparing to graduate from the art department at UC Santa Cruz, she was able to display her work in the Eduardo Carrillo Senior Gallery in the Elena Baskin Art Department. Her exhibition, titled “Memoirs of a Banana Girl,” ran for seven days beginning April 11.

CHP spoke with Choi about the exhibition and what she values as an artist.

City on a Hill Press: Where did your journey as an artist first begin? When did you first know that you wanted to make art?

Lizzy Choi: This is kind of funny because I was a STEM major before, [first] a biology major and then I went into CS for a year and was just not happy. I would doodle everyday because it was like free therapy and then I joined staff for City on a Hill as an illustrator and when I got into the routine of illustrating for the paper every week, […] and treating it as a serious thing, that’s when I actually changed my major to art and ever since then I’ve just been growing.

CHP: The name of your show is “Memoirs of a Banana Girl.” Where does that title come from and how has it informed the pieces you included in the gallery?

LC: It’s called “Memoirs of a Banana Girl” because there’s this play and book called “Memoirs of a Geisha.” That was one of my mom’s favorite plays and I just really like the title of that. As for the banana girl part, I was called that pretty frequently by the Korean American community because I can’t speak a lot of Korean. I used to hate that term but I kind of reclaimed it and I take a lot of those feelings of experiences growing up as both Korean and American and being a banana girl and translating that into my artwork.

CHP: As this is your senior show and essentially a farewell to the campus of UCSC, how would you say being here the past four years shaped you as an artist?

LC: “Even though I’ve only been an art major for a year and a half, every year [prior] contributed to that. I’ve always been absorbing everything to be an artist. I just went through so many different experiences in my four years here, so many I never would have guessed would happen, a lot of happy things, a lot of really sad things, like frustration and a lot of hardships that came, but also the beautiful things that came out of hard work and beautiful connections. I think everything contributed to it— every little experience has informed the way I look at things, and I always wrote and drew to process each experience. I’m leaving with way more of a focus and a message in my artwork.

CHP: Throughout the gallery, demons play a big part, visually and thematically, and you said the show is negotiating and exorcising your personal demons. How do you use art to do this?

LC: I use [art] as an outlet because it’s better than bottling it up. I find that in my experience it’s been way more relieving and cathartic to expel all the “ugly things” into something that can be seen as beautiful. That has been way more effective than any med I’ve been on or yoga or exercise — which all are helpful, granted, I do all those things — but art has been the most healing and fulfilling thing that I could do for my mental health and my demons which symbolize all those insecurities.

CHP: So in the art, demons symbolize insecurities?

LC: I have bipolar, so they symbolize the mania, the depression, the anxiety— all these things that I carry around with me. I have accepted that they’ll never go away so I make them all colorful and playful because they’re my friends, they’re my homies and they’ll always follow me around everywhere. I used to really hate those demons but in my art I’m able to draw them as playful pals and it helps me accept them more and be less serious about them by making them cartoony and light-hearted.

CHP: Besides making art, you also write a lot of poetry, and you incorporated your poetry into the gallery in a really unique way. In terms of expressing yourself, what differences are there in your approach to poetry versus your approach to visual art?

LC: It’s cool because both supplement each other. If I get sick and tired of painting, I can just go to writing, and that’ll usually inspire me to go to painting or printmaking because a lot of my imagery that I paint or print, they stem from poems I write so that’s a source where I mine all the words and create these pictures from. So they hold hands together and help each other out in my art process.

CHP: You’ve said that your work amplifies your experience as a Korean American lesbian and daughter of immigrants. Has this experience made it harder to find a place where you or your art can fit in?

LC: Yeah, it’s always been hard to find like-minded people who understand what you’re going through because a lot of queer spaces can be white and a lot of Asian spaces can be really straight, so I always gew up really dysphoric of [my] identity and never feeling like I was real because I never saw myself in front of me. That’s why I try so hard and put everything into making this art because I want to create that space that I wish I could have had growing up, I wish I could have seen that. Explicit queer Asian American experiences being in front of me would have helped a lot of the dysphoria that I grew up with. I make that space for myself non-negotiable[…] I create a space for myself and shove it open.

CHP: It’s evident that your art is very personal, and many people say the personal is political. How do you see your art in conversation with current politics and social issues?

LC: It’s really important for queer people and people of marginalized backgrounds to pick up a pen and share because, especially in times like these, everything is so heteronormative and Eurocentric, they’re the same narratives that have been recycled over and over. It’s radical to be vulnerable and it’s radical to have different types of voices in the conversation. I never feel comfortable […] telling someone else’s story because I don’t know what they’re going through. I think the most effective part of personal storytelling is that you know it the best and you can share it best.

CHP: Speaking of representation and voices, who has influenced you as an artist?

LC: Min Jin Lee, who wrote “Pachinko,” and works by other Korean American creatives have been inspiring because it’s always nice to see that representation. My printmaking professor is this really badass Korean woman, Jimin Lee. All those queer voices who share their work have always influenced me and impacted me the most. My peers who do a lot of identity based artwork have been inspiring for me to be around.

CHP: At the end of your artist’s statement, you talk about how your mind is your home. You mention how it can be overwhelming and messy at times, but at the end of the day, “it’s home.” That reminds me of the scene in “Harry Potter” where Ron Weasley takes Harry to his house and says, “It’s not much, but it’s home,” to which Harry responds, “I think it’s brilliant.” When people come to your gallery or view your art online and then tell you how good it is — how brilliant it is, how does that make you feel as an artist?

LC: It validates a lot of the ugly that I go through. It’s always a great reminder that it’s not for nothing. With sad and ugly thoughts, they’re only temporary, and it’s beautiful when other people can look at that and say, “that’s beautiful.” That’s why I was really emotional yesterday [at the gallery] and I cried, like, seven times, because it just meant so much [to me] for people to be able to come to that space and respect it and tell me that it’s beautiful and really cool. That’s the highest compliment to me because that’s a reflection of myself and my experiences and everything that I go through. A lot of it looks awful, but for other people to look at it and be like, “that’s pretty,” is really nice.

CHP: What would you say to people coming from a similar background as you? What do you wish someone had told you when you were younger?

LC: There’s more of you, you’re not alone. You’re allowed to be fucking angry and tired and sad, and you’re allowed to be bitter. Create and take up that space because no one else is really going to make it for you, so you have to do it for yourself. Just keep going, even when you don’t want to because it’s so important to do it for the kids.

CHP: What might you tell STEM students who are thinking about trying out art but are a little apprehensive?

LC: I get it. I wanted to be in STEM and CS because that’s where the “success” is and that’s where the money is, but that’s the most bullshit thing you can think because your life is a waste if you’re doing something you’re not passionate about and you’re doing it just for the money. You can be a rich guy and then at the end of the day you wouldn’t have followed your dream and you’d be just miserable. It’s so much more healing and better for your mental health if you just chase your passion; art is the most important job you could do because it’s the most selfish but selfless thing at the same time. When people are like, “I can’t draw” or “I just draw on the side,” I just love to ask why. If you’re passionate about that, why wouldn’t you just do it all the time? That’s what I thought. It was such a ‘duh’ to me when I changed to art, I was like, “why wasn’t I doing this the whole time?” It makes life so much easier. You don’t have to do [STEM], no one’s telling you to do STEM. No one can force you to do it at the end of the day.

CHP: Speaking about “success,” after making a piece of art, how do you know it’s “successful?”

LC: I find it successful if I step back and I feel relief. I can’t really express it in words, but if I can step back and look at it and just feel lighter, that’s how I already know it’s a success. And then for me, it’s even more of a success if people can look at it and relate to it. It was so cool because at my show, [there were] so many people from so many different backgrounds, [and] there were many things a lot of people told me they related to. In my opinion, that’s a success, to hold a space for dialogue and sharing.

CHP: Why is accessible art important to you?

LC: I’m really passionate about this because art has always been seen as this elitist thing that only the most reputable people can access which is stupid, and it’s really cool to just make art people can relate to, really real art about what people see as mundane or everyday or too personal. The most effective art can be art of the masses or street art or balls — art that’s not on a podium at MOMA. Art is in everything; it’s in communities and dialogue and it can be shared amongst anyone. I think that the reason it’s important for anyone to pick up a pen or a paintbrush is to decentralize art or get rid of the elitism because it shouldn’t be [elite]. It’s been a part of humanity for as long as cavemen could draw on stone. It’s so ingrained in us and it’s silly for capitalism and elitism to make something so inherently human millions of dollars.

CHP: A lot of your art has specific ties to your cultural background. How do you explore or celebrate your culture through art?

LC: It’s a means for me to connect to what I make of Korean culture, because I’m not Korean, I’m Korean American. I’m a different subset; I’m not either/or, I’m not one less than the other, but a different mix of the two. In my art I like to take traditionally Korean shamanistic imagery and insert it into 21st century American life because that’s the life I know. It’s the life I know as the daughter of two people who were born in South Korea and had to immigrate here. I like to do it because it’s something that isn’t seen much in American art. I haven’t really seen Korean symbolism much, so I think it’s cool to take those elements, and they’re like tools to rub onto something.

CHP: Who has helped you throughout your journey?

LC: My mom and dad for sure because they supported all my choices, which means a lot. [In] a lot of immigrant families, that doesn’t happen. You’re kind of stuck in what they decide for you to do, so I was really lucky to be able to follow my passion and for them to accept that and support me anyways, so I really owe a lot to my parents. My siblings because they were also supportive and there with me every step of the way. I also thanked a lot of good friends in the art department who have helped me not only hone in my drive as an artist or develop my drive, but also people who have helped provide me with materials of course. I thanked my print professor because she’s been an inspiring figure to me. And just many people who have been there for me emotionally because the emotional aspect is very much a reflection in my art, so to have someone be there for me in my bleakest moments means a lot to me, just as much as someone providing a silkscreen for me to print my curtains.

CHP: What kind of challenges did you face on your journey?

LC: A lot of dysphoria of wishing I could live a traditionally comfortable lifestyle. I hate to say this but a lot of the time I wish I were straight just for the comfortability. It’s not only that dysphoria over my sexuality but growing up in white dominated spaces in my childhood and being teased for the way I look. There was a lot of dysphoria in my racial identity and my sexuality. That has always been a really tough thing to cope with, but it’s also something I can turn around and use to empower myself and other queer people of color.

CHP: What else do you want to tell people who see your art?

LC: To just celebrate themselves.

Fun questions

CHP: Favorite Pokemon game?

LC: Either SoulSilver or Platinum

CHP: Of those, who is your starter?

LC: For [SoulSilver], I always pick Chikorita and Cyndaquil, but never Totodile. For Platinum, Turtwig or Piplup.

CHP: Favorite snack food?

LC: I like dairy-free ice cream because I’m violently lactose intolerant, but I like ice cream.

CHP: Favorite movie?

LC: One of my favorites is “Kill Bill.” I really like anime, one of my favorites is “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”

CHP: “Kill Bill” Vol. 1 or Vol. 2?

LC: Vol. 1 because it has Oren Ishii.

CHP: Do you have any tattoos?

LC: This is my first one, a GameCube controller, because I have two older brothers and a younger sister, so there’s four of us so that was the perfect number for console games and we’re all kind of similar in age so I grew up just playing so many GameCube games with them because we were a Nintendo family. A lot of my childhood looked like GameCube games and just always playing Smash. It sounds silly, but I hold video games in high regard because it’s something that always brought me joy and somewhere where me and my siblings actually got along and it’s just fun.

CHP: Who do you choose for Smash?

LC: I love this question. In Melee I always play Fox because I’m annoying and in the newer ones, I also like Peach consistently so I would say she’s my girl.

CHP: Books, comics, manga?

LC: “Pachinko” is really good. It’s like “Joy Luck Club,” but Korean. It’s four generations of a Korean family and it’s been a while since I couldn’t put down a book, so that book was really good.

CHP: What have you been listening to recently?

LC: I’ve been listening to a lot of ABBA.


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