In an Instagram post from April 27, 2020, her hand holds the floral cloth face mask her mom made against a white wall. Embroidered on one side in small black letters were these words: “my lungs crave // the monsoons // the same way // my ancestors inhaled // the plum rains.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Jayme Wong (@jaymewong.designs)

Jayme Wong is not to be underestimated. I joke that she’s the type to rock a sword as an everyday accessory, something silent and beautiful and potentially lethal. Something that matches her very, very cool shoes. She laughs.

We meet at Provision in Arcadia, the sky still slate grey from a string of cold, rainy weather. Pins and buttons, each with its own purpose and story, adorn her denim jacket and bag, and her dark shoulder-length hair had grown fast since the start of the pandemic.

FROM STEM TO DESIGN

An artist, designer and dancer, she originally went to the University of Arizona to become a marine biologist and earned a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology. But as an undergraduate research assistant, she felt far removed from her studies.

“I still love the ocean and everything about it, but I realized that working in science and learning about science were two very different things,” Wong says. “And I like learning about the ocean. I just wasn’t so invested in the research aspect of it. I felt like I was just staring at textbooks all the time.”

While Wong was in school, she was dancing and became co-director of collegiate crew Dia Clones at UA and training at The Drop Dance Studio in Tucson. After creating flyers, t-shirt designs and social media content for clubs and extracurriculars, Wong reached out to a previous professor she had who was involved in letterpress and book arts graphic design and said that she was interested in possibly doing something more creative.

There was a portfolio review coming up, her professor offered. It was meant for high school seniors. Wong was not a high school senior, but she went anyways. She gained good feedback, was later admitted into the BFA program, had that conversation with her parents about leaving STEM to pursue a creative career, and went back to school.

“When you hear the stereotype that Asian parents tell their kids like, ‘hey, you should go into STEM or you should be in the healthcare field, or you should do this and that’ it’s all just from a place of freedom, of love, of wanting your kid to be successful and be stable and be okay, you know?” she says.

“But their main concern was like, ‘you can do this, we’ll support you, and we’ll figure it out. But as long as you think you’ll be okay after this.’”

With a BFA in Illustration and Design, Wong had worked as a creative assistant at the Prickly Pear Paper and is currently a graphic designer at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. Her MIM work consists of designing ads, informational materials and branding. Dancing is still one of her biggest passions, so trains with The Jukebox Fam in Mesa.

COLLABORATIONS

When you’ve lived in Tucson and Phoenix your entire life, like Wong, you tend to notice differences between the two, especially differences in their respective art scenes. In Tucson, most of her connections were from school.

She was familiar with the gallery spaces, the new work coming out, who was going to show what, where and when. It had a very small town vibe. In comparison, Phoenix is so vast that people and their work are spaced a little more apart, so it’s not like she didn’t know anybody—just not here.

She had met Erin Kong through Asian Creative Network, a Facebook group. They had both commented on the same thread about being creatives in Arizona and decided to collab.

“They wrote a poem and sent it to me and then I letterpress printed it when I was in Tucson, and now I’m really good friends with them,” Wong says. “We call up pretty regularly with like printing and poetry stuff and also just community arts and healing in our org that we work on.”

A series in collaboration with poets Sarah Gonzales, Erin Kong and Will Stanier. Letterpress with lasercut wood, linoleum and handset type. Gonzales and Stanier’s prints (broccoli and rosemary) are available for purchase with proceeds going to Desert Diwata’s mutual aid fund. Photos: Jayme Wong

The organization, Desert Diwata, was co-founded by Erin and focuses on building community through art, healing and education. After their collaboration, Erin invited Wong to be part of steering committee, which she accepted. “I’ve learned a lot from the other people on steering and being involved in all of the things that we’re doing,” Wong says.

And it all ties back to art.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

“I think all art is inherently political because even if you just try and make it personal, the personal is political, especially being Asians in Arizona on native land that was stolen,” she says. “And tying that back to our existence here—a lot of times, it’s because of imperialism and violence in our mother countries.”

She references her grandparents, who immigrated to the US due to poverty and Japanese occupation in China.

“And I don’t think that’s talked enough about,” she says. “When we think about immigrant narratives, the one growing up, you learn about an immigrant as hardworking in order to be successful here. But tying that back, how did that happen? It’s because of a lot of violent history.”

Between the pandemic and trying to read more about imperialism, there’s so much to be infuriated about, and for good reason. It’s tempting to throw all of yourself into the fire, but fires left uncontrolled, even ones set with good intentions, have a way of consuming until there’s nothing left. So Wong’s learned to balance.

“It really does make me appreciate the moments of joy that I do have, so I really try to hone in on those,” she says. She focuses on spending time with people she loves and learns from, writing to get any pessimism out, keeping a record of things like, ‘I really enjoyed this fresh tangerine juice I had today’ and other bits of levity.

She’s taken a step back from social media—she hadn’t been on for months—and has set more boundaries and incorporated self care.

“If I can’t take care of myself, I can’t take care of other people.”

A photopolymer letterpress print made by “layering organic movement sketches from NYC subway rides as a way to visualize time, movement, space, and distance,” says Wong. Available for $5 with all proceeds going to Desert Diwata’s mutual aid fund. Photo: Jayme Wong

SUPPORTING EACHOTHER 

When a majority of Asians in Arizona are, to her knowledge, middle class, Wong stresses the importance of the collective responsibility to help people in tangible ways: redistributing wealth, providing material support or–at the very, very least–raising awareness.

“You are inherently connected to the people in your community that you do or do not know,” she says. Even before the pandemic, it was not uncommon to find her sharing community resource links, supporting and promoting mutual aid funds for marginalized groups, and arranging events that mixed art and action.

It’s a lifelong long fight towards a better future, and that’s made her a more intentional artist.

Although there have been times of doubt, dark mental health days, and impostor syndrome, it’s all a work in progress. Contrary to popular belief, not all strength is not outright. Rather, it’s like a deep river, the way it soundlessly moves through. The silence of a sword—waiting for a good swing.

One day she sends me a message of a hairpin, metal and sharp as hell, hidden in the swaths of a messy bun. It perfectly represents her. Unassuming, but not to be underestimated.

“Maybe not a sword,” she says. “But this instead.”

Photo of Jayme smiling

IN THIS ARTICLE

jayme wong

oh my god it's this bitch

words by

aitana mallari

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