Breaking the Rules: Artist Tate Won Chen learned the rules just to break them

Tate Won Chen was introduced to art through calligraphic Chinese painting. “In the practice of Chinese ink painting,” she explains, “there are right and wrong ways to do things. There are materials to prepare. There are ways to hold your brush and posture. There are ways to think about open fields balanced by tighter weights and how you place them. It gets to be very lyrical and poetic, and that’s been my foundation.”

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” As Tate describes the way her art has evolved, it seems she’s taken that advice to heart. “I love being aggressive with a pencil and dancing around a page — not holding it too tight or letting myself get too close so I can let something happen and let it be scrawl. I love organic shapes where there’s no right or wrong. I love plants. I love figure drawing. A lot of it really is about keeping your own heart alive and hopefully being able to have that resonate in someone else’s soul.”

Though Tate identifies as a painter, she pursues a lot of different crafts. “Everything I do goes under this umbrella in my brain as fine arts,” she says. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, she’s been putting all her free time into mask making because LifeSpan contacted her with a pattern and asked her to help. “Sewing can be empowering right now and a way to make small contributions to a community that seems disconnected. When we’re full of fear, that’s a way to keep my hands busy.” 

She also crafts small-scale mobiles that are made out of mostly found objects. “Bits of metal and shells, glass, coins, ends of shoelaces. Bits and bobbles. They’re arranged like you’d balance a mobile,” she says. “They’re formal studies meant to be suspended thoughts. Like being suspended in time. I’ve been thinking about them as dreamscapes.” 

She’s momentarily distracted from our interview by her pet pigeon, Hermes, who flies free in her room. “She had a broken leg as a fledgling, and now she’s 9. She’s been the most intelligent and loyal and social animal I’ve ever had. She’s just living her little life on my pile of scarves.” 

In describing her pigeon, Tate expresses reverence for the natural world. “We can talk in scientific terms to explain nature, but when you see a rainbow, you’re just struck by raw awe.” That, she says, is a philosophy she shares with The Reliquarium, a live/work art collective with which she’s been involved for four years. She’s currently working with them on a massive project in Lincoln, called TimeZone. They’re building a multiroom game experience in which participants will have to face challenges in order to move through the game and earn points. It soon will be unveiled at R1 Indoor Karting.    

“What’s neat about The Reliquarium is a desire to re-enchant the world. The collective and I both come from more organized places, but we try to find that whimsy in the cracks of the sidewalk. We started off with that same song in our heart of the awe of nature and the natural world,” she says.  

She speaks with excitement about the great communal push she experiences through her work with The Reliquarium. “Everyone has their own little specialty, so there’s always someone who can tackle that thing. A certain part of me feels empowered by working in a collective because of that trust. A mixture of introverted creativity and extroverted participation really gets the sparks going.”