the art of finding my path

“You know, I don’t think you really want to do advertising.” he said to me.

“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“I think what you want to do is to be an artist,” he said.

“You want to express yourself.”

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“art is about bearing witness—

to all the worlds within us, and all the worlds outside of us”

Jan 2019

This is how I would describe my life right now:

After many years of self-interrogation, turmoil, and searching, I’ve finally found myself at the beginning of a path that I know, deep in my gut, is the truest thing I could do. It feels like if, after years of knocking on different doors, suddenly I’m standing at the right door with a key in my hand, feeling the faint click of the key turning in the lock. I’m beginning a whole new journey from here.

When asked, at dinner parties or at tango events, what it is that I do, I tell people that I’m an artist. But “artist” is such a vague and romantic-sounding term that can mean so many things, and I’m positively certain that what they’re imagining is not what I’m imagining. So I wanted to take a moment to articulate — for myself, more than anything — how I got here here, why I’m here, and what it is that I seek to do.

2006: A good Chinese daughter

I attended a magnet arts public high school, then a STEM-focused, two-year public residential high school. I spent most of my time there in humanities classes, at the art studio, in the music wing, or outside on the grass, reading poetry with my friends. I thought I wanted to become an architect. But that was just a compromise between me and the external world: my peers, my school, and my parents, who were both engineers. So, I applied to a mix of architecture schools, Ivy Leagues, and state schools. (I also briefly flirted with the idea of art schools, until one time, at a prospective student event at Parsons, I asked about English classes and they just looked at me with a blank stare.)

I decided I wanted to go to Columbia — not because I thought I’d be happy there (I wasn’t), but because Columbia, which was inextricably tied to New York City, had promised to show me the world. And I hungered for the world.

2010: Young apprentice of the world

In college, I took classes in as many majors I could seriously consider, and interned at as many companies as I had time for. I took an oil painting class as a freshmen, taught by two painter-photographer men who would show up to class with a cool air of cigarette smoke and worldly detachment that, upon retrospect, was very Brooklyn. Their work was avant-garde. Provocative. What I remember most about that class was being alone in the painting studio until 3 am, painting onions and bell peppers I bought at the Morton Williams across the street. It was wintertime. I decided against majoring in visual art because the whole experience lacked something essential to who I was, and what I cared about. I’m only now articulating what that was. Connection. Humanness. Heart. Soul.

Other majors I considered: English, sociology, film studies, psychology, philosophy, architecture. (Architecture was brutal and made me miserable.) My favorite class freshmen year, by far, was a beginner nonfiction creative writing class I signed up for on a whim. My classmates ranged from twenty-two year old American Studies majors to fifty year old retired opera singers, and everyone in between.

We used the blank page to tell stories about our lives, and from that, gave fragmented moments meaning and significance. It was personal, cathartic, humbling, intimate. The next year, I declared my nonfiction creative writing major, and minored in history (which was, essentially, the same thing, but on a worldwide scale).

Over those four years, I interned at a media nonprofit in Chelsea, whose mission was to use short documentary film to incite social change. I interned in the creative department of a worldwide advertising agency, because I was so moved by their ad campaigns for social good. I interned at a book review magazine, just to see if I wanted to enter into the Manhattan literary / publishing world.

I didn’t. I went to one holiday party and stood around awkwardly (not even drinking), staring at stylish bookish people talking about stylish bookish things. I left after ten minutes of staring, standing, half-smiling. At the other two companies, I felt such disconnect between the my idealistic vision of their mission, and the reality of working there. The media nonprofit was an icy, sinking ship that exploited its employees. The advertising agency approached their social good campaigns as though its only purpose was to win awards.

One time, in the middle of a conversation, the creative director said to me: “You know, I don’t think you really want to do advertising.”

“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“I think what you want to do is to be an artist”, he said. “You want to express yourself.”

I think I took offense, thought he was saying that I wasn’t doing a good job, or that I didn’t care about the work they were doing there. I think I resolved to work harder at my internship, show him that I had “it,” whatever “it,” was. At age twenty, I just wanted to be whatever would please them most. After all, I had been admiring their campaigns since high school.

Well. He was right. And I’m so grateful he said that. I didn’t want to go into advertising, cause I couldn’t put my heart and soul into making compelling, creative work about stuff I didn’t give a shit about.

2014: Ambitious nine to fiver

By the end of college, I decided that I wanted to be a writer of nonfiction essays. I graduated and got myself a full-time marketing job at a boutique tutoring company. I got obsessive over morning routines, productivity, and managing my time outside of work. I woke up every morning to write for an hour before work. I started dancing tango at night.

My boss knew I loved design, and connected me with my first graphic design client while at that job. The experience of working independently— setting my own process, making my own rate, and creating work that was 100% mine —felt invigorating and refreshing for my soul. I started taking evening graphic design and branding classes at School of Visual Arts. I devoured business books and online classes on entrepreneurship. I became obsessed with the idea of starting my own business. While working for someone else felt like laboring on another person’s garden, I really, really wanted to plant my own seeds, till my own soil, reap my own fruit. I quit my first and only full-time job in January of 2016.

2016: Hustler throwing darts

It took me another three years before I found my vision for my garden. During those three years, I took everything I was good at, everything that I learned — marketing, writing, branding, graphic design — and I threw it like darts on a bullseye board. I was coaching small-business owners on marketing strategy and branding. I was designing Squarespace websites and creating logos for businesses, taking on illustration work, working on writing and editing projects for clients.

At the same time, my personal life was going through major upheavals. I ended a relationship with someone I had been with since freshmen year of college. Months before, I went on a six week road trip with him across the country. I moved from uptown Manhattan to East Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. And during the fallout from that breakup, I started working part-time at a graphic design studio.

That part-time job was a gift from the universe. Because of that job, I had the financial stability to do what I wanted, instead of what was financially feasible in the short term. I slowly recovered. I began throwing pottery, painting, and writing again — out of pure pleasure, out of creative catharsis. In three years time, I had written a thousand pages. I found my voice. I started a little project called Camp Kening. I got deep into dancing tango. I also started to play music again, after seven years of not touching my instrument.

I worked at that design studio for a little over a year, until I felt the restlessness again. I felt something else — my spirit, maybe — pulling at me, whispering to me while I walked to work, while I made tea, while I typed emails. I decided that it was time to take another leap. This time, I would zero in on what I truly wanted to do, and this time, I would give it my all.

2018 - Gardener of my inner worlds

After a year of reflecting on my core creative impulses and all the work I’ve made, I started to connect the dots between all the different things I do — visual art, writing, design, branding — and all the things I’m interested in— emotional experiences, stories, travel, memory, essentialism, personal growth, spirituality, productivity, getting stuff done.

My goal as an artist is and was never to end up in galleries, to sell my work to rich people, and to become art-world famous. My goal as a writer is and never was to get an agent, then a book deal, then have my book featured on booklists and be touring bookstores across the country. For me, art and writing are just tools— messengers for a deeper message, a more urgent purpose.

For me, being an artist is a spiritual, contemplative practice. It is about bearing witness to all the worlds within us, and the worlds outside of us — all the fleeting moments of beauty, joy, and pain that exist in the great messy chaos of life. Art, for me, is about seeing, and being seen; about listening, and being heard; about speaking, and being spoken to. Art is about cultivating myself— mind, body, heart, and soul — through daily, deliberate practice.

What I realized was that while all artists’ work comes from the internal world, my work was primarily about the internal world. It emerged out of necessity. If I didn’t spend those years tending to my internal worlds through cathartic art practices, I would have lost myself in anxiety and dark holes of my mind.

Part of my work, then, as an artist, is to nurture my fullest potential as a human being, and to help others nurture theirs, too. When I’m fully in love with myself, I’m able to be fully in love with the world. That sounds like bliss to me.

Back to the beginning >

There. I can’t believe you made it to the end of my long dissertation. (I can’t believe I made it, either!) Thank you. This is just another beginning.

If you’re like my mother and you’re reading this, you might be wondering: but, are you sure? How do you know this will work?

Well, I don’t. But I can’t imagine doing anything else with this life.

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(If you’re interested in my journey and work, I send out a monthly newsletter with my writing, essays, art, shop launches, and notes from the metaphorical road).

JourneyKening Zhu