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Artist of the Week: Alyssa Zhang ’24 on Embracing Her Passion for the Arts

10 mins read
Photograph by Abby Chang

When Alyssa Zhang ’24 arrived on campus in the fall of 2020, she intended to pursue a double major in Economics and Music. As a talented pianist, Alyssa wanted to continue her passion while balancing it out with a field that she deemed more practical. Studio art, on the other hand, was not even on her mind as something she wanted to study. After taking her first economics class, however, Alyssa realized that the subject was not her calling, and she soon realized the music major’s ensemble requirement would be impractical for her as a pianist. After a few twists and turns, Alyssa decided to be a CS major and found herself taking her first art class.

“I missed the ability to make creative decisions in CS. So I took my first painting course last semester, and I really loved it. And I made a lot of friends through painting, so I ended up choosing an art major as well,” Zhang said.

While Painting I was Alyssa’s first experience taking formal classes, she started learning how to paint as a child by watching her father. Before she knew it, Zhang picked up a pencil and paper and began drawing cartoons and copying things from manga and anime she watched as a child.

When asked why she was drawn to Art, Alyssa Zhang explained how she has always turned to art as a source of refuge and explained how she has naturally been an artistic and creative person.

“I have been drawing ever since I was really little. Throughout my childhood, I felt like drawing was a way for me [to] get away from all the heavy academic things that I was having to deal with as a middle and high schooler. It allowed creative expression that I couldn’t find [in] other subjects that I was taking.  My first experience learning painting and learning drawing was through my dad. He originally wanted to study architecture, but for financial reasons, decided to study software engineering when he came to the U.S.,” Alyssa recounted. In fact, her father’s decision to switch career paths has greatly impacted Alyssa. 

“[My parent’s] sole focus was survival in a new country since they came with very little money. So, that really influenced how they decided to approach their careers in the future. But now that they’ve built a stable financial standing in America, I have the privilege of actually studying what I want to study. So I don’t want to let that not get taken advantage of because I have the opportunity that my parents didn’t have.”

To this day, Alyssa’s father still informs a lot of her work. According to Alyssa, memories of him inspired her to challenge orthodox painting methods to create her own style.

“People normally think painting entails using a brush and smoothly applying paint to a canvas. I decided to challenge myself to instead use a palette knife, which people think of as just a mixing tool, and actually lay paint on a canvas. And while I was doing that, I was actually thinking of how my dad paints … in fact, when I get stuck on a painting, I often think about how my dad would capture whatever I’m trying to paint,” explained Alyssa. “I watched him paint from a very young age, so he was kind of the example for what painting was. And I also think that he’s a very skilled painter.”

As a Computer Science and Art double major, Alyssa constantly experiments different ways to combine the two disciplines.

“I think it just flows really well with how my brain works and how I think. And, in contrast with when I do other assignments, when I do my art, I don’t feel like I’m trying to haul this heavy weight with my brain and still create the quality work that I want,” Alyssa explained. 

After all, many of Alyssa’s personal projects revolve around user interface and user experience design.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could do both CS and art at the same time. I ended up landing on UI and UX design, or UX research, as my primary interest. I have a personal project that basically redesigns the mySwat website and consolidates it into an app, because I found the fact that we use at least two different websites to get our information extremely annoying,” Alyssa said. “I’m also looking into computer graphics and AI-generated art, which is what I will most likely be doing this summer. ”

In addition to this project, Alyssa continues to work on her traditional painting skills and is constantly finding inspiration from artists online.

“I think, in general, I just really admire the people who can control and use mediums like oil, paint, alcohol marker, watercolor, and still come out with an image that isn’t muddy and has sharp edges. That’s something that I’m still trying to work on through painting classes at Swat,” Alyssa said. “My favorite artist to look at on Instagram right now is Felicia Chiao. I really enjoy how neat and clean her images are even though they’re sketchbook doodles. And I just really admire her handle over wet medium, specifically alcohol marker and the kinds of bright and saturated colors that she can get from it.”

Alyssa also expressed her appreciation for many of her upper-class friends in the college’s art program.

“In my free time, I spend a lot of time in the senior studio because I have a couple of friends there. And I just watch them paint, and I learn from them, and they give me advice whenever I get frustrated with a painting that I’m doing. So lately, I’ve been taking a lot of Marcos’ advice, who was also an artist of the week that [The Phoenix] interviewed previously,” Alyssa said.

As Alyssa looks forward towards her future, she is still pondering what role art will play.

“As I’ve decided to pick [art] up as a major, the probability of it being something that I will be doing for the rest of my life has gone up exponentially. And it’s never something that I’ve thought about, because I’ve always sort of struggled with the notion that artists usually end up poor,” Alyssa said. “However, I also want to do what I love for the rest of my life. So, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about every day. And that’s also part of the reason why I decided to try to combine CS with art for financial stability, in the hopes that maybe in the future, I can, you know, drop that and just do art for the sake of doing art and getting better.”

Finally, as a note to Swarthmore students who, like her in her first year, are hesitant to try out art classes, Alyssa encouraged them to give it a go. 

“I think [art] is definitely something that people should try. I know that in my Painting I class, there were several people who were not studying art and were actually engineering- or physics-focused people. I feel like art allowed everyone in my class, including myself, to see the world differently. Even if you’re just walking outside, you notice colors and shapes in everything that you see, and I think it just lets you see the artistic structure in nature and other spaces you’re spending time in.”

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