Artist of the Month: Lisa Hsia

by Kim Rodeffer Funk /
Kim Rodeffer Funk's picture
Sep 01, 2015 / 0 comments

Lisa Hsia is unlike the studio artists we have shared in the recent past. Actually, Lisa has no studio at all! She is a traveler and her art has to be portable. She takes her work with her out into the world, documenting in words and illustrations what she observes.

Now if you think Lisa limits her work to the Oakland, California (US) area where she currently lives, you are quite mistaken. Lisa truly does travel and a few years ago she found herself in a variety of cities around the world. She has graciously agreed to share her work with you.

Lisa has a wonderful story to tell with her paintings and her words. We are very happy to bring her unique style and documenting eye to you. You will find Wandering Educator's September Artist of the Month interview with Lisa Hsia to be a lovely read. Let us know what you think. 

How long have you been an artist?

I've never not been an artist. As soon as I could hold a mark-making implement, I was expressing myself in some kind of way. It's the same for my writing, as well. I distinctly remember being extremely young and writing, on the brown cardboard backing of a notepad, a third-person description of myself. My parents still have boxes of my early scribblings, shoved away somewhere in their garage. They didn't think creative work could be a career, but they were always supportive and encouraging, as were all my teachers. 

Artist of the Month Lisa Hsia - starting early!

The artist at a young age 

Lisa Hsia, self-portrait

The artist in a 2014 self-portrait

Where do you work? How long have you been there?

I do most of my work at home, or out in the world if I'm sketching live. Occasionally I'll paint a portrait at my hair salon, since we're collaborating on a portrait gallery of some of their clients, and if I'm doing life drawing (nude figure drawing), that's usually in some kind of classroom or studio-ish space. But I don't have a studio of my own. I don't even have a dedicated space in our current apartment (where we've lived for two years). I don't know if that's a good thing (flexibility, etc), or if it limits the kind of art that I do. 

Two of the portraits from my hair salon collaboration:

Laura. Artist Lisa Hsia


Robert. Artist Lisa Hsia


A selection of life drawings:

Anjuli. Artist Lisa Hsia


Jenny. Artist Lisa Hsia


Matthew. Artist Lisa Hsia


Signe. Artist Lisa Hsia


I say that I don't know if not having a studio limits me because I do notice that the pictures I make are influenced by the space I'm in, even the posture I'm in; standing at an easel generates a different feeling than sitting at a desk. In 2012 and 2013, my husband and I went nomadic, living in nine countries for anywhere from a few days to a few months, and I made sketches in every place we visited. To me they all feel hugely different from each other, although that may also be because I'm remembering how I felt in each of those places. What do you think?

Coffee-shop sketch with watercolor pencils and brush, Toronto, May 2012. Artist Lisa Hsia

Coffee-shop sketch with watercolor pencils and brush, Toronto, May 2012

Marker sketch of Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Istanbul, October 2012. Artist Lisa Hsia

Marker sketch of Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Istanbul, October 2012

Pen sketches from the Louvre Museum, Paris, November 2012. Artist Lisa Hsia

Pen sketches from the Louvre Museum, Paris, November 2012

 Marker sketches at Daitoku-ji Temple, Kyoto, March 2013. Artist Lisa Hsia

Marker sketches at Daitoku-ji Temple, Kyoto, March 2013

View from our AirBnB, Singapore, April 2013. Lisa Hsia

View from our AirBnB, Singapore, April 2013

What does a typical day look like? Is there a typical day?

Not at all! There maybe used to be – I used to start each day with journaling – but I think our travels knocked that right out of me. Actually, since I spend so much time working from home, I find it necessary to vary my routine, otherwise the days blend together. On any given day you might find me at home, painting or blogging, or I might be out: volunteering, going out with a friend or with my Meetup group (I started a group for non-9-to-5-ers), writing in a cafe, visiting the Oakland Museum. 

Some people work well by taking a single idea and diving deeply into it, without distraction; I tend to do better by collecting a lot of ideas and influences, bouncing them off other people or thinking them over while doing something else, letting things percolate. I'm very interested in unexpected juxtapositions and new arrangements. My brain likes to make connections, and it does that best when I give it new things to absorb. 

Combining two favorite things: cats, and antique instructional diagrams. Artist Lisa Hsia

Combining two favorite things: cats, and antique instructional diagrams

Treating winter clothes/accessories as if they were a geological cross-section:

Treating winter clothes/accessories as if they were a geological cross-section. Artist Lisa Hsia

The Geological Closet

What materials do you prefer?

In both writing and visual art, I like materials that are versatile and portable, that flow easily, and that provide a tactile pleasure. I only started doing watercolor quite recently, in 2010, and when I started I had a feeling it was going to be difficult and take forever to learn. Frankly, I only picked it up because I adore color, I dislike messy media, and I am very unskilled with the other nonmessy, nontoxic colorful media like markers and colored pencils! But to my surprise, I took to the medium right away. No matter how bad I'm feeling about my skill, the painting act itself always makes things feel right. 

Some of my tools:

Artist Lisa Hsia's tools

Where/How are you inspired?

This is a big question I'm always trying to answer. Sometimes inspiration comes easily. Other times it doesn't, and I'm convinced I'm doomed as an artist (and/or never was an artist to begin with). I'm always relieved to hear other artists say they experience this too. Creativity, for me and for many other artists, is very cyclical, but wherever I am in the cycle I always think that's it: if I'm feeling really inspired and productive I'll think I've finally hit my stride; if I'm feeling lethargic and unexcited I'll assume the worst. I don't know why the cycle itself is so hard to acknowledge and remember. 

Some inspirations are fairly reliable, even if I'm not always able to predict how the inspirations will manifest. Being moved by others' work does something for me. Having strong feelings, or consuming questions, in my own life will get me moving. The need to document, to record, will get me out of bed in the middle of the night no matter how exhausted I am. I'm deeply touched by the combination of ephemerality and individuality – the knowledge that everything is, in every moment, infinitely precious and about to be lost – and I am always trying to capture that. 

All said, though, inspiration is the easy part. There's something so seductively satisfying about the inspiration itself, as if, just by having a wonderful idea, I'm already done. Translating the inspiration to action, that's the hard part, and that's what impresses me most about the artists I know well – that any of us gets anything done at all, knowing how much self-doubt and inertia there is in the process. 

Fruit, flowers, and other natural objects are a bit cliché as watercolor subjects, but they are perfectly impermanent and therefore fascinating to me.

Produce. Artist Lisa Hsia

Tulips. Artist Lisa Hsia

Eggplants. Artist Lisa Hsia

How do you know when your piece is done?

I would say that on some unconscious level, I approach each piece – whether it's a collection of completed works or just a quick sketch – with some kind of question I want to answer. And once that question is answered, I'm no longer interested in continuing the work, for better or worse. This isn't necessarily a useful tendency; in my writing, certainly, it means that with some pieces I just don't care to revise at all. 

With a piece that has specific limits – like my portraits, where I've told the sitter I will only be requiring x amount of their time – I'm finished when I think the piece is as good as I'll be able to get it, within those restrictions. That's pretty straightforward. There will come a point when I'll look at the picture and think, well, I could do a lot more with it if I had another two hours, but since I only have ten minutes, this is it.

My husband, Erik:

Erik. Artist Lisa Hsia

Do you work on one or more pieces at a time?

I always think I do, but I'm not sure I really do. It's too hard to divide my mental energy. 

If you were not a painter/visual artist, what would you do?

There's my writing. I go back and forth between the two, and am always trying to think up ways to combine them. And I also have a number of other creative outlets like cooking, baking, sewing, or crafting. There's always something. Honestly I think when you're an artist – or maybe it's just the kind of artist that I am – it comes out in whatever you're doing. I always say that there is as much art, for me, in stacking things in interesting patterns as there is in making a drawing. I could never not be creating.

From Kitchens (2014), a series of “portraits” of friends' kitchens:

Kitchen. Artist Lisa Hsia

Kitchen - artist Lisa Hsia

How can our readers find and purchase your art?

I have a few prints in my Etsy shop, That's all that's in the shop at the moment. I always think about listing original art for sale – goodness knows I have a lot of it lying around – but I have a hard time with that. As a natural documentarian, I find it difficult to part with anything that I feel contains a piece of me. And also, it's hard enough to put a price on something I have multiples of; when it comes to originals, it feels impossible. 

One of the available prints (Cat Shapes, above, is another):

Pencils. Artist Lisa Hsia



Find more of Lisa's work:



Kim Rodeffer Funk is the Art Editor for Wandering Educators. She notes, "I am an abstract painter and have enjoyed living a creative life for many years. In 2012, I co-founded Atelier 325 with Andrea Hupke de Palacio, and today show my art in Europe and the United States."

You can find her at



All photos courtesy and copyright Lisa Hsia