Like most millennials, Jocelyn Teng has a strong affinity for all things nostalgia — in particular, growing up in the rolling mountains of southern Taipei in Taiwan, where she was raised by her hippie, artistic parents.
A natural when it comes to painting abstract and figurative paintings on canvas, Teng gravitates towards reflective moments from her childhood when it comes to subject matter. When asked to recall her earliest art-related memory, she doesn’t hesitate for long.
“I remember my mom would draw these beautiful faces, and I don’t even know where she learned them from [since she’s actually a writer],” Teng says. “They were these almost anime-like, Asian comic faces. But I remember my mom showing me, with pencil and paper… and it’s probably why I love drawing female faces [to this day].”
Now, that influence can be found in Teng’s own artwork, such as this piece titled, “Tracks of Her Tears,” which uses soft pastels on raw canvas.
“The portrait has multiple facial lines and shapes, referencing the beautiful faces my mother drew for me when I was little. It also depicts the state of skepticism and self-doubt as a creative individual,” she explains. “However, at the same time, the eyes on the faces are steady and calm; grounding the face, grounding the mind. The girl is wearing what looks like a qipao (cheongsam) with Mandarin collars, reflecting my Taiwanese heritage. The garments are in bright colours and patterns, [which serves as a] reminder that, although we are in an unsettling period of time, there is still so much positivity that came out of the pandemic.”
But despite Teng’s raw talent when it comes to paintings and illustrations, she actually got her professional start in the fashion industry — a passion that also harkens back to her early childhood.
“My dad’s mom was a seamstress and she taught me how to sew,” she recalls. “I don’t quite remember this [anecdote myself], but my dad told me that I would literally find scraps of hand towels and cut them apart and sew little purses that I would gift to my family members.”
So when her family immigrated to Vancouver when she was only nine years old, Teng carried with her a plethora of magical childhood memories that would soon develop into the art she’s celebrated for today. That path, though, was a long, winding road that involved working on special projects for various iconic brands (think: Roots and Lululemon), working full-time for the likes of MAC Cosmetics and L’Oréal and a seven-month stint in Amsterdam with international design house Viktor & Rolf — which left her proud of the work, but creatively and emotionally drained.
“Being able to work with amazing designers [in Amsterdam] and go to Paris and see a runway show [come together] from literally the beginning sketches to the end… was a surreal experience,” she says. “They offered me money to stay, but I realized at that point that it wasn’t the right thing for me because creative burnout is real and the fashion industry is just not sustainable… I remember working on the runway shows [and] for over a week we literally had 10 hours of sleep. It was an insane amount of hours that we were working and it was unhealthy. It was an amazing experience, but that’s when I really realized I needed to reconsider what my options were.”
Even when Teng returned to Toronto, where she now works and lives, she couldn’t shake the feelings that arose during her time overseas. “I was moving from one company to another and making more money, but I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling so down,” she recalls. “[I realized] I needed to step back and take a break. I hadn’t had time to regroup and focus on what I want to do with my life. It was always go, go, go and I hadn’t even had a moment to myself to reflect.”
Now, far removed from the fashion industry, she’s focused on the paintings and illustrations she creates for a plethora of clients.
We recently chatted with Teng about how she unwinds, nixing the work/life balance ideal and what’s next for her.
Avoiding creative block: How creatives can unwind at the end of a long day
The first thing Teng acknowledges is that unwinding after a long day isn’t as easy as it sounds — and that’s OK. “I think it’s a continuous learning process,” she laughs. “It’s definitely difficult for creatives because our minds are always active [and] I’ve learned over the years that I can’t just shut it off.”
One reliable go-to for Teng has been exercise — but she’s not talking training-for-a-marathon running or waking up at five in the morning. Instead, she gives herself the guilt-free permission to decide, on any given day, on how much time she’ll set aside for a workout depending on how her day is going and how she’s feeling.
“I use my mind so much [so I need] to give it a break and move my body more,” she says. “Walking somehow resets me even if, at the end of the night, I just go for a walk for 20 minutes with my husband around the neighbourhood. I find that it’s very soothing because you’re not really thinking about anything else or checking emails.”
As a bonus, Teng admits there have been many times when just going for a calming walk has naturally inspired new ideas for her pieces.
I use my mind so much [so I need] to give it a break and move my body more
“I do sometimes think it also brings new ideas because it settles my brain and takes me out of my schedule,” she explains. “I know that for a lot of the greats — whether they were writers or scientists like Einstein or musicians — they walked a lot. I think that they got a lot of their great ideas just from walking and it probably helped them with their process. It’s almost like a meditation in a way. It’s also not so physically demanding, especially after a long day.”
Finding a healthier alternative to the idea of work/life balance
We often hear people talk about the health benefits of striking the ideal work/life balance, but what if, for some creatives, finding that balance is stressful, in and of itself? It’s something Teng has accepted about herself and, in an effort to make life more manageable, has come up with her own unique way of latching on to this popular ideal.
“It’s funny, but I’ve learned that there really isn’t a balance. It’s a work/life integration, especially for me,” she says. “I’ve accepted the fact that there’s always so much going on and I think, secretly, I love that there’s always so much going on because I’m a creative and I get bored [easily]. I’ve learned that integration is more important than [finding] the balance.”
So, how does work/life integration actually work, according to Teng? Spoiler alert: it involves avoiding putting any additional pressure on yourself.
For creatives especially, you just have to find the integration that works for you
“I can’t find the perfect balance, but if I let myself accept the fact that there’s always so much going on and integrate the work into my everyday life and conversations, then I give myself less pressure,” she says. “I don’t go, ‘oh no, I’m not doing one hour of exercise.’ I think it’s important to know you have a lot going on and you may not have a lot of downtime, but maybe you can squeeze in a 15- or 30-minute walk or bike ride before starting something else for work. I think it’s more feasible and realistic.”
Teng believes this method might be easier for creatives such as herself, given all the ongoing inspiration for her work. “For creatives especially, you just have to find the integration that works for you, or your partner or your family and, I think, not add any extra pressure [on yourself] to make everything balanced,” she says. “I find that’s too much. It’s just another additional thing to do, which defeats the purpose of trying to find the balance between work and life. If 15 minutes is all you can do [ that day], don’t stress about it.”
What’s next for Jocelyn Teng
Now that she’s perfected her version of work/life balance — or, should we say, integration — Teng is focused on all the exciting new projects she has coming down the pipe.
In addition to working on a large commission piece for the [Toronto-based] restaurant Bar Mignonette, Chef Craig Wong and his wife Ivy’s French restaurant that opened during Covid, Teng has set her sights on finding a bigger studio space for a solo show and looking to the future of her burgeoning career.
“I [want to] put together a solo show probably in the same timeframe as [finding a studio],” she says. “In the next five years, I will continue to paint and create, do more exhibitions — hopefully international shows — and perhaps collaborate with other artists. I just want to play and have fun!”
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