The Miniature Work of Diem Chau

You have to see these amazing sculptures carved from Crayola crayons! diaCRITIC Lien Truong talks with Diem Chau about her inspirations and challenges as an artist who specializes in miniatures—reminding us, “It’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it.”

"Legacy" Porcelain plate, organza & thread / 14"H x 6"W x ¾"D

I can’t recall how I found her.

I faintly remember perusing the Internet, indulging myself with eye candy, immersed in the realm of design or miniatures.  When I found Diem it reminded me of the first time I saw illuminated manuscripts at the Getty Museum.  I was so moved, and not just for their religious and social relevance (that’s quite loaded), but for their beautiful, intricate marks and intimate feeling.

Diem Chau is an artist who works “small.”  Weaving fluidly through various mediums, she marries her form to her content, creating meaning using everyday materials, discarded tableware, and crayons.  Although her work spans “open” narratives to specific commissions from private collectors to a box collection commissioned for Nike, I felt her work was quiet and cozy and her figurative drawn work using thread, reminiscent of eastern miniature paintings.

She agreed to share some thoughts on her art-making process, and her challenges and experiences as an artist, working small.

LT: What is the earliest memory you have of art making?

DC: I’ve always loved drawing and making things, even as a small child.  We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a child so I played with whatever was around.  I found drawing very entertaining.  We always had paper and pencils in the house, so I kept myself busy with them.  I remember drawing stick figures when I was maybe 4 or 5?  For as long as I can remember I always drew.  I think boredom was my biggest influence as a kid.  I had so much time to spend by myself.  I’m an only child and most of the people around me were adults.  I had to find a way to entertain myself… I guess that became art making.

LT: What influenced your desire to create miniatures?

DC: I am fascinated by tiny things and miniaturizing tend to bring smiles to people’s faces.  I also like the intimacy of small work.

Diem Chau's "Box Set" for Nike World Cup 2010

LT: Vik Muniz, who paints with chocolate syrup, says that not all syrups make good painting mediums.  Have you tried to carve your sculptures with crayons other than Crayola or are you brand-loyal?

DC: Funny you should mention Vik Muniz, he’s one of my favorite artists.  I love his unconventional mediums, especially the spaghetti sauce plates.  I am brand loyal to Crayola, the wax is just right with Crayola.  I also love that the Crayola label, it is such a ubiquitous symbol.  Crayola is to me what Campbell’s is to Warhol.


LT: You spoke once in an interview about how you see your art as a form of storytelling and how this reminded you of your grandmother. Does your  family engage you in conversation about your work?

DC: I don’t think my grandmother quite gets what I do for a living… nor does my family.  It’s hard to explain to a very prudent Asian family that I sit around all day long and play with stuff.  Being an artist is a hard concept to grasp.  I understand though… we came from hardship and I think there’s an innate yearning to seek out stability and jobs with solid foundations.  Being an artist is anything but stable.  I think they are proud of me, but we do not talk about my work and that’s OK.  We talk about other things that connect us and those conversations often find themselves in my work.

"Union" Porcelain cup, organza & thread 3 1/4”h x 3 1/4”w x 2 ”d

LT: Your ceramic pieces are so delicate and there seems to be such a poetry between the clay body and how you compose the thread and organza.  How do you choose the ceramic/porcelain pieces to work on?

DC: Thank you.  I keep a huge pile of plates, bowls and cups in my studio.  I’ll go through them and pull the pieces that jump out at me.  It’s about having a good selection of random pieces.  I get most of my porcelain from thrift stores.

LT: The way that you have composed these become so intimate.  Are these narratives personal or are you creating universal allegories? Some of your figures are clothed and some aren’t, is this random or a metaphor?

DC: Some of my imagery has specific stories or memories behind them.  Others are compositions that allude to a narrative.  Some of my figures are naked because I see them as shadows or silhouettes.

LT: Can you share some of the most challenging things about working small?

DC: Other than being tedious my biggest challenge was to overcome the psychological inadequacy of making small art.  “It’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it”, I keep telling myself!  LOL.  No, really… It was hard fighting to legitimize my work, even to myself.  Coming from art school it was all about the giant installations and huge life size stuff.  It’s all about the BIG in the art world.    It has to be 30ft long to be great art.

Was/ 2010
"Was" Porcelain plate, silk organza, cotton fabric & thread 6 1/4”h x 9 3/8”w x 1”d

So years after art school I found myself making tiny things with crafty tools, materials from the thrift store and Jo Ann’s.  On top of that I was working with subject matter like the death of my father and personal family stories.  That should have been the nail on the coffin of my art career.  Honestly if my audience was the “art world” I wouldn’t be here today.  Luckily for me the Internet exists.  My success has been due to my audience online… the bloggers and many art/design websites out there.  I’m very, very grateful for their feedback and support.  I feel in many ways it’s a very genuine form of feedback.  I understand how quickly things go by on the net so when someone takes the time to comment on my blog or email me I know they felt strongly about my work.  Being online has allowed me to meet people and make contacts all over the world.  I feel I’m directly connected to my audience without the intervention of galleries, art reviewers, museums or traditional “art world” institutions.  I have my peeps.

LT: You’re working on your new fixer-upper!  Congratulations!  I think your blog stated your new pad has a nice separate building you were hoping to create into a studio.  Where do you create your work now and what would your ideal studio have?

DC: Thanks!  It’s been a crazy and I think there are a few more crazy months to come.  Yes I’m planning on building a studio in the backyard.  I really need a separate place to work, I feel I would be more productive.  There are also lots of projects I can’t get to unless I have dedicated space.

"Still Trying" Porcelain cups and saucers, toothpicks, paper / 8" H x 6" W x 6"D

Right now I work on my dinner table.  I’ve taken over the living room and part of the kitchen as a workspace.  I pretty much have to live around my work.  Contrary to what my mother thinks I would actually like to have a clean and organized house.  That’s pretty much impossible when I have to work, eat, pay bills and have company on the same table and in the same room.  I’ve learned to be OK with the mess.  “It’s work”, I tell myself. My ultimate goal is to have a studio.  I’ve rented studio space in past years and have had to move out because I can’t afford to stay.  I decided about 5 or 6 years ago to just make work at home and live with the mess.  The biggest problem I have with working from home is getting distracted.  I would work for 15 minutes and go make a sandwich or do the dishes.  On the other hand I can work whenever I want without having to commute.  If you’re an artist who can’t afford a studio, just make some room to work.  An extra room or walk in closet is great to start with.  If not just tape off a corner of the house/apt and put a table there. With how I work I need a dirty space and a clean space.  Right now the clean space is my dining table and the dirty space is my garage.

Over the years I’ve accumulated most of the tools I would ever need… I have a chop saw, band saw, table saw, drill press, bench top belt/disc sander… sawall, drills, sanders, vices, clamps, dremel, carving knives, files, sewing machine, server, matte cutter, nail guns, air compressor… and lots of small hand tools.  Every time I needed something done I would just buy the tool and learn to do it myself instead of hiring someone.  I would make my own pedestals or weld my own brackets.  I’m a bit unusual in that I don’t stay in my field.  If a particular technique or material interested me I would invest in the process and start working with it.  That’s why I have so many tools.  It’s definitely not necessary to have everything I have.

If I had to I would sleep in the closet and work in the bedroom.

Big thanks to Diem Chau for sharing with us and to the Internet God for making it possible to find her.

– Lien Truong lives and works in Northern California, where she teaches painting and drawing at Humboldt State University.

More about Diem Chau’s Art can be found at:

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