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HONOLULU — When Lauren Hana Chai was 11 years old, her mother, Mira, went missing. Chai’s parents had separated when she was seven years old. Her father lived and worked in Korea. Her mother lived in the continental United States, sharing phone calls and letters with Chai, who was growing up in Hawaii with her grandparents. But one day, the messages stopped.
Years later, as a young adult, Chai attended Academy of Art University and studied painting. After finishing her assignments for school, Chai would use any leftover paint to draw her mother’s face from memory. In her senior year, when given a project to create an art piece using a digital collage from Photoshop, Chai decided to paint a scene of Los Angeles. In the painting’s billboards and street signs are missing person posters with her mother’s face. In the foreground is an image of her mother, carrying Chai as a baby, taken from an old VHS tape that Chai discovered in junior high. “This original painting was titled ‘Letters from LA’ because for a long time, that was where she sent me letters from,” Chai told Hyperallergic. “During this time, I was going through therapy and a lot of emotions were coming out, so I decided to keep going.”
Through the help of private investigators and hearsay from family and friends, Chai was able to narrow down six possible cities that might be her mother’s last known location besides Los Angeles: Honolulu (Chai’s birthplace), South Korea (where Chai’s grandparents are from and under whose culture she was raised), San Francisco (where Chai went to college), Las Vegas (where Chai’s mother moved after Los Angeles), and Hong Kong (where Chai’s family believes her mother may actually be). As a way to process her feelings of grief, frustration, and loss, Chai brought each of these cities to life in a series of paintings titled, Last Known Locations, currently on display at the coworking space Impact Hub in Honolulu. Each is imbued with imagery including, or inspired by, her missing mother.
“I have a black-and-white photo of my mother and father in Hong Kong before I was born, because he lived there for three years and she lived with him for a year, which I used to paint from,” said Chai. “The San Francisco painting has my mother holding me as a baby and as a little Easter egg; I painted myself as an adult in the back, crossing the street. I started this journey in San Francisco, so I wanted to have that tie-in.” In Honolulu, her mother’s face appears ethereally in the clouds, overlooking the sea. In Las Vegas, “To Mira” and “Always, Hana” hover as casino signs over Fremont Street; Chai’s mother often signed her letter with these phrases, with a heart around “always.” In Seoul, the same phrases are written out in Korean, inscribed on vertical advertisements densely hanging above an alleyway.
“The first time I showed ‘Last Known Locations’ [in San Francisco in 2015], my friends were supportive. Some people didn’t know about my mother. Others had similar experiences and we connected,” Chai said. “But at first, my father didn’t like it. No one in my family liked my art for a long time because it was very dark. Now the issue was, ‘how much should we share of our personal life?’”
In time, Chai’s family came around to her work, realizing its positive impact towards healing. The series also had another unintended side effect: connecting Chai to others who were also looking for her mother.
“After San Francisco, I showed the paintings in Honolulu and a woman contacted me on Facebook. I was skeptical at first, but she turned out to be a friend of the mother of the new husband that my mother married. She’s trying to find the husband, Rex, because he went missing with my mom — and their three kids,” said Chai. “It got to the point where I wondered, should I continue looking if my mother’s trying to stay off the radar?” Private investigators looked into what happened; they couldn’t find Chai’s mother’s whereabouts, but did learn that she was caught in a corporate scandal involving a large sum of money.
“She might be on the run. She may be in trouble,” says Chai. “Ultimately, I’d like to find her. But if I can’t, I just want her to know that I still care and it’s okay to contact me. ‘Last Known Locations’ has become about trying to send a message out, from a daughter to a mother.”
Since completing the series in 2015, Chai has exhibited “Last Known Locations” in San Francisco and Honolulu. Chai’s ultimate goal for the paintings is to visit all the cities she portrayed on canvas. Meanwhile, art-wise, she’s moving on. “I went through the healing and now I’m working on other things,” says Chai.“Still having to do with self-identity but more exploring the crossroads of growing up Korean in America.”
Chai’s currently working on two paintings. In “American Pie,” an amalgam of people — brown, pink, yellow, black — are struggling alongside one another. Some are fighting, others are having sex. Their colors are stark. But across an entire 41-square-inch canvas, they collectively form a blended tapestry. In “Korean Pie,” an abstract, homogeneous mass of bodies represents Korea, while a sliver of distinctive foreigners, created from a composition of mixed media elements, is being edged out by the crowd. These characters, like their creator, are carving out a place for themselves amidst the chaos.
Lauren Hana Chai: Last Known Locations continues at Impact Hub (1050 Queen St, Honolulu) through May 26.