It's been a life-changing year for Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Ys. Not only did Ys paint two murals in L.A. for the "Queer to Stay" initiative created by the Human Rights Campaign and Showtime and open a solo show, "Eidolon Vessel," at Heron Arts in San Francisco, but they also opened up to the world about who they are. "I came out this year! As nonbinary!" Ys shares.
As with so many people, being in lockdown for 18 months led to a lot of self-reflection for Ys. "I was forced to interrogate a lot of my identity that had been sort of frozen in a premature state while I was pursuing my career, and once I slowed down and gave time to my personal relationships, my writing, my community involvement, and my own mind -- all heightened by the sort of pressure cooker created by the protests and election -- I think everything just sort of warmed up and unraveled inside of me," they recall.
Their gender identity is something they'd been thinking about for a long time, but they finally concluded that not only were they nonbinary, but it was time to share that information with their friends, loved ones, and the world.
"If we are not aiming towards self-actualization in a lived-in way, how can we hope to be happy, to advocate for others' selfhood?" Ys asks.
While Ys may have taken time to fully acknowledge their gender identity, their identity as an artist was never in question. "I've known from a very young age, simply because I really have to do something tactile in order to process my experiences and thoughts. I've never been able to move through life in a passive way, I need to chew on things and translate them through some kind of mark-making," explains Ys.
Their art also became a conduit for their queerness. "I processed a lot of my confusion about sexuality and gender through drawing -- drew a lot of R-rated things in my notebooks in high school, which was my way of accessing queerness from a young age -- and it took me many years after that to realize that exploring queer themes in my public work was not just a personal admission but a real and valid contextual conversation that may also help others see or find themselves," they say.
Ys pulls inspiration from varied places, including Chinese folk art, Korean horror films, and even Lil Nas X. All of which are channeled into their arresting, intriguing, and psychedelia-infused work -- work that is also unapologetically queer. "The entire universe of the queer feels magical to me," says Ys. It's that unspoken power between queer people when they find one another that inspires the artist -- in particular, the bonds queer people make in a world that's so often hostile toward them. "I think that's what I'm always trying to process through my work: paying homage to that preciousness while at the same time trying to deconstruct the infinite strangeness," they explain.
While this year has been an incredible one, Ys has plenty more to look forward to on the horizon. "I'm deeply honored to be heading to Yale during November to paint a mural on the Asian American Cultural Center as part of their 40th anniversary celebration," they share. Ys will spend three weeks on campus creating a piece commemorating the space and its history. In December, they are doing a show with Mirus Gallery at Miami Art Basel, to be followed by a solo show at Mirus's Denver location in 2022. "I am hoping to expand on the rotating installations I've been making, getting deeper into Chinese mythology, and exploring my gender identity more through painting," says Ys.
Not content to just create their own art, Ys and their partner are empowering other artists to do the same. "My partner and I run an art space for LGBTQ+ BIPOC artists and every now and then give out micro-grants funded by any work we do that is related to the queer community," they say. They're encouraging queer artists to reach out to them on Instagram. It's just another way in which Ys is quite literally creating the kind of world they want to live in.
This story is part of The Advocate's 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands December 1, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.