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Howie Tsui at the crossroads of culture

When we first saw Howie’s wallet design, we were amazed at how much visual information he was able to incorporate within just a few inches of material. We’re not the only ones similarly stunned by his work. He’s been exhibited all around Canada. He’s also been spotted in Beautiful/Decay, Carousel, Color and Border Crossings. His work is also part of the Canada Council Art Bank collection.

We caught up with Howie to ask him what inspired the design and how Chinese ink work may be a lot harder than it looks. Say hello to Howie Tsui:

We read that you moved around a lot—from Hong Kong, Thunder Bay (in Canada), Africa and now back in Canada again. How did that affect your art?
I think these divergent experiences provide me with a more radiant perspective of the world and our place in it. Given, that much of these re-locations happened during my formative years, I think the imprint of these contrasting experiences is actually embedded deeper within my psyche than something that is consciously and painstakingly incorporated into my practice.

Your work is so dense, but the execution isn’t visually taxing at all. How did you first come to work with ink?
I am using Chinese paint pigments for the most part. I started in 2008 working with this material on mulberry paper, which provides a tooth-y texture. The pigmentation is affective in achieving the faux-antiquated look that I was going for.

My move to these materials from, say, oil and canvas, was an intentional departure away from
traditionally Eurocentric mediums. I actually consider these works ‘paintings’, but from my experience applying to a Canadian painting competition, a painting must be on canvas or board.

What’s the most difficult thing about working with ink?
There ain’t really an undo or paint over option. So each stroke, gesture, texture and line is pretty much final.

Could you share what your studio is like and what your materials are?
I have a very modest work/live studio space in my house. It’s basically a master bedroom that I’ve modded with a flat works storage shelf on the ceiling. There’s lots of light, a big ass table, plants
and shelving for books.

My big paintings are rolled up and placed in tubes. Other parts of my house also come into play. There’s a computer area on the main floor for digital and office work, and basement for storage. Outdoors areas are also available, when the tundra hath thawed, for power saws and messier work.

What themes fascinate you and come up most in your artwork?
Hmm. I’m interested in fear and it’s relationship to creativity, imagination, child-rearing, the absurd and it’s historic role in Asian cultures contrasted with its modern day manifestation. There’s a lot more things that I could get into, but you probably don’t want to get me started. I wish I could just say, “I like skulls. Yeah man. And diamonds. Yeah. They bad ass.”

There’s a lot going on in the wallet design you made, could you tell us a little more about it?
The design is taken from segments of my scroll painting “Tengu’s World” (2009) from my Horror Fables series. It features the Japanese folkloric figure of Tengu perched atop a mountain; a rooftop figure who is poisoning a sleeping wife by dripping poison onto a dangling string; impaled lovers; a blue
guy tied to a tree and the Buddhist God of Heavenly Punishment is dunking baddies and biting off heads.

Your works are usually in scroll-format. How large are they usually?
The largest ones are limited to the largest wall I have in the studio. They are 125” x 38”. The tall vertical ones are 75” x 38”. Tengu’s World from the wallet is 72” x 25”.

How do you approach your work? Do you start from one end to another? Or do you work on whichever direction that catches your fancy?
I usually have a few major anchor components in my composition and then areas for mid-sized content and also areas for free unconscious work. Usually bouncing back and forth between areas striving for a balance.

How has your work changed over the years?
My practice has changed and matured quite dramatically in recent years. I’ve been very lucky to receive arts funding which allows my practice to be less affected by fashion and/or commercial pressures, while offering the chance to focus solely on developing projects that are honest, concept-oriented, explorations into that which I find intriguing. I think oppose to first asking myself, “What should this looks like?” I now ask myself “What is this about?”

How do you see your style evolving in the future?
From scroll paintings, I’ve moved to multi-media sculpture and producing magic lantern performances.

Next up, I’m messing around with re-configuring an old pinball machine into a human torso, and making an anatomically incorrect monument of an 1812 warrior out of epoxy-casted bones and organs. Oh and also depictions of self-inflicted diseases in the format of epic war paintings.

Check out Howie’s wallet at
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