InterDisciplinary: Isabel Lu’s Expressive Paintings

This artist’s work explores aspects of their cultural and queer identity.
by Colony Little | photography by Joshua Steadman

“My painting practice is very intuitive,” says artist Isabel Lu. “If I’m experiencing something, I’m writing down manic notes and I’ll have to paint it. And as I’m painting, more things come up — the actual meaning develops over time.”

Lu’s current solo show at Artspace, Your Ocean is on Fire, is based on a year’s worth of personal reflections on relationships and experiences. This body of work is a trenchant self-exploration of Lu’s cultural and queer identity. Through her art, Lu grapples with a search for healing, looking for answers that lie between the lenses of Western and Chinese medicine.

Growing up in Greensboro, Lu always had an affection for art; illustration, manga and anime were early influences. Lu attended the renowned Weaver Academy for Performing & Visual Arts and Advanced Technology in her hometown and studied painting under artist Steven Cozart, but she also had a passion for research and academia. “I had a growing interest in nutrition and the idea that you could use foods to prevent disease and heal,” Lu says.

They pored over books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The China Study, then went on to get a degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Masters of Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During this time, they placed creative pursuits on hold. “I completely stopped painting,” Lu says. “Mentally I was not capable of holding both at the same time.”

But at a screening of the film Reclaiming Power: The Black Maternal Health Crisis by Elon University professors Stephanie Baker and Keisha Wall, Lu also began to appreciate the value of interdisciplinary approaches to health and community. Instead of presenting information as a paper, this short film used contemporary dance, incorporating the voices of women to convey their experiences with childbirth. “It was really powerful; I did not know you could use art in that way,” says Lu.

That spark helped Lu sharpen the focus of their passions, creating space to harmonize research, social work, food and art. During the pandemic, Lu was halfway through their master’s program when she resumed painting, realizing it could be both cathartic and an opportunity to create an impact. “I was like, oh, this is what it feels like to be happy,” Lu says. “I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I was seeking creative outlets to understand people’s holistic experience with health.”

In 2022, Lu became the Durham Arts Guild Artist in Residence, where for six months she painted a series of portraits that explored Asian Americans’ relationships with food. In 2023, Lu exhibited this body of work at CAM Raleigh and also became the Emerging Artist in Residence at Artspace. Most of this work is gathered in Your Ocean is on Fire.

In the exhibit, each painting is accompanied by a poem and samples of dried foods. One large-scale painting, Watermelon, depicts the artist looking just beyond the viewer’s gaze, face slightly angled away from a decaying slice of watermelon. A pastel color scheme suggests a lightness that is betrayed by chaotic drips of paint at the side of Lu’s body.

For the exhibit, a white plinth nearby displays a poem alongside a wooden dish of dried fruits and herbs — both explanation and balm for the emotions in the painting. “Isabel’s words amplify the work in a raw and beautiful way,” says photographer and collector Catherine Nguyen. “Her despair and anger are a contrast to the fluidity of her paint lines: they are beautiful and feel soft, but the words come at you like daggers.” 

Your Ocean is on Fire is a deeply personal exploration that, for a self-proclaimed introvert, was a daunting task. “This is a diary on public display,” Lu says. A diptych that shares the name of the exhibition rounds out the show. On the right side of the canvas, Lu is on the ground, staving off a panic attack symbolized by a pair of translucent hands. “I wrote the line, ‘the ocean is on fire,’ and then a few weeks later, I was reading my Chinese textbook around dream states and organs, and I read two lines: ‘when the heart is weak one dreams of fire and when the kidneys are weak, one dreams of being immersed in water,’” Lu says. “I was literally feeling both at the same time.”

In addition to the Artspace exhibition, Lu is working on the Asian Joy Mural Project, a collaboration with Ina Liu and Sophie Tô that’s funded through the Raleigh Arts SEEK program. The project centers oral histories that will be collected and archived through the UNC Southern Oral History Program. Seven subjects were chosen who represent various backgrounds, ages and occupations; they will be featured in a mural near Raleigh Union Station this month.

Lu hopes the mural will become a catalyst for continued community work, particularly with Asian American youth exploring art and activism. “Sophie, Ina and I want to keep creating opportunities for people to experience working together and learning from each other. That in itself is part of our art,” Lu says.  

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.