Arts | Culture

Meet artist and curator Chi Essary of South Bay

Chi Essary
Chi Essary has curated an exhibition called Illumination at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. She is shown here in front of Bhavna Mehta’s Fault Lines on Feb. 11, 2020.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When you see art in a museum, a gallery or even a coffee shop, that exhibition is likely the result of a hardworking curator — someone who has a ideas, expertise and connections, and puts it all together to create a visual arts story.

This is what South Bay’s Chi Essary does. Her latest exhibition, Illumination, is a showcase of art and science and is on view at the San Diego Art Institute through May 3.

Essary, who is also an artist and a contributor to the arts nonprofit Vanguard Culture, tells us about putting together shows and how to appreciate art even if you don’t know anything about it.

Can you explain what a curator does?

Traditionally, a curator decides on a relevant cultural theme and then chooses existing work from visiting the artists’ studios, gallery openings and websites. I like to say I curate “backwards.” I choose the theme and then create an experience to inspire the artist. Generally, I try to introduce creative types who might not otherwise get a chance to meet and exchange ideas.


Why did you want to take on the role of a curator?

I started looking for ways to support and nourish local artists. What better way than providing a unique and unusual experience? This provides a creative challenge that can change an artist’s perspective and take their creative process to new places.

Chi Essary
Chi Essary is a curator and artist, shown here at Balboa Park on Feb. 11, 2020. Her latest exhibition called Illumination is at the San Diego Art Institute.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Your latest exhibition, “llumination,” brings together art and science. Tell how you see those as being connected …

I think of artist and scientists as two sides of the same coin: both are creative problem solvers who are open to finding something unexpected. The people who excel in both careers have a capacity to see things from different and unusual perspectives. It has been thrilling to bring these two groups together to whet their intellects with each other’s cutting-edge and crazy ideas, not to mention seeing what the artists create after spending an afternoon or more with a world-class scientist!

What do you hope people learn from Illumination?

I hope visitors get excited about the science and the art we have right here in San Diego. The scientists took time out of literally trying to cure cancer to share their research with artists, and through artists, with the public. It’s a unique way to learn about science; through the lens of an artist. They digest the information in wild and creative ways that make science fun to talk about over cocktails or the breakfast table. And you get to learn about local artists. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something you like.


How do you become aware of local artists and what they’re doing?

Working with Vanguard Culture for the last six years, I’ve learned a lot about our amazing art scene through writing about artists, doing studio visits, attending gallery openings and posting about them on our social media, @VanguardCulture.

Along with curating, you’re also an artist and you create some unique taxidermy ... tell us about it.

The geometry of nature from animal horns to seed pods I find intriguing. But taxidermy always struck me as a bit disrespectful so I thought of making “vegetarian” taxidermy. I started creating animal horns from leather, wire and even red zippers as an homage to Mother Nature’s creativity. I also taxidermied eggs, seed pods and plant parts in the usual animal taxidermy fashion.

Chi Essary
Chi Essary has curated an exhibition called Illumination at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. She is shown here in front of Bhavna Mehta’s Fault Lines on Feb. 11, 2020.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What, if anything, do you listen to when you’re creating something?

Right now, I (created) a Spotify station with Peter Cat Recording Co. from New Delhi. He sounds like a Sinatra-like crooner mixed with “gypsy jazz to psychedelic cabaret, ballroom waltzes to epic space disco.” Highly recommend him to zone out and be creative.

What’s your favorite material to work with?

I oil paint and create sculptures from “found objects” which basically means anything you stumble across or buy. I like using seed pods I find on my walks, swap meet treasures and add wire, glue, paint as necessary. My sweetheart calls them my “little nightmares” because I incorporate doll parts too. But it’s not meant to be morbid. Dolls are strangely innocent and alienating at the same time. Only a child has enough imagination to overpower their blank stares.

How would you describe San Diego as a city for visual arts?

San Diego has historically had an ebb and flow of arts institutions and programming. It’s difficult for artists to make a living here, and they often end up having to move away. There’s not a strong collector base here to support the arts, but the scene continues to grow and develop because the city has unique properties. We’re in this incredible “cultural corridor” between the border and LA that many of the artists here thrive on.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming visual artists?

Go to art openings and broaden your experience with local and international art as much as you can! Submit your art to group shows and keep at it. You can find out about calls for artists on many Facebook artist groups and get on email lists so you don’t miss opportunities. Building your resume and experience level is part of developing your practice.

What about advice for people who are new to art in general?

Approach art like music. People respond to music from a visceral level and never judge themselves by what critics say about their favorite band. Yet, so many of us feel like art is something we have to be educated on to be able to say we have a “true appreciation” of art. Just go see art! Going to art openings lets you find out what you like –– who cares what the critics say! What speaks to you is all that matters. You may not like a lot of what you see but when a piece of art speaks to you –– like your favorite song –– it’s riveting!

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