Looking at a Lenore Chinn painting is like spying on a stranger through a peephole. While her subjects have nothing to hide, their visible preoccupation with personal thoughts seems almost too intimate for the observer. That Chinn is able to capture such ephemeral expressions reveals the precision of her paintings.

In “Bok Kai Temple,” a young boy of Chinese descent is surrounded by glowing candles, sticks of incense and oranges. But instead of appearing to celebrate his ancestors, he seems distracted. Is it because a boy who looks just like him is his own reflection in a mirror? Or, is it because objects in his environment include bottles of cooking oil and drinking water — modern implements juxtaposed against a traditional background?

Another Chinn painting, “Kindred Spirits,” features a row of Chinese marionettes hanging from a printed screen. Their shiny faces fixed in frozen smiles, the puppets seem trapped by their own eternal expressions of joy.

Growing up in San Francisco, Chinn’s access to rich cultural source material is reflected in her work. Both of her parents came from Chinatowns — her mother from Oakland’s and her father, San Francisco’s. But Chinn’s time in San Francisco’s Chinatown was limited to weekend shopping trips or when their extended family celebrated weddings, funerals or Chinese New Year.

One by one, the aunts and uncles moved from the Chinatown family house leaving only Uncle Benjamen, a well-known photographer. The rest, said Chinn, “began pushing the acceptable geographic boundaries for people of color in those days.”

In 1951, when Chinn was two, her father moved their family to the predominately white outer Richmond district. Earlier, he “put money down on a house down the peninsula,” said Chinn, “but rampant racism” chased him away — without his money.

Segregation in San Francisco was ubiquitous then and, according to Chinn, invisible color lines were not crossed. Still, she remembers the kindness of both Japanese Americans and African Americans who allowed her entry into their homes.

“Growing up there I was caught between two worlds,” Chinn remembered. “My own Cantonese roots and the forces of white assimilation and racism.”

An innate historian, Chinn impulsively keeps tabs on the changing faces of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, easily reciting local history. A baby boomer, and college student during Vietnam War protests, she nurtures a strong consciousness about world events.

“Déjà Vu,” acrylic on canvas by Lenore Chinn, 1986.
“Déjà Vu,” acrylic on canvas by Lenore Chinn, 1986.

With paintings often depicting Bay Area Chinese American culture, Chinn utilizes a photo-realism style. After taking photographs, she paints them on large canvasses, sometimes taking up to six months for a small painting.

“My pieces have gotten more detailed and complex over the years so it takes a while,” she said, reporting that an artist friend admonished her, “You could never keep a gallery in business! You paint too slow!”

But, said Chinn, she probably wouldn’t show in a mainstream gallery anyway. Progressive politics keeps her at the forefront of activism, particularly as an advocate for gay rights although she’s adamant that the real pioneers came before her. Between 1988 and 1992, Chinn was a member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. And, she was involved in the Harvey Milk GLBT Democratic Club in 1980.

Not only does Chinn’s artwork reflect the Asian American experience, but Americans with African and Mexican ethnicities, too. She’s also painted a close friend who is a Sephardic Jew with North African ancestry. By the 1980’s, Chinn began painting couples in same sex relationships.

Attributing her openness towards other cultures to her father, Chinn calls him “a great influence,” revealing they were very close and that she takes after him.

“He was very worldly and exposed me to a variety of people from different cultures,” she added. “I shared his curiosity and was never fearful of exploring outside of my own family and Chinese American heritage.”

Recently, the book “Cultural Confluences: the Art of Lenore Chinn” was published by Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. Since then, Chinn has been busily appearing at events and workshops promoting it. A reception at the GLBT History Museum was a standing room only affair with numerous friends sharing stories that resonated with the audience — some of them likely subjects of her paintings.

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