Katelyn Wang has spent the past year using art to share her passion for social justice with her peers at Bishop’s School in La Jolla. She hopes to spend the next year expanding this to the wider community.
“At the end of the day, we all want to be equal,” she said. “The idea of justice should benefit us all.”
Katelyn, 17, who is Chinese-American, won a California State Senate Visual Arts Award for her piece ‘United Fight’, which she says illustrates her journey of American activism from Asian origin.
The piece places a painting of a photo of Katelyn and her friends at a ‘Stop Asian Hate’ protest on several newspaper articles about anti-Asian-American hate crimes with line drawings of American landmarks . It’s “really complicated,” she says.
Katelyn, a senior at Bishop’s, said receiving the state senate award was rewarding and “felt like an affirmation for my journeys in art and activism.”
“I love the arts,” she said, noting that she performs Chinese folk dances at countywide Lunar New Year celebrations.
She also runs the East Asian Student Association at Bishop’s, another way to share her culture.
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The rise of COVID-19 – first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 – and subsequent reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have prompted Katelyn to focus on social justice.
The reports, along with the personal experiences of her friends and relatives wanting to buy a gun for self-protection, saturated her life, increasing her fear, she said.
She said a lack of organized response from her school community surprised her. Many of his Asian American peers were silent and no mention of the issue was made in his classes, even his Chinese language and culture class.
“I felt really upset,” Katelyn said. “I realized that this only perpetuated the Asian stereotype that we are all silent. Culturally, there’s this idea that you shouldn’t get involved in more political or daring things because safety is the number one concern.
“Someone has to say something because I’m not comfortable in an environment where nobody says anything.”
Katelyn also said her Chinese teacher scolded her for not correcting others who mispronounced her surname.
“Wang” should be pronounced “Wong,” she said, “but because I don’t like to correct people, I just say ‘Wang’.”
Her teacher’s reaction to the mispronunciation was “eye-opening”, Katelyn said. “I forgot who I am. … Now I try to fight for others.
“At the end of the day, we all want to be equal. The idea of justice should benefit us all.
She wrote an article for her school’s online student publication last year.
“As students who attend Bishop’s, who truly value diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, we need to start conversations,” she said. “I just tried to take a stand for the Asian American community.”
From there, Katelyn organized the Bishop’s AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Awareness Assembly, gave speeches on the importance of standing up to injustice, and ultimately combined her visual arts skills with her advocacy.
“I create art for everything,” Katelyn said. She added that she turned to art to help her understand the Black Lives Matter 2020 movement and its “dimensions of activism”.
She said she applied the same multifaceted approach to her social justice work for Asian Americans, creating a series of multimedia pieces, the third of which was the award-winning “United Fight.”
Last summer, she received permission from Bishop’s School principal Ron Kim to paint an old locker hallway with her “Justice Mural,” a four-wall painting that features a sunrise and the words “Rise for justice”.
“Because a lot of what I do is talking and trying to communicate, I wanted to have a physical message of my visions for justice,” she said.
Sunrise “embodies our new beginnings,” Katelyn said. “Every day when we wake up, when we walk onto campus, we can choose to live our actions with justice.”
She said the four-wall mural “engulfs people and [leads them] reflect.”
This summer, Katelyn painted a classroom door in Bishop’s Visual Arts Building with a quote from poet and activist Amanda Gorman and hopes it will inspire others.
The art “breaks down a lot of barriers, it unites us, and I think even if it’s just a classroom door, you walk past it and it adds color to the space,” Katelyn said.
To further her art and advocacy, Katelyn is undertaking independent visual arts study at her school, in which she will plan and execute a project to paint more social justice-themed murals in La Jolla.
“I’m going to go around La Jolla and connect with businesses,” showing them her portfolio and asking them to put a mural on their walls, she said.
Katelyn said the goals of the project are to brighten up the community, bring people to La Jolla, “give back to a place that gave me a voice, and find permanent homes for my vision of justice.” . ◆