Helping "artists learn and develop critical awareness of their works"

Canadian-Chinese Emily Gong is a leader in the arts space with a mission: to empower the artists of this generation and of the future. Having completed a Master of Science in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford, she worked in education at the University of Oxford, but she could not ignore her passion for art. Therefore, she took the plunge and began her startup based in Oxford, Art Focus.

Through Art Focus, she empowers artists and strengthens their links with society in order to support their careers in the art world, featuring prominent speakers such as Bella Kotak, a fine art photographer and entrepreneur and Lillian Liu, photographer, model and musician. Although plans for ambitious exchange programs at Art Focus have been disrupted due to Covid-19 impacts, Emily has been striving to make innovative use of technology to keep the conversations and inspirations flowing.

Emily has also been recognised in academia and as an artist in her own right, having received numerous recognitions. She has been published for her research, including for an article on the threat of tourism on the Tibetan Sky Burial tradition in the Journal of the National Association of Student Anthropologists and has exhibited in Asia, Canada and the United Kingdom, including at the Royal College of Art and the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.

She is versatile in her work, mastering different mediums and shifting seamlessly between abstract and intricate realism. Even as a high school student, she founded and taught at an arts school called Creative Expressions and it is an exciting mix of entrepreneurship and a love of creating that has brought Emily on her next journey with Art Focus. She reflects on the paths she has taken and looks to the future as Yinsey Wang interviews her for Resonate.

YW: How did you get into art yourself? Why is it significant to you personally?

EG: I am told that I naturally gravitated towards painting or finger painting before I could even walk (though I had, and still have, terrible balance; I could not walk well until I was 2 years old!). I lived with my grandparents in Beijing until the age of 6 years. My grandfather is a war veteran (general) who took up calligraphy and ink painting after he retired. He had a magnificent desk for scroll painting and I essentially grew up on it.

In my childhood, I could not stop drawing, but as I got older, spare time became scarcer. Painting was, and still is, deeply therapeutic and became a channel for processing my emotions. I wonder if these are similar reasons why my grandfather enjoyed painting. His style can be described as impressionistic, in that he painted his internal landscapes. His paintings taught me to feel, lean into intuition more, and art’s ability to heal the creator as well as the viewer.

A Contemporary Landscape Painting

YW: Art Focus builds programmes that empower arts students, emerging artists, and designers with professional development opportunities. Tell us a bit about the initiatives you are most excited about working on.

EG: I was the most excited about our summer programmes: Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, Architecture at Cambridge, and Design Innovation at Oxford. I am also looking forward to our ArtxTech2030 International Exhibition that explores and creates innovative projects that engage with technology and society through art. This exhibition stimulates collaborations between artists, designers, and tech industry professionals.

Though amidst Covid-19 times, the halt on international exchanges means making online transitions for both art and non-art related courses to help students use this time and space to build on their skills and knowledge from the safety of their homes. We also started an “Art Focus, Spoken” Podcast and Youtube video series entitled “Creating through Crisis.” This series features the voices of artists that share their journeys through challenges to make sustainable careers from their passions.

YW: What is it about the sharing of knowledge and art that feeds your passion to build bridges and create opportunities through Art Focus?

EG: I am incredibly passionate about the combination of knowledge, artistic exchanges, and creating opportunities to support the passions of young people! Living in Oxford, there is a wealth of knowledge exchanges in the form of academic conferences, which connects scholars to networks globally. However, in the art sphere, most artists work in seclusion. This gives them the time and space for creating, but at the same time, they are disconnected from a network that is crucial to the financial foundations of embarking on professional art practice.

My four years in art school was a once in a lifetime chance to focus purely on creating. Though there was always a weighted thought, typical to most art students, about what happens after graduating. In reality, the first five years after leaving art school is crucial for a young artist’s career, in order to set up a structure to support their art practice.

Art Focus was founded to fill this gap to provide international exchanges, exhibition exposure to their works, and professional development opportunities to young artists. In addition to offering programmes to help young artists learn and develop critical awareness of their works, and how it is situated in our contemporary world.

Emily Gong as photographed by Pratik Naik

YW: What do you think is one of the biggest challenges facing artists today? What about yourself? 

EG: Being an artist today is radically different to circumstances of even the previous generation due to the post-internet age and social media. Today, the amount of information and increasing diversity of global digital connectivity is reflected in the art world. Some of the challenges facing artists are as follows.

Firstly, the artists that are able to continue to pursue their art practice are not necessarily the most talented ones but often the ones who can afford to do so. Second, is meeting a balance between making what the artist desires while making a living. Whether that is working another full or part-time job or taking commissions, both limits time and creative freedom.

Often in emerging and even established art markets, artists create artworks based on market demands and not necessarily focusing on nor developing their unique artistic voice. Thirdly, as artistic mediums diversify and extend from the 2-dimensional wall, broadening the channels for artists working in new media, video, or performance art (often in some cases, are not the traditional type that sells) is crucial.

Overall, navigating and balancing relations with the market is an important life skill for all artists.

YW: What is the artwork you have created that you are most proud of and why?

EG: Personally, one of the most important aspects of creating is the process of research and experimentation in my work. From exploring how people experience art to exploring research-driven content through artistic form. A couple of my previous projects, as examples are a triptych entitled “Between the Ground and the Sky” and an installation exhibited at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism entitled “Cyan Shift.”

The triptych is a multi-medium relief painting of the Jadeite trade route in Kachin state Myanmar. It aims to broaden the art going experience for the visually impaired audience by having the tactile element of being able to touch while listening to a visual description of the painting, which enables a way of seeing through their mind’s eye.

Between the Ground and the Sky

“Cyan Shift” is an art-science collaboration with Professor Jayanne English, based on exploring an autonomous bus route in Shenzhen, China through a scientific visualisation method used by NASA to measure certain characteristics of galaxies. Visitors walk through the installation that shows the position and velocity of the autonomous vehicle.

The blueshift and redshift describe how light shifts toward shorter or longer wavelengths as objects in space (i.e. galaxies) move closer or further away from us. This concept is key to charting the universe’s expansion, and in our installation, capturing the signatures of autonomous vehicles in the future cityscape.

YW: Who is your favourite artist and why?

EG: Sorry, I find it impossible to pick one artist since I am inspired by a lot of artists throughout history and living artists today whose works fuse different disciplines. In terms of why an artist resonates with me, it ranges between what they themselves stand for, their way of thinking, a trait I really admire, often reflected in how they live out their lives and art practices and its relation to the historical period or movement that they were creating in.

Even today, we are writing the history of art through our individual and collective experiences. Art is a snapshot, reflection, and engagement with the society and surrounding environment (social, economic, political, etc) at its time of creation. We will look back to the works produced during Covid-19 and the social movements taking place.


YW: Tell us about some of your thoughts on your journey so far in founding and running Art Focus.

EG: I think from a young age, I have been receptive to the inequalities that exist and felt the need to be proactive about them. When I was 14 years of age, I started a charity art campaign called “Painting to End Poverty” donating to a number of humanitarian charitable organisations such as the Canadian Red Cross and Stephen Lewis Foundation. At age 16 years, I founded an art school called “Creative Expressions.” I developed (art) lesson plans and worked with a total of 48 talented students including those with learning disabilities.

While studying for my BFA at Queen’s University, the structural inequalities that exist in the art world became more apparent to me. I devoted several years of research on the international art market and how to empower artists. I completed my masters at the University of Oxford at the age of 22 years. For the two years that followed, I gave working a stable job in education a serious try but felt deprived.

When I turned 25 years old, I knew that I needed to return to art and turned down pursuing an MFA to further develop my own art practice, to instead act on a vision that I had put on the back burner for a decade. I co-founded Art Focus, an organisation that provides professional development opportunities to young artists around the world. I am so grateful to have met my amazing cofounder, for the best team I could ever dream of, and for all the support I have received along the way from family, friends, and the University of Oxford for the start-up endorsement.

YW: What do you wish you had known when you started out in an arts career that you know now? 

EG: The process of going through art school, dabbling in academia, working in development, and then co-founding a startup all taught me how to cope and carry on in uncertainty.

If you ask any of my childhood friends, they will tell you, I was that friend who coordinated all our gathering and outings a week in advance. I loved forward planning and spent a lot of my time thinking about the future. However, a career in the arts and startup life are both quite precarious. It took years to develop a strive in uncertain mindset, attitude towards life, and strong internal support system.

There is no right or wrong course, since it is your journey and I know if I got to go back in time, I would choose it all over again. But the only thing that I would do different is that I would trust myself, trust the process more and enjoy the moments at present!

Images courtesy of Bella Kotak and Pratik Naik. To learn more about Emily Gong, please visit her website here. To learn more about Art Focus, click here. The Art Focus Podcast and YouTube series are accessible here.