The Dickinsonian
Volume 137 No. 12
February 27, 2004



Flexing Minds, Sharpening Souls

An Interview With Artist Magdalene Hsu-Li

Joanie Kwok: In your biography, you are described as "box[ing] with the endless conveyor belts of Britneys by flexing her mind and sharpening her soul." How have you flexed your mind and sharpened your soul?

Magdalene Hsu-Li: Much of the "flexing and sharpening" I do for my mind & soul involves interacting and talking to real people all across America about their real life experiences. Touring provides me with the opportunity to experience people from diverse demographics, cultures, backgrounds, and socio-economic levels. (People I would ordinarily never come into contact with if I lived a stationary life) These people's stories hold a great deal of interest and usefulness to me as an artist, teach me, feed me, & shed hope, strength, & deeper meaning upon the vastly homogenized corporate concrete landscape that surrounds us in this country.

You can't truly see or recognize this corporate homogenization without witnessing it on a first hand basis. Books are an informative and interesting addition to my "real life" ducation which continues every day. But books are not as "experiential" so the messages they have to offer does not hit as closely to home for me as meeting a real people and actually hearing their stories.

JK: Being part of the indie sect of the music industry, do you sometimes wish your music was a bit more mainstream, with a larger group of fans to share your ideas/views with? So would it be that bad to be considered a "Britney"?

MH: I would like my music to be recognized more on a mainstream level if only for my artistic message to be available as part of a wider selection of choices for people to have access to. There's a big difference between an artist who makes music and art from a soul level and because they "must," than an entertainer willing to do anything to sell records and be famous.

I would never want to be like a Britney Spears, to use my sexuality as a female to sell mediocre records of songs that I couldn't sell without my sex, or write by myself without help from professional industry songwriters. Nor do I desire fame and success to the point where it is my only goal or fixation. There's a big difference between the mainstream success of Ani Difranco or Tori Amos and why they do what they do as opposed to someone like Britney Spears. You have to look at what kind of bed their success was built on and ask yourself - can I lie in that and feel good about myself?

JK: You identify yourself as a painter, musician, lecturer, activist, bisexual and Chinese-American. Can you describe a painting that you have done? Do you have any favorite painters or works of art that you admire?

MH: I have a 15 foot x 10 foot painting called "The Heart That Sees Feels Clearly Now." It uses shades based off alizarin crimson, black, and Prussian blue tones but my palette is varied within those shades. I end up mixing and using colors I don't like very much just because they offset pure colors beautifully through the contrast of having putrid next to pure. I build my canvases using a very layered technique starting with lead white and very light transparent colors, then building darker tones on top, then once again light transparencies to create the feeling of light underneath and above opacity.

I use mediums such as dammar varnish and stand oil and occasionally use technically "incorrect" glazing mediums such as wood floor glazes such as you can find at a local hardware store. The painting depicts a large human heart-like shape surrounded by abstract forms and semi-realistic ones of dark pistols or guns.

The message of the painting is about the dangers of hiding behind an intellectual or academic life. That when intellect becomes the sole focus or goal in a person's life, it can be used as a substitute for meaningful human can be used as a weapon to protect the heart. But in protecting the heart, the heart never gets fed, never truly lives, loses touch with its humanity, never actively seeks its truest desires...I meet many people who have created a "life thesis" which is their way of "responding" to the world. But often this life thesis prevents them from achieving the very thing that they want out of life. It becomes a barrier to happiness for them.

JK: What are you active about; i.e., do you feel strongly about the environment, animal rights, women rights, etc?

MH: I am active in the Seattle, WA chapters of Radical Women, The Freedom Socialist Party, The Rolling Thunder organization, as well as the Praxis Performance Art group. I regularly work with these organizations at their rallies and functions, do benefit performances for their events, or simply work for them on an organizing or volunteer level. However, the most constant form of activism in my life is each and every performance that I do. If one of my performances or songs can change the way one person in the audience thinks.....that is exactly what I am here to do. It gives me fuel to continue to do what I do.

JK: How was living in Martinsville, VA like as the only Asian family? Can you describe any of those experiences? Have these experiences shaped your music?

MH: Martinsville pretty much sucked. People are not afraid to be prejudiced in the south. Not a day went by that I didn't hear the word "chink," hear a "chinga chonga" or two chiming in and out of the classroom, or see genuine bonafide hicks zooming around in their pickup trucks, or inhale the fresh smell of cow manure and ignorance in the morning.

In school, we learned about the civil war, took field trips to visited historic civil war battlegrounds like Gettysburg or places that were used as stops during Underground Railroad. For a short time, I was raised as a "genteel" modern day southern belle, until everyone realized I was anything but. I was too damn rebellious and unbelle-like. And I was certainly very "unfilial" which posed a problem for my parents though we now have a very loving and supportive relationship which we have built through much work and understanding. They love the fact that I am an artist, they really love music, and they really love me so I am just damn lucky.

When I told my parents what was happening to me at school they said to just ignore the slurs. They said that people actually "liked" me and that was their way of showing it. They were pretty in denial and out of touch. Yet Martinsville made me into an artist so for that I'm grateful. You cannot be reminded day and in day out that you are different and not take that difference to heart (and hopefully later in life make something positive out of it).

Understanding that I was different made me turn inward, and that inward turning is intrinsic to the nature of being creative. So the path of the artist was chosen for me...almost predetermined. I certainly don't think it was an accident what I was born in the south, as I am now very happy and fulfilled as a musician and artist. One created the other and there was no mistake in how it happened.

Magdalene Hsu-Li is an Asian-American music artist, painter, poet and speaker from Martinsville, VA. She graduated from the Rohde Island School of Design with a BFA in painting. She then continued to study jazz and classical music at the Cornish College of the Arts. She has studied with Brazilian jazz pianist Jovino Santos Neto, guitarist Tim Young, vocalist Thomasa Eckert, and pianist Barbara Higbie. Magdalen Hsu-Li has just released her new CD titled, Fire. Her music is said to be a blend of "hard-grounded folk, sweet siren lyrics, and high-powered feminist angst." The New York Times reviews her CD Fire as "sweet, melodic and real."

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