Those who do not learn from history are, inevitably, doomed to repeat it.
This statement remains as true today, in Marin County’s corner of the contemporary California coastline, as it was during the bygone eras of the wild west, industrial revolution and Renaissance. Even pre-medieval peasants and princes alike were bound by the lessons of those who came before them.
For Evri Kwong, a San Rafael-based artist, though, this common catchphrase is more than just a motto—it’s a lifelong passion. By painting visually-stunning works, Kwong aims to use art as a catalyst for conversation; the hard, messy and ultimately unavoidable kind of conversation that comes from sharing something as contentious as the simple, unadorned truth.
“Here’s the thing I think is really important: Share the truth from the get-go, and let go of the idea of whether or not something is ‘appropriate,’” said Kwong. “These things weren’t ‘appropriate’ when they happened, but they did happen, and we shouldn’t forget.”
“People shouldn’t say ‘paint me a pretty picture,’” continued Kwong. “Instead, they should say ‘paint me a powerful picture’—they just want to see art that’s pleasing to look at, but [art] is also a healing tool to reflect upon life and take a pause. Get people to reflect, take a pause and hopefully find something in those pieces.”
Kwong’s most recent work is a large 65-by-79 inch acrylic on window shade painting (with permanent marker and micron pen) that illustrates the 1867 Chinese railway workers’ strike, a protest of which there is no existing photographic documentation. He completed this artwork at the San Rafael Public Library over the past year.
“The library has been so generous in supporting me. In doing this piece, I watched what people do at the library, and it’s way more than just research…,” said Kwong. “For me, the library has been a place to work since I don’t have a studio.”
“I can only speak to the San Rafael Library, but they’ve been amazing and friendly and helpful,” Kwong continued. “Even the people in the library, who range from extreme wealth to extreme poverty, are wonderful. And every time I get there to work, they just get up and move and make room for me. It’s amazing.”
Kwong is set to give an artist talk hosted by the library on Monday, June 26, the day after the anniversary of the June 25, 1867 Chinese labor strike. This artist talk is free to attend and will be held rain or shine.
“The narrative that I want to shed light on is that the Chinese or Asians were protesting a long time ago, and the stereotype that they put their head down and go along with things is untrue,” said Kwong. “The reality is that, even in San Francisco, Chinese or Asian people are perceived as people who don’t make trouble—but they were protesting back then and still are to this day. The strike in 1867 was the largest of its kind.”
Kwong was born and raised in the Bay Area, though his family originally emigrated from China. His name, Evri Kwong, was fashioned after the early 1960s boat, Everyman, which was built in and sailed from Sausalito to protest nuclear test zones in the Pacific Ocean. From the moment Kwong was born, activism on behalf of the everyman was a part of his identity in the same way art was as well.
“I was just driven to make drawings—it’s something in me that I’m driven to do, and it goes beyond liking it or not,” explained Kwong. “It’s like my meditation; it calms me down. I don’t think about my work when I’m doing it; I’m just in a zone where I’m responding to shape, color and form.
“I’m able to engage with the world with my artwork,” continued Kwong. “Not escape, but engage—people think artists are hiding or escaping through their work, but for me, I’m confronting the world through my art.”
Kwong has remained in connection with his family’s generational roots and has not allowed the stories surrounding their experiences as Chinese Americans be forgotten. His grandmother, for instance, was detained on Angel Island for six months during her crossing. And his grandfather, a medicinal herb doctor, moved to a white neighborhood and was promptly asked to move elsewhere (he refused).
“On top of that, my grandfather got visits from the FBI, and there were other American Asians that had similar experiences in the 1950s,” Kwong said.
Kwong did not grow up hearing these stories of his family, however. And it was only after prying answers from his uncle that he learned of the entirety of the experiences.
“When my uncle does answer my questions, he always asks why I want to dredge up these memories—‘I thought we wanted to move past this,’ he’d say,” explained Kwong. “But I feel more liberated and calm knowing the truth of what happened.”
Shared truth (and the freedom and peace it brings) is exactly the medicine the world needs, especially now. And artists like Kwong, who use their voice to lend to the outcry for conversation and camaraderie, are at the forefront of the endeavor.
“We’re past the blaming stage for these kinds of things—we just need to work together to find common ground and know that it’s okay for Americans to have these messy conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable,” said Kwong.
Other topics Kwong’s art has addressed include the children detained at the border, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the famous cold-case murder of the early 2000s at Yosemite’s Half Dome. By illustrating these instances for all to see, Kwong hopes to immortalize the truth of these crimes and, in doing so, rail against the recurrence of them in modern society.
“I enjoy connecting the past to now,” said Kwong. “I did an art piece about the kids at the border and connected them to those from the Japanese internment camps. That piece was called America: Home of the Brave and Land of the Free, and it was exhibited in the De Young Museum in 2020. I’m hoping my latest piece of the railway might be exhibited in the De Young in the fall as well.”
Kwong is scheduled to speak in the San Rafael City Council Chambers at City Hall (1400 Fifth Ave.), across the street from the library, from 6 to 7pm on Monday, June 26. For more information, visit the San Rafael public library’s website at srpubliclibrary.org or call 415.485.3323.