Move LifeStyle

Move LifeStyle

Girl Friday: Gaye Chan, Artist and Activist


Photography by: Marco Garcia and Gaye Chan

I met artist Gaye Chan and her partner, Nandita Sharma, in Hawaii about a year ago,  after we rented their beautiful house while I was living on Oahu to film Last Resort.  I found Gaye’s boldness and candor incredibly appealing, and as we got to know each other, I was bowled over by her intelligence and strong viewpoint on life. Gaye has been an incredible source of inspiration for me to become more true to myself as an artist and to be more active for what I believe in. I think her story can do the same for you, too.

*Gaye has a show this weekend near Vancouver where you can see her art in action.*


What are the subjects you find yourself most drawn to as an artist?
I am drawn to things that have been thrown away and things that are supposed to be worthless. I love how they let me think about the existing value system and help me imagine different ones.

I am drawn to things that have been thrown away and things that are supposed to be worthless.

How did you find yourself living in Hawaii? What’s your connection to the island?
My family immigrated to Hawaii from Hong Kong when I was 12. I lived there until I went to graduate school in San Francisco, then returned years later to teach at the university. I don’t have much to say about connections except I like how the humidity and salt in the air makes my hair curlier. I like feeling a breeze when I sleep. The moon, when it is crescent, is always like a smile.



I love following your Instagram feed and seeing all the vegetables you get in trade for the beautiful baskets you make. How did you come up with the idea?
Last summer I went to visit Annie Moss. She owns an organic foods distribution company, and I needed to buy a case of tomatoes to make sauce for the year. While there I noticed heaps of baling straps. These single-use straps are found around nearly every box shipped across the globe, binding box to box, paper to paper, and everything to pallets. Even though Annie intends to recycle them, the waste factor irked me to no end.

I brought my basket to Annie and made her a proposition: with her trash I would make her a basket each week, and she would trade me vegetables.

I gave myself the task of figuring out how to reuse or upcycle them. After countless You Tube videos and cut-up fingers, I managed to make a basket using a basic weaving technique that is used all over the world. I brought my basket to Annie and made her a proposition: with her trash I would make her a basket each week, and she would let me have as much ‘seconds’ as I want. ‘Seconds,’ in their terms, mean fruits and vegetables that are a little too old or misshapen to resell in stores. As of today I have made 33 of these exchanges. I get so much food that I get to be ‘vegetable Santa’ for several friends and families. On Annie’s end, she gives the baskets to the workers and her favorite vendors. Not a cent has ever changed hands.

You’re also a big part of a grassroots seed-share and recycling program on Hawaii. I loved seeing your creations all over the island when I lived there! Tell us a little about these two projects.
I am so happy that you actually saw these projects in person. Both are a part of the work of EATING IN PUBLIC, a collective that my partner, Nandita Sharma and I co-founded. Since 2003 we have been setting up a range of free, anarchist, autonomous systems of exchange. Things like guerilla gardens, freestores, and the two you mentioned – SHARE SEEDS and HI-5 Bins.

SHARE SEEDS are permanent locations where anyone can take or leave seeds.

SHARE SEEDS are permanent locations where anyone can take or leave seeds.

The saving and sharing of seeds are ancient practices throughout the world, but currently under threat by big industrial seed corporations such as Monsanto. Plants carefully cultivated by farmers the world over for millennia–skills and knowledge that belong to no one and everyone–are being modified through genetic engineering and claimed as ‘inventions’ by corporations. Since our government is allowing them to patent these so-called inventions, the corporations are also making it illegal for everyone else to save and share seeds.

The SHARE SEEDS project provides information about the danger of life patenting and offer easy ways for anyone and everyone to do something about it. We have built and implemented quite a number of stations on Oahu. For folks not on Oahu, we have easy to follow downloadable DIY instructions on our website so anyone can build their own. It has been very successful and there are now SHARE SEEDS in many places. Those as far as New Jersey, Oregon, California, Ontario, Vancouver and even Dusseldorf.

The recycling program you mentioned all started years ago when one day the city dropped off a blue recycling bin at our place. We were so happy. “FINALLY!” we thought. We put all our recyclables in it and waited for the pick up. And waited. And waited. And waited for 2 years and they never came.

“Why not just make a simple wire mesh bin with a sign that said, “Hi-5 / Take, Leave, Whatevas”?

Frustrated, we thought, “Why not just make a simple wire mesh bin for our front yard, put our redeemables in it along with a sign that said, “Hi-5 / Take, leave, Whatevas”? And voila! They were picked up. Then people dropped off their redeemables! And then these were picked up too! We thought, if it worked so well in our front yard we should put them everywhere. The idea caught on very quickly. People invited us to do workshops. We collaborated with community groups. We even received a small grant from the Hawaii People’s Fund. I’d say we have put up about 875 bins on Oahu.

We have put up about 875 recycling bins on Oahu.

In 2011, the coordinate of Honolulu’s Office of Recycling called us. Instead of being defensive she told us she was very excited about the HI-5 bins. She liked the concept, the simplicity of the design and its community building potential. To make a long story short, the City of Honolulu recently officially adopted the HI-5 project with the goal of placing 1,000 containers by the end of 2013 on Oahu. We consider this development to be a huge accomplishment!

How would you describe your style?
I love mid-century boy’s school clothes and men’s work clothes. I like pockets, socks, handkerchiefs, ascots, trousers with cuffs, and especially vests that have satin backs and that little strap, leather shoes with laces and boots. Pretty much everything except hats. It’s best that I don’t go shopping. I don’t like women’s clothes, and I am sized in that black hole between the largest boy’s and the smallest men’s. I get depressed, irritated and then murderous. On the rare occasion that I find something I like I will buy them in bulk. Sometimes with slight variations in color but sometimes all exactly the same. It is possible that people think I never change my clothes.

You recently accompanied your partner on a year-long sabbatical to Vancouver while she focused on writing a book.  Was it an easy decision to go with her, or did you encounter unexpected difficulties? 
The location didn’t matter so much to me. We chose Vancouver because Nandita has a large close family/friend network here. She has really been missing them in Hawaii. I also like being a stranger. To get lost.

Sabbatical. To be freed of life chopped up into little bits is absolute heaven on earth.

To find unknown or new parts of me. And sigh… sabbatical. To be freed of life chopped up into little bits is absolute heaven on earth. While I am pretty good at getting a lot done with a hectic schedule; freed time allows me to pause, to be curious, to follow tiny wisps of thoughts not even enough to be called ideas. All of this is crucial for artists at the early stages of any new work, new directions. I doubt if I would have started making bale strap baskets in Hawaii. Besides bartering the baskets it led me to several other threads. One of which is a new performance piece entitled “Sweat” that took place in March at Access Gallery. I will be restaging it with a few small changes for the Burnaby Art Gallery in July.

What are you most proud of?
When I finally figure how to solve a particularly gnarly problem, including figuring out how to make use of something previously assumed to be totally useless.

What is one major change you hope to see in the world during your lifetime?
The end of money, but I’d settle for the end of Monsanto.

Girl Friday is a phrase more common to the 1940s and 50s, defined as “a female employee who has a wide range of duties,” and is most recognizable from the film His Girl Friday. Here at Move LifeStyle, we’re resurrecting its saucy vibe for the title of our last column of the week which profiles inspiring women in the workforce. If you like this series, click here for more Girl Friday Interviews.

Photography by: Marco Garcia

Gaye Chan

Author Description

Autumn Reeser

Autumn is an actress + artist living in Los Angeles with her husband, their 3-year old Finn and newborn Dashiell. She is constantly inspired by today’s modern woman.

  • tomthumb3
    As a former student of Gaye’s, I can tell you that she is indeed brilliant. Her selection of images, questions and commentary, presented during lectures, since she is a Photography professor, was inspiring; I gave her my all. She was my favorite. This is not to say that every one of the professors/instructors were not as motivating, but Gaye was/remains special. I don’t think she realizes her intelligence. Her ideas rattle the chains of truth and beauty. She always talked about things that mattered. Her project located at http://www.downwindproductions.com/ is another example. Every exhibit I have seen of hers made me think deeply about art and the world. She once told me that the artist spoke in a language that required that the audience got to know it before they could understand the
    work. I am often contemplating that view. I compare it to the implication of
    her colleague Professor Stan Tomita’s statement: “The eloquence of the
    idea,” which meant that an idea came to the artist and it was her job to
    most eloquently portray it. Choice of media was important, but it also implied
    that the presentation was most assuredly the best. She achieves this. She does this, but in these projects, she communicates her intention. In her artwork, she is less straight-forward and to truly enjoy the depth of her ideas, it would be best to know the meaning of the visual language in which she is speaking. These other projects complement her general style, which is delicate and refined. When I look at the Sweat box (See: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152079494449899&set=a.10150098699714899.317670.732739898&type=1&theater) with its olive green paint, red Chinese lettering, and corrugated roof, I see beauty. The staging is like that of a roadside vendor, and I guess she gives the baskets away, but they are beautiful, not only because they must be hard to make, but because they speak of the under class, about poverty, and man’s inhumanity to man. The event of her anonymity while creating them feeds into a subtle, persuasive message that leaves you, I would imagine, in the moment self-reflective, not even seeing her, but her hands in an endless repetitive gesture of monotony, which is like lives of billions she is seeking to give voice. The seed project too or the take, leave, whatevas… speak of the community of persons, and what idea isn’t more wonderful than that? After all, we are social animals. I am so glad you discovered her.
  • http://www.wayofthewong.com/ Jenn Wong
    I love this interview & the community that has come to know Gaye & has added to the conversation. What an inspiration. I hope that I too, get to meet her in person, as her presence and influence are clearly astounding.
  • Autumn Reeser
    I’m so glad Gaye shared her story with us, and thank you Tom & Jennifer for the great comments!!!
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Move LifeStyle is an e-zine for the modern working woman created by Autumn Reeser, Jenn Wong and Ashley Fauset.